William Beakes, Joyner

My article about a chest of drawers made by the joiner William Beakes in 1720 has just been published in the 21st Anniversary/Spring 2021 issue of the magazine Antiques & Fine Art. The chest is owned by the Dietrich American Foundation. In 2013 during the survey of the Foundation’s furniture collection, I performed a detailed examination of the chest. I plan over the next several posts to expand upon the history of the chest, discuss the technical aspects of its construction, and compare it to the work of contemporary joiners. 

Chest of drawers by William Beakes (1691 – 1761). Delaware River Valley, probably Burlington County, New Jersey, 1720 or 1721. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, brass hardware, iron locks. H. 36 ½ in., W. 40 ¼ in., D. 23in. The Dietrich American Foundation. The front turned feet and the rear stile feet have been reduced in height. The chest originally had single-drop drawer pulls.

I first saw the chest several years prior to examining it for the survey. When I pulled out one of the top tier short drawers I was struck by what I found on the exterior surface of the drawer bottom, an inscription in graphite that had been partially strengthened with ink at a later date: “Sarah Thorn her Draws/ made by Wm Beakes this 14 of 12 mo 1720.” There were other inscriptions on the drawer bottom that were too faint to see initially and there were more inscriptions on the bottom of the second short drawer. Furniture signed by the maker from the first 50 years after the founding of Pennsylvania is exceedingly rare and there are only a handful of pieces for whom we know both a maker and original owner. Deciphering the other inscriptions added to the information provided by the inscription documenting the chest to the joiner William Beakes and the original owner Sarah Thorn. Ultimately the inscriptions allowed us to answer long standing questions about Beakes’ life and work.

Bottom of the proper right upper drawer with the inscription, Sarah Thorn her Draws/ made by Wm Beakes this 14 of 12 mo 1720. Beakes employed a digit to indicate the month, 12 while using the Julian calendar (Old Style). With the date translated to the Gregorian calendar (New Style), he would have completed the chest in February 1721.
Bottom of the proper left upper drawer with nineteenth century inscriptions of later Thorn family members.

Based on documents, William Macpherson Hornor Jr. in his Blue Book of Philadelphia Furniture included Beakes in a list of nearly one hundred woodworkers and other individuals working in allied trades in Philadelphia before 1722, though no objects by Beakes had been identified at that time. Hornor wrote that Beakes was “apprenticed to William Till a joiner; mentioned 12 mo. 5. 1694.” Till was listed on Hornor’s list as a “joynor” citing “documentary references, 1701 and 1707; died 1711.” The joiner John Head was also on Hornor’s list, his one and only mention until the discovery of his account book in the American Philosophical Society decades later. Three successive generations of William Beakes’ in America contributed to the difficulty furniture historians have had determining when and where William Beakes worked. Hornor’s 1694 reference was likely that of the joiner’s father for we now know William Beakes III was born in 1691 making him an almost exact contemporary of John Head. 

William Beakes I (d. 1687), the grandfather of the joiner, was one of William Penn’s first purchasers in Pennsylvania. Beakes I and his family, including William Beakes II (1663-1711), arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682. Their two lots in Falls Township, Bucks County, long, narrow rectangles ending at the Delaware River, can be seen on Thomas Holme’s (1724 -1795) A Map of The Province of Pennsilvania in America, Containing the three Countyes of Chester, Philadelphia, & Bucks. 

Thomas Holme (1724 -1795) A Map of The Province of Pennsilvania in America, Containing the three Countyes of Chester, Philadelphia, & Bucks. Thomas Holme, London, 1705. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C. H. 55 ½ in. W. 80 in. The two lots of William Beakes I are highlighted in the detail overlay. 
Detail of a watercolor version of the Holme map.

n 1690 William Beakes II married Elizabeth Worrilaw (1671-1705) of Chester, Pennsylvania. The future joiner, William Beakes III, was born the following year. The 1710 will of Susanah Brightwen Worrilaw (1640-1710), the second wife of Thomas Worrilaw (1626-1709), father of Elizabeth Worrilaw Beakes and grandfather of William Beakes III, documents Beakes III as a joiner and an apprentice to the English-immigrant William Till (1676 -1711). After first specifying payments to her nephew and niece, both living in Devon, England, she gives “unto William Beaks Jun. who is now an apprentice with William Till of Philadelphia aforesaid joyner the sum of five Pounds money.” In 1703 Till married Ann Warden in Philadelphia and would have been in position to take on an apprentice. William Beakes III likely began his apprenticeship with Till in 1705 at the time his father remarried and moved from Pennsylvania to Burlington County, New Jersey. Thomas Worrilaw with his second wife Susanah had recently moved to Philadelphia from Chester. Their move would have eased the young Beakes III’s transition to his new life in the city.

The first page of Susanah Worrilaw’s two page will, 1710. She leaves “William Beak[e]s Jun. who is now an apprentice with William Till of Philadelphia aforesaid joyner the sum of five Pounds money aforesaid.” Either Hornor saw this document and used it as his reference for Beakes as a joiner and apprentice to William Till or another document exists that has not been located affirms Beakes and Till’s relationship .

William Till died in 1711 as William Beakes III was nearing the end of his apprenticeship. His mother had died years earlier. Also in 1711 his father, now remarried and residing in New Jersey also died. His grandfather and step-grandmother who he may have been living with during his apprenticeship with Till were deceased. The inscription on the chest drawer was the key to understanding why no further traces of Beakes were to be found in Philadelphia archives. Sarah Foulkes Thorn (1702-1774) was born and raised in Crosswicks, a village in Chesterfield Township, Burlington County, New Jersey. We believe William Beakes III followed family members to New Jersey shortly after his apprenticeship ended and was likely living in Crosswicks when he made Sarah’s chest of drawers.

