What was the occupational structure of the Strand? How many businesses were run by women and what was the nature of their trade? Having studied women in business in seventeenth and eighteenth-century London before, my new project focuses on the Strand and the surrounding area in order to uncover more about the history of women’s work in Westminster.
Whilst the last twelve months have brought significant challenges to undertaking original research in the archives, this blog post illuminates new details about the life and work of Ann Renney, a ‘Lace Woman’ on the Strand. My project uses the records of the Sun Fire Office insurance company to reveal the occupational identities of numerous early eighteenth-century women, including Ann Renney who took out an insurance policy on 28 January 1716 for her goods and merchandize.[i]
But what was a ‘Lace Woman’? An eighteenth century trade guide described ‘Lace-Men’ as ‘in the first class of tradesmen’. They kept ‘handsome shops’ and sold an endless array of laces including those made from gold and silver, as well as buttons, fringes, threads and spangles. Lace made from precious metals adorned the most expensive garments worn by fashionable society such as the elaborate robe à la française pictured above. The valuable nature of these embellishments ensured that those hoping to engage in this trade faced prohibitive costs of between £1,000 and £10,000 to set up in business.[i] R. Campbell noted that their ‘chief Talent ought to lie in a nice Taste in Patterns of Lace’, and emphasized the prohibitive costs of acquiring stock, confirming that this was a trade that relied on elite customers.[ii] These descriptions establish the nature of Ann Renney’s working life, the necessity of her prosperous financial status and of her keen eye for exquisite and ingenious design.
Ann Renney’s insurance policy also noted the location of her business, at a shop called the Golden Key in Old Round Court in the Strand, highlighted in the map above. Old Round Court was situated at an equidistant point between Chandos Street and the Strand. In 1720, John Strype noted:
Round Court, after a narrow Passage through an Entry out of the Strand, openeth into a pretty square Court; and from that into another Place, which leadeth into another Entry, and so into Shandois-street. This Place is of considerable Note, and much resorted unto, as being inhabited by Silk-men, Mercers, and Lace-men, who drive a considerable Trade, occasioned from the Opinion that the Females have, that they there buy better Pennyworths than elsewhere.
So, Ann Renney’s shop was in a prime location, well-known for quality silks and haberdashery wares, and was surrounded by businesses of a similar ilk, all specialising in providing clothing for affluent customers.
But how much information has survived about Ann Renney herself? A search for marriage records reveals that her maiden name was Warner and that she was married to James Renney on 28 April 1696 at the Church of St Mary le Strand. Her husband’s will shows that he was a Lace Man from the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields and that he died in 1712, bequeathing much of his estate to his wife, barring some small sums allocated to family, friends and their household maidservant Hannah, for mourning. The couple do not appear to have had any children and Ann continued to manage the business as a widow and Lace Woman in her own right. Her own will dated 1741 confirms that she was still living in Round Court, twenty-five years after she took out an insurance policy in her own name. Ann Renney appointed Mary Tweedall (a tailor’s widow) and Elizabeth Phillips (Tweedall’s sister) as her executors, leaving them the greater part of her estate, suggesting that they may have been her business partners.
Ann Renney’s will was contested by her nephew, forcing Mary Tweedall and Elizabeth Phillips to defend their claims on her estate. An inventory of Renney’s goods listed ‘a parcell of Old and New Silver and Gold Lace, chain and thread’ valued at £5 10 shillings, indicating that she was still trading in lace and other such wares, at least on a small scale. Ann Renney’s wearing apparel included ‘a Yellow Quilted Silk Petycoat with Silver lace at the bottom’ suggesting that she made use of her stock for her own attire. Tweedall noted that according to Ann Renney’s ‘Books of Accompts’, a Mr Sturrock owed her just over £211 at the time of his death. John Sturrock was a tailor from the same parish, and it is possible that this debt was incurred for a large quantity of lace and trimmings purchased from Ann Renney in order to embellish clothing from his workshop.
By bringing together sources relating to Ann Renney, we can infer much about her wider socio-economic network on the Strand. When the archives reopen, I hope to uncover even more about the lives and work of seventeenth and eighteenth-century women in Westminster.
Sarah Birt is a Women’s History Network ECR Fellow (2020-2021) currently working on a project entitled ‘Shops on the Strand: women in business in early modern Westminster, 1600-1740’. She completed her doctoral thesis on seventeenth and eighteenth-century seamstresses, mantua-makers and milliners at Birkbeck, University of London in 2020.
 J. Strype, A Survey of the cities of London and Westminster, Vol. II, Book VI (London, 1720), p. 75.
 City of Westminster Archives Centre, STM/PR/6/15 Westminster Church of England Parish Registers.
 The National Archives (TNA) PROB 11/528/412 Will of James Renny, Laceman of Saint Martin in the Fields, 22 September 1712.
 TNA PROB 11/708/151 Will of Ann Renny or Renney, Widow of Saint Martin in the Fields, 2 March 1741.
 TNA PROB 31/214/492 July 1741 Exhibit: 1741/492. Ann Renney, widow of St Martin in the Fields.
 TNA PROB 11/681/53 Will of John Sturrock, Taylor of Saint Martin in the Fields, 8 January 1737.
[i] J. Collyer, The Parent’s and Guardian’s Directory (London, 1761), p. 180.
[ii] R. Campbell, The London Tradesman (London, 1747), p. 147.
[i] London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/006, 28 January 1716.
Featured image credit: Strip of green silk with large flowers and leaves of silver lace and gold lace, c. 1680-1720, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam