Sex shops and smelly shops - Sawtry has had it all!

FRIDAY is scheduled to see the opening of the Sawtry Sex Shop. There have been protests about it, but this Huntingdonshire village has had more than 300 years’ experience of dealing with unpopular businesses.

In the year 1667 a Sawtry shopkeeper named Robert Michell had some coins minted with his name on them.

Actually we’re not supposed to call them coins, any more than the new Sawtry business is supposed to call itself a sex shop. The word “coin” can only be used for official currency issued by the government. So Robert Michell’s halfpennies were technically “tokens.”

Why was an ordinary shopkeeper issuing his own coins in the first place? The problem was that the government wasn’t minting enough small change.

The value of coins in those days depended on the amount of precious metal in them. The Stuart kings issued halfpennies made of silver. But a halfpenny’s worth of silver was so little that the coins were tiny – half the size of our present-day 5p piece.

After the upheaval of the Civil War the supply of official small change dried up completely and businessmen had no choice but to issue their own. A nuisance for them but good news for us, because the tokens give us useful information about the shops and pubs of 300 years ago.

Robert Michell’s halfpenny token says he was “of Sawtry”, and on the back are the arms of the Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers. So Mr Michell was a tallow chandler - which means he made candles from tallow, the fat of sheep or cattle.

Most Read

Candles were vital in those days if you wanted to do anything at all outside the hours of daylight. The problem is that animal fat smells disgusting, whether you’re rendering it down to make the candles or burning them in your home after buying them from Mr Michell’s shop.

There must have been quite a powerful atmosphere hanging around his premises and when he strolled around the village. I suspect you could smell him coming. Towns and villages were much more self-sufficient then and every large settlement had its tallow chandler.

And at a time when human urine and dog excrement were vital elements in tanning leather – so someone had to go round collecting them – Mr Michell probably wasn’t Sawtry’s smelliest tradesman.