Developing a Living History Character

Author: Eric Dorrington - Fellmonger, Lord Saye and Sele’s Blew Regt. of Foote

Orders of the day, Volume 32, Issue 1, Jan/Feb 2000

Various Knotters visiting the Living History camp have asked how the members of the site acquired their characters and expertise; the purpose of this article is to describe how I arrived at my character, which may be of help to others who wish to join the campsite.

My first experience of living history was at Groombridge as cook’s helper, carrying pots and keeping the fire alight. The company and friendly atmosphere led to my goodwife and I visiting and helping at other Living History camps. At one of these the cook’s tent had rabbits as ‘props’. Thanks to RAF survival training, I was able to make the offer to skin them - and the rabbits went into the stew. Whilst skinning the rabbits I attracted an audience asking various questions, including several about the processing of the skins. I had started to acquire a character.

I decided to build on this, and after a visit to the local library I was able to talk about the history of the rabbit and its importance to the villagers of the period, and also how to cure and tan the skins. A tent and an assortment of skins - sheep, goat and of course rabbit, were acquired. Because the display of these skins raised questions from the public I decided a character more interesting than a skinner was necessary. Back to the library! Whilst reading about the county of Kent in the 17th century, a reference was found to four people with the title ‘fellmonger’ who were listed as tradesmen dealing in the region. The O.E.D. defines a fellmonger as ‘a dealer in skins’ (‘fell’ - Old English for skin, ‘monger’ - a dealer). I became a dealer who buys and prepares skins for sale to a tannery.

Having found a profession it was necessary to carry out more research. The resources of the local library being exhausted, the search expanded to national sources of information. Contact was made with the Honourable Company of Fellmongers, a charitable guild with records dating back to 1625. The information they provided enabled me to verify my research and to expand my character.

The fellmonger was an itinerant trader who at regular intervals would leave his town house and take his pack horses on a round trip of the county, calling at farms, villages and country houses buying the skins of the slaughtered animals accumulated since his last visit. Although he was of middle-class standing and a guild member, entry to the big houses would be through the ‘tradesmen’s entrance’. He would be welcomed as a source of news, visiting as he did many places in the county. As can be imagined, he was an aromatic person, who dressed for protection against the elements and also against the muck of the skins.

Incidentally, in 1634 during a meeting of the guild one of their members was fined five shillings for getting drunk and then taking his clothes off and singing in the town square - it would appear that nothing has changed!

I can be found on the living history camp dressed in the rough approximation of a fellmonger (following a talk with the above company I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had got it more or less right): a coat of fur cut-offs acquired from the tannery as protection against the weather and a leather work-apron. I should be wearing sheepskins wrapped around my legs, but as I still occasionally help as a cook’s assistant this could be a bit dodgy. Given a week of non-stop Living History I might even be able to create the smells! I have managed to acquire a wide collection of skins and I talk to the public, explaining which animals the skins are from and why I as a fellmonger would have them.

Why would a fellmonger be following an army? Logically, money. There were thousands of men rambling through the country living from what they could legally acquire or steal. Naturally this would include animals, which when skinned represented not only food, but also a source of income from the fellmonger who would be prepared to pay for the skins.

The research to date has only been through the resources of libraries and other local sources. In the future I hope to expand onto the Net. The development of a character is such that the more you learn the more you need to know.

If you would like to join the Living History camp you do not have to arrive with a ready-made character. Come and have a look round and talk to us - we will be happy to give you any advice you want. However should you decide to join the camp, be warned that this not an easy option: the camp is normally open to the public by 10.00am, (they may well be wandering around before then) until the start of the battle; after the battle it is opened again until around 5.00pm. During the open time be prepared to answer questions both intelligent and downright stupid, to be photographed from all angles and to talk with some authority about your character.

A final word on behalf of all of those on the Living History site. We have all spent a lot of time developing our characters and acquiring the equipment needed to represent a camp of the 17th century. If you visit the camp wearing 17th century kit, please leave behind those accoutrements of the 20th century which would destroy the scenario created.

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