Cowkeeper essays:   Living in Style

This is one of my essays on 18th century cowkeeping. On the left are links to the sections in this page, and to the Contents. To keep it simple, my bibliography and list of useful websites is at the end of the Introduction.

The wonderful and exotic imports of the East India Company were really making a difference in households which could afford to buy furniture made from imported mahogany, and cotton and silk hangings from India, and porcelain from China - and the tea to go in it. The brave, sometimes foolhardy, sea-captains of the 18th century were crossing dangerous oceans, spurred on not by war but by cash-rich investors back home who could make a huge profit if the 3-year journey went well. Fortunes could be made by the East India Company men themselves, as I discovered when I was researching the history of our house - greed and a bit of corruption meant that John Calland made enough as a Company servant to set up himself and his family in 1770s Mayfair luxury for ever. London was booming; spending was good; excess and intemperance were the norm, if you could afford it. And this is the kind of farmhouse an out-of-town cow-keeper of the time might have lived in:

18thC farmhouse

Living in style

When cow-keeper Mr Ennever was finally made bankrupt in 1773, the auction advertisement for the sale illustrates that he had been living rather well. His household goods were advertised as:

Pier glass

"ALL his neat and genuine household furniture plate, linen, china, & consisting of four-post bedsteads, mahogany pillars, cotton, damask, and other furnitures; fine goose feather-beds and bedding, mahogany chest of drawers, bureaux desks, large mahogany and other tables, carved and other chairs, carved, gilt, pier, and other glasses [mirrors]; a very good eight-day clock by Wilson; large Wilton, Jersey, and other carpets; a set of rich enamelled tea china; Bath and other stoves; a very stout range, a jack and sundry good kitchen furniture." [I had to look up ‘pier glass’ – apparently it was a mirror, usually framed, placed between windows or on dark walls to reflect more light into the room or hallway]

I compared this inventory with other household auctions in the same newspaper. A Gentleman going abroad was selling goosefeather beds and large mirrors, Captain John Wilson of Rotherhithe and John Winterton, upholsterer, also bankrupts, had similar households; a calico printer’s goods were described as “neat”, which doesn’t sound quite so posh.

Other cow-keeper household auctions tell a very similar story of comfortable living, with Turkey and Wilton carpets being mentioned regularly, often an eight-day clock, and cotton, linen, and woollen curtains and bed hangings, goose-feather beds (goose-feather duvets and pillows are still the most expensive). Always there was enough furniture to fill a substantial house rather than a modest dairy-man's cottage. But only towards the end of the 18thC, there were no such auctions before the 1770s - the cow-keepers had only been as upwardly mobile as the rest of Georgian society. When Mr William Austin, cow-keeper, died in 1784, his executors put up for sale:


"mahogany four-post bedsteads, with printed cotton, morine, and check furniture; fine goose feather beds, large blankets, white cotton counterpanes, mahogany double and single chests of drawers, a mahogany desk and book-case with plate glass doors, mahogany dining, card, tea, and Pembroke tables [drop-leaf sides, with one or two drawers, apparently originally commissioned by Lady Pembroke], a sofa covered with crimson silk damask, and eight mahogany stuff-back chairs to match; elegant carved and plain chairs, large Wilton and Scotch carpets, large painted floor cloths, large pier glasses in carved and gilt frames, and girandoles, elegant steel and other stoves, a wind-up range, two large coppers, and very good kitchen furniture"

so Mr Austin's family slept comfortably, owned a lot of clothes, wrote letters, read books, invited friends to dinner, played cards, sat on comfortable sofas and matching armchairs, kept the draughts out with painted floor cloths and carpets, checked their wigs in a girandole by the light of its candle, had hot baths and a contented cook.

Register stove

Many of the 1780s and 90s adverts stress their convenient kitchen fittings and various stoves and heating appliances, such as Mr Austin's ‘elegant steel and other stoves, a wind-up range, two large coppers’ or ‘Pantheon, Bath and other stoves’ and ‘Register and other Stoves, a Wind-up Bath Range, with Copper and Heating Stoves’.

