A Past Perspective

Jo Seaman, Heritage Manager

Just before the Covid-19 outbreak finally put paid to our ‘normal’ working life, I was able to carry out a small excavation in Motcombe Gardens, the supposed epicentre of modern Eastbourne (and by modern I mean post 1066AD!).  This concentrated on the area around a lump of freestanding masonry in the south-eastern corner of the Gardens, that I suspected of being associated or even part of one of the early manor houses of Bourne, as Eastbourne was known on and off since the Norman Conquest at least. 

The results of the excavation were tantalising but inconclusive and will be until we can go back and investigate some more, when this strange and worrying period of social-distancing and isolation (terms I never thought I would use in my lifetime) is eased.

However one find from the excavation has really made me think.  It lit a small ember in my mind that I have just not been able to put out.

The object in question is a tiny copper farthing token, just over 1cm across, a piece of small change issued at a time when there was a countrywide shortage of low value coinage.  To me this was really special because it was found in a layer along with other datable artefacts, it was in great condition and most of all because it was made for a local, named individual.

When it came out of the ground on the end of my trowel, I could tell it was a copper coin, but with the slightest brush of my finger and I could see that it was in perfect condition.  On one side it read “Charles Leeds of..” with the arms of the Guild of Grocers in the middle and on the other “Borne…Mercer” around the three initials “L” above “CK”.  It sent a shiver down my spine, a tangible tingle of historical discovery familiar to anyone who has been involved in archaeology for any length of time.

This type of token was produced from around 1649, when Charles I was executed and therefore with no King, there was no Kings Law to control the production of coinage.  Following 9 years of ferocious Civil War and civil unrest in general there was a shortage of coinage and so people took control of the situation and produced municipal and merchant tokens.  The former could be used widely in a town or city and the latter in individual named shops and businesses, although it is likely that both were used a bit more generally in the local area.

Around 20000 different designs of token are thought to have existed between 1649-1672, with over 4000 in London alone.  In Sussex, the County Town of Lewes had at least 6 different traders tokens, the City of Chichester 33, Petworth 10, Brighton 4, Hailsham 2 and Hastings just 1.  In Eastbourne we have just 3 known traders tokens with one other rather dubious.  Rather than just a list of numbers, what the above does show us is the relative size and economic importance of Eastbourne at this point in the mid C17th. It doesn’t look great does it? But it is worth considering that the population of the town was just around 900 people and decreasing throughout the 1600’s.

Following the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the tokens continued to be popular, until 1672 when they were initially repressed and then in 1674 they were banned outright and thousands melted down.

Given this short shelf life of the Farthing Traders Token, these objects are really, really good at dating layers in the ground or contexts as we call them, essentially events that leave a tangible trace.

It also tells us that Charles Leeds must have been producing these tokens as a Mercer of Borne at some point between 1649 and 1674 at the very latest.

Being able to hold an object and know that this was owned and even held by someone who we can now name is a wonderful and humbling feeling. It makes me realise that we are just part of something much bigger, just a sentence or so in a story that connects us to the distant past and to the unknowable future.

Names are also powerful things and are just a part of the complex web that makes up our identity, but they are important in other ways too.  From a name we can start to trace an individual through the historic records, we can start to discover information about their families and we can maybe, just maybe be able to understand their world just a little bit.

So, who was Charles Leeds and what do we know about him? Well, the token tells us that he was a Mercer and in the C17th that could mean a general merchant rather than a trader in cloth specifically, which was the earlier meaning.  The coat of arms on the coin is of the Worshipful Company of Grocers, one of the most important of Great Twelve Livery Companies and features nine cloves split by a chevron.

I love cloves! I can almost smell a simmering bowl of spiced wine or a cup of fragrant chai, imbued with their sweet, peppery essence and their importance to our medieval ancestors as a flavouring and a medicine cannot be underestimated.  At times they were, weight for weight, worth more than gold!

Hence the original Grocers, or Grossers, who were responsible for the quality of spices coming into and distributed around the country chose the exotic clove as the symbol for their coat of arms, as far back as 1373.

