Smells like 1666!

Amongst the millions of documents held at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO), those connected with probate provide an insight into the homes and workplaces of the county’s citizens.

The inventory of the ‘Goods and Chattles of Robt Wales late Grocer of Norwich’, (NRO, DN/INV 53b/120), is dated 18th April 1666. This was just five months before London goes up in flames and Norwich is experiencing the last recorded visit of the Plague. The parish registers for the city demonstrate the deaths of those unfortunates who succumb.

Image 1 PD 484-2

Parish register for St Stephen’s, Norwich, 1666 showing burials of those with the plague, NRO, PD 484/2.

The image shows the parish register for St Stephen’s Norwich for April 1666 where we can see the burials April-June 1666 of those who have died of the plague.

The inventory itself is in a rough alphabetical order.  Frustratingly while it lists the value of each item it does not list the weights or amounts found in the shop.

The total worth of Robert shown in the inventory is £2600:05:07½. Using the currency converter on the National Archives website ( it is equivalent to  £295,856.34 today

Image 2 DN_Inv 53_120

Inventory for Robert Wales Grocer of Norwich, 1666, NRO, DN/INV 53b/120

The inventory allows us to see into this Grocers Shop of 1666.  The most expensive items in the inventory are tobacco, £365:07:02 and sugar £257:03:011/2½. The equivalent to £41,569.92 and £29,259.09 respectively which make 24% of Robert’s total worth. Both products were imported from the Americas and were products of the slave trade.

Spices were used for flavouring food particularly game, also medicine and perfume. These spices came from distant lands and were expensive. Think of flavours and smells of Christmas and you will have a good idea of what this grocer’s shop would have smelled like.

Interestingly in Stuart times salt, sugar, and dried fruits were all classed as spices.  The relative values were, currants £4:0:0, figs £10:18:03 and raisins worth a massive £48:13:10.

Spices such as aniseed £01:15:00, coriander £00:01:00 and cumin £00:07:06 originated in the eastern Mediterranean at the time so were less expensive than those from further afield such as turmeric £02:06:08 from India.  Or those that travelled from the more exotic Spice Islands in Indonesia, Cloves £02:00:06, Nutmeg £06:06:08, mace £01:12:06 and pepper £14:14:00, therefore the most expensive of the spices in stock.

It is noted that the worth of Ginger (from India) is £22:07:09 which seems anomalous however we do not know the relative weights of each spice.

Bad air was believed to be the reason for the plague, amongst the inventory we find items that could be used to counteract the plague. Cloves, mace, nutmeg and barberries (berberis) perhaps because of their aroma, could be taken as a curative. It was also recommended to burn Brimstone=Sulphur and we can see Bremstone worth £00:05:00 in the grocer’s shop.

Smoking tobacco was widely believed to provide protection against the plague, and the shop contained a good supply. Money was seen as contaminated and dropping it in vinegar was a way of purifying coins. Luckily Robert’s shop had vinegar listed in the inventory £00:04:00

Frustratingly the inventory does not tell us whereabouts in Norwich Robert’s shop was.  Further investigation was needed. Searching the online catalogues of the NRO enabled us to discover Robert’s will which survived in the Norwich Consistory Court.

Image 3 NCC will

Will of Robert Wales, Grocer of Norwich, 1666, NRO, NCC will register, Stockdell 201.

In it the we discover that Robert had a wife named Jane, whom he leaves £500 (£52,600 today).  He leaves money towards the education of his children, Isaack, William, Mary and Jane until they are 21 years old.

He leaves his children £200 each, to be paid when they reach 21 years old. He makes William Mason, his father in law, and Jane, his wife, his executors. The will was witnessed on the 7th April 1666.

Again, the will gives no clues to where the shop was located in Norwich, but we now know that his wife was Jane and her maiden name was Mason, her father was William, and Robert and Jane had 4 children, Isaak, William, Mary and Jane.

Using Find My Past to search the Norwich parishes for clues, there is a Robert Wale who is buried in St Andrew’s, Norwich on 15 April 1666.

Image 4

This is confirmed in the parish registers held at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO, PD 165/2). Unfortunately St Andrew’s parish doesn’t indicate the cause of death, so we do know if Robert died from the plague or something else.

Image 5 PD 165_2 Bur

Parish register for St Andrew’s, Norwich 1666, showing the burial of Robert Wale. NRO, PD 165/2 

Image 6 Top Tip 2

With this top tip in mind the marriage of Robert to Jane was found dated 25 June 1656 also in the parish of St Andrews, Norwich.

Image 7 PD 165_2 Mar

Parish register of St Andrew’s, Norwich 1656 showing the marriage of Robert Weale and Jane Mason. NRO, PD 165/2 

The entry reads as follows-

Robert Weale of Saint Peters of Mancroft, singleman, and Jane Mason of Saint Andrews parish in Norwich Singlewoman were married the 25 day of June by the right worshipful William Barman Esquire one of the Justices of the peace for the City of Norwich.

Interestingly this entry highlights the larger historical events, the marriage took place during the Commonwealth period, with the marriage being conducted by a Justice of the peace.

It seems likely from this evidence that the shop was located in the parish of St Andrew’s Norwich.

Image 8 St Andrew's Parish

Location of parish of St Andrew’s in Norwich.

It sold many of the ingredients that can be found on our spice rack today, and would have smelled very much like Christmas in 1966, (spices with tobacco) but with a hint of sulphur.

Image 9 spice shelf

Authors lockdown spice shelf

Take a peek into history and find out about the probate records of your ancestors, by searching our catalogue.

Researched and compiled by Kären Gaffney, Education and Outreach Assistant, Norfolk Record Office.



Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician. Mancheser, 1826

Gerard, John, The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, 1597

Meeres, Frank, A History of Norwich, Phillimore, 1998

Sandred, Karl Inge, Lindström, Bengt. The Place Names of Norfolk. Part One -The Place Names of the City of Norwich. Nottingham, English Place Name Society, 1989.


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2 Responses to Smells like 1666!

  1. ntpmod says:

    Interesting posts although the monetary conversions are well out. The currency converter website you use gives £1 in 1660 as being worth £105 today. Given that £1 in 1660 could pay the wages of a skilled craftsman for 2 weeks (their figure but about right) we can see that the numbers don’t add up. £105 to pay a craftsmen for 14 days! £1,000 is nearer the mark – and fits much better when one considers the prices of food and everything else. Comparing prices and what X was worth then and today is never, ever easy. But the comparisons given on the converter you use are out by a factor of at least ten.


    • victoriadraper24 says:

      Hi, thanks for giving us an update on that figure. As you say it isn’t easy to compare prices between now and the past- we tried two different currency converters on this which gave us two different figures, so in the end had to go for the one which is quoted more often.


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