I could not find anything about the intriguing wind-up bath range but I did find more about Register stoves. The illustration on this 1795 halfpenny issued by Clark& Harris of 16 Wormwood St, Bishopsgate, shows a cast iron fire surround with a raised basket, but it apparently had hidden features, since Dr Johnson’s dictionary [1755] defines Register as :

"...In chemistry, a sliding plate of iron which, in small chimnies, regulates the heat of the fire: hence the modern term, a register stove".

I suppose it had what my parents called a ‘damper’ and suddenly I remembered the words ‘you push the damper in and you pull the damper out and the smoke goes up the chimney just the same’. That song will now be in my head all day. And yours.

So cow-keeping did not have to be all mud and dung. Here is an advertisement from the New Daily Advertiser in March 1783:

"Auction by THOMAS BRANSTON On the premises, on Thursday next the 6th instant, at eleven o’clock. A Valuable Leasehold Estate, most eligibly situated, No 150 in Tottenham-court-road, opposite Mr Whitfield’s Tabernacle, now in the occupation of Mrs MARY BAKER Cowkeeper, who is going to decline business; comprising a neat brick dwelling-house, three rooms on a floor, two stories high, fitted up in a very genteel manner and replete with every convenience; a wash-house and dairy; a large garden, surrounded with a high brick wall, laid out in a genteel manner, and planted with choice standard, espalier, and wall-fruit, and other trees and shrubs; a large cow-yard, a barn, cow-houses, stables, hay-house, hog-sties, &c. Near £500 have been laid out upon the premises within seven years, 43 years of the term of lease unexpired at Lady-day next, subject to the small rent of £37 6s per annum. Likewise all the live and dead stock; consisting of twenty-eight cows, one heifer, three horses, three sows, twenty pigs, pigeons, two carts, horse harnesses, saddles, and all the farming and cow-keeper’s materials and utensils; a quantity of bricks and paving stones, &c."

Here was a lady who lived in some style – I quite fancy that garden myself. According to Mr Mortimer and Mr Morton, she would need three milk-maids and one cow-man to tend, feed and milk 28 cows.

And the Mr Austin who lived with all that comfortable furniture in Surrey? He had done extremely well for himself and although he was still alive in April maybe he was ill, or old, or had just had enough. I cannot find a death announcement for him but he had certainly died by the time of the July advertisement. Here is the earlier advertisement from the Morning Post of Friday 16th April 1784:

"For sale by Auction by Mr SKINNER and Co On Thursday the 29th inst at 12 o’clock at Garraway’s Coffee-house, ‘Change-alley, in 21 lots, ALL the valuable LEASEHOLD ESTATES, FARMS and GROUND RENTS, the property of Mr WILLIAM AUSTIN Cowkeeper, situate at WALWORTH and CAMBERWELL in the County of Surry, the ANNUAL RENTAL about NINE HUNDRED POUNDS. Comprising the ground Rents of THIRTY-SIX DWELLING HOUSES, several very eligible plots of ground proper for building on, SIXTEEN GENTEEL DWELLING HOUSES, lett on leases and 10 tenants at will, cow houses for 48 cows, stabling for 20 horses, a large barn, and EIGHTY ACRES of rich Garden Ground, Meadow, Pasture and Arable Land. Shortly afterwards will be sold All his large and valuable stock, consisting of about 60 cows, 30 horses, waggons, carts, and other effects."

Some cowkeeper personalities

Sometimes the cow-keeper worked his own herd, with local help. In May 1729 the Universal Spectator reported the following sad end to a good evening:

"On Wednesday Night last Mr Woodfield, an eminent Cow-keeper in London-Fields, near Hackney, after he had made an Entertainment for his Milk-Folks at the Red-Cow in Shoreditch, with a plentiful Supper, dropp’d down dead."

In those days, if you were assaulted you had to prosecute the attacker yourself.

