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File updated 19/09/04 12:42
Norton parish 400 years ago included a large part of what is now southern Sheffield, on the easterly side of the Sheaf Valley. It extended as far towards Sheffield as Heeley, just a mile from the city centre. From there, the western boundary of the parish followed the River Sheaf for about three miles, embracing Little London and Smithy Wood, Woodseats, Beauchief, and so to the old "Walk Mill" -now the site of Dore and Totley station. Turning eastwards, the parish boundary ascended the hillside to encompass Bradway, Greenhill, Little Norton, and Norton itself. In a circuit which included Maggerhay, Jordanthorpe, Hazlebarrow, and Lightwood, its border continued along the Meersbrook round Herdings, Hemsworth, Norton Lees, and the southern part of Heeley.
Today this journey passes through great contrasts in atmosphere and environment. The Sheaf Valley from Heeley to Woodseats is a drab industrial landscape with a sense of having seen busier days. At Bradway the world is a more secure and comfortable place: an array of modern detached and semi-detached homes, cosy but spacious "cottage-cum-castles" for the well-salaried. On Greenhill Parkway one is back amongst more ordinary folk, whose lives are lived in an extensive spread of council houses, maisonettes and flats. But turning off the highway and into Greenhill old village, the social balance shifts once more, with many a desirable historical residence to provide the atmosphere for a more 'select' residential enclave.
As we see it today, the old Norton parish is a place whose character owes most to recent history, whose landscape has been moulded by urban and industrial growth. Over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Norton lost its identity as a locality in its own right, and became instead a part of Sheffield. Sheffield's massive industrial growth in Victorian times inevitably pulled in the Sheaf Valley, the corridor through which London and the south were reached from the city. The railway and industrial works dominated the valley itself, while the homes of the workforce spread ever further over the hillsides above. Most signs of an earlier community, with a particular history of its own, were obliterated.
The changes after the last war extended over much wider areas of Norton parish. Sheffield Council, by now fully in control of Norton, embarked on massive clearance programmes in the cramped and dismal inner-city areas; these were accompanied with the building of new homes by the thousand on the outskirts of the town. And so it is that at Herdings and Hemsworth, Jordanthorpe, Batemoor and Low Edges, council estates are just a few steps away from fields, farms and woodland - from parts of the old Norton parish where the past still dominates the landscape.
But the parts of Norton which appear on the surface to have only a recent history - or, indeed,no history at all - have their own tales to tell, their own ghosts, their own collection of lives lived on that very spot over many centuries past. In the sixteenth century, Norton had a clear identity of its own, as the principal scythemaking community in the north of England. Scythes were of course an essential agricultural tool, but the task of making them was stretching the resources of the average village blacksmith. The problems were, basically, hammering such a large piece of metal into shape and giving it a good cutting edge. To make an efficient job of it, the smith depended on local availability of the necessary metal; the considerable physical force required to do the job; access to the right stone for grinding; and good supplies of suitable fuel.
Norton had all the ingredients which a scythesmith needed. The parish had the iron, the stone, and the fuel - both coal, and extensive woodlands. By the sixteenth century, it had a labour force who were well-accustomed to non-agricultural work. And it had families who had learnt how to harness water-power; and who by doing so had revolutionised the level of output to which a craftsman might attain.
There are few places in this country where it is possible to build up such a good picture of a community living 400 years ago as you can in Norton, and the reason for this is the amount of detail which was recorded in the parish registers here. The purpose of most documents before the nineteenth century was to establish claims to the use or ownership of property; so, of course, the more property you had or held, the more likely you were to appear in them. The same bias is normally true of physical survivals. The houses which remain are almost certain to be the more substantial homes of the more substantial members of a community; and industrial remains are likely to be of large-scale rather than "one person" undertakings. Lists and ledgers - especially, for the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, parish registers - are just about the only records we ever find to tell us something about the people without property, the lives which are most deeply hidden from history.
