The study of furniture history was originally conceived as an adjunct to art history at the beginning of the twentieth century and over the past century has matured into a wide-ranging historical field of study which encompasses art, material and cultural history as well as social, economic and political history. The BIFMO database will serve as a valuable resource to a broad range of scholars, academics, students, connoisseurs, and the commercial market.
Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660-1840
The Dictionary of the English Furniture Makers (1986) was complied, written and edited over seven years by the late historians, Geoffrey Beard and Christopher Gilbert, supported by three assistant editors, Brian Austen, Arthur Bond and Angela Evans. In their acknowledgements to the Dictionary, the editors explained that it was ‘by far the most ambitious co-operative effort ever undertaken by furniture historians and will stand for many years as a tribute to the enthusiasm and industry of a large number of people’. This team effort included over four hundred volunteer researchers and twenty-five regional organisers across twenty regions of England. They gleaned information from various sources including trade and post office directories, newspapers, trade cards, subscription lists, price books, sales catalogues, and the archives of the Victorian and Albert Museum, livery companies, and country house muniments. There had been only one prior attempt to systematically document English furniture makers: in 1953, Sir Ambrose Heal published The London Furniture Makers: from the Restoration to the Victorian Era, 1660-1840, and included over 2,500 London tradesmen, mostly assembled from Heal’s collection of trade cards, now held in the British Museum.
The furniture makers selected for the 1986 publication of the Dictionary do not represent the entire furniture industry but rather the ones the editors considered ‘the main furniture trades’. These include cabinet and chair makers, upholders, upholsterers, turners, and some craftsmen and artisans participating in the finishing and/or decorative sectors: carvers, gilders, japanners and inlayers. Tradesmen and women were recorded in alphabetical order, from A-Z, and some also include original alternative spellings. The entries record an address or place of residence, if known, and any change of address; the individual’s trade occupation(s), and series of dates. Some dates signify relevant apprenticeships and freedom admissions and others the dates in which furniture makers actively worked in the trade. Given the limitations of disseminating information in print – and considering that there are 50,000 furniture makers recorded in the Dictionary – Beard and Gilbert took the decision to exclude auxiliary tradesmen who supplied the industry, such as timber merchants, sawyers, brass founders and ironmongers, to name but a few. Nevertheless, the editors wisely preserved all of the data on 70,000 record cards and the tradesmen and women who were omitted from the printed source will be integrated into the database as the project proceeds.
The ground breaking and comprehensive Dictionary of the English Furniture Makers was an extraordinary achievement. This project aims to produce an equally important digital source to extend our understanding of furniture makers into the twenty-first century. The editors of the Dictionary noted that ‘virtually nothing is known about the majority of makers, although in due course some may emerge as rounded characters’. This is the one of the fundamental aims of the BIFMO project.
London Joiners’ Company Records
Alongside the biographical entries from the Dictionary BIFMO provides access to these records of apprenticeship bindings and freedom admissions drawn from the Joiners’ Company archives, for the period 1640-1720. These records have been compiled by Dr Laurie Lindey of the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, during the course of her extensive research. BIFMO records have been created through the consultation of:
• Apprenticeship Bindings, Guildhall (GL) MS 8052/1-4, 1641-1720
• Freedom Admissions, (GL) MS 8051/1-3, 1651-1720
The primary concerns of all livery companies were to protect members’ livelihoods from encroachment by non-free British tradesmen and immigrants from other countries, limiting the numbers of apprentices and preventing undercutting of ways by some masters. Guilds were also theoretically responsible for overseeing and regulating the quality and standard of apprenticeships, manufacture and retail, and ensuring that London tradesmen were paid up members of City companies. Guilds had the power to inspect their members’ workshops and retailing premises and monitor the manufacture and sale of goods. In theory, this was to uphold the reputation and integrity of the guild and to protect consumers from ‘false and deceitful wares’. However, the viability and practicalities of the guild system in early modern London is debateable. The theory accepted by many historians is that by the middle years of the seventeenth century London freemen perceived the medieval institutions as antiquated and dysfunctional because they found the system restrictive and obstructive to entrepreneurship. Documentary evidence demonstrates that many companies struggled to maintain their authority and jurisdiction by the period: their membership was in steep decline and institutions consequently took various measures to preserve their authority.