And sometimes being a cow-keeper brought unwanted consequences. I have noticed in other criminal court reports that it was the practice then for individuals to bring prosecutions. There was no Metropolitan Police, or Crown Prosecution Service. If you were harmed in any way then you grabbed the offender by the arm and took him to a Magistrate. In 1737 a Mile-End cow-keeper named Mr Hobins Preston employed Jack Hutchenson, who was subsequently found guilty of stealing a pair of harness from him and sentenced to transportation. Soon afterwards Mr Hobins received the following letter:

"God dam your Bloods for a Parcell of Hell Hounds, we know your Transactions about our old Friend Jack Hutchenson, and what want he is in we are inform’d of, therefor God dam your Bloods and Souls, ye Sons of Hell, prepare your selves to tumble into Damnation, for by God the first Opportunity we can get to blow your Brains out, you shall be sent to keep your Easter in Hell, except you, God dam you, use him well, and send him good Relief immediately. Who we are, if you want to know, you shall soon be inform’d the first time we meet you, unless we hear you have reliev’d our Friend, if you love your Blood or Life, mind this; dam your Blood, prepare to dance a Jigg in the Devil’s Ken."

I did check the later newspapers, but happily could find no mention of any retribution.

Here are some other London cow-keeper stories from the newspapers, which are good examples of the wider range I found. Some very odd things went on; it was especially common, when advertising for a lost item, to promise a reward "with no questions asked". They are in date order and the earliest is from 1710:

Post Man Saturday April 8th 1710

A guinea was £1 1s - a week's wages for some

"LOST from Mr Richard Orton’s, a cow-keeper near the River head at Clerkenwel, a Silver Tankard marked on the Handle, R.O. A.M. Whoever brings it to Mr Ja. Miles, at Sadlers Wells, shall have a Guinea Reward and no Questions asked, or if offer’d to be Pawn’d or Sold their Money again."

Post Man Saturday 21st July 1716

"Stolen or stray’d on Friday Night last the 20th instant, out of the Grounds of Joseph Green, Cow keeper in the Parish of St Leonard Shoreditch in the county of Middlesex, a pretty little Black Nag about 13 Hands and a half high, 7 Years old, with a Blaze down his Face like a large Scar and Snip; he has large Ears, and a Scar on his near Buttock behind, now the Hair is off, with several streaks of White under his Belly, Walks, Trots and Gallops very well. Whoever gives Notice of the said Nag to Joseph Green aforesaid, or to Mr Wm Sherwood at the Fold Farm at South Mymms, so as the said Nag may be had again, shall have a Guinea Reward and reasonable Charges."

Weekly Journal Saturday June 27th 1719

£200 fine for Mr Fox, an angry cowkeeper

"Last Week one Fox, a Cow-keeper of Hackney was tried before the Judges of the King’s Bench out of Term, for throwing two little Boys into the Brook there. It seems the Children angered the Fellow by gathering some Flowers that grew on a Hedge, and did not leave off when he ordered them, so he threw them both in, one upon the Back of another; which so frighted one of them, that the Child fell into Fits and has been little better than stupid ever since, though above a Year ago. The Court fined him in two hundred Pounds for the Child that had Fits, and twenty Pounds for the other. It was also offered to be proved, that the said Fox had actually sold himself to the Devil some Months before, and that he had declared so himself. He could not procure so much as one Person to speak a word in his Behalf."

Weekly Packet Saturday January 2nd 1720 [I write about the State Lottery here.]

"We are informed that the £5000 Prize, entitled to the last drawn Ticket, falls to Mr Lloyd, Blackwell-Hall Factor, and a Cow-keeper at Islington."

Daily Post Tuesday March 9th 1731

"Lost on Saturday Night last between Eight and Nine o’Clock, between Holloway-Lane at Shoreditch and the White Lyon at Islington, a middle-siz’d Silver Watch, the Maker’s Name, M SMITH, upon the xxx plate, with a Silver Chain and green Seal, likewise the upper Part of a Silver Seal, the lower Part being broke off, and a Steel Key. Whoever brings it to John Woodfield, Cow-keeper at Islington, or to Maurice Smith, Watchmaker, at the Royal Exchange, shall have a Guinea Reward, and no Questions asked."