Charles’ role in C17th Eastbourne is best explored by looking at a contemporary description of a Grocer from around 1669 which states:

In country places a grocer comprehended a most extensive dealer in hardware, gingerbread, bobbins, laces, haberdashery, mouse-traps, curling tongs, candles, soap, bacon, pickles, and every variety of grocery; besides which they sold small coins for money changing.”[1]

In my mind this conjures up the sort of rather exotic ‘Emporia’ of the Victorian period or more prosaically, the corner shops of my youth in South of London, somewhere you could buy a pound of spuds, a packet of Smarties[2] and a puncture repair kit all in one place, before the domination of Supermarkets (yes I am showing my age).

But what of Charles himself and his association with Eastbourne?

The name Borne used on the coin is itself interesting.  This name has been used on and off since the 1000’s but also appears with this spelling[3] on the earliest map of the town dating to 1636, perhaps indicating that this was the accepted C17th name.

We find Charles Leeds noted in the Church Records as a Churchwarden in 1674 (alongside William Turner) and 1675-6 on his own. To be a Churchwarden was a pretty big deal in the later 1600’s, essentially they were in charge of managing the upkeep of the church, it’s valuables and the parish possessions in general.  I suppose they could be considered to be the ecclesiastical equivalent of Borough Councillors today, intermediaries between the people and the church and in many cases elected by the local population.

Another clue that the token gives us is in the initials “L” over “CK”.  In coins of this type the top letter is generally the surname and that makes sense here (Leeds) and the CK usually indicates the first name of the husband and his wife, if he has one.  Again, the “C” is straightforward, but what of the “K”?  I could guess by looking at popular female names of the day, but there is another way and that is to look at the records for our Parish Church of St Mary. 

A quick scan of these show no marriages in the name of Leeds, but there are, thankfully, a number of Baptisms where the father is recorded as Charles (or in one case Choarles) Leeds (or Leedes, Leades or Ledes – again I love the flexible phonetic way of spelling) and luckily we are also given the mothers’ name as Katherine (or Catherine!). So there we have “CK” equals Charles and Katherine (or Choarles and Catherine depending on who you want to believe).

The baptismal records also give us details of the couples children given the holy blessing in Eastbourne and these are, in birth order, Anna (baptised 31st July 1668), Charles (baptised 9th November 1671), Frances (baptised 11th January 1672), John (baptised 19th November 1674), Charles (baptised 2nd December 1676) and Edward (baptised 30th December 1680).

In the records of deaths we can see that each of the first three children died very young, the oldest being 5 months and the youngest probably just a week or so. The last three are not recorded so hopefully survived into maturity.

It is easy to be clinical about these facts and spout the usual well known facts about the high number of infant mortalities at this time[4], but let us not. Let us instead think of this as a personal family tragedy, people grieved in the past too you know. I can only imagine the devastation that three infant deaths in the space of four years can wreak on a person, even when fears for infants were ever present and very real.  Looking back at people’s lives 400 years ago it is often easier to pick out the differences, the weird beliefs or archaic attitudes, but it is important to ponder what makes us similar – we feel pain, love, happiness and sadness and I am pretty certain, so did they.

Moving on, we now have a name for Charles and Katherine Leeds and their six children but as yet we don’t know when the couple tied the knot.  As already mentioned, they did not marry in Eastbourne, but perhaps we can find a couple with the same Christian names marrying in the vicinity some time before 1668?  Oh yes we can!

On 29th October 1667 we find a Charles Leeds and Catherine Brian getting married in Wadhurst (27.5 miles to the north of Eastbourne) so this could be our couple.  At the moment I can’t be sure, but given that their first child, Anna was baptised 9 months later, it would be a good bet!

Of their younger lives or even their ages, I have, so far, drawn a blank.

The story so far then is that Charles and Catherine marry in Wadhurst in late 1667 and by 1668 they are living in Eastbourne[5] and have, over the next 12 years have 6 children baptised there.  In 1674, having already lost three children, Charles is elected Churchwarden so must have been well respected and almost certainly, reasonably well off by this point.  The latter is backed up by the evidence of the token, showing that he was one of only two merchants in Eastbourne of a high enough status and wealth to be producing such objects in the C17th.  Given that the tokens were completely illegal by 1674 we can say with some certainty that it was not produced after this date.  Yet this seems to be the point at which Charles ‘makes it’ in the higher societal circles in Eastbourne and he is apparent in the records at least until his sixth child is born in 1680.

