The Port and Trade of Early Elizabethan London: Documents. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 1972.
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The port and customs
The documents in this volume consist of a port book recording native imports into London in 1567/8 and certain other texts illustrative of the port's functions and topography in the early Elizabethan period. They were the product, however, of a systematic and thorough reform of the customs which was begun in the reign of Mary. Following the report of the commission on the king's courts of revenue in 1552 the lord treasurer, the marquis of Winchester, issued a revised Book of Rates in May 1558. His revision, the first for fifty years and the last of the century, was radical and comprehensive. Some 300 commodities were added to the Book of 1545 and valuations for the duty of 1s in the £ seem on average to have been slightly more than doubled. The specific duties were also raised. (fn. 1) Whether England became in consequence a high-tariff country is debatable, but one likely effect of the new rates was to make smuggling more profitable and the need for stricter administration more urgent. So for obvious reasons the lord treasurer did not stop with his revised Book. With London his first concern he extended his reforms and in the process the organisation of the port was radically altered.
In his treatise De Portibus Maris Sir Matthew Hale defines a port as '. . . quid aggregatum, consisting of somewhat that is natural, viz. an access of the sea whereby ships may conveniently come . . . something that is artificial, as keys and wharfs and cranes and wharehouses and houses of common receipt; and something that is civil, viz. priveleges and franchises. . . .'. (fn. 2) Of the three aspects, Winchester's reforms directly affected the artificial and the civil. His immediate concern throughout was with the latter, in the sense that the royal customs were among the chief 'priveleges and franchises' of the port, but in improving them he necessarily interested himself in the artificial. As his reforms show he was fully aware that the efficiency of the customs depended not only on its procedure and personnel but also on the organisation of the port through which the dutiable cargoes passed. Indeed, one of his first moves, preceding the issue of the Book of Rates, was the crown's purchase, on his advice, of the Custom House, the quay on which it stood, and the adjacent Old Wool Quay. (fn. 3) Thus, appa rently for the first time, the crown owned the centre of its customs administration. What Winchester had in mind is not quite clear. He did, however, want to rebuild these properties; (fn. 4) and apparently he contemplated concentrating most, if not all, of the overseas trade on them. (fn. 5) From the administrative point of view the advantages were obvious. In the event Winchester was dissuaded from confining the port so closely and, perhaps for this reason, he did not rebuild. (fn. 6) The crown kept the house and quays but abandoned any intention it might have had of creating a 'royal' port. Instead, the properties were leased and the lord treasurer's acquisition merely added to the complexity of ownership in the port. (fn. 7) Thus, not untypically, the administrator's designs were compromised by the hedges and obstacles to reform. Nevertheless, what did emerge was a notable advance. This was the first statutory definition of the fiscal port of London. (fn. 8) In accordance with the Act of 1559, which established general regulations for the loading and discharging of cargoes, a commission was appointed to survey the port and authorise quays for overseas trade. (fn. 9) The commissioners, including the lord treasurer, made their report on 24 August. (fn. 10) With the exception of coal, beer and corn, overseas shipments were to be limited to wharfs and quays on the north bank of the Thames between Queenhithe and Tower Dock or Wharf. The total frontage of the 'legal' quays, as they were later known, was about 2,000 feet. (fn. 11) This was the Elizabethan Port of London for overseas trade. (fn. 12)
From the port Winchester turned his attention to the customs. After a national survey of ports and creeks, on the model of that of London, he completed his reforms in November 1564 with the issue of the Book of Orders. (fn. 13) The aim was to improve administration and apply a uniform system throughout the country. (fn. 14) It dealt first, however, with London, a further recognition of her commercial pre-eminence and of the size and complexity of the customs administration. The senior officials were the collectors and controllers, the head searcher, the surveyor and the tidewaiters. (fn. 15) These were the men to whom the exchequer sent the 'Queen's original' or port books, the main innovation of Winchester's final reform. The books, as opposed to enrolled accounts, were not in themselves new. In 1428 they had been introduced in a similar attempt at reform. (fn. 16) They had not, however, superseded the enrolled Particular Accounts. This was the effect of the Elizabethan orders. Henceforth all the customs accounts kept in the ports were entered in the special parchment books which are preserved in the Public Record Office in the series E. 190.
