Tudor and Stuart Colchester: Economic history

A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1994.

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A P Baggs. Beryl Board. Philip Crummy. Claude Dove. Shirley Durgan. N R Goose. R B Pugh. Pamela Studd. C C Thornton, 'Tudor and Stuart Colchester: Economic history', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994) pp. 76-87. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol9/pp76-87 [accessed 24 May 2024].

A P Baggs. Beryl Board. Philip Crummy. Claude Dove. Shirley Durgan. N R Goose. R B Pugh. Pamela Studd. C C Thornton. "Tudor and Stuart Colchester: Economic history", in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994) 76-87. British History Online, accessed May 24, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol9/pp76-87.

Baggs, A P. Board, Beryl. Crummy, Philip. Dove, Claude. Durgan, Shirley. Goose, N R. Pugh, R B. Studd, Pamela. Thornton, C C. "Tudor and Stuart Colchester: Economic history", A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994). 76-87. British History Online. Web. 24 May 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol9/pp76-87.

In this section


The Early 16th-Century Economy

In the early 16th century Colchester ranked ninth among English provincial towns in terms of taxable wealth and seventh in terms of size of taxable population. (fn. 1) It had fared well compared to many other towns in the later Middle Ages; its high position in the urban rankings testifies to the vigour of its growth after the Black Death of 1348-9, as well as to its relatively gentle later decline. The town's early 16th-century economy exhibited a diversity typical of developed early modern towns which served as manufacturing centres and markets both for their immediate areas and for a wider hinterland, and also performed administrative functions. Most large towns also possessed an economic specialism, and Colchester's economy depended heavily upon its cloth industry, allied to its role as a port.

Diversity and specialization are both revealed in the town's occupational structure (Tables I and II). The number and range of occupations, c. 56 in the earlier 16th century and 102 in the 17th, mark Colchester off from the smaller towns of Essex. Its important market, held three times weekly, and its three annual fairs brought outsiders to the town and encouraged the growth of service industries, and the port attracted mariners and other transport workers. Nevertheless, as many as 47 per cent of the sample for the period 1500-79 were manufacturers, and the dominant group among them were producers of woollen cloth.

The fundamental importance of cloth production and trade to the town in the early 16th century is even more apparent from the distribution of wealth in 1524 and 1525, (fn. 2) when the occupations of 252 of the 996 individuals included in either of the two subsidy assessments are known. (fn. 3) Of the seven men with taxable wealth of £100 or more, four were clothiers, one was a merchant and clothier, one a merchant, and the other, John Christmas, had made his wealth in cloth and trade. Of those assessed at between £40 and £99, 11 were clothiers or merchants, 2 were simply gentlemen and the others a tallow chandler, a brewer, and a yeoman. The lists are dominated by the wealth of John Christmas, assessed initially at £1,000 in movable goods, then at £600, and finally at £400. He was the son of the merchant and bailiff Thomas Christmas, who at his death in 1520 owned lands and houses in St. Runwald's, St. Botolph's, St. Mary's-at-the-Walls, St. Leonard's, St. Martin's, and Holy Trinity parishes, and in Mile End, Greenstead, Lexden, and Old Heath. He also held manors in Bradwell-on-Sea, Beaumont cum Moze, and the unidentified 'Downwell', besides land in Birch, Copford, Clacton, Kirby-le-Soken, Mundon, Thorpe-le-Soken, and South Hanningfield, and Newbridge mill in West Bergholt. He bequeathed 200 marks cash and 100 marks in plate to his wife Joan and a further 200 marks cash to his daughters. The recorder Thomas Bonham, the town clerk Thomas Audley, Sir John Rainsford, and the abbot of St. John's were supervisors of his will. His bequests to his shearmen, fullers, weavers, and 'ginners' indicate the origins of his wealth, which testifies to