In terms of research, that is as far as I got with Covid-19 limiting what I could do, but we will continue our search for the Leeds family and indeed the Brian family too as they may be easier to trace in Sussex[6].  This journey is just started but it shows how one tiny object can lead us down a fascinating path of discovery and perhaps is just part of the answer to a question I get quite a lot which is “What is the point of all the stuff in collections?”

However the real story I wanted to tell is not about the research, or the object itself, it is about perspective.

When we start to realise that these names from history were real, living, breathing, swearing, praying, hopeful, angry, selfish, selfless, loving and contradictory people (well, just like us really) we will begin to appreciate what they lived through.

Put it this way, I am deeply worried about the situation we are all currently in and never in my wildest nightmares did I think that I would ever see the changes that Covid-19 has brought to our society and daily lives.  But here we are.  We are getting through it.  With some people suffering far more than others. It is an awful time.

But, let’s just spare a thought for Charles Leeds.

We have no idea what his personality was like or what sort of character traits he possessed good or bad, but then again most of you reading this will know as much about what really makes me tick as you do him. That would, I hope, not stop you from having empathy with me if I were to tell you something tragic that has happened in my life? (Don’t worry I’m not going to!).

So thinking about Charles as a real person, with a bit more empathy and imagination you can start to build a character around him, it doesn’t matter if it is accurate or not, we will never know the truth, but if it helps us to understand him a bit more…so what?

It is highly likely that Charles was born in the middle of the tumultuous English Civil War when all that was understood was turned on its’ head.  Families were literally split by political divides, we have an example of that documented in Eastbourne where the father and eldest son of the powerful Parker family took opposing sides. Everyday life was changed, routines and celebrations outlawed or altered by Acts of Parliament, community leaders replaced and a rise in religious sects, weird and wonderful beliefs and new political movements.  Eastbourne largely escaped the worst ravages of the Civil War but certainly would have felt like a very different place.

During his life Charles would have also experienced the terrors of plague, not once but numerous occasions in the 1650’s and 60’s.  In 1653 there were at least 37 deaths from plague in Eastbourne.  That may not sound a lot, but in a population of 8-900 is around 5%, in terms of today’s population that would be around 5000 people, a shocking total.

 In times of plague the local economy virtually shut down, people showing symptoms were forced to isolate themselves and outsiders either shunned or sent packing by local guards. Suspicion and paranoia were rife, anyone showing symptoms would be immediately castigated for being out and about.  Sound familiar?

But this isn’t all Charles had to contend with, we could go on to look at the economic effects of the wars with the Dutch, the Great Fire of London and the upheaval of the Restoration itself (the impact of which could be greater or less depending on your religious or political perspective at the time!).

More than all this, we have already seen the personal loss that Charles and Katherine suffered and there was undoubtedly more that remains undiscovered.  That is one of the problems with the human condition, we care for and love other people and that, along with the joy and reward it brings can also be personally as devastating as any plague or war.

So, what can we actually take away with us from this peek at the life of a C17th Eastbournian, fuelled as it was by the discovery of a tiny copper token?

Well, I believe that the main point that I have been making is that Charles Leeds lived.

He got through, he survived, thrived and I hope he found love and fulfilment. 

Sometimes archaeology and history can forget to include empathy as a tool for understanding the past.  Perhaps it is time that we put it back.


[1] Villanueva D, Tokens and Traders of Kent, 2015, True Treasure Books

[2] Other confectionary is also available

[3] Burne, Borne or Bourne were largely interchangeable given the fluidity in spelling at the time

[4] Infant mortality in the C17th was about 12% for the first year. Average age of death was just under 4o but if you lasted until 30 you could expect to live another 25-30 years.

[5] We cannot be certain that Charles was not already living in Eastbourne in 1668 as it would be usual to marry in the family church of the bride

[6] The surname Brian is mostly found in Ireland and west Wales and not associated with Sussex

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