Since they became available to scholars earlier this century port books have been the subject of a growing number of studies and analyses. (fn. 17) It is not, therefore, necessary to explain them in detail. Essentially there were two kinds of book, varying according to the duties of the officials who kept them. The first was produced by those who were directly concerned with collecting revenue; the second by officials who reported the arrival and departure of ships and checked their cargoes. These subordinate officials were principally the waiters and the searchers who worked at the quays and on board ship. Incoming shipments were registered as follows. The waiters went on board as soon as the ship anchored and required from the master a certificate specifying the ship's name, its home-port ('of whence') and size, his own name and nationality, the port of departure ('from whence'), and a bill of lading for the whole cargo. From these the waiters made up shipmasters' or certificate books. Thus the officials who collected and accounted for the customs had detailed, first-hand information of shipments before they processed them themselves. They also knew that there was an independent record with which their own had to agree. Moreover, since two officials kept separate accounts of the subsidy on inward cargoes, there were further checks and counter-checks. This arose as follows. The merchant could enter his goods either 'at sight' or by bill. If he was uncertain as to the exact quantity and value of his shipment he could get a warrant ad visum to bring his goods, under the custody of two waiters, to the Custom House where they were viewed by the collector and the controller. A bill of content was then drawn up, on the basis of which entries were made by the two officials in their respective volumes. Alternatively, the owner could enter his shipment before unloading by presenting a bill in which he gave details of the ship and its voyage, as in the master's certifi cate, and of his consignment. He was required to specify the number and type of containers, their contents and the merchant's mark. The bill went first to the collector who, after valuing the shipment, passed on the bill to the controller, with the valuation, for entry in his book. The bill was then returned to the collector who made up his own account. There were thus two separate records of the collection of tonnage and poundage on imports which should correspond exactly. In addition there were the waiters' record and the bills and certificates from which the books were compiled. These bills were filed in the order that they were entered in the books.
This system of multiple controls was intended to prevent fraud by the officials. To be undetected somewhere in the records fraud would require a considerable degree of collusion. The system did not, however, touch upon the problem of smuggling without the connivance of officials. This was dealt with elsewhere in the Book of Orders. Cargoes were not to be unloaded until two-thirds of the owners had presented their bills and a licence for bulk to be broken had been issued by the collector. The unloading itself was to be done by lighter, except for 'massy wares' which could only be raised by crane at the quay. All 'fine wares' and haberdashery had to come by lighter to the Custom House Quay.
These were the main orders of 1564 as they affected imports. The crucial question, which has an obvious bearing on the value of port books, is: how effective were Winchester's reforms in offsetting the greater inducement to smuggling and fraud after 1558 ? This is a problem that has received a good deal of attention in recent years. (fn. 18) Even so, there is no precise and satisfactory answer. The balance of evidence and arguments is complex but inconclusive. On the one hand, while it is clear that smuggling and fraud were serious problems after as well as before the mid-century reforms, the student of London port books can take some reassurance from the general consensus of contemporaries and historians that the provincial ports were more vulnerable than the metropolis. Yet it must be conceded that much of the evidence of evasion concerns London, where the sheer volume and value of trade presented the greatest opportunities to the smuggler and the fraudulent official. Charges of fraud and negligence against individual officers recur throughout Elizabeth's reign, and some were substantiated. More generalised criticisms were directed against lax senior officials who failed to supervise their unreliable assistants; and all ranks, it was claimed, were subject to pressures, familiar to any student of Tudor administration, which discouraged probity and efficiency. Legitimate rewards in wages and fees were said to be so low that employees, especially of the lower ranks, were open to bribery and corruption: the more so because, as the same informant observed, offices at all levels were commonly sold at prices which made conflict between private profit and service to the crown inevitable. (fn. 19) Moreover, as other critics argued, these faults in the administration throve in a port which was ill equipped, badly congested and difficult to control. The royal quays in particular were said to be inadequate. A timber structure, the Old Wool Quay was badly in need of repair, while the Custom House Quay, although more soundly built of stone, lay so far back from the low-water mark that access, even for lighters, was limited. Without extensive rebuilding any attempt to limit the legal quays, as Winchester may have planned, was impractical. Yet without some restriction, it was claimed, there were too many 'blind' quays where proper supervision was beyond the resources of the queen's customs. (fn. 20)
