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Bill-head of William Hinchliff, John Hinchliff, John Pritchard & Joseph Thelwell, Mercers, Henrietta Street, Covent Garden

This is a bill from the successful, long-running firm of mercers Hinchliff & Co., who sold expensive, high-quality silk from their shop on Henrietta Street in Covent Garden. The cost of opening a mercer's shop could run to tens of thousands of pounds, especially for one in a prime location. These were staggeringly high sums for the time, and the reason why merceries often had multiple partners. This particular firm seems to have kept fairly fluid partnerships. Some of their bill heads in the British Museum have a blank space after 'Bo't [Bought] of' where the name has been written by hand each time a sheet was used.

Illustrations on bill heads are generally simpler than those on trade cards, employing a coat of arms (such as on Jonathan Collet's plate), or a trade sign. The signs are particularly interesting as they are likely to reproduce the wood or metal sign that hung from a bracket attached to the shop front. These signs helped customers identify shops from the street but they were often too large and heavy, with proprietors competing for recognition, and became dangerous. In the 1760s street numbering was introduced, along with other laws of urban beautification such as the provision of stone pavements, and shopkeepers were required to remove hanging signs. Not many have survived to the present day.

In 1772 John Hinchliff died and his widow went into business on her own, selling fabrics at discounted prices (her trade card is in the collection at the British Museum). A spate of newspaper adverts make it clear that she felt compelled to do so because of a dispute with her former brother-in-law, William, over the value of her late husband's stock:

...she should not have taken this method to dispose of the goods, if the surviving partner would have purchased them on any terms that might have been thought equitable by two experienced and disinterested persons...
(Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser 11 February 1772)

What followed suggests that Hinchliff could not let this slight to his character go. He placed a rebuff in the same newspaper apologising that while he was 'sensible of the impropriety of troubling the Public with family disputes' he found himself 'constrained, in vindication of his Character, most unjustly and ungratefully attacked...' and urged readers to contact a referee for a statement of his good character (17 April 1772). His defence makes it clear how much reputation mattered for a successful business, especially one so dependent on female custom. However, an objective observer might feel uncomfortable about the quarrel, as the male shopkeepers, including former family members, closed ranks to protect their interests.

Although it was much more common to find men in charge of shops, shopkeeping in the eighteenth century was by no means an exclusively male domain. There were more women running businesses at this time than might be expected, even in surprising avenues of trade. In the Fitzwilliam's relatively small collection of bills there is a female proprietor of a human-waste collecting service, a 'night-soil' carrier. Many women inherited businesses or money to buy businesses from their husbands or fathers, slipping into roles forged by a male and continuing their work (see the case of Philip and Catherine Margas). Widows had a special status as they inherited premises and money in their own right, and were allowed to go about the lives in a way that a single woman who had never married could not. The bills at the Fitzwilliam Museum also show that women were employed as apprentices (see the bill of Andrew Schabner).

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