Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

The Endowing Purse

A story of birth, death and bridewealth in late seventeenth-century England

Linda Mowat

Documentation brings objects to life: this cannot be stressed enough. Without it they are merely things: specimens of technology, factors in typology, aesthetically pleasing or rare perhaps, but lacking the context and personal history that make each object unique. This is very often the case with early museum collections, sadly including much of the material from the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum, most of which was acquired by General Pitt Rivers from auction houses. Even today, objects reach museums with no clue to their personal history, and no amount of expert opinion can ever make up for this.

Clues need not be elaborate: sometimes a single word is enough to set the ball rolling. The name 'S. Black' embroidered on a North American bag in the Museum enabled curator Laura Peers to trace its owner and reconstruct its history (Peers 1999). But sometimes we are fortunate enough to find more information.

In 1956 the Pitt Rivers Museum was given a number of English textile items by Miss M. Parry Okeden of Corsham in Wiltshire. The items had belonged to her family and according to the Museum's Accession Book they included a

'17 th cent. Endowment purse, given by Sir James Howe of Cold Berwick to his wife on the day of their marriage 1691. Letter inside states that it had contained "sixteen peices [ sic ] of broad & lesser gold, & eight peices of silver".'

Following a brief description of the object, an added Accession Book entry reads:

'Donor states: "I think Sir James Howe held office under Queen Anne, Controller of the Queen's household, I think. He died 1735".'

The purse

1956.3.48 Bag of knitted green silk thread decorated with gold and silver thread whorls

1956.3.48 Bag of knitted green silk thread decorated with gold and silver thread whorls

1956.3.48 Reverse

1956.3.48 Reverse

The purse (Accession No. 1956.3.48) is a beautiful object. It is long and narrow, rather like a sock closed at both ends, with a central vertical slit opening. The narrower upper part is of finely-knitted green silk; the broader lower part is embroidered in metallic threads in a pattern of whorls, sometimes referred to as needlewoven spiderwebs or Catherine wheels. The purse is closed at the bottom with six heart shapes in metallic thread, an example of the 'stumpwork' embroidery popular among leisured women in the seventeenth century.

A purse of this kind would probably have been worn tucked over a belt or waistband. In form it resembles the flat oval 'pockets' of the period, usually worn in pairs and tied around the waist beneath a full skirt, through which they were reached by slits or placket holes (Wilcox 1999: 31).

It was not uncommon in Europe at this time for a wealthy man to present his bride with an endowment or betrothal purse containing money, and there are French examples of such purses depicting couples. A beautifully-made purse would be a significant part of the marriage gift. Wilcox (1999:15) suggests that the hollow interior of the purse may have been linked to fecundity, and that filling it with money emphasized the desire for a prosperous and fruitful marriage. This is reminiscent of the symbolism of New Guinea women's bilum bags (Mackenzie 1991) or the mochila bags sewn by Ika women in Colombia (Tayler 1997: 184). In the case of Sir James Howe's purse, as we shall see, such symbolism seems particularly poignant.

The bridewealth

The Accession Book entry quoted above mentions a letter contained in the purse, but only with regard to its former content of 'sixteen peices of broad & lesser gold, & eight peices of silver'. This money - effectively a form of bridewealth given by Sir James Howe to his wife - was not a pittance. The broad was a milled gold coin some 30 mm in diameter, with a value of twenty shillings. It was issued by the Commonwealth of England in 1656 and Oliver Cromwell was depicted in the guise of a Roman Emperor on the obverse. Today a broad in excellent condition may retail at up to £11,000 (Skingley 2007: 304) so it was certainly worth recording the fact that these coins never reached the Pitt Rivers Museum!

The letter

The rest of the letter, however, went unnoticed until the early 1990s, when I came across it, still in the purse, in a drawer in the Lower Gallery. At that point I removed it, transcribed it and placed it in the Related Documents File for the object. Intrigued, I was tempted to delve deeper, but my life was about to take a different turn. It is only now, with the call for object biographies for the 'Englishness' website, that I have been inspired to return to the endowing purse. I should stress that my research has not been exhaustive; nevertheless it has turned up some information, as well as raising a number of interesting questions.

