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The History of Charlbury through ... a 17th century mercer's shop

Judy Dod for Charlbury Museum

Recent reminiscences on the forum about shops which once thrived in Charlbury brought to mind a shop which served the town and surrounding villages in the early 1600s. It was owned by Thomas Harris, mercer, who died in 1632 and was buried in the churchyard here. He died without making a will and an inventory had to be made of the goods in his house and shop. This was undertaken by two of his friends, Thomas Woodward and Brocke Witny. They were extremely conscientious in carrying out their duties, producing a detailed inventory which gives a fascinating picture of the goods he sold.

Mercers began as merchants selling silks but many had become general dealers in cloth, household articles and grocery items. Thomas stocked a wide range of different cloths – some familiar such as calico, sackcloth and canvas, others less so like fustian (heavy, cotton cloth suitable for menswear) and sleazy holland (a thin, flimsy fabric). Then there were the ribbons, trimmings and haberdashery items needed for making clothes. He stocked buckram and lace, many types of thread of different colours, Coventry thread for embroidery, garters and buttons, and ‘hooks & eyes for briches’. Also stockings and bodices.

The inventory lists household items such as brushes, candles, glasses and jugs, soap, tobacco pipes, and beer mugs (‘blacke pots’). He stocked food too but only dry goods that would not perish such as salt and sugar, currants and prunes, and a dazzling array of different spices including saffron, cinnamon, and cloves. Then there are what to us are more surprising items, goods which today would need licences - a considerable amount of gunpowder and some shot, as well as arsenic and aqua vitae or strong liquor. His whole stock was calculated to be worth £109 14s 10 ¾ d*

The range of goods indicates that he obtained goods from many sources. The final account submitted by his wife, appointed to administer the estate, shows he owed considerable sums to suppliers in London as well as locally. His biggest debt was to Mr Edmund Hiorne of Woodstock (£53). Nor could his widow collect all the money owed to him. So despite his seeming wealth, all his goods and stock in trade were already pledged to pay off his creditors. Sadly we don’t know for sure where his shop was, but nearly 400 years ago it must have drawn many customers into the town.

* They made a mistake adding it up: the total is actually £109 15s 10 ¾ d

See“A Charlbury Mercer’s Shop, 1632” by D.G.Vaisey. Oxoniensia Vol.31 1966.  Read a transcription of the full inventory at:

Judy Dod · Fri 7 May 2021, 21:01 · Link

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