All these indictments of the London customs, and it is by no means a comprehensive list, (fn. 21) suggest that Winchester's reforms fell well short of their objective. The evidence does not, however, provide conclusive proof of widespread smuggling by merchants or of endemic fraud by officials. And where the latter did try to defraud the crown, they might well take their cut in the revenue after compiling their accounts, which could still therefore be an accurate record. This seems to be the lesson to be drawn from the noted case of William Bird who defrauded the crown of revenue from cloth exports on a scandalous scale in the fifteen-sixties. For the student of port books what is significant and reassuring about Bird's fraudulent practices is that they were detectable in his accounts, at least until he so erased and altered them that they were quite illegible. Another official who came under suspicion was driven to even more desperate measures when he sent an accomplice through the window of the Custom House to set fire to incriminating documents. In these cases at least, the system of checks and counter-checks seems to have worked. (fn. 22)
Bird's case is firm, well-documented evidence of serious malpractices. The same cannot necessarily be said of the more generalised charges against the customs. Although cumulatively impressive they must be treated carefully. While exaggeration must be allowed for as a matter of course, close inspection of particular cases can suggest special grounds for scepticism. The example of George Needham, one of the most persistent critics of the London customs in the fifteen-eighties, illustrates this point. Needham, who acquired the lease of the Custom House Quay about 1578, offered as his solution to smuggling and fraud the not unfamiliar proposal to limit the fiscal port and close the 'blind' quays. He accompanied his suggestion with an offer to buy the lease of the other royal quay. London's overseas trade, or at least the greater part of it, should then be confined to the two quays. (fn. 23) It is not difficult to see what Needham's personal interests were. As the wharfingers who opposed him darkly implied, a monopolist would be particularly well placed to profit not only from the wharfingers' legitimate rewards but also from connivance at evasion of the customs. (fn. 24) The case does indeed suggest that if the unreformed officials exploited office for private gain their critics had much the same end in view; and this could well lead to exaggeration. No doubt their charges had some substance: equally one may suspect that they magnified the evils for which their 'remedies' were offered.
If one accepts that customs officials were negligent, or, worse, dishonest, does it follow that merchants were willing and able to smuggle goods on a scale that would invalidate port books as commercial records ? The smuggler's profits obviously had to be balanced against the risks, and while the new Book of Rates improved the profit margins Winchester's reforms presumably increased the chances of detection. In time, as the early impetus of reform declined, bureaucratic inertia was likely to set in. Against this probable decline in efficiency, however, must be set the fact that continuing inflation made the nominal valuations of 1558 less and less realistic, thus narrowing the smuggler's margin of profit. (fn. 25) And the ad valorem duty was at most only 5 per cent of the nominal value of the goods as compared with 35 per cent in the eighteenth century, the era of organised smuggling. The smuggler's profits would not therefore be so great as to tempt him into indiscriminate evasion, and in all probability he would choose goods of high value in proportion to bulk as offering the highest return at the least risk. Hence one would expect the port books to under-record imports like spices and silk but to give an accurate account of the trade in 'massy' wares like timber, canvas and fish. Altogether, the debate on smuggling and its share of the nation's trade is likely to be endless. Further research will produce more evidence of the former, but there can be no satisfactory way of quantifying the latter. As far as the port books are concerned, the most realistic attitude towards them is one which avoids, as the analyst of the Boston books (fn. 26) advises, the extremes either of uncritical acceptance or of complete distrust. With all their defects and limitations they remain the chief source for the study of English trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; 'no other country can boast such comprehensive records for its commerce during these centuries'. (fn. 27)
Trade and shipping
Such a claim for the London books in particular must be subjected to one important qualification. Because of their haphazard survival (fn. 28) they do not allow a study of long-term secular trends and the historian who requires from his sources continuity over a long period will inevitably be disappointed. For Elizabethan imports 1567/8 is one of only two years for which books survive—the other is 1587/8—and there is no record of the important aliens' trade. (fn. 29) For a detailed breakdown of imports at other times there are only occasional government surveys, compiled from the port books. Fortunately, William Cecil in particular was interested enough in trade statistics to call for them frequently. (fn. 30) Those that survive, however, are mere fragments; (fn. 31) and it should be observed that they are not necessarily objective, accurate statements. Not uncommonly such surveys were designed to illustrate an argument or prove a case.
