Help for all: alms-giving in 17th century Ely

A family history enquiry recently led me to a fascinating document in the Ely Dean and Chapter (EDC) collection in the Department of Archives and Modern Manuscripts at the UL.  I was checking lists of payments to 19th century Cathedral personnel in a volume of ‘Quarterage Accounts’ when I noticed that there was one volume for the years 1683 to 1684 (EDC 3/8/1).  Being incorrigibly nosy, I had a quick look at it and realised it was a gem.  Within the small volume there are 6 narrow pages of alms accounts.  The entries list charitable gifts of money distributed by the Cathedral between December 1683 and November 1684.  Many of the gifts appear to be small amounts to people in need who were travelling through Ely, perhaps to pay for the next stage of their journey.  What caught my attention was the variety of people being helped and the snapshot the accounts provide of the mix of nationalities that could be found in Ely at this time.

As well as a sprinkling of destitute gentlewomen, local tradesmen and poor travellers, there is a ‘High German merchant shipwrac’t on the coast of Norfolke’, ‘certaine Russes rescued from slavery, travailing to their owne country’, ‘2 Spaniards redeemed from Turkish slavery’, & ‘a Polish gentleman’.  There’s also one payment to an unspecified ‘foreiner’.

Financial help was given for a number of reasons.  There are seventeen payments recorded to shipwrecked people, five payments to soldiers (including four payments to maimed soldiers), three payments to people redeemed from slavery (two that specify Turkish slavery), and four payments to tradesmen ruined by fire.

Our guess is that perhaps some of these travellers were making their way between London and the port of King’s Lynn (or vice versa) but we don’t know for certain.  We’d love to hear from anyone who can shed further light on the possible routes being taken, or whether Ely Cathedral would have been regarded as a staging post and a source of help for travellers without resources.

These few pages, for me, paint an evocative picture of 1680s Ely.  It is heartening to know that the Cathedral helped all those suffering hardship, no matter where they were from, or what their reasons were for needing help.

Transcript of selected entries:

3 January             2 maimed souldiers

6 February           certaine maimed souldiers

12 April                3 poor souldiers

16 April                High German merchant shipwrac’t on the coast of Norfolke

9 June                  certaine maimed souldiers lately come from Tangiers

14 June                2 Jamaica planters shipwrac’t as they were returning to England

18 June                Jamaica planter who was shipwract coming for England

24 June                2 Spaniards redeemed from Turkish slavery

5 July                    2 poor men lately delivered out of Turkish slavery

8 July                    a poor foreiner

31 July                  Given toward [th]e redemption of a Minister in captivity in Sally(??)

12 August            a Planter in Jamaica who was shipwract coming for England

15 August            a Polish gentleman

5 September       2 maimed souldiers newly come out of Flanders

22 September     English officer lately come out of France

28 October         certaine Russes rescued from slavery, travailing to their owne country

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.