The letter reads:

'To Sr James How Barontt at Berwick neer. Hindon in Wiltsheir

To be left at ye posthouse in Shaftsbury

London Novembr y 3d 91

'Sr. I should not have troubled you againe but yet my perpetuall sorow & dulnes made me forget to tell you in ye other, yt I had delivered to Mr Chambers as you desired me ye purse, you indowed my Deare Child wth, wherin were sixteen peices of broad & lesser gold, & eight peices of silver, it was sealed up in paper & delivered in ye presence of both my cosin Davenport as I sopose Mr Chambers, has before now lett you understand, & yt you will receive it safe, wn ever you desire it, Sr be pleased to give my humble service to Lady How, Mrs Lee, who I hope is prety well recovered, yr other sisters, & any elce will receive it, from Dearest Sr yr ever faithful but disconsolate friend & very humble servant Eliza Nutte'

On the back of the letter, in a different hand, is written:

'This Letter certifies Mrs Nutt has deliver'd ye Purse of endowing gold (wch [illegible] gave her Daughter) to Mr Chambers.'

A separate undated note reads:

'This purse Sir James Howe called the endowing purse & presented it to his Lady on the day of marriage M.L. Warner';

and another:

'Endowment purse given by Sir James Howe of Cold Berwick - Wilts, to his wife - 1691 - Miss Parry Okeden'.

The bridegroom

Sir James Grubham Howe (or How) was the second Baronet of Cold Barwick (or Berwick) in Wiltshire. Now known as Berwick St Leonard, the present hamlet is located to the south-west of Salisbury Plain between Hindon and Fonthill Bishop. Sir James was born after the Restoration, in about 1669, the only son of Sir George Grubham Howe, the first Baronet, who died in 1676. His mother was Elizabeth Grimston, whose father, Sir Harbottle Grimston, had held the office of Speaker and later Master of the Rolls. Sir James had four sisters: Dorothy, who married Henry Lee of Dungeon; Anne, who married John Lisle of Moyles Court (at Ringwood in Hampshire: now a boarding school); Elizabeth, who married Robert Hovenden of Frisley; and Margaret, who married George Rooke, Vice Admiral of England. His sisters may all have been older than Sir James, their parents having married in 1650. Other children were born to the marriage but did not survive infancy (www.stirnet.com/HTML/genie/british/hh4bz/howe01.htm).

Sir James Howe was married twice: first to Elizabeth Nutt and second to Elizabeth Stratford. According to the donor of the purse the first of these marriages took place in 1691, when he was about 22 years old. Also according to the donor he appears to have held office in the household of Queen Anne, who reigned from 1702-1714. He died without issue in 1735.

The bride

Elizabeth Nutt was the daughter of Edward Nutt of Nackington in Kent. She had a brother, Thomas, who died in 1669 at the age of five ( www.barry-white.members.beeb.net/kent/pk_delbo2.pdf ). Her mother, Elizabeth Nutt senior and the author of the letter quoted above (referred to below as Eliza Nutt, for the sake of clarity), was the daughter of Sir Thomas Willys (or Willis), Sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire and first Baronet of Fen Ditton. Sir Thomas's brother, Sir Richard Willys, Governor of Newark, had a daughter called Anne who married a man named Davenport ( www.stirnet.com/HTML/genie/british/ww/willis01.htm ).

The story

Having sketched in some details of the characters involved, I will return to Eliza Nutt's letter in an attempt to reconstruct the story of the endowing purse.

Nothing is stated in the letter with certainty, apart from the fact that the purse and its contents were returned to Sir James Howe via an intermediary as he had 'desired'. This was clearly a matter of great importance, no doubt due to the sum involved, and the purse, 'sealed up in paper', was handed over to Sir James's representative in the presence of witnesses, 'both my cosin Davenport' quite possibly referring to Eliza's cousin Anne and her husband. The note on the back of the letter 'certifies' the transfer of the packet and may have been written to Sir James by one of these witnesses; alternatively it might have been written by Sir James himself when he received it.

Although it is nowhere specifically stated, the letter certainly seems to suggest that the young Elizabeth Nutt died during the first year of her marriage. Her mother's 'perpetuall sorow & dulnes', coupled with the return of the endowing purse, can scarcely be attributed to anything less. The cause of Elizabeth's death is not hinted at; but she appears to have been staying with her mother when she died, and to have had the endowing purse with her.

If Elizabeth had fallen ill, perhaps from one of the infectious diseases prevalent at the time, and been in need of her mother's care, it seems unlikely that she would have been able to undertake the arduous journey from Wiltshire either to Kent (her father's home) or London (whence Eliza Nutt wrote her letter). Eliza might perhaps have travelled to Cold Berwick to nurse her daughter, but in such a case the endowing purse would probably not have left Sir James's domain. While it is possible, from Eliza's hope that Mrs Lee (Sir James's sister Dorothy) 'is prety well recovered', that other family members had also been ill, it is equally probable that Mrs Lee had recently given birth.

