Robert Manfield at the Sign of The Death’s Head in Distaff Lane

A mid-17th century token issued by a tradesman operating from the sign of the Death's Head in Distaff Lane, London.

A mid-17th century token issued by a tradesman operating from the sign of the Death’s Head in Distaff Lane, London.

The above copper farthing token measures 16.2 mm and weighs 1.02 grams. It was issued by a tradesman from the Bread Street Ward of London in the mid-17th century. Its design may be formally described as follows;

Obverse: (mullet) AT . THE . DEATHES . HEAD , around the depiction of a human skull.

Reverse: (mullet) IN . DISTAF . LANE . 1652 , around a twisted wire inner circle. A triad of initials within reads, R|.M.|(rosette)D .

The token’s issue date of 1652 is clearly stated in its reverse along with a triad of initials which belong to its issuer and his wife. In this case a Mr. R.M. and a Mrs. D.M.  What is also clear is that the token issuer’s business premises were located in Distaff Lane (Note 1) in the Bread Street Ward of London. This street crossed the parishes of St. Mildred’s, Bread Street and St. Margaret Moses, Friday Street and was home, on its north side, to the hall of the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers.

A map of part of part of the Bread Street Ward of London (c.1720) showing the location of the Cordwainer's Hall (indicated in yellow) on Distaff Lane.

A map of part of part of the Bread Street Ward of London (c.1720) showing the location of the Cordwainer’s Hall (indicated in yellow) on Distaff Lane.

The design on the token’s obverse is almost certainly a depiction of the trade sign which hung over its issuer’s (or a neighbour’s) business premises. If it was his personal trade sign, and not just one which had long been associated with the building he operated from, its design may well offer clues as to his trade/profession.

In the late 16th and 17th centuries the image of a skull, or death’s head, has various potential interpretations when used as a trade sign or a decorative device on jewellery. In the case of the latter use, other than being a typical design element incorporated into mourning jewellery, the image of a skull often formed the central design of rings worn by Elizabethan bawds and procuresses (1). Additionally, it has been suggested that when used as a mid-17th century trade sign the image is potentially indicative of the apothecary trade(2). It was probably the latter suggested association which lead at least one previous researcher to suggest the issue of the above token was either Richard Meynell or Robert Moore, both of whom were known apothecaries operating in London during the mid-17th century(3).

A Re-appraisal of the Potential Identity of the Token Issuer

The current author has endeavoured to confirm the historic attribution of the above token’s issue to either of the mid-17th London century apothecaries Richard Meynell or Robert Moore. Attempts have been made to link either of these men with an abode or business premises in or near Distaff Lane in the Bread Street Ward of the city. A review of tithe and property rental values for inhabitants of London in 1638(4) together with hearth tax records for 1662 and 1666(5) has failed to identify either of these two men as having associations with this area of the city. However, further similar searches for individuals who lived in this same area, and who had the same initials as the token issuer (i.e. R.M.), have proven positive.

In both 1638 and 1662 a Robert Manfield is recorded as living in the parish of St. Margaret Moses, the parish church for which was located on the south-east corner of the cross-roads of Friday Street where it intersected with Distaff Lane and Pissing Lane. Additional searches of both local parish registers and contemporary Livery Company apprenticeship records have further identified the name of Robert Manfield’s wife and the Manfield family’s place of residence. All of these additional details match the issuer’s information as presented on the above token. As such it is now possible to confidently re-attribute the issue of this token to the above named individual. A summary of related information discovered relating to this token issuer, and his family, is given below.

It is unclear to whom and where Robert Manfield (alternatively spelt Maunsfield, Manfeild, Manfild, Mansfild and Mansfilld) was born but on the basis that he became a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Girdler’s in 1622(6) it is reasonable to assume, by back calculation (Note 2), that he was born in 1598 (± 2 years).