Prompter Friday December 13th 1734:

I used this quotation at the end of my Sewer essay; it is very witty and truly disgusting

"As I was walking near Marybone-Fields, by the Edge of one of those Publick Repositories, where they store up the Spare-weath of this abounding Metropolis, my Nose took Alarm at the Fragrancy; and furnished my Fancy with a Notion that it was a Use not Unlike This to which the French have converted our Theatres... I was interrupted in my Cogitations by the Approach of a Covey of Stragglers from Westminster School with the Spirit of the Place in their Faces. One of These was pressing an Apple, with his Left Hand, upon a Cow-keeper’s Boy they had met with, while he held conceal’d, in his Right, a short Piece of Lathe enrich’d at one End by the Spoils of the Lake it had newly been dipp’d in. The profer’d Apple was rejected with suspicious and averted Frownings [until] the boy roar’d out 'I won’t I won’t' with a Mouth as Round as the Apple. In that critical Moment, the persisting Benefactor produc’d the Lathe from behind his Coat, and drawing the Fullness of its Treasure quite cross the Protestor’s Mouth, told him It was Every Man to his Palate."

London Evening Post Saturday August 14th 1736

"Yesterday five Horses started on the new Course at Highgate, for the £5 Plate, which was won with Ease by Mr Miller the Cow-keeper’s Grey Horse."

London Gazette Tuesday 23rd August 1737 - Bankruptcy notices were frequently published and widely copied, but this list from 1737 extended to six pages, so I extracted from them the occupations of the bankrupts. There is the occasional gentleman and esquire, and more victuallers than any other occupation, but most were hard-working men who got overwhelmed by circumstances. Those who combined their occupation with that of 'chapman' meant that they sold penny pamphlets, leaflets, or songsheets to their customers too. Here is the list:

Bankruptcy was common

"brewer, bricklayer, butcher, butterman, carpenter, captain on half pay, cashire, chapman, clothier, collarmaker, collier, cordwainer, cornchandler, cornshooter, cowkeeper, currier, diamond cutter, dyer, esquire, farmer, fellmonger, filemaker, firkinman, framework knitter/hosier, gentleman, glassgrinder, hair dealer, innholder/chapman, joyner/chapman, joiner/undertaker, lighterman, merchant, mariner, mealman, perriwig maker/chapman, plaisterer, sackmaker, scale maker, schoolmaster, schoolmistress, stable-keeper, taylor/chapman, upholder, victualler, victualler/chapman, victualler/fruiterer, weaver, wheelwright, widow, wine dealer/chapman/scavenger, yeoman."

General Evening Post Thursday 1st November 1739

Early on Wednesday Morning last a terrible Fire happened at Mr Samuel Lewis’s Farm at Kentish-Town, a noted Cow-keeper, which in a small time consumed the Barn, with a large Quantity of Hay. We hear the Damage is not less than six or seven hundred Pounds.

Penny London Post Friday 17th February 1749 - I am intrigued by the cow-keeper's nickname

"Last Monday about One o’Clock in the Afternoon, as Mrs Say who keeps a shop in the Lower-Street, Islington, was coming to Town, she was attack’d near the Cow-keeper’s, commonly call’d Lumping Will’s, by a Villain who rush’d upon her from behind the Bank, and robb’d her of what Money she had, snatch’d off her Short Cloak and Handkerchief, and was proceeding to pull off her Gown, etc, but was prevented by a Gentleman’s coming up at that Juncture, it being a very thick Fog, by the Help of which the Ruffian made his Escape."

General Evening Post Tuesday 30th May 1775

"On Tuesday the haymakers, who were employed by the farmers in and about Islington, struck from making of hay, owing to their having but 1s per day as wages; they all met in a lane near the Brill-house, Pancras; on which Mr Roads [Rhodes] farmer and cow-keeper, rode through the middle of them and informed them that he and the rest of the farmers would pay them 1s 6d per day; on which they all went to work, and were very well satisfied. The Evening Post of 1st June added: [Mr Roads] acquainted them that he was glad to see so few Irish among them, there not being one, where formerly there used to be twenty."

Public Advertiser, Wednesday 8th July 1778

"It has been remarked that Vegetables are uncommonly plentiful this Year. The following is a striking Proof of it. A few Days since three Cart Loads of very fine Summer Cabbages were brought to Spitalfields Market, and offered at Three-pence the Dozen ; but there being no Purchasers at that Price, they were sold to a Cow-keeper to feed his Cattle."

