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  • Writer's pictureHistory Revealed

An Irish Connection in Colchester

Stain glass image of Saint Patrick from St Benin's Church, Kilbennan, Ireland

In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, we thought we’d take a look at all things Irish in the John Glassford & Company, Colchester store ledger from 1760/1761.

The most obvious place to start might be with Irish-esque surnames; not yet having done a thorough genealogical investigation into all the store’s customers, the best we can do for now is to compare our account index of customers to a list of the 50 most common Irish surnames. Of those 50, we find at least 20 of those names shopping in Alexandria and Colchester. From Boyle to Thompson, we have upwards of 90 potential customers who may be Irish or of Irish descent.

What goods sold at the store had Irish connections?

Irish Potatoes

stack of potatoes

Store-keep Alexander Henderson noted the store acquired 1 ½ bushels of Irish potatoes valued at 8 pence in November 1761. Who sold the potatoes to the store was not recorded, but the individual acquired a handkerchief for their 8 pennies provided by the purchase of the potatoes. Another exchange on the same day, possibly by the same person, was for a half-bushel of potatoes (also Irish?) for 2 pounds of shot valued at 4 pence. Three months earlier, a similar transaction occurred making us wonder if that ½ bushel was also for “Irish potatoes.” In all, the store purchased (and exchanged for goods) 9 ¼ bushels of potatoes from October 1760 to November 1761 across 8 recorded transactions.[1] While we may never know who sold the potatoes to the store, given the small amount, the potatoes were likely consumed by the store’s staff and enslaved, rather than fed to livestock as was still more common at this time.[2]

White Irish Soap

We find no record of soap being purchased in the Colchester 1760/1761 ledger; however, we know that Henderson ordered 50 pounds of it “white Irish Soap” in his order with John Glassford in 1760.[3] Perhaps this soap was not intended for sale, but for the use of the store and its inhabitants? We know Elizabeth Fallen’s account was credited for at least 6 days of “washing” by Kate, enslaved Fallen, and that future ledgers describe similar credits on behalf of washing for the store.[4] Was the soap used in this capacity? Until we index additional ledgers (or complete a database), we won’t know if Henderson sold any soap too.

In trying to learn what might be unique about Irish soap, as it was the only kind Henderson ordered, we found very little in the original sources. The Virginia Gazette index only identified one advertisement for Irish soap in 1775 by William Turner at his store in Williamsburg, but several others described as black, Castile, hard, or shaving.[5] Searches in the Maryland Gazette and the Pennsylvania Gazette provided no additional information other than adding hard white and “Royal Crown” to the possible list of descriptions of soap – but not Irish.[6]

Irish Fabric

Linen, sheeting, and holland were all found to have “Irish” descriptions in the ledger, as well as in Henderson’s orders to Glassford. Given that both sheeting and holland are types of linen, the inclusion of “Irish” to their descriptions provides us at least a likely manufacturing location for the fabrics. Between the 3 orders Henderson placed from 1759 – 1761 requests by the store amounted to 1,600 yards of ¾ (4 kinds), ⅞ (3 kinds), and yard (5 kinds) wide linens, as well as white sheeting, to offer for sale.[7] Henderson sold over 340 yards of the Irish linen and holland to 22 customers, with 7 of those purchases for an entire piece of the imported fabric varying in length from 21 to 25 yards.[8] Unfortunately, Henderson’s description of fabrics as Irish holland isn’t informative enough to glean any additional information, as holland became a generic term for linen cloth.[9]

Large looms for making fabric with two men and a woman at work.
Irish Linen Making by William Hincks, 1791. Image courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum, 2006AM5617.

The most fascinating part of the fabrics is the price variation when it was sold. At ordering, the linen cost between 9 pence (at 3/4 yard wide) and 2 shillings 9 pence (the finest of the yard wide) per yard, while the single request for sheeting going for around 1 shilling 1 pence per yard. But, when Henderson sold the fabric to his customers, the price went from 1 shilling to a staggering 9 shillings per yard for “fine Irish holland.” Whether this variation resulted from demand or the customer’s social equity is difficult to tell. The most expensive yard was sold to one of Henderson’s consistent and well-respected customers, Samuel Tillet. What made this single yard of fabric so special will await research for another day.

1 yard fine Irish holland for 9 shillings

As always, if you know more about these items or the people living in Colchester, please be sure to share with us what you know. Stay tuned as we continue to research the people, places, and objects found within the ledgers!


[1] Alexander Henderson, et. al. Ledger 1760-1761, Colchester, Virginia folios 5, 6, and 159, from the John Glassford and Company Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

[2] As found by Lorena Walsh in “Provisioning Early American Towns. The Chesapeake: A Multidisciplinary Case Study” (1997) who cites Arthur Young and John Beale Bordley for the “progressive husbandry” practices beginning in the mid-eighteenth century (p. 43). She later notes that potatoes became more common in residents’ diets in towns starting in the early 1770s (p. 106).

[3] Charles and Virginia Hamrick. Alexander Henderson: His Letter Book of 1758-1765 (Athens, GA: Iberian Publishing Company, 1999), 54.

[4] Henderson, et. al., folios 7 and 42.

[5] Virginia Gazette, eds. Dixon and Hunter, August 26, 1775, page 3 (column 2). [Accessed on 17 March 2022,]

[6] Maryland Gazette and Pennsylvania Gazette as found in the online database GenealogyBank [Accessed on 17 March 2022].

[7] Hamrick, pp. 12, 50, 54.

[8] Henderson, et. al., folios 8, 9, 10, 12, 21, 22,39, 56, 93, 96, 97, 111, 112, 113, 117, 119, 130, 131, 132, 135. 138, 146, and 153.

[9] Florence M. Montgomery. Textiles in America 1650-1870 (New York: WW Norton & Company, 1984), 258-259.

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