She was ‘a natural, a poor fool and ideot …void of reason or sense’: A harsh judgement on Margaret Cooper of Snetterton

Recent indexing work at the NRO on witness depositions from the bishop of Norwich’s consistory court has uncovered many stories relating to everyday life from the 16th to 18th centuries in both Norfolk and Suffolk (for the ancient Diocese of Norwich covered both counties). Moreover, these narratives often concern and record individuals whose poverty or transience usually preclude them from mention in other surviving records of those times.

The woman in question, Margaret Cooper, ‘alias Buck’, had been persuaded by her parish officials to marry Edward Buck of Hingham. He, unluckily for her, was already known to be, ‘a very idle, loose fellow’, who had not only run away from his master’s service, but had sexually abused Margaret before being bribed to marry her, but in the same month, July 1713, had had to be pulled off Mary Lacey, another ‘poor foolish (and drunken) wench’ lying under a hedge in Larling. Both Buck and Cooper had regularly been, ‘on collection’ (that is, among the poor of their respective parishes who were supported by parish poor rates), though by all accounts, Cooper had been employed as maid servant to several successive households in Snetterton.

This cause, illuminated by several witnesses’ statements, pivoted around whether or not Margaret Cooper was or could legally be married to Buck, and therefore, have a claim after her wedding for support from the ratepayers of Hingham, rather than from those of her own parish of Snetterton. The fact of the ceremony having taken place could not be in dispute, but was she, as the churchwardens and overseers of Hingham claimed, incapable of giving her consent at the time?

One witness, Robert Buck, a shoemaker of New Buckenham, claimed to have overheard Augustine Smith of Snetterton boast that Cooper was a poor fool and that they married her off to Buck in order to, ‘throw her upon the parish of Hingham’. Someone must have been embroidering the truth here, for Augustine’s own testimony in the matter was at stark variance with this assessment of Margaret, or ‘Peg’, as he called her. She was, according to him, no fool or idiot. He deposed that she had over two years of service in his household, had looked after and nursed two young children, faithfully undertook errands, delivered messages and brought back proper answers.  Moreover, he had found that she had a great deal of native cunning, hiding her tobacco and pipe, supplied by her master, from the notice of her ‘Dame’ (mistress) and only smoking when the latter, who had a distaste for the habit, was well out of the way. In a nod to the normal pieties of the age, he assured the court that she was also sensible enough to be properly grateful for victuals, for after meals, she would lift up her hands in prayer saying, ‘Thank God, I’ve got a good Dinner or Supper. Thank you Dame.’

In addition, other Snetterton ratepayers lined up to bear witness to Cooper’s utility in their own households, though, perhaps tellingly, she rarely seemed to work in the same household for more than a year or two.

William Robinson, Snetterton overseer of the poor, testified that he had paid her collection money of 18d per week for the past four years, and that she could always tell if she had received her full due or not. When upbraided for not wearing ‘the Badge’ (as stipulated by the Settlement Act of 1697 and marking her out as a recipient of the parish’s charity), she would triumphantly produce it worn under her gown or mantle. The Snetterton witnesses all confirmed that not only was Margaret fully compos mentis, but that her marriage by licence had been properly conducted, in New Buckenham parish church (why there, we do not know, though Buck had been brought before the magistrates in that parish) without prompting or ’dictation’, and had been witnessed by a number of Snetterton inhabitants.

However, Richard Knight of New Buckenham had also been present at the ceremony, and he deposed that Margaret was such a fool that she could not even tell the presiding minister her Christian name, it having to be supplied by one of her sponsors, the Revd [Anthony] Neech, the parish priest of Snetterton..

The churchwardens of Hingham, obviously concerned that an almost certain liability to their poor rates was hoving into view, resolutely sent various men on separate occasions to interview Margaret, and speaking to her and testing her ability to tell one coin from another, they unanimously concluded that she was a ‘natural ideot’, having no more sense than a child of seven or eight years, not being able to number her fingers nor tell them the day of the week. In their opinion, she was manifestly incapable of contracting matrimony, and was, therefore in their opinion, yet single, and crucially, still at the charge of the Snetterton parish authorities.

We do not know what the eventual outcome of this cause was, but it seems all too likely that her chances in life continued to be poor, whatever her mental faculties may have been. A dispute about which parish should pick up the tab for her support from the rates was unlikely to provide fair and unbiased evidence of her abilities one way or the other. Margaret, by all accounts, appears to have been a vulnerable woman, easily led, who had been abused by a serial sex-pest and ne’er-do-well. She had been pushed into marriage with the very man who had abused her, and who, by the way, and perhaps luckily for her, had promptly abandoned her after their wedding ceremony.

Marriage entry for Edward Buck and Margaret Cooper (bottom entry). New Buckenham, 30 December 1713 (NRO, PD 540/4)

Although we do not have the court’s verdict in this matter, interested users of Norfolk’s archives may find reference to her in perhaps the baptism register from Snetterton, or the New Buckenham register of marriages, 1694-1752, both of which are held by the NRO. Unfortunately, no Snetterton churchwardens’ or overseers’ accounts appear to have survived from that time, but the evidence from these depositions is enough to see that this poor woman had been merely a pawn in an unseemly struggle between two parishes unwilling to shoulder their statutory poor-law responsibilities.

The information in this post is from a deposition file held by the Norfolk Record Office, Ref, DN/DEP 56/60, 1709-1715.

Researched and compiled by Tom Townsend, archivist at the Norfolk Record Office

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2 Responses to She was ‘a natural, a poor fool and ideot …void of reason or sense’: A harsh judgement on Margaret Cooper of Snetterton

  1. Michael Begley says:

    Thank you for unlocking these documents to reveal early 18c. parish life in such vivid colours.

    Dare we ask for more, please?

    Liked by 1 person

    • victoriadraper24 says:

      Hi Michael,

      Tom and a number of other archivists have been working on these documents during some of lockdown and I know there are a number of other interesting stories which have come to light. I will let Tom know that his article was apricated and see if he is able to write any others in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

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