Lloyd’s Evening Post Monday 19th October 1795

"Last Tuesday morning, as Mr Summers, a cow-keeper of Tothill-fields, Westminster, was going to Covent-Garden, in his way through Chandos-street, he met a young woman, just arrived from the West of England, with her bundle of clothes under arm. He bid her good morning, and asked her where she was going ; she replied she was come to London to get a place. He said he would get her a place ; and, after some conversation, offered to marry her ; she refused at first, but in the course of the morning complied, and a licence was purchased, and they were actually married the same day. Mr Summers is 50 years of age, and has buried two wives, the second within these few weeks. He has a son and a daughter who are come to years of maturity."

I have included similar non-cowkeeper newspaper cuttings in the Introduction. Finally, two particular cow-keepers generated lots of hits online, so I was able to make a better story of their lives:

Christopher Capper, cowkeeper

The earliest cowkeeper mention I found anywhere online was the name of Mr Christopher Capper. In 1690 Christopher, then of St Gyles in the Fields, gentleman and bachelor, aged about 27, married orphaned Mary Bletchingden, spinster aged about 20, with the consent of her grand-mother Elizabeth Blyth. The Survey of London [British History Online] mentions that he was farming the east side of Tottenham Court Road as early as 1693, on the brickfields and pasture land.

Christopher Capper's farm

Here is the farm land on a later map, which shows that Lord Montague’s old house is now the British Museum. However, the field immediately to the left is part of Mr Capper’s farm. This really was central - the road off to the left became Oxford Street with Tottenham Court Road running north and Charing Cross Road to the south.

Mr Capper’s subsequent status was probably helped by the fact that he was a neighbour of Lord Montague and his farm was used by the Duke of Bedford (family name Russell, as in Russell Square) as a holding area for stock from his Woburn estate in Bedfordshire, on their way to the London cattle market at Smithfield. But Christopher Capper apparently owned the farm, because the National Archives has a 1693 mortgage where he borrowed money from Nathan Willson of London, a merchant, for a half-share of sixteen acres called Brickfield near Bloomsbury, St Pancras (he repaid it in 1697).

In 1694 Mr Capper was assessed for a tax of £24 on his Gt Russell Street property. It had a rental value of £120pa - by far the largest valuation; the next lowest in the street was £45 and most were under £20. He also seems to have been acting as a local agent for three other householders (including Lady Russell, whose property was assessed at £140) in that same war fund tax, imposed by William III [see Four Shillings in the Pound, on British History Online]. The poor chap was also one of the many who volunteered (willingly?) in 1698 to contribute to the £1,484,015 1s 11¾ d needed by King William to disband the Army. In 1714 Mr Chr Capper was described as a 'Purveyor and Granitor of Oats and Beans' to George I, and there are later mentions of his being paid by the Treasury for supplies in 1720 and 1730 [all from British History online].

In 1711, when Benjamin Coker (whose story is also here) advertised the loss, or theft, of a grey gelding from his Grounds at Limehouse, he gave Christopher Capper’s name as a person to whom the horse could be returned if found near St Giles’ Pound, for a five guinea reward. Both men were also affected by the cattle distemper which plagued London in 1714.

The expanding parish of Bloomsbury needed a new church, and in January 1730 the church of St George’s Bloomsbury was consecrated by the Rt Rev the Lord Bishop of London. The map above shows that Mr Capper’s neighbour was the Duke of Montagu, and the rectorship of the new church was in the Duke of Montagu’s gift. Read’s Weekly Journal speculated that Christopher Capper’s son (I never did discover his first name) was to become rector, but there must have been local competition and in February the living was given to Dr Edward Vernon, then chaplain to his Grace the Duke of Rutland; the Rev Mr Capper became Lecturer.

Not everything was easy: Christopher Capper lost stock in the distemper outbreak of 1715 and although every other cow-keeper was compensated his claim had to be referred to ‘their lordships’. His fields were very close to the neighbouring streets,and were constantly trespassed by vagrants and 'a vile rabble of idle and disorderly people', often 'insufficiently dressed, who played cricket and other games there' and swam in the ponds. One night four of his cattle were killed by being stabbed, and Christopher offered a reward of £20 for information. There was an infamous duel and much later, during a fire on the farm, the General Evening Post reported that “the Engineer of St Giles’s had the Stand-cock, which supply’d the Engines with Water, stole in the Confusion”. In 1716 he was on the jury list for the Westminster Hall trial, described as a 'gentleman' and in 1722 a Mr Capper was robbed of five guineas by a highwayman on the Elstree-Edgworth road. (In the 1720s and 30s there was also a Mr Francis Capper around, a solicitor, but I have not been able to find any link. There was also a cheesemonger called Capper who drowned in 1728 by falling from a barge, but that's about it for the London hits.)

