In 2018 I spent two months in the UK going through records relating to tailors, body-makers, and farthingale-makers at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Drapers’ and Clothworker’ Companies in London. While doing my archival research at the Drapers’ Company hall, I mentioned to the archivist Penny that the unusual name of a prolific body-maker, Theophilus Riley, kept popping up in many of my sources. Considering that many of the other makers of bodies (boned-torso garments – the precursors of stays and corsets) were named John, Robert, Henry, Samuel, etc., the name Theophilus was bound to stick out to me.
Penny acknowledged the strange name, noting that she felt like she had read it before but could not recall where. This was until one day she came into the small study room where I was sitting, surrounded by numerous 300-year old hand-bound volumes of company records, and told me that she had remembered where she had heard the name before. A draper called Theophilus Riley had bequeathed a large sum of money and property to the Company in the seventeenth century and, astonishingly, this endowment was still aiding many of the Company’s charitable activities today.
Although Riley was acknowledged as a draper (a dealer in cloth, usually woollen) in the Company’s financial records, and technically he could call himself a draper as he was a member of the Drapers’ Company (by the seventeenth century many members of London’s livery companies did not practice the same profession as their namesake), his actual profession was body-making and a body-selling. Essentially, he was one of the first corset-makers in London.
This made me more determined to find out more about this interesting man’s life. Luckily for me, such an unusual name meant that I was able to track down many records relating to the life of Theophilus Riley – and let’s just say that he was one very interesting fellow!
The Life and Times of Theophilus Riley
Theophilus Riley was apprenticed under John Smith between 1608 and 1616. Like many members of these livery companies, his origins are obscure as information about his father is missing from apprenticeship records. Upon completion of his apprenticeship Riley quickly set up his own shop in Bow Lane and took on his first apprentice in 1617. Given his political leanings in later life, which I will talk about below, it is possible that he came from a wealthy merchant family in London and this would explain his ability to set up a profitable workshop so soon after finishing his apprenticeship.
The 1630s and early 1640s were prosperous for Riley. During the 1630s he took out two leases on properties near Cheapside – London’s shopping street – which were owned by the Drapers’ Company. From 1642-1655 he was a Liveryman in the Drapers Company, a position that also gave him power within the city of London as Liverymen played a key part in electing the city’s sheriffs, mayors, and members of parliament.
Riley’s successful career took place during one of the most troubled times in England’s history. In January of 1642, King Charles I had tried to arrest five leading members of parliament. He feared that they were determined to seize political control and to impeach his French-Catholic wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. When this failed, Charles left London and headed north where he had a strong support base. By August, the king had raised the royal standard at Nottingham, signaling that he considered himself to be at war. In October of 1642, he led his army into battle at Edgehill, the first battle of the wars.
The king’s departure from London in 1642 left the city under the control of his enemies in parliament. At the start of the civil wars Charles’s forces controlled roughly the Midlands, Wales, the West Country and northern England and he established a new court at Oxford. Parliament controlled London, the south-east and East Anglia, as well as the English navy. London was therefore a parliament stronghold and many citizens of the city joined the parliamentarian cause, including Theophilus Riley.
Records reveal that between 1642-3, Riley was a parliamentarian in the Common Council. That same year he was appointed as an ‘assessor for parliamentary subscription and assessments’ and he sat on several important committees such as those that regulated the London Militia and examined ‘malignant, scandalous and seditious ministers.’ By 1643 Riley had become the ‘scoutmaster of the Citie of London’, the chief of the intelligence department of the Parliamentary Army. This meteoric political rise during the tumultuous period of the English Civil Wars as a man who was proclaimed to be ‘of a known & approved Integritie’ and in ‘great esteem with the then Parlament and Citie of London’ soon came to an end though.
From December 1643 to January 1644 Riley was implicated as a royalist spy in Brooke’s Plot. This was a plot that aimed to divide the City of London by severing the ties between parliament and the influential merchants who funded their war effort, and to broker a peace treaty between the City and the king. This was done with the aim of preventing the Scottish army from taking part in the civil war and to bring about an end to the conflict. Riley’s role as scoutmaster had brought him in contact with royalists Sir Basil Brook and Colonel Read, as well as Thomas Violet, a goldsmith who had been jailed for refusing to pay taxes that funded the parliamentarian war effort. For his part, it appears that Riley had become weary of the war and resented the religious and economic demands of the Scots. Riley, whose code name during the plot was ‘The Man in the Moone’, perhaps taken from a popular tavern called The Half Moon that was close to his shop in Cheapside, oversaw securing releases for the prisoners so that they could travel to the royal court in Oxford. Eventually the plot was discovered, and the conspirators found themselves in the Tower. Riley was released within the year and his estates were not ‘sequestred or taken away’, unlike those of his fellow plotters.
After this scandal it seems that Riley retired as a parliamentarian but remained active in the Drapers’ Company. He is recorded as being of the Livery and Assistants between 1642-64, and he took his last body-making apprentice in 1646. When he died in 1656/7 part of his other property in Bow Lane was left to his wife Elizabeth and their daughter Mary Swift and her children, and the other part to the Masters, Wardens, and Assistants of the Drapers’ Company to hold in trust for his grandchildren until 1686. As well as these properties near Cheapside and Bow Lane, his will also reveals that Riley leased or owned a number of other properties both within and outside the confines of the City walls. The will also left a £600 endowment that stipulated the creation of a trust for apprenticing children of the poor of the Drapers’ Company, which is still active today.
 J. Rushworth, Mr Rushworth’s Historical Collections from January 1642 to April 1646: abridg’d and improved, Volume 5 (London: 1708), p. 160-2.
 A. Percy, A Cunning plot to divide and destroy, the Parliament and the city of London… (London: 1643), pp. 1-12; John Rushworth, Mr Rushworth’s Historical Collections from January 1642 to April 1646, Volume 5 (London: 1708); p. 162; A. Tubb, Thomas Violet, a Sly and Dangerous Fellow: Silver and Spying in Civil War London (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017), pp. 44-46.