Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Last Wishes - Georgian style!

Hooray! The Spring Season of lectures (Spring? So what was that sleet doing outside?) from Bury St Edmunds Record Office has started!

Today's was on the Wills left by various members of Georgian society in and around BStE. On a serious note, it is possible to learn a great deal about the historical mind-set from Wills. On a not-so-serious note, some of the Last Wishes are priceless (and a goldmine for historical novelists).

Wills in the 1760-1820 period were not nearly so dry and stuffy as they tend to be today. Dr Pat Murrell read out some lovely snippets, including one chap who wrote in his will that he was "making this will sitting in the inglenook next to the chimney with my leg raised upon a footstall". There was also the Rector who noted - also in the legal document - that even though he had made his Last Will some years previously, this was a new Last Will since every year he had less and less to leave.

And then there was the woman who left "all my land, buildings, plate, linen and effects to my daughter - BUT NOT IF SHE MARRIES THE SHOEMAKER!"

But how about this one? Pat saved it until last and it's an absolute floorer if ever I heard one. Just imagine the faces of the assembled family as they gathered to hear William Ruffell of Shimpling's last wishes in 1803. (It's a bit long. Bear with it.)

"As this life must soon end, and my frame will decay,
And my soul to some far-distant clime wing its way.
Ere that time arrives, now I free am from cares,
I thus wish to settle my worldly affairs.
A course right and proper men of sense will agree.
I am now strong and hearty, my age forty-three;
I make this my last will, as I think 'tis quite time.
It conveys all I wish, though 'tis written in rhyme.
To employ an attorney I ne'er was inclin'd.
They are pests to society, sharks of mankind.
To avoid that base tribe my own will I now draw.
May I ever escape coming under their paw.

To Ezra Dalton, my nephew, I give all my land,
With the old Gothic cottage that thereon doth stand;
'Tis near Shimpling Great Road, in which I now dwell,
It looks like a chapel or hermit's old cell,
With my furniture, plate, and linen likewise.
And securities, money, with what may arise.
'Tis my wish and desire that he should enjoy these,
And pray let him take even my skin, if he please.
To my loving, kind sister I give and bequeath.
For her tender regard, when this world I shall leave,
If she choose to accept it, my rump-bone may take.
And tip it with silver, a whistle to make.
My brother-in-law is a strange-tempered dog;
He's as fierce as a tiger, in manners a hog;
A petty tyrant at home, his frowns how they dread;
Two ideas at once never entered his head.
So proud and so covetous, moreover so mean,
I dislike to look at him, the fellow is so lean.
He ne'er behaved well, and, though very unwilling.
Yet I feel that I must cut him off with a shilling.

My executors, too, should be men of good fame;
I appoint Edmund Ruffell, of Cockfield, by name;
In his old easy chair, with short pipe and snuff,
What matter his whims, he is honest enough;
With Samuel Seely, of Alpheton Lion,
I like his strong beer, and his word can rely on.
When Death's iron hand gives the last fatal blow.
And my shattered old frame in the dust must lie low,
Without funeral pomp let my remains be conveyed
To Brent Eleigh churchyard, near my father be laid.
This, written with my own hand, there can be no appeal,
I now therefore at once set my hand and my seal.
As being my last will; I to this fully agree.
This eighteenth day of March, eighteen hundred and three."


liz fenwick said...

sounds brilliant and not what I had thought at all!

Kate Hardy said...

Jan, that is FANTASTIC!

Thank you so much for sharing.

(Interestingly, my wordver is an actual Norfolk dialect word - squit - which is what I reckon he thought of his brother-in-law...)

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Excellent. We have gained much in the ensuing centuries, but lost so much too. These people are not just real, they are larger than life. Thanks for sharing!

Anita Burgh said...

But how frustrating not to know what was wrong with the shoemaker!So interesting all of it, thanks for posting.

Estantia said...

Oh that is rather awesome, good grief that man must have been rather bored while writing his will. I expect that he was also laughing about the expressions on the people's faces when they heard it...

(Amusingly the word verification is progess, if they'd spelt it correctly the progress would have been very apt for this post!)

Jan Jones said...

Great, aren't they? I can just see William Ruffell having a great time composing his will and picturing their faces.

And Annie - as soon as Pat read out the shoemaker one I thought what a terrific opening for a story it would make!

Liz Fielding said...

Wonderful stuff. I should have come to you with my last book which turned on a Georgian will!

Debs said...

What a fun lecture.

I wonder if she ever did marry the shoemaker?

Dumdad said...


And I see lawyers were held in much the same regard then as now:

"To employ an attorney I ne'er was inclin'd.
They are pests to society, sharks of mankind."

Julie Cohen said...

Love it!

Jane Holland said...

Love the 'Alpheton Lion/his word can rely on' rhyme.

I wonder if his sister really did tip his rump-bone with silver and use it as a whistle?