Back in 2009 I obtained photocopies of some notes that had been made by a Sussex antiquary, R. Garraway Rice, which he had made of entries in wills that related to the Sussex iron industry. Among them were some references to bequests of firebacks. This was clearly an interesting source for the appreciation of the significance of firebacks in the lives of those who owned them in the past, but the prospect of reading lots of wills in the hope of finding similar bequests was daunting. Associated with wills were the inventories that were compiled of the possessions of the deceased. These are rather more accessible and I had been seeking out transcriptions of them on the internet, noting the occurrence of firebacks in them when I could.
However, an opportunity presented itself whereby I could research both types of historic document in an area where firebacks were likely to have been found in people’s homes. The probate copies of wills and inventories filed by the Diocese of Gloucester are held in the Gloucestershire Archives and, as well as being accessible at the Archive’s office in Gloucester, they have been made available on the internet to subscribers of Ancestry.co.uk. Thus I have been able to examine these records from my own home rather than having to make several round trips of 260 miles, which I probably would not have done anyway.
To make the study more than just a snapshot I chose to examine the 50-year period from 1651 to 1700. From observations I had already made elsewhere I knew that this period was before coal began to replace wood for domestic heating and therefore before integral grates began to supersede down-hearth fireplaces and firebacks. My method was to read all the inventories for each calendar year, noting these details where one or more firebacks were recorded in a property: how many, in which rooms, and their value if individually assessed (they seldom were). I would take a copy of those inventories. Firebacks were variously described, most being simply termed backs or iron backs, but occasionally plates in the chimney. Then, for each inventory where firebacks were included, I would read the associated will to see if the deceased had made a bequest of them. In several instances there was no will. I read 6,099 inventories and, of them, 197 (3%) mentioned one or more firebacks. There were 18 wills for the whole period in which the testators left the firebacks in their houses, and in every instance it was a relative who was the beneficiary. Out of the people whose wills I noted (and kept a copy) nine described themselves as yeomen, i.e. freeholders whose wealth lay primarily in physical possessions and the land they worked. Five were women, all widows; married women effectively owned no property until they were widowed. Of the remaining four, one was a vicar and the others were a baker, a nailer and a (wood) corder.
Although the inventories had been searched from 1651 the earliest will in which a fireback was mentioned was not until 1675, and most were concentrated between 1684 and 1690. In none of the wills or inventories was any description given of the firebacks mentioned. In western Gloucestershire lies the Forest of Dean, where there were several iron furnaces at which firebacks could have been cast. It is not surprising therefore, as the map shows, that the greatest concentration of parishes where inventories included firebacks was in the western part of the county.
One of the inventories in which I noted firebacks was that of Avis Skinn, a widow from the parish of Newland. She had died in 1684, and in her will, made two years earlier, she wrote:
I give devise and bequeath unto my Grandson William Skynn my two Iron Backes, the one standing in the Hall Chimney, and the other in the Kitching…
The name Skinn rang a bell. Some of my ancestors had also come from Newland and in 1679 my great6-grandfather, John Worgan, aged 16, had left his home in the Forest of Dean to be apprenticed to a John Skinn of the Worshipful Company of Pewterers in the City of London. There he was to remain for seven years learning the trade before he could gain his Freedom ‘from servitude’, which he did in 1686, thereafter settling in London, in Bishopsgate, where he raised a family, some of the descendants of whom were still there more than a century and a half later.
Avis Skinn had been widowed for 20 years. In the inventory of her husband William, when he died in 1664, the fireback in the hall of their house at Clearwell was mentioned; the one in the kitchen fireplace was evidently acquired later. As well as the firebacks left to her grandson, she made bequests to her five surviving children (eight had been named in her husband’s will) and one in particular drew my attention:
I give devise and bequeath unto my son John Skynn, of the Citty of London the sume of twentie shillings in money for a Toaken of my love…
Was this John Skinn the same man to whom my ancestor had been apprenticed? I rather suspect it was.