Because the historian falls so far short of his goal of continuity of sources it is especially important that his short-term data should be most carefully studied in their context. Is the period 'typical' or was trade then under exceptional influences which would produce 'untypical' trends and fluctuations ? The point is obvious but it is perhaps of particular relevance in the middle decades of the sixteenth century when trade was unduly disturbed. From the late forties, when the Great Debasement sharply stimulated exports, (fn. 32) its course was highly erratic. In the fifties Antwerp, the barometer of European trade, achieved record 'highs' and exceptional 'lows'. As the Table printed below suggests, England shared in a general recovery about 1559, but the revaluation of the coinage in 1560 depressed exports, leading indirectly to an even more serious collapse in 1564. Because of their weakened position after revaluation the merchant adventurers sought compensation for falling markets at the expense of foreign traders. In the Low Countries the government retaliated with an embargo which lasted from November 1563 to December of the following year. The closure of Antwerp was a most serious blow to English merchants who found Emden a quite inadequate alternative for their staple. When the embargo was lifted they hurried back to the Netherlands, and 1565 proved to be a year of exceptional activity. Thereafter trade was more settled until the end of 1568 when a new and longer embargo was imposed in the Netherlands and in Spain. For over four years trade with both countries was suspended, and when the ban was lifted a full return to the status quo, as in 1565, was neither possible nor desirable. Although the Spanish trade was resumed the LondonAntwerp axis was never restored. A distinctive phase of London's trade had ended and a new pattern or structure was to develop.
Against this background the port book for 1567/8 has a special significance. It records imports in a year which was relatively undisturbed, and was also the last of a particular phase in the distribution of metropolitan trade. Over a long period, concentration, above all on Antwerp, was the essential characteristic. This is observable in individual merchants like the Ishams, who seem to have had no knowledge of markets other than Antwerp; (fn. 33) and it is apparent also on a more general level. This does not mean that trade had been static. Apart from the periodic fluctuations and disturbances, there had been significant structural changes, particularly in the fifteen-fifties, when the founding of the Russia Company and the opening of markets in Morocco and Guinea had extended and diversified trade. At the same time native merchants had begun to return to the Baltic. In their immediate impact, however, these developments were of small importance. As a proportion of the whole of London's trade, whether measured in terms of volume, value or transportation, these areas were peripheral economically as well as geographically. Even the most cursory survey of our record for 1567/8 will show how restricted were London's markets, with the great bulk and value of imports coming from ports on the Atlantic coastline, from Marbella in the south to the Zuiderzee.
Fluctuations in London's trade 1558–68
Customs (fn. 35)
Native (fn. 34)
The year for exports is regnal, for imports from Michaelmas. Values to the nearest £.