Post script: In response to the first edition of this essay, a Capper descendent in Australia wrote to tell me that the solicitor Francis was the son of Richard Capper (1669-1759), a younger brother of Christopher whose clergyman son was called Edward (b 1692), that the family had originated in Herefordshire, and that there is a family tree at the College of Genealogy. Thanks Shane. So I can add some now relevant newspaper reports. Richard was a lawyer who in 1714 lived at Castle Yard and had chambers at Lincoln's Inn. Francis was also a practising lawyer; in 1722 and he received the first of several appointments by the King to be a Commissioner for the issuing of licences for Hackney carriages and chairs in London and Westminster. He must still have been in his twenties, which seems very young to me, but probably his father and others had influence. Later Francis was an occasional Commissioner for Bankruptcies, and governor of Bridewell prison. His daily routine within the City of London must have taken him past, then into, the St Paul's church-yard's bookshop of Mr Thomas Bennett, because in 1725 he married Mr Bennett's daughter Mary and his cousin Edward performed the ceremony. Mary had a sister and, when their mother died in 1734, they jointly inherited Mr Bennett's considerable fortune. Under the law at the time Francis would have been entitled to take control of Mary's share and we must hope he spent it wisely. Certainly by the time their daughter married the Rev Smalridge in 1861 the family had a house in Bushey, Hertfordshire but Francis kept on a house in Chelsea and he died there of an apoplexy, in 1764. His father Richard had died in 1859.

Christopher Capper’s daughters – Esther Capper and widowed Mary Booth - who took over the farm, were locally notorious. Much later, in Tales of a Rainy Day, a Mr Smith wrote of them:

"they wore riding-habits and men's hats; one rode an old grey mare, and it was her spiteful delight to ride with a pair of shears after the boys who were flying their kites, in order to cut their strings. The other sister's business was to seize the clothes of the lads who trespassed on their premises to bathe."

Esther Capper, after an unsuccessful campaign to prevent the new Paddington-Islington road (the dust would damage her crops and alarm her herd) retired in 1768 to a pleasant house in nearby Charlotte Street. Here is an illustration of the street from British History Online - she lived at No 14, on the left-hand corner with Windmill Street:

Charlotte Street

When Christopher Capper died in March 1736, the London Daily Post reported:

"Yesterday died Mr Capper, the great Cow-keeper, at his House in Tottenham Court Road, said to have died worth £30,000."

Even in 1769 the Capper name cropped up again in the Whitehall Evening Post, when a defender of the Duke of Bedford wrote:

"A correspondent informs us, in order to confute the general charge of Junius [pseudonym of contributor] against the Duke of B---d for his want of beneficence, that, to his knowledge, when the sickness raged among the horned cattle [this must have been the 1745 outbreak], he not only forgave a tenant, one Mrs Capper, an eminent cow-keeper in Tottenham-court Road, her rent, but also gave her the sum of £100 to repair her loss."

And there is still a Capper Street in Bloomsbury, just off Tottenham Court Road, on what used to be his farm.

Benjamin Coker, cowkeeper

Mr Benjamin Coker’s name kept popping up in connection with Stepney and the East End. According to the IGI, his parents were Thomas and Joane and he was baptised at Bull Lane Independent in Stepney. In 1711, when he advertised the loss, or theft, of a grey gelding from his Grounds at Limehouse, he gave the name of Christopher Capper (whose story is here) as a person to whom the horse could be returned if found near St Giles’ Pound, for a five guinea reward. It is probably not surprising that they knew each other, but I found the advert in the London Gazette quite late on in my research, when I had already expanded the life stories of these two names, so it was a satisfying moment.