The vicars (or clerks) of Elizabethan and early seventeenth- century Norton did rather a good job as far as record-keeping went. They were acting under a government directive issued by Thomas Cromwell in 1538, during Henry VIII's reign; but like most places for which records survive, the Norton registers do not begin until 1559. The declared intention of keeping parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials was "the avoiding of sundry strifes, processes and contentions rising upon age, lineal descents, title of inheritance, legitimation of bastardy, and for the knowledge whether any person is our subject or no." (1)
Yet Norton's Elizabethan parish registers were unusual in their careful recording of occupation, place of residence, and family connections. There may have been special reasons why government directives struck a particular chord in Norton - this was by no means a typical English country parish. It was an area which, by sixteenth century standards, was highly industrialised; and the Elizabethan period was a time of especially rapid growth in the local economy. The amount of employment available in the metalworking trades attracted "incomers" from the surrounding countryside, and also made for a situation where the "indigenous" population increased a good deal faster than it did in most other parts of the country. Without systematic record-keeping, it would have been a lot more difficult in Norton than in most other rural parishes, to keep track of who was who.
This "keeping track" was becoming especially important during the Elizabethan period, as a result of the workings of the new Poor Laws. It was now the parish administration which was responsible for poor relief, and a major concern was to decide who had a claim on parish funds, and who did not. Thus the registers might be crucial not just to resolve disputes over inheritance of property, but to resolve disputes over the propertyless. Who had settlement rights - who was the responsibility of Norton parish if or when they were unable to support themselves by means of their labour?
What are Norton's Elizabethan parish registers like? They are certainly not a perfect record: some pages are damaged or missing, and there are periods when entries were evidently incomplete. Added to this, some people might never have been baptised, married, or even officially buried. Infants who died within hours or days of birth were especially likely to be under-recorded; and people who had ties in other parishes would not necessarily appear in local registers, even if they spent most of their lives here.
The original records - like any others from Elizabethan times - have two serious drawbacks for the modern student: when they are not in Latin, they use lettering styles which are now extinct. But fortunately somebody was prepared to undertake what to most people would seem an extraordinarily tedious chore. In the early years of this century L. Lloyd Simpson translated and transcribed every entry in Norton's parish registers between 1559 and 1812; he even said that "The task of transcribing the Register has been a real pleasure to me". The Vicar of Norton then footed the bill to have Lloyd Simpson's labours privately printed. (2 volumes, 600 pages of names and dates, and probably the most boring job imaginable for the poor typesetter.)(2)
Anybody interested in history has very good reason to be grateful for this monumental attention to local detail. As it says on the title page of the printed volumes, "One generation passeth away and another generation cometh"; it is the coming of a "computer generation" which allows historians to take Mr Simpson's labours one step further, and see patterns emerging from this wonderfully accessible information. Patterns of how people lived their lives 400 years ago: the different groupings, networks and relationships of which they were a part. Patterns of how life and death was experienced, in the family and in the community.
Why do computers have such an important part to play in this process? Patterns only become apparent when information is sorted, and doing this manually with a large number of records is a long and monotonous job. (Mistakes are easily made, too.) In Norton's baptism records, for instance, there are 1274 entries between January 1560 and December 1619 (the sixty-year period upon which this study is centred.).(3) If you wanted to do some research on Norton families during this period, you would like to have these records sorted into alphabetical order by father's surname; but you would probably still want your sorted listing to include all the information in the original registers. (Date, address, occupation, child's name, mother's name where given, and any comments, as well as father's name.)
Doing this by hand, you might well spend not just days, but weeks, putting the information together in the form you wanted. Then if you wanted to do a different piece of research - for instance into occupational patterns in Norton parish, or reconstructing the different settlements which made up Norton - you would virtually have to repeat the sorting and listing process from scratch.
The joys of using a computer database are, of course, that once all the information is fed in, you can manipulate it however you want at great speed. It took my computer just a few seconds to reshuffle the 1274 baptism records from date order into surname order; and the same again to rearrange them by father's occupation, and then by address. This very elementary use of a computer for sorting purposes forms the basis of this study.