Will of William Till, Philadelphia 1711. William Beakes was one of four witnesses to the will.

The precise reason for Beakes III’s move remains unknown. It is doubtless though, that family, social, and religious ties contributed to his desire to relocate. In 1730, Beakes observed the wedding of one of his half-siblings at Chesterfield Meeting. By 1748 he had moved permanently to Upper Freehold, Monmouth County, New Jersey, when he was listed as a freeholder in the colony. In his 1761 will, Beakes III identified himself as a “Joyner being in health of body & of sound & perfect mind & memory” though he died later that same year. In the inventory of his estate, a “pare of Chestardraws, Joyners tools & other things” in the large front chamber were valued at 23 pounds 19 shillings. He may still have been working part-time as a joiner, but the great amount of farming equipment, livestock, and stored grain included in the inventory indicate that he was also a yeoman, working a modest plantation.

The will of “William Beakes of the Countie of Munmoth in the Eastern Division of New Jersey, Joyner…” 1761.
Inventory of William Beakes of Upper Freehold, New Jersey. 1761.

In “Furniture in Philadelphia: The First Fifty Years,” Ian Quimby, ed., Winterthur Portfolio 13American Furniture and Itys Makers, 1680 -1758, 1979, Cathryn J. McElroy wrote that “only three pieces (of furniture) bearing inscriptions” made in Philadelphia before 1732 had been identified, “two chests of drawers signed by William Beake[s] and the desk bearing the stamp of Edward Evans. In her article she published one of the chests signed by Beakes.

Chest of drawers by William Beakes (1691 – 1761). Delaware River Valley. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, brass hardware, iron locks. Private collection. The chest is signed in white chalk on interior of the proper left side panel “William Beake[s] 171_.” The last letter of “Beakes” and the last numeral of the date are obscured by drawer runners.

In the next post I’ll discuss technical aspects of Beakes’ woodworking and construction as well as illustrate a third chest of drawers signed by Beakes and a fourth chest that is attributed to him.

16 thoughts on “William Beakes, Joyner

  1. Grand piece of history. Could you determine what tools were used in this construction? George Blackman (we talked about Addis tools)


      • GREAT! @ later discussion of construction details. It’s how I stumbled into this blog some years ago. Interesting & very rare to have early furniture signed like the above examples, usually, construction details are all that’s available.

    • The rectangular cutouts are for wood spring locks that are broken and missing. Many woodworking traditions used wood spring locks, it was not a construction technique used only by Religious Society of Friends joiners and cabinetmakers.

      • Thank you for that information. On a few of the18th century reproduction chests that I’ve made, I’ve added those spring locks to the top drawers…… saves on installing an expensive(Ball & Ball) brass 1/2 mortise lock. Instead of screws, I’ve made an angled, dovetail, slot and slid the spring into place. Works like a charm!!!

      • Wood spring locks were used in the 18th century for the same reason, lower cost. Locks were a greater expense. Wood spring locks that are fit in dovetailed slots are not uncommon in 18th century furniture. They are additionally always glued and nailed.
        As the need to lock drawers lessened over the decades, owners would remove the spring locks so they could easily access a drawer without opening the drawer below.

  2. Very interesting. I look forward to the next, technical post.

    I am aware of the function of ‘proper left’ and ‘proper right’ in portraiture, but how are they applied to objects like this chest – as in ‘stage left/right’ or in the viewer’s standpoint?


    • This is a conservation tradition for precision about locations so someone reading a report in the future is clear on positions. It is used as if the object is a person, when you are looking at an image of an object, the left side in the photo is the proper right side of the object.

  3. Hi Chris

    My late father, Joe McFalls, owned a Beakes chest [shown in the attached photo from The Magazine Antiques] for about 25 years. The late Bill Dupont offered him a price for it he could not refuse, so he sold it to Bill. It may now be in Bill Dupont’s estate.


    Jay McFalls


    • Hi Jay,

      The last illustration in this post is indeed the chest your father owned that Bill purchased from him. It was published first in Cathryn J. McElroy’s article in 1979 and subsequently by Benno Forman in his 1985 article “The Chest of Drawers in America.” It later appeared in the “Worldly Goods” exhibition catalogue from 1999 by which time I believe Bill was the owner. I examined it in 2014 when it went to Winterthur for exhibition during the Furniture Forum “Philadelphia Furniture: New Inquiries and Insights” and will include images of the chalk inscription inside the chest in the next post.

      We can’t be certain on which side of the Delaware the chest your father owned was made. Spoiler Alert! William Beakes III sold the house he inherited in 1711 upon his father’s death in 1713 and may have moved to New Jersey anytime after the death of William Till in 1711.

      Thank you for providing this information. I have a vague memory of your father saying he purchased the chest at a small auction. I’d be interested to hear of any information you might know about how he came to own the chest.


  4. Interesting, I have been wondering about Bill Dupont’s estate sale ever since I learned of his passing last summer. He is thought to have one of the finest Delaware Valley furniture collections in the nation, I think Lisa Minardi was working with him on some important pieces in the recent past.

    • Bill’s collection is truly remarkable. In the 1980s he began concentrating on Delaware Valley objects, selling off wonderful furniture from all the American regional style centers he had previously collected. The book Lisa was writing was well underway at the time of Bill’s death with much photography completed. One hopes a way will be found to get it into print.

  5. Great sleuthing, Chris.

    What do you make of the Latin inscription under the date? It appears to be “Scrip [indeciperable] Amicum.” The first word has to do with writing and the last translates “of a friend.”


  6. Pingback: William Beakes III | In Proportion to the Trouble

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