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Women working in the furniture trade in early modern London

Published by on 24 July 2019

Early modern London gave birth to opportunities for middle class women to work beyond the domestic sphere. Single women were employed in service industries such as coffee houses and inns, and as shopkeepers, while married women often worked side-by-side in business with their husbands, buying and selling and managing company affairs. In order to work in a skilled occupation or trade in London, however, membership in a City livery company was required. The most common method of gaining this was through apprenticeship or patrimony, both of which were mostly in the reserve of men. The legal rights of women depended primarily on their marital status. Under English common law, unmarried, divorced or widowed women over the age of twenty-one held the legal status of feme sole, enabling them to trade and own property, while a married woman had the status of feme covert, thus forfeiting her financial and legal independence. Customary law offered married women the right to practise a craft or trade – given their husbands’ permission – but widows were, in general, seen to manage their own businesses. They were free to carry on their late husbands’ trades because customary law considered the period of their marriage the equivalent of having served a seven-year apprenticeship, and consequently, 10 to 20 per cent of London households and businesses were headed by widows.

It was common for widows to remarry men in the same line of business as their former husbands. Quite apart from learning the business as an insurance against widowhood, women had an important role to play carrying out tasks such as retailing goods, managing company accounts, acquiring raw materials necessary for manufacture, supervising journeymen and apprentices, and for some, presumably working alongside their husbands at the bench. This blog introduces Martha Martin and Grace Coxed, two widows who inherited and operated their late husband’s businesses at the turn of the eighteenth century.

Martha Martin was twice married to London furniture makers and twice widowed, before inheriting and running a chair carving business in St. Paul’s Churchyard for twenty-five years (1696-1721). Her first marriage was to Cooper Leigh. They had one child, a son born in 1682. Cooper died in the next year or so because in 1685, Martha was remarried to the chair carver, Bartholomew Martin.

Farringdon Ward Within and Castle Baynard Ward
Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
Farringdon Ward Within and Castle Baynard Ward, Strype, Survey of London (1720), bk. 3, ch. 8, p. 125: Motco Enterprises Limited
Farringdon Ward Within and Castle Baynard Ward, Strype, Survey of London (1720), bk. 3, ch. 8, p. 125: Motco Enterprises Limited

By 1692, Martha and Bartholomew were living in Little Knight Rider Street, just south of St. Paul’s Churchyard. Bartholomew Martin died in March 1696, and three months later Martha bound an apprentice, her fourteen-year-old son from her first marriage. Women commonly partnered with their male relations and this may have been the primary reason that Martha apprenticed her son. However, she apparently had a very busy workshop because in addition to the four apprentices she had at the time of her husband’s death, Martha contracted an additional three in the following six months (including her son), and over the next eighteen years she bound eight more. There must have been several journeymen in her employ to have necessitated so many apprentices. Martha apparently managed quite a successful enterprise; she is known to have carried out carving for a neighbour in St. Paul’s Churchyard, the caned chair maker, Thomas Warden, and it appears that he was just one of her many clients.

Trade card of G. Coxed and T. Woster
Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
Private Collection
Trade card of G. Coxed and T. Woster at the ‘White Swan’ in St. Paul’s Church-Yard, London c. 1718 -35 (Private Collection).

One of Martha Martin’s neighbours was Grace Coxed. Grace was involved in the furniture trade for at least thirty-five years (1700–1735), and like Martha, was also twice married and twice widowed. Both of her husbands were cabinet-makers, thus demonstrating the pattern of widows remarrying men in the same specialised field of trade. Her first marriage was to John Mayo, who at his death left his business in the hands of his widow, Grace. One of their apprentices was John Coxed, who completed his term of indenture under Grace’s supervision. Perhaps John remained in Grace’s workshop as a journeyman and this is where he caught her eye. Grace managed her cabinet-making business after her first husband’s death for seven years before she was remarried to John Coxed. They were married for ten years until his death in November 1718. In his will, John left instructions for Grace, to ‘go partners’ with his brother-in-law, Thomas Woster, who was also a cabinet-maker. Once again, we see women being aligned in business to male relatives.

Coxed and Woster was apparently a sizable company; the premises was large enough to accommodate several workshops and retail spaces occupying two adjacent houses on the southwest corner of St. Paul’s Churchyard. Their manufacture seems to have been prolific because their furniture constitutes the largest single group of labelled English case furniture surviving from the first half of the eighteenth century. Grace’s role in the business is unknown: there are no records of her activity in London Companies, or accounts of her business transactions, but she was presumably involved in running the cabinet-making firm, Coxed and Woster, from her second husband’s death in 1718, until she died in 1735.