I did this work in 1989-90, using dBASE III+ on a 286 PC. First, I typed in all the data from the Norton baptism registers between January 1560 and December 1619. This was my "core" database, because during this period the baptism registers almost always listed father's occupations and addresses. These two pieces of information are what make the registers such a valuable source for reconstructing an Elizabethan community.
I then set up another database table of marriages over the same period: this information adds another important dimension to the picture. When we look at who married whom, we can begin to ask questions about the extent to which Elizabethan and early Stuart Norton was a "class society"; about what families formed liaisons with one another - how far the main basis appears economic, rather than romantic. We can also look for answers to questions about sexual and social conduct: how many brides were pregnant when they married? What were the fortunes of mothers of illegitimate children? and of widows?
The burial registers tend to carry the most immediately touching and human pieces of information - occasional records of how people had met their deaths (presumably added because their exceptional circumstances made them seem worth recording); and sometimes notes on the character of a particularly virtuous parishioner. Taken together, though, the run-of-the-mill entries tell us a good deal more. By combining information from baptism and burial records within the context of individual families, it becomes possible to give a very direct and local insight into a society where the overwhelming presence of death was part and parcel of daily life. My "burials" database included all the entries in the Norton burial registers up to 1650 - I took it further than baptisms and marriages, for purposes of following through a larger number of individual lives.
I then combined these three database tables, so that between 1560 and 1619, I could follow through the "vital events" in the lives of every individual in Norton - as far as the registers allowed. Husbands and wives were entered from the marriages database as separate records in this "catch-all", so that it was possible to place wives in the context of their own family backgrounds as well as that of their husbands. And for the period when they were kept in most detail (between 1606 and 1619), single entries in the baptism registers generated 3 records (father, mother listed by maiden name, and child) So the final "catch-all" database table contained 4,700 records, arranged alphabetically (and by date order within names). It was through using this combined database that patterns of life and death within individual families could be picked out, along with bridal pregnancies, remarriages of widows and widowers, patterns of who married whom, and so on. Where more than one person with the same name was alive at the same time, it was also especially useful for telling them apart. Once this was done, the "catch all" database could provide the data for generating a "family reconstruction" table.
Once you have fallen prey to the seductions of a computer, it is all too easy to start talking a language that hardly anybody can understand. Some of the most off-putting historical studies ever written have resulted from this process. I was pleased when I found a book on the library shelves called "Identifying People in the Past".(4 )The first page promised that this would show me the means of "bringing to light for ordinary men and women something of the detail previously known only for the literate and well- born": "Nominal record linkage" sounded just the thing I needed to know about. But my heart sank when I turned a few more pages:
Perhaps, if books like this could make the application of mathematics to history appear less daunting, I would have made better use of the computer once I had compiled my combined database. As it was, having printed it out I did most of the "making connections" by hand (and eye). With a little more time spent on coming to grips with the handling of databases, the computer could have done a lot more of this work for me. For instance, a very simple piece of mathematical logic could have picked out bridal pregnancies, by listing all the occasions when a baptism was recorded within 8.5 months of the child's father being married.
Be that as it may, the way I have used a computer for this study has almost nothing to do with mathematical logic, and there are really only a couple more points about research methods which need to be made at the start. (A little more is said in the Appendix.) Firstly, it seemed essential to me that my database should aim to include all the information which the Registers during this period provide. One of the most important things about this was that I resisted the temptation to make life easier for myself by lumping occupational descriptions together. An initial manual search had suggested very clearly that there might be significant differences between, for instance, a "scythesmith", "scythestriker", "scythegrinder" and "scythefinisher" - and it could be missing out on a whole body of information concerning divisions of labour and status to classify them all together as "scythemakers".
