How much is your ‘Wearing Apparel’ worth? and other miscellany

Insurance policy registers are one of my favourite sources. Whilst conducting research for my PhD, I mined the earliest registers of the Sun Fire Office Insurance Company to locate women in business in London (and the wider metropolis) from 1710 onwards. Yet, I’ve also found other policies that have struck me as interesting little snippets of information relating to cultural figures in eighteenth-century London.

For example, I recently came across a house insurance policy taken out on 7 January 1728 by ‘Daniel De Foe’ of Stoke Newington. Though he is more widely known as the author of Moll Flanders (1722) and Robinson Crusoe (1719), Defoe was described as a ‘Gent’ when he took out insurance for ‘his now Dwelling house […] exclusive of all manner of Outhouses or adoyning Buildings’ to the value of £700.[1] A blue plaque now marks the site of Defoe’s house, at number 95 Church Street in Stoke Newington, and you can also read more about his residence in Hackney here: http://hackneyhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/HH_Vol_10.pdf

William Hogarth (attributed), A Just View of the British Stage, or three Heads are better than one, 1724. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Another policy that I found intriguing was taken out by Sir Richard Steele (co-founder of The Spectator), Barton Booth (an actor), Robert Wilks (manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane), and Colley Cibber (an actor, theatre manager, and playwright). The 1724 engraving above which has been attributed to William Hogarth depicts – and is critical of – Wilks (left), Cibber (centre), and Booth (right), ostensibly for putting on inferior productions, as Ben Johnson’s ghost looms large behind them. Though these theatre managers may not have always satisfied the tastes of the discerning theatre-going public in London, they did at least seek to protect the theatre from financial ruin, taking out an insurance policy for £4,000 ‘for the Goods, Furniture, Wardrobe and Scenes / not valued as Pictures / of Drury Lane Play House and Dressing Rooms adjoining’ on 20 May 1727. However, the insurance would only cover these goods ‘Except Such Loss and Damage as may happen from any fire begun by means of Any Action or Representation in any Play or Farce &c or in any reharsal of the Same’, suggesting that the fire very much had to be caused by external forces, and not as a result of any theatrical pyrotechnics.[2] Theatres at this time did have a terrible habit of burning down and there were numerous hazards such as the use of candles as stage lights, though footlights were usually kept in troughs filled with water or sand to mitigate the danger.[3]

The portrait of Hester Santlow below, who married Barton Booth in 1719, was painted in the 1720s and depicts an example of a Harlequin costume that she wore in one of her key roles as a dancer on stage, providing a visual insight into the type of costumes that were insured in 1727.

John Ellys, Hester Booth, c. 1722-1725 © The Trustees of the British Museum

The specification that the theatrical scenery was not valued ‘as Pictures’ is pointed, and suggests that sets were held in far less esteem than other artworks. Nevertheless, scenery could be painted by prominent artists and it is known that Sir James Thornhill, William Hogarth’s father-in-law, created designs for the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in the first decades of the eighteenth century.[4] Incidentally, the oldest surviving painted scenery (circa 1818) is on display at the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, Yorkshire, which is well worth a visit when the lockdown ends.

Moving back onto policies that relate more specifically to dress history, an earlier Sun Fire Office policy register included two curious policies taken out by individual women to insure their personal belongings. On 1 April 1726, Mrs Margaret Biron of Hampstead insured her household goods and ‘Wearing Apparell’ for a total sum of £300. Her clothing was assigned a separate value of £100, which would be roughly the equivalent of over £11,000 today. On the same day, Jane Smith, a widow who lived at Mrs Humphreys at the Seven Stars in St Martins Le Grand, insured her ‘Wearing Apparel’ for £150, which equates to more than £17,000 today. She also insured goods and furniture to the value of £150.[3]

There is nothing to suggest that these women were connected, though it is a strange coincidence that they both insured their apparel on the same day, particularly as these are the only two such policies that I have found so far. Clothing was obviously a valuable commodity and it is also worth noting that insurance policies were only taken out by the wealthier sections of society who could afford rich silks and lace. Nevertheless, these policies show how important wearing apparel was to these women. It could be pawned or sold if the owner were to fall on hard times, and clothing was regularly bequeathed to friends, family, and servants.

These two policies have also caused me to reflect on what value I would place on my own wardrobe today. It certainly would never rival the value of Margaret Biron and Jane Smith. It will be interesting to see how recent events will affect the sale of clothing, both on the high street and online. Vivienne Westwood has been outspoken about the need for people to stop shopping and to invest in better quality garments. However, even high street fashion can become valuable in the future, as the Mary Quant exhibition at the V&A recently showed. We are all very aware of the environmental impact of fast fashion, though this is balanced by the importance of the garment manufacturing industry in supporting many thousands of people around the world. Can we be more discerning in the future about what we buy, will we demand higher wages and better working conditions for the people making our clothes, and think of clothing as a significant investment, beyond its use for one season? If we can, perhaps it will be easier to evaluate how much our wearing apparel is truly worth.


Footnotes

[1] London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/026 Sun Fire Office Insurance Policy Register, 1728-1729. For more on Defoe’s time in Stoke Newington, see A. Secord, ‘Defoe in Stoke Newington’, PMLA, 66:2 ( 1951), pp. 211-225.

[2] LMA CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/024 Sun Fire Office Insurance Policy Register, 1727-1728, fol. 123.

[3] J. Briggs, Encyclopedia of Stage Lighting (North Carolina, 2008), p. 128.

[4] Thornhill’s designs for Arsinoe, Queen of Cyprus, which premiered at the Theatre Royal in January 1705 are held by the Victoria and Albert Museum: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1025236/design-for-act-ii-scene-drawing-thornhill-james-sir/.

[5] LMA CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/021 Sun Fire Office Insurance Policy Register, 1725-1726. A will for a widow named Martha Humphreys living in that parish in the eighteenth century could be the Mrs Humphreys at the Seven Stars: The National Archives (TNA) PROB 11/718/389 Will of Martha Humphreys, Widow of Saint Martins Le Grand, City of London, 3 June 1742.

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