Although having been apprenticed to a master craftsman of the Girdler’s Company, on receiving his freedom John Manfield set-up business as an ironmonger(7) . This was not unusual as by the end of the 16th century a lot of the traditional product markets for girdlers began to dwindle as dress fashions began to change. After this time the trades practiced by the members of the Company of Girdler’s increasingly began to overlap with the traditional skills of other craftsmen associated with metal or leather working (i.e. pinners, cordwainers plus gold and silver wire drawers and ironmongers).

Within five years of completing his apprenticeship John Manfield was married and he and his wife, Dorothy, were living in the parish of St. Margaret Moses in the Bread Street Ward of London(8). It is noted that the initial of his wife’s Christian name fits with the appropriate initial in the triad of previously discussed on the above token(9). It is possible that the couple’s first home in the parish was that at which Robert was recorded at in a London tithe and rental listing document of 1638 (10). According to the order of listings in this document it is likely that John’s premises were located close to the Cordwainers Hall, which could locate him in the same property in Distaff Lane from where he later issued his trade token in 1652.

In 1627 Robert and Dorothy Manfield baptised their first recorded child, whom they named John(11). Between this date and 1650 they went on to have a total of thirteen children all of whom were baptised, and some buried, in the parish church of St. Margaret Moses on Friday Street. A total of seven of the couple’s children died during infancy and of these three died within a week of their baptisms (Note 3).

It would appear that John’s business was successful and by 1631 he was obviously earning sufficient to employ at least one household servant(12) and possibly one or more apprentices of his own.  Over the course of his career Robert took on at least four separate apprentices (Note 4). It is also possible his first son (i.e. John Manfield), also took an active role in the family business (Note 5) as by 1659 he is also recorded in the parish records of St. Margaret Moses as being an ironmonger in his own right (13) .

Robert Manfield appears to have taken an active role in his local community. He is known to have been a parish constable and also to have been politically opinionated and active (14). He is recorded as being a financial contributor to both the Relief of Ireland (i.e. post the 1641 Irish Rebellion) and later the parliamentary war effort during the English Civil War(15). His parliamentary sympathies in the run-up to the Civil War are further noted in an account quoted by Sir John Strangeways relating to a demonstration of London apprentices in Westminster on 24th November 1641. According to this report one of the apprentice demonstrators, a Master Cole, claimed that his and other masters had armed their apprentices and dispatched them to Westminster in response to calls from some members of parliament for assistance in helping change the outcome of a Common’s vote in which the “best affected party” faced defeat. Cole’s master was none other than Robert Manfield of Distaff Lane(16).

Robert Manfield continued to operate as an ironmonger in Distaff Lane after the English Civil War. His last recorded presence in the street is in 1663 when the hearth tax returns for the Upper Precinct of the parish of St. Margaret Moses note him as occupying a property containing four hearths. The position of his listing in this document, as being just prior to that for the Cordwainer’s Hall, suggests that his property may have been one of the private residences located alongside this landmark building in Distaff Lane(17).

A section of the Agas Map of central London (c.1561) showing the relative positions of the Cordwainer's Hall (indicated in yellow) on Distaff Lane and the parish church of St. Margaret Moses (indicated in green).

A section of the Agas Map of central London (c.1561) showing the relative positions of the Cordwainer’s Hall (indicated in yellow) on Distaff Lane and the parish church of St. Margaret Moses (indicated in green).

Unfortunately, the hearth tax returns compiled for March 1666 for the parish of St. Margaret Moses have not survived. As such it is not possible to confirm if Robert Mansfield or his family were still present in Distaff Lane after the tumultuous year of 1665 in which so many of London’s population either perished from the Great Plague or fled the city never to return.

Despite extensive searches by the present author and at least one earlier researcher(18), the last record of Robert or Dorothy Manfield that can be traced in London is one dated 2nd August 1665.  Again this is found in the parish registers of St. Margaret Moses and takes the form of a mention to Robert in a family members burial record(19) ;

“John Manfield the grandson of Robert Manfield, (buried) in the new church-yard.”