In this relatively confined trading area Spain was more important than is sometimes allowed. So much emphasis may be placed on the political, religious and maritime antipathy between the two countries that the solid commercial links of peacetime are easily understated. It is worth noting that in the year of San Juan de Uloa, a battle which epitomises this mutual hostility, well over fifty laden ships passed up the Thames on peaceful voyages from Spain. They came from widely distributed ports. In contrast the French trade was centred on three. This at least was the pattern of native imports, which came mainly from Rouen, Bordeaux and La Rochelle. From Rouen were distributed the local linen and canvas manufactures. Bordeaux, of course, was the great wine port. The heavy impost of 1558 on wine apparently cut imports for a while. (fn. 36) Even so, wine—mostly French—still represented some 10 per cent of the value of imports in 1559/60; and the Bordeaux voyage held its importance in England's carrying trade. (fn. 37) La Rochelle was also important in employing native ships because in salt it supplied one of the few bulk cargoes which were carried over relatively long routes.
The French and Spanish trades involved the exchange of a comparatively small range of commodities. Trade with the Netherlands was quite different. Whereas cloth was overwhelmingly the most valuable export, the range of imports, especially from Antwerp, was considerable. Some, like drugs, spices, dyestuffs and metalware—from Germany—were constituents of Antwerp's transit trade, but others were products of the local industries which had been a key factor in the port's revival in the fifteen-thirties and 'forties. The 'triumph of the light drapey' is reflected in the import of says, bays and fustian. The products of the satin and drugget industry, located mainly in Antwerp itself and in Bruges, are well represented in the port book, as are embroidery, tapestry and damask-linen, with linen from Flanders and Brabant, ticks or bedding—especially from Turnhout—and metalware from Liège. (fn. 38)
Thus Antwerp's preeminence in London's import trade was based not only on her function as an entrepôt but also on the distribution of local manufactures. Both strands in this trade were soon to be broken. Even by 1560 the 'golden age' was over. Twenty years later there were few remnants of Antwerp's commercial greatness; and as the great port declined London's trade routes were diversified and extended. In the fifteen-seventies English ships and merchants entered the Mediterranean to trade with Italy and the Levant. Routes across the North Sea to Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic developed rapidly. By the end of the century ships were regularly crossing the Atlantic, and in 1600 the East India Company was formed to compete with the Dutch and the Portuguese in India and South-East Asia. The mid-century pattern of trade had disappeared.
The Port Book of 1567/8 [E. 190/4/2]
The port book calendared below was the 'original book' of the controller of the subsidy of tonnage and poundage inwards. Although it is a record of native trade—alien imports were entered in separate books—it includes shipments by Hanse merchants, who paid native rates, and some alien consignments. The controller was William Temys or Temmes, who was appointed the previous year. (fn. 39) His volume has traces of an inscription on the cover. This was presumably the customary statement, written in the exchequer before the books were issued, as to their size—how many leaves or folios—the port and official to whom they were sent, and the period they were intended to cover. This information is reproduced in Temys' book at the head of the first folio and in a note at the end of the volume. The heading is as follows:
The note on the last folio, dated 17 November 1568, states that the book had contained 300 folios, of which 258 'plenarum scribunt'. The remaining blank leaves have been removed.
Temys' book follows the conventional port book format and the 1564 Orders in all but two respects. First, there is no other single volume in the Public Record Office which covers a whole year of the subsidy in Elizabeth's reign; and in doing so this book departs from the official instruction that one should be used for each exchequer term. Probably it was issued for only the Michaelmas term but was extended to the end of the year because so much space remained. (fn. 40) Secondly, it is clear that the book was not foliated before it left the exchequer. The original folio numbers are placed in such a way as to suggest that they were added to each page after the controller had made his entries. This was another departure from the Book of Orders which had repeated the instruction of 1428 that the port books should be foliated by the exchequer before their issue. Apart from these two discrepancies the book adheres to the orders and practices of the customs. Although the handwriting appears to be the same throughout it varies somewhat in its neatness and regularity. This would suggest that the record was kept, as the Orders allowed, at convenient intervals and not necessarily day by day. Consequently, despite some signs of hasty composition, Temys' volume impresses by its clarity and the general care with which the account was kept. Corrections and alterations are few and they are made neatly, as the Orders required, without obscuring the original error. Most in any case occur in those parts of the record that were not essential to the account. For example, ships were entered 'ut postea' when in fact they were being registered for the first time. There are more crucial errors which pass uncorrected; but the overall impression of the record, given its size and complexity, is one of careful and conscientious preparation, albeit in the awkward 'dog latin' used by the customs.
