Sunday, 9 March 2014

What do Thomas Twining and Daniel Defoe have in common?

I have remarked before about the pleasure of incidental archival finds when trawling records, and I recently caught another couple of gems to add to the bag.

The first item was the registration of the insurance policy taken out by Thomas Twining in July 1715 with the Sun Fire Office to protect his coffee house (where, it appears, he was also living) in Devereux Court just off The Strand; the name Twinings is of first rank importance when it comes to the history of coffee and tea, and it is also a pretty extraordinary fact that 300 years later the Twinings shop still stands on the same site. The second item was the name Daniel Defoe, which I happened across in the Middlesex Sessions list of those eligible to serve as jurors in 1725. The spellings 'Daniel D'ffoe' and 'Stoak Newington' caught my eye (I wonder why 'Stoak' fell out of favour to be replaced by the much less interesting 'Stoke').

But what, if any, is the value of this sort of thing? Well I would suggest that you can squeeze a surprising amount of meaning from ostensibly limited sources and their archival context; and you could argue that being able to do so separates the astute and imaginative historian from the merely pedestrian. So what could be wrung out of my two inconsequential documentary examples? The following list of facts and light-hearted inferences occurred to me, and doubtless people who really do know something about the history of tea/coffee/insurance/business/eighteenth-century legal processes and what not could offer more:
  • The act of insuring - then, as now - suggests a cautious and prudent nature; perhaps these were among Thomas Twining's defining personal characteristics.
  • To warrant insuring the premises, the coffee house must have been a thriving concern, some nine years after Twining took it over.
  • Twining lived above the shop, so to speak - possibly common practice at the time.
  • In the policy register we learn that it was called 'Tom's Coffee House'; the popularity of tea had yet to catch on, and of course the expense would keep it out of the reach of most for many years to come.
  • The Sun Fire Office policy register is a hefty volume; the business was obviously expanding rapidly in the early eighteenth century.
So that's my five for TT and his insurance policy. For Defoe, I came up with:
  • Eligibility for jury service depended on a property qualification: so Defoe must have possessed freehold, copyhold or life tenure somewhere in Stokey to the value of at least £10 per year.
  • English spelling had yet to settle down.
  • The machinery of local government was working pretty well in this part of England at this time; the Middlesex jury lists are well kept. 
  • Defoe may have been starved of good company at this time; few 'gentlemen' are named on the 1725 list, although I noticed that the number of names varied considerably over time - that probably is significant in some way, but I'm not sure what.
  • For some reason I had always thought that Defoe had suffered constant money problems and was pursued and hounded throughout his life by his creditors; but perhaps not - if he was known to the local authorities surely his whereabouts would have been known to those he owned money to (who I gather employed some fairly robust methods in getting what was due).
So there we are: five facts, meanings and suggestions from each of these documents - a bit tenuous I know, but good practice.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Andrew. Another great post. Believe it or not, some of this could be commercially relevant too, in terms of "insurance archeology".

    See here: