When Robert Cotgrave paid the insurance premium on his house, household goods, stock and bakery in January 1780, like everyone, he probably grumbled about the costs. But when it must have seemed worth it a few years later when the newspapers reported:
“A fire broke out in the brew house of Robert Cotgrave of Stonnall…which it consumed in the course of one hour with the greatest part of the house, furniture, clothes etc. as also the barn, stable, pig stye, a new wagon loaded with hay and all the gearing”.
It reads like a devastating catastrophe from which is would have been almost impossible to recover. But the detailed accounts produced after Cotgrave’s death a few years later show that the insurance was worth it. He had rebuilt his estate at Upper Stonnall in Staffordshire – four bedrooms, a great parlour, a cellar, brewhouse, little parlour, kitchen, pantry, bakehouse, malthouse, barn and shop. Goods worth £76, 10 shillings and one penny, of which the single most valuable item was in the seventh space on the list (the brewhouse) – a large copper boiler worth in excess of £7.
Born in 1749, Robert was the son of a maltster and blacksmith in Stonnall called William Cotgrave. But his father died when he was two years old, and Robert had then been apprenticed in his mid teens to a Walsall baker called Joseph Spurrier – the premium his mother paid for the privilege was £5. Once he had served his time and qualified, he married the daughter of a local man who, like his own father, was a blacksmith. And then he set himself up in business with a bakery at New Street in Walsall. Their family grew to at least six children and he became a respected member of the local trading community, serving as Overseer of the Poor in Walsall parish in the early 1780s, and witnessing legal documents for his neighbours.
Later in the decade, he moved back to Stonnall, where he appears to have continued to thrive, paying rates both on his own property and on land he rented from the trustees of a local charity set up to help the poor.
Apart from the newspaper reports of the disastrous fire in 1788, there is nothing in the records to even hint at difficulties – he carried on paying his dues, carried on trading and seems to have just carried on with his life. Much of his time must have been spent on rebuilding.
In November 1794, when he was 45, Robert Cotgrave felt “at this time Weak of Body” and made his will, leaving everything to his wife Elizabeth. His signature was shaky, like that of an old man. It is not clear when he actually died (his burial is missing from the church register), but it cannot have been too long afterwards, because the following year’s parish records show that Widow Cotgrave was now responsible for the rates that Robert had dutifully paid for the previous decades.
The final accounts of Robert Cotgrave’s estate were not drawn up for another nine years, after Elizabeth had died, having remarried in the intervening years. They show a series of payments out of the estate – for malt, for groceries, for “liquor,” for butcher’s meat and grain. They also show family business – £39 paid to Robert’s brother William as the outstanding part of a legacy in their father’s will almost 50 years earlier; and £5/10/0 premium for the apprenticeship fees of Robert’s son John, who went on to become a shoemaker nine miles away in Armitage.
Ominously, the accounts do not show any further insurance premiums.
Staffordshire Record Office: D34/A/PS/1; D34/A/P0/16; F1016/1/2
Lichfield Record Office: B/C/5/1803/19; Will of William Cotgrave 1751; Will of Robert Cotgrave 1803; Will of John Bursst 1783
The World, 16 July 1788
Pearce, Thomas (1813) The history and directory of Walsall, containing its antiquities and a modern survey of its improvements, p.100
London Metropolitan Archives: CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11,936/280 #424135
The National Archives: IR1/55/197