At the same time, though, it was clearly not always a good idea to be a slave to exact transcription, and this was especially true over the general question of spelling. It gets in the way of sorting a database, of seeing the patterns emerging, if all your "Bullocks" are separate from your "Bullockes", or your "Hielays" from your "Heeleys": spelling in the registers themselves was most certainly not consistent. Once I was familiar with the patterns of spelling usage it became clear that "tidying it up" was a necessity. (Having said this, though, it is worth remembering that spelling variations have an interest and significance of their own, particularly in tracing origins and development of surnames and place names. But that is another question.)
Since writing this study in 1989, my computing skills have increased dramatically, and so too has the power of popular database software packages. If I had understood the logic of relational databases, how to link one table to another, I would have made much easier work of it all. And with the improvement of features such as "sounds like" operators, it will become a possibility to have your cake and eat it over maintaining spelling variations and matching patterns.
This study is not intended as a complete history of Elizabethan Norton. All it tries to do is to show, at a local level, some of the ways that more can be found out about the "hidden majority", the "common people", and what their lives were like. Apart from the parish registers, there is only one other major collection of records concerning Norton parish which I have looked into at all closely. These are the 300 or so wills and probate inventories from Norton, dating between the mid-sixteenth and early eighteenth centuries, which were preserved by the diocese of Lichfield.(5)
Because they provide such detailed insights into people's domestic and working lives, wills and inventories have become very popular with historians over the past few decades. Unfortunately, though, they give an impression of the past which is most definitely "skewed". If you had little or no property, you were most unlikely to leave a will or to have your goods inventoried after your death. But in spite of this, historians have often found it an irresistible temptation to generalise about living standards and working practices within particular communities or occupational groupings, largely on the basis of their evidence.
The Elizabethan and early Stuart period in Norton parish is one of the few times and places where it is possible to look at a good run of wills and inventories, within the context provided by well-kept parish registers. As a result we can put the families and individuals who emerge from wills and inventories in their place, rather than treating them as representative of that place.
I could have spent months - or years - doing this piece of work more thoroughly. Chapter III, which looks at the occupational groupings in Elizabethan and early Stuart Norton, is reasonably comprehensive, apart from the non-metalworking craftsmen who have received somewhat uneven treatment. Chapter IV tries to pinpoint some of the social patterns which emerge from the registers: this could have been taken a good deal further. Some aspects of Elizabethan life which to many people are unexpected, can be spotted quite easily by scanning through the database print-outs. This is true of bridal pregnancies, and of patterns of remarriage amongst widowed men. But you have to make more complicated connections, for instance, with widowed women because of surname changes.
One task which is obviously possible, but which I simply have not had time for, is a meticulous analysis of family sizes and structures. This would be well worth the effort involved, because it is one of the few ways that we can begin to think about what women's lives were like in this kind of a society. How much of their married lives did they spend being pregnant? What was the likelihood of dying in or as a result of childbirth? What might your expectations be at the birth of a new child, in terms of that child's future? I have compiled a few case-studies of individual women's experiences in Elizabethan Norton, but when you do this there is an obvious tendency to dwell on the most heart-rending examples. I feel that a systematic analysis would make my underlying arguments more convincing; but I do not think it could have transformed a fundamentally distressing picture of daily life, into a happy and joyful one. I would be very pleased if somebody else wanted to make use of the data I have put on disk in order to take this work further.
Chapter V, where I look at the communities which made up Norton parish, only provides a detailed study of the little settlement at Heeley Bridgehouses, close to my home. Before I had progressed much further through the metalworking settlements along the south-easterly bank of the River Sheaf, I realised that - if I carried on at the level of in-depth detective work with which I'd set out on my historical journey around the parish from my "home base" of Heeley - it would be more or less my life's work as far as local history was concerned to get round the whole of Norton. Perhaps a greater familiarity with the computer software now available for the "family history" market, would make the job a lot quicker; and perhaps somebody living in a part of Norton which I've neglected would feel more strongly motivated to take on the very interesting task of "community reconstitution". Again, I will gladly provide the data on request; a contact address is included at the end of the Bibliography.
JK's homepage | Life & Death in Elizabethan Norton contents