Benjamin Coker seems to have started his working life as a cow-keeper, because in the 1714 distempter outbreak he had had to destroy his complete herd of 115 cows. The full extent of this terrible outbreak is described in a Calendar of Treasury Papers on British History Online, and my transcript is here. I do not know if he used his compensation money to re-train for another career, but in 1715 he was one of five men paid £680 for digging the foundations of Limehouse Church and by 1725 he was the Whitechapel Surveyor:

Daily Courant Wednesday 19th May 1725

"Whereas there are great Quantities of Gravelly Sand shovelled up on the Highways between London and Stratford, and other Places on the Middlesex and Essex Turnpike Roads, which may be very serviceable to Bricklayers and others in making the best of Mortar, and for other Uses: This is to give Notice that any Person or Persons who will send their Teams, may have Liberty of taking the same away, upon Application to Mr Benjamin Coker, Surveyor of Whitechappel Division."

In 1730 Benjamin Coker committed Richard Jones to Newgate for stealing two horses, each valued at £5, from his stable. By then he was well-enough known to have a field named after him, which was the scene of a dramatic attack, reported in the British Gazetteer of Saturday 7th November 1730:

"On Wednesday 7-Night Mr Hall, who had the Care of the New Church at Limehouse, returning home, was attack’d by 2 Foot Pads in Coker’s Field, beyond Stepney Church; one of them cut him across the Fingers with a Knife, to make him let go his Lanthorn, and the other clapt a Pistol to his Breast, threatening to murder him if he cry’d out or made Resistance; they took from him some Silver and Half-pence, his Hat, Wig and Cane, also his Tobacco-Box, Flint and Steel, his Lanthorn they stamp’d upon and broke it all to pieces. The abovementioned Mr Hall, notwithstanding he was desperately wounded, had the Bravery to go home and load his Fowling-Piece with Ball, and went in pursuit of them, but the Villains were fled."

By 1741 Benjamin was responsible for a major civil engineering project. The Sewer Commissions must have anticipated that it was going to affect a lot of landowners and published the following notice in the Daily Gazetteer of Wednesday 16th September 1741:

"Stebun-heath, alias Poplar Marsh Sewers

"Whereas a new Admeasurement and Plan have been made of the Lands within the Level, by Order of the General Session of Sewers, held for the said Level on the 5th of May 1740; This is to give Notice, that the said Plan, with the Admeasurement, is, by Order of the Committee appointed by the said Sessions, left at the House of Mr Benjamin Coker Senior, the Expenditor, near Limehouse Church, for the Inspection and Perusal of the several Owners and Occupiers of the said Lands ; And if any of the said Owners or Occupiers are dissatisfied with the said Admeasurement, and desire to have their Lands re-admeasure’d, the Measurers appointed by the said Committee will be ready to re-admeasure the same, with any proper Person they shall appoint, till the 31st October next."

But Benjamin had a son, who either took over or re-started his father’s old business, with equally disastrous results. In 1741 he was up before the magistrates for failing to pay £2 13s 9d - his share of the Poor Rate. In February 1743 the Daily Gazetteer reported the bankruptcy of Benjamin Coker the younger, of the Parish of Stebonheath otherwise Stepney, Cow-keeper and Chapman. A chapman, I understand, was a seller of pamphlets and other small items; sometimes defined as an itinerant pedlar. I suppose if you were going round selling milk you might as well try to sell pins and thread and other non-perishable goods. In May of that year he was up before the bench again - this time his assessment was the much lower amount of 10s, but they refused his appeal for Distress.

Contents page

By 1745 Benjamin Junr’s farmhouse at the Mile End Turnpike, the outhouses and stalls for 120 cows were being advertised for letting, and his black gelding had been stolen the year before. In 1745 another distemper outbreak was devastating London's cow-keepers; this was not a good time to sell. And that was all I could find; in 1769 there was a death notice for a Benjamin Coker, wine merchant, of St Mary-Hill, but that is down near the Tower of London – not his patch. But if he was like his dad he might have picked himself up by his bootstraps and started again. However, I did find two baptisms in St Dunstan's parish register - our Benjamin in 1697 (his mother was called Elizabeth) and another, the son of William and Mary, in 1709, so it could have been him. If anyone else can finish this story, do please email me.

Copyright © Marion Hearfield 2009/12