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Chapter VI:


I completed this research in 1990, and have made no attempt since then to keep abreast of new developments in Elizabethan social history. I can only hope that, as it stands, it will prove interesting and useful to at least a few social, Sheffield and family historians, and that it will have some small purpose in helping us to build a more complete picture of our past. I hope, too, that it will give some idea of what can be gained from using a computer in the study of local history, even at a very elementary level.

There is in any case another reason why this study in itself is not a suitable vehicle for drawing grandiose conclusions. It is purely a local study, of just one parish with a social and economic make-up very much of its own. It was not a "typical village community" or a "typical metalworking community". This to me provides much of the excitement of local and of social history - recognising the individuality of particular places, and the people living in them. And yet this individuality is not the result of communities having developed in isolation one from the other, but rather of the unique combination of social patterns and economic circumstance which exists in any one locality. Thus the significance of particular social and economic factors cannot be properly evaluated unless a community is placed in the context of a wider society. From that viewpoint, the very limited extent to which this study of Norton has been considered in the light of current interpretations of sixteenth and seventeenth- century social history is a definite shortcoming.

Having said this, there are some underlying themes which I feel have emerged from this work, even though I would not wish them to be seen as any more than tentative conclusions.

My main intention in carrying out this study has been to experiment with ways of making a historical community "knowable" - to become acquainted with the lives of all who dwelt there, not just those who come most readily into the view of historians. As far as the history of Sheffield and its neighbourhood is concerned, a great deal more work still needs to be done to rescue the "hidden majority" from its obscurity. Admirable though his work was, Joseph Hunter was a good deal more painstaking over establishing the genealogies of the district's leading families, than he was in collecting information about "the common people".

More recent local historians studying the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries have tended to favour a notion of poverty being concentrated in the central township of Sheffield, while the outlying rural areas are seen as having been generally quite prosperous. In Mary Walton's book about Sharrow, for instance, she tells us that its residents in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries "had been predominantly 'yeomen', some of them also pursuing 'mechanic trades', with a very few rich families and a small bottom layer of labourers." David Hey has argued that "rural industrial communities of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries need not necessarily be associated with the squalor and misery that were all too evident in some of the industrial centres of Victorian times"; and he provided an illuminating account of the"moderate standard of domestic comfort" which some rural craftsmen attained through a combination of agriculture and metalworking.(1)

It was my niggling doubts about exactly whose lives David Hey was describing, which encouraged me to undertake this research. Norton's scythemakers emerged from Hey's work as perhaps the most prosperous metalworking community in the Sheffield area - but was he describing what life was like for most of Norton's metalworkers, or only for an elite, and perhaps a fairly small one at that? Was the overall impression he gave - albeit a good deal more carefully qualified and better informed than Mary Walton's - still too comfortable, and perhaps even a little romantic? Through placing the evidence of Norton's wills and probate inventories in the context of what can be learnt from the parish registers, I do feel fairly certain that this is a reasonable criticism to make of David Hey's work, and of many other local historians studying this period.

Connected to a slightly romantic view of life - whether past or present - is an inclination amongst local historians to fight shy of discussing communities in terms of class. England during the Elizabethan and early Stuart period has been described as a society where the dividing line between "gentlemen" and "others" was the only significant divide in terms of the exercise of power.(2) But does this notion of a "one-class society" have the effect of distracting attention from the importance of social, cultural, and economic alignments amongst those below gentleman rank? The patterns of social behaviour which emerge from the Norton registers - most especially in relation to bridal pregnancy - indicate marked differences between the yeomanry and the lower ranks. This contrast in values and expectations is something clearly associated with the concept of a class society: in the way they lived, the yeomen were establishing a distance between themselves and the lower ranks. The yeomen were well on their way to becoming a "middle class": a position in which they were to be joined in Norton during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by that special elite of metalworking craftsmen who approached their work with the spirit of a capitalist entrepreneur.

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