The Joiners’ Company successfully exerted its authority to represent and protect its members’ livelihoods through various means, and in particular by persuading the City government to enact two important pieces of legislation in its favour. First was the 1632 arbitration between the Joiners’ and Carpenters’ Companies, which resulted in the Joiners being awarded the sole right to practice dovetailed construction. This, in effect, gave them an exclusive licence to manufacture luxury furniture. Second, freemen of London had the right to be associated with any Company, no matter their occupation. However, the Joiners’ Company took the proactive stance of expanding its authority to regulate the entire industry through an Act of Common Council in 1658 which forced all joiners (no matter what their guild affiliation), to enrol with the Company. The Act was applied to great advantage because it served to encourage furniture tradesmen to congregate within a single institution, thus increasing its membership and influence over the trade.
The Company more than doubled in size in the early years of the eighteenth century, expanding by 63 per cent between 1699 and 1724. This phenomenon was without doubt the result of its relationship with the furniture trade, which by the 1690s represented the seventh largest industry in the City of London. Unlike some other companies, the Joiners’ Company remained connected to its trade into the eighteenth century and was able to build on earlier achievements in defence of its members’ interests and keep pace with developments in the industry, with membership increasing considerably (though not as fast as the growth of the trade itself).
Joiners’ Company apprenticeship bindings and freedom admissions provide empirical documentation of London furniture makers. It appears that the vast majority of the tradesmen who managed independent businesses originated from the middle classes and made their way into the London furniture trade by serving an apprenticeship with Joiners of similar backgrounds. One explanation for the vitality and sustainability of the Joiners’ Company was that its membership included freemen from the upper echelons of London’s business communities, most of whom worked in either architectural joinery or the furniture industry. Successive masters of the Company were Master Joiners to the Office of Works, while several liverymen held monopolies to supply the royal households from Charles II to Queen Anne. An association with tradesmen of such stature would clearly have provided great opportunities to members, and this network was the essential ingredient of the Company’s growth and endurance into the eighteenth century.
Between 1642 and 1720, more than 13,000 young men were bound to members of the Joiners’ Company. Indenture agreements made within the City were originally recorded in two forms. The first was a formal indenture certificate issued by the Corporation of London and signed by the apprentice’s parent or guardian and his master. It was a two-part document: one half was presumably to be kept by the apprentice, or his parent, and the other by the master. The second was an entry recorded in the Joiners’ Company apprentice binding books. These bindings detail every individual indenture agreement made between one of its members and an apprentice from 1643 onwards. Each entry records the name of the apprentice and his father; the father’s occupation and whether he was still alive; the town, city or parish, and county of his origin; the joiner who would be serving as the boy’s master; the length of his term of service; and, from 1710 onwards some indentures record the amount of the premium paid by the apprentice’s family to the master. The particulars recorded in the bindings are similar to those required by other City companies. The evidence in the apprentice bindings informs the type of people who were apprenticed to the Joiners’ Company and subsequently those who completed their training and worked in the furniture trade.
In many cases the socio-economic status of apprentices seems to have influenced their future success: children of the gentry and yeomanry were apprenticed to prominent masters and enjoyed prosperous careers in the furniture trade, presumably as a result of the advantages of their backgrounds. The core of the apprentices – those from trade-related origins – also fared extremely well. They were a burgeoning group, many taking apprentices from backgrounds similar to their own over successive generations and becoming prosperous members of London’s trade community.
Fewer than half of all apprentices became freemen. Between 1650 and 1720, only 41 per cent of Joiners’ Company apprentices gained the freedom of the City through servitude and this is precisely in line with findings from other London livery companies. It is impossible to determine why the remaining 59 per cent failed to complete their apprenticeships, but it could have been the result of several factors. If apprenticeship actually constituted a genuine period of training it would be natural that some apprentices would fail to make the grade: some may have left after gaining a sufficient amount of skill to find work, even if this breached the Company’s regulations; others may have given up or died, or their completion may simply have gone unrecorded.
The freedom admissions which survive from 1651 onward are inconsistent in the details contained in each entry but, in general, include the prospective freeman’s name and the date when he and his witnesses appeared in court, the method of freedom (servitude, patrimony or redemption), and in cases of freedom through servitude, the name of the master, the date the apprenticeship began and the amount of time served. They can also show whether the apprenticeship was to one master or more and, finally, the names and company affiliations of those who served as witnesses.