The John Manfield mentioned above was the son of Robert’s first son, also named John Manfield, and his wife Jane who he married in the early 1650s. At his death John Manfield junior was nearly twelve years of age. The fact that he died in mid-Summer of 1665 may be indicative as to the cause of his death as this was the period during which the Great Plague was at its peak within the city. The mention of Robert Manfield, as opposed to the deceased boy’s father John, in the above burial register entry likely implies that Robert was acting as guardian to his grandson at the time of the latter’s death and as such is suggestive of Robert still residing in the parish of St. Margaret Moses at that time.

Interestingly a review of Mills and Oliver’s Survey of building sites after the Great Fire of 1666 makes no mention of Robert Manfield as either a new or previous plot owner in Distaff Lane or in any other part of the city(20). This could be evidence that he either died during the later phase of the Great Plague or he and his remaining family left the city during that period never to return again.


  1. In the Agas map of c.1561 gives the name of what was later to become Distaff Lane as Maidenhead Lane. The Hearth Tax Survey of 1663 clearly refers to this road as Distaff Lane as does Mills and Oliver’s survey of London after the Great Fire. The latter also refers to those sections either side of the Cordwainer’s Hall as East and West Maiden Lane.
  2. In the first quarter of the 17th century the typical length of a trade apprenticeship in London was seven years and the average age of those boys entering into them was seventeen. This age dropped over the following century.
  3. The following table chronologically lists the entries for the children (and house hold servants) of Robert and Dorothy Manfield as presented in the parish records of St. Margaret Moses(21).RMT1
  4. The following is a list of known apprentices who were bound to Robert Manfield. It is almost certainly not a complete list.
    1. Master Cole – Actively serving his apprenticeship in late 1641(22).
    2. Daniell Partridge – Bound as a new apprentice in 1656(23).
    3. James Chapman – Received his freedom in 1657(24).
    4. Robert Drinkwater – Bound as a new apprentice in 1658(25).
  5. The following table chronologically lists the entries for John Manfield and his family in the parish records of St. Margaret Moses(26).JMT1


  1. Lillywhite, B. – London Signs: A Reference Book of London Signs from Earliest Times to about the Mid Nineteenth Century. (London, 1972).
  2. G.C. – Trade Tokens Issued in the Seventeenth Century in England, Wales and Ireland by Corporations, Merchants, Tradesmen, Etc. – A New and Revised Edition of William Boyne’s Work. Volume 2. (London, 1967).
  3. Whittet, T.D. – A Survey of Apothecaries’ Tokens, Including Some Previously Unrecognised Specimens. Journal of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. Issue 230. (London, 1983).
  4. Dale, T.C – The Inhabitants of London in 1638. Edited from Ms.272 in Lambeth Palace Library. Society of Genealogists. (London, 1931).
  5. Davies, M.; Ferguson, C.; Harding, V.; Parkinson, E. & Wareham, A. – London and Middlesex Hearth Tax. The British Record Society. Hearth Tax Series Volume IX, Part II. (London, 2014).
  6. Ibid 5.
  7. Lindley, K. – Popular Politics and Religion in Civil War London. (Aldershot, 1997).
  8. Bannerman, W. B. – The registers of St. Mildred, Bread Street, and of St. Margaret Moses, Friday Street, London. Harleian Society. Vol. 92. (London, 1912).
  9. Ibid 8.
  10. Ibid 4.
  11. Ibid 8.
  12. Ibid 8.
  13. Ibid 8.
  14. Coates, W.H. – The journal of Sir Simonds D’Ewes, from the first recess of the Long Parliament to the withdrawal of King Charles from London. (Yale, 1942).
  15. Ibid 7.
  16. Ibid 7.
  17. Ibid 5.
  18. Boyd, P. – Inhabitants of London. A genealogical Index held by the Society of Genealogists, London.
  19. Ibid 8.
  20. Mills, P. & Oliver, J. – The Survey of Building Sites in the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666. (London Topographical Society Publication. No.103. 1967).
  21. Ibid 8.
  22. Ibid 14.
  23. The Records of London’s Livery Companies Online – Apprentices and Freemen 1400-1900 (ROLLCO at
  24. Ibid 23.
  25. Ibid 24.
  26. Ibid 8.

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