While the book inspires some confidence it does pose the problems of use and interpretation that are common to the series. Most of these arise from the conflict of interest between the historian and the recorder. Our concern is mainly with the record of trade and shipping; his was to keep an account of revenue, not of trade. Consequently, the account has many limitations as a commercial record. Most obviously, the port books only register customable, i.e. laden ships. Those in ballast were of no concern. Nor do the main accounts enter duty-free goods: this ambiguous category had a separate record which rarely survives. (fn. 41) What is entered can also be affected, adversely from our point of view, by this preoccupation with revenue rather than commerce. Where the data have no direct fiscal relevance, the record can be cryptic, casual and even positively misleading. By following the entries item by item we can indicate some of the difficulties and frustrations that arise. First, however, it should be noted that one of the worst results of this negligence is incompleteness in recording those details that had no direct relevance to the accounts. Thus details of the ship and its voyage are often omitted. At worst only its name and home-port might be entered.
In entering a shipment the controller or his clerk recorded first, under the appropriate date, the name of the ship carrying it. Some problems of identification can arise here, as elsewhere, through the vagaries of phonetic spelling. This particularly applies to foreign vessels. Nor is the record always consistent. The Black Falcon may, for example, be entered elsewhere as simply the Falcon; and with Dutch ships particular confusion can arise over the fact that Eagle and Spredeagle—or Spledegle—were both common and interchangeable names. Next was entered the home-port. Apart from some problems of identification (fn. 42) there is the larger question of what this designation means. The most reasonable assumption is that it denotes the place where the ship would usually be found when not at sea; and this, in all probability, would be the domicile of the master or owner, who might well be the same person. (fn. 43) To complete the ship's description on its first entry the book should record its tonnage, the master and his domicile, and the port of departure. As to tonnage, which is often left out, accuracy should not be expected; only a rough impression of size or carrying capacity can be gained. The master's name and that of his domicile do not present any particular problem beyond those of spelling and identification. Lastly is entered the port of departure. This is in fact often omitted, which leads one to be suspicious of the frequent use of the term 'ab ibidem' to denote that 'from whence' was the same as 'of whence'. This could well be correct, particularly in the case of foreign ships; but there may be some suspicion that the controller, who was not consistently interested in recording the port of departure, was merely resorting to a convenient shorthand in preference to an awkward place-name. If the nature of the cargo does cast doubt on the designated port of departure, (fn. 44) it could well be that our accountant had preferred the economy of 'ab ibidem' to the labour of accuracy. The port of departure might be misleading for another reason. The naming of only one port, which is almost always the case, could be a serious oversimplification of the voyage. We know from such records as charter parties that ships often put into more than one port in the course of a voyage. This will not emerge from the port book, so the existence of multilateral, port-to-port traffic is completely obscured.
Under the heading of the ship's name etc. are entered the merchants' goods as they were declared and attested to the customs. This was the essential fiscal record so there are fewer errors and omissions. There remain, however, some problems of interpretation. Was the merchant named the 'very owner'? This was required by law, (fn. 45) but according to Hale—though writing about a century later—'the practice by indulgence and connivance both run contrary'. (fn. 46) The 'owner' might, in fact, be an agent, possibly acting illegally for an alien; or the representative of a partnership—although this can be indicated in the book—or a merchant who bought on board ship and not overseas. (fn. 47) He was still, however, required to give his trade, domicile or nationality. Thereafter the book details his consignment. There can be some difficulties in identifying commodities, as the Descriptive List (fn. 48) will illustrate; and some of the weights and measures pose problems. (fn. 49) Finally, the controller entered the valuation and the amount of duty as assessed by the collector. His record was now complete.