This is most likely also what had happened to Elizabeth. It was not uncommon at the time for a young woman to return to her parents' home for her first confinement. Nor, alas, was it uncommon for women to die in childbirth, nor for children to be stillborn or die in infancy. The male characters in this story - aristocrats, politicians, high-ranking officers and royal servants - were well-to-do and no doubt lived as comfortably as they could; but this did not spare their women and children the risks surrounding birth. Elizabeth's own brother Thomas had died at the age of five. Sir James, in addition to his four sisters, had several other siblings who did not survive. He himself died without issue, implying that Elizabeth's baby, even if born alive, did not live long. Certainly her 'disconsolate' mother's letter does not hint at the survival of a grandchild.

Sir James, born late to his own parents after some nineteen years of marriage, must have been the longed-for son and heir to the seat of Cold Berwick. His father died when he was only about seven years old. Growing up the centre of attention to his elderly mother and four sisters, a great deal must have been invested in his successful marriage and continuance of the line. Such an early failure in this respect would have been a disastrous blow to his family.

Is this why the precious endowing purse was 'desired' to be returned? As she had so signally failed to fulfil her side of the marriage contract, was Elizabeth's family in honour bound to return her bridewealth? Was the purse itself especially precious, having been knitted and embroidered for Sir James by one of his many female relatives? [1] Might it even have been given by his father to his mother, still alive ('my humble service to Lady How') and still intent that her precious only son should continue the line?

For Sir James was married again, at some later date, to Elizabeth Stratford. She also gave him no children; or he gave her none. Is it possible he presented her with the same endowing purse, the same broad and lesser gold, the same eight pieces of silver?

The fact that Eliza Nutt's letter remained for three centuries with the purse suggests to me that it was never given to another bride. The gold and silver yes, perhaps; the womb-like container, no. Perhaps Sir James was wary of inviting further marital misfortune if he used the purse a second time. Or perhaps he kept it for sentimental reasons, to remind him of a young woman he had loved and lost?

And why did she, Elizabeth Nutt, take the purse with her when, so quickly pregnant, she set out, full of hope, for her mother's house? Because it contained her wealth, her right, the seventeenth-century equivalent of a maternity allowance? Because she would need that gold and silver to buy things for her baby? Or as an intimate, symbolic keepsake from the man she loved?

Loose ends

The endowing purse is exquisitely finished, but its story is full of loose ends, some of which might perhaps, one day, be unravelled and followed further. A certain amount of imagination has been caught in those needlewoven spiderwebs.

Yet without Eliza Nutt's letter, the story could not even begin to be told. As a museum object the purse could be measured, photographed, described, catalogued, researched by textile historians, analysed, dated, interpreted and exhibited under low lighting. It could be published in learned texts on English embroidery, or illustrated in fashionable books about handbags. Its image could be put on the Internet for all the world to see, and all the world might agree that it was beautiful.

But without that letter, nothing would really be known about it at all.

Further Reading

Articles and Books

Mackenzie, Maureen A. 1991 . Androgynous Objects: String Bags and Gender in Central New Guinea. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood.

Peers, Laura. 1999. 'Many tender ties': the shifting contexts and meanings of the S. BLACK bag'. World Archaelogy 31(2): 288-302.

Skingley, Philip(ed). 2007. Coins of England and the United Kingdom . London: Spink & Son Ltd.

Tayler, Donald. 1997. The Coming of the Sun: A Prologue to Ika Sacred Narrative . Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, Monograph No. 7.

Wilcox, Claire. 1999. Bags . London: V&A Publications.


www.stirnet.com/HTML/genie/british/hh4bz/howe01.htm (Accessed August 2007)

www.barry-white.members.beeb.net/kent/pk_delbo2.pdf (Accessed December 2007)

www.stirnet.com/HTML/genie/british/ww/willis01.htm (Accessed December 2007)

[1] Another item given to the Museum by Miss Parry Okeden in 1956 is 'The Nun's Book: Directions for Weaving Watch Strings'. This is a handwritten manuscript, thought by the donor to date from the seventeenth century, containing samples of silk braids and detailed instructions for making them. This may be another example of female dexterity from the Howe family.