Record of the week: A fickle and unsteady man

By Carys Brown

In November 1743, Joseph Farmer was in trouble. His older brother, James, had received a letter from Joseph’s master, John Hardman, Merchant of Liverpool, suggesting that Joseph had not only been very impertinent, but also appeared to be generally untrustworthy. Faced with the prospect of Hardman dismissing Joseph, James was left to pick up the pieces.

Historians have long acknowledged the importance of a credit-worthy reputation to success in trade in eighteenth-century England. If Joseph could not be trusted, he was unlikely to be able to enter into advantageous business relationships; this would have damaged not only Joseph’s prospects but also potentially those of the family’s gun-manufacturing firm. Two letters from James Farmer show his attempts to salvage the situation. He gave his brother a stern reprimand for his behaviour, encouraging him to keep ‘a good Harmony with thy Master’. He also wrote a letter to Hardman, detailing the advice he had given to Joseph to ‘act with discretion & gravity’.

Most interesting, however, is James’s discussion of the issue of Joseph’s non-attendance at divine worship. He advised Joseph that ‘attending regular Either at Chappel, or some place worshipp on Sundays as I know it would give in the End thee Sattisfaction’ and would improve his ‘Character amongst Men of Gravity’. He assured Hardman that he had spelled out to Joseph ‘the disadvantage, in regard to a future state as well as the Contemptious oppinion the generality of mankind had of Irreligiouss men’. James further said he had told Joseph that ‘in Commerce no person knowing his character would have to do with a fic[k]le & unsteady man’, and that if he appeared to be so in a matter ‘the utmost importance’ such as divine worship ‘he would be suppos’d to act no otherways in affairs of humane life’.

It is evident from James Farmer’s letters that church attendance of some sort was important not only for the soul but for temporal concerns. For the sake of his reputation, Joseph needed to be seen to go to some kind of place of worship. No man would be taken seriously in commerce if he showed himself to be inattentive to his own soul.

There is no further indication of whether Joseph heeded his brother’s advice. He does not, however, appear to have achieved success in business. In September 1750 Joseph complained to his brother-in-law, Samuel Galton, that he had ‘been greatly dissapointed in regard to receiving sundry Debts that are owing to me’, and that ‘Times were never worse…than at Present in Liverpool’. By February 1752 he had been forced to resign ‘all my Effects’ to his brother, having pulled out of trade ‘when I found how ill my Affair went on by a continual ser[ies] of bad Luck’. Perhaps it was bad luck. Or perhaps he really was ‘a fic[k]le & unsteady man’.


Records used:

Birmingham: Birmingham Archives:

  • MS3101/C/C/2/1/7 – James Farmer [brother of Joseph] (Birmingham) to John Hardman (Liverpool). 18 Nov 1743
  • MS3101/C/C/2/1/8 – James Farmer (Birmingham) to Joseph Farmer (Liverpool). 19 Nov. 1743
  • MS3101/C/D/15/6/1 – Joseph Farmer (Liverpool) to Samuel Galton (Birmingham). 5 Sept. 1750
  • MS3101/C/D/14/3/4 – Joseph Farmer (Liverpool) to Mary Galton (Birmingham). 25 Feb 1752/3


Image: Illustration from John Ashton, Chap-books of the eighteenth century (London: 1882), p.358, Public Domain via Internet Archive on Flickr (

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