Seventeenth Century Women of the Parish

Edith Button

Edith Button of Godsell died a spinster in 1629. In her will she left her money and possessions to her two brothers, her four sisters, two of whom were married, two godsons and her father. Her inventory was extremely short. She owned five sheep and a cow, but these were surpassed in value by her wearing apparel and other textiles.

Edith’s will gives a fascinating insight into her wardrobe. She lovingly details individual items of clothing, making a clear choice as to which sister should inherit which items. She lists her best gown and her best green waistcoat, which would have been a kind of jacket. She owned a hat and mentions a black hat string. She also had no fewer than five coifs, a close fitting cap usually made of a light fabric such as linen. One coif was described as a “wrought white needle worke quaife” and another “my blacke printed quaife” - these were probably linen embroidered with white and black thread respectively and were in addition to her two “best” coifs. Accompanying the coifs were cross cloths, generally a piece of linen worn across the forehead; one of Edith’s was made of cambric, a fine white linen.

The range of fabrics and colours named is interesting. Edith had two smocks, a loose undergarment usually made of linen, though one of hers was made of a coarser canvas. She had two petticoats (underskirts), simply described by colour. Edith had a best apron and two others made of canvas, as well as one of dowlas and one of lockram, both a coarse linen originally from Brittany. Her footwear comprised one pair of shoes, one pair of green stockings and one pair of blue knitted stockings. Even smaller items were listed, including ruffs (a frill on the neck or sleeve of a garment) and bands and “one pind ruffe” - it was not unusual for parts of a garment to be pinned on rather than sewn, so that they could be removed at a later date.

Selected household textiles also appeared in the will: one table napkin embroidered with blue thread and a long holland towel, holland being a fine quality linen fabric originally from the Low Countries. Most intriguing of all is a piece of cloth five and a half yards in length. Edith clearly took an interest in her garments over and above their function as “wearing apparel” and it would be safe to assume that she was skilled in both needlework and knitting. In her will and inventory she is described as “simster”. This has been generally transcribed as spinster, but in the early 17th century the word “seamster” was used for a seamstress so it seems very likely that Edith made clothes to earn a living.

Alice Oliffe

Alice Oliffe, widow of yeoman John Oliffe of Bremhill Wick, was buried on 31st December 1632 in Bremhill Churchyard, according to her wish. In her will she named her children, Jillian, William, Joan and Humphrey, as beneficiaries. Interestingly, Alice’s bequests were quite varied: in addition to £50 Jillian was left her mother’s bedstead and bed linen, whereas William only received £5 and Joan her mother’s best gown. Everything else went to Humphrey, whom Alice appointed her Executor. Humphrey is likely to have been baptised in Bremhill on 1st January 1608 and would have been 24 at the time of his mother’s death. In her will Alice referred to “every one of my children” and “every one of their children”. A William Oliffe is recorded as having a son, baptised on 5th December 1624 in Bremhill Church, but no grandchildren were individually named in Alice’s will.

Alice’s husband John Oliffe had been buried on 28th November 1622, also in the Churchyard at Bremhill. This would have made their son Humphrey fourteen when his father died. John Oliffe left bequests in his will to his son Humphrey, to his daughter Gillian and, surprisingly, to a daughter Alice, to be paid when all three reached the age of twenty-one, or in the case of the daughters, married. Perhaps John and Alice’s daughter Alice predeceased her mother, though there is no record of this in the Parish burials. No mention was made in John’s will of a son William. In his will John named as one of his overseers John Harris of Tytherton, his brother-in-law. The term brother-in-law in the seventeenth century did not necessarily signify the same relationship as it does today, but perhaps Alice began life as Alice Harris?

Alice’s inventory was valued at approximately £150. As her husband had done (but with a more generous amount), she left some money to the poor of the parish and to the Church of Bremhill, to be used as the vicar, Thomas Collyer, one of the witnesses of her will, saw fit. Her livestock of various sorts, including a flock of 25 sheep, was valued at almost £40, and her corn, both on the ground and in the barn, at a sum approaching £20. Her inventory contained all the usual domestic utensils, with evidence of cheese making, beer brewing and wool beating. In the house were seven bedsteads and beds, one described as old and presumably out of use. It is clear Alice died a comfortably-off woman, but here the records of the family line seem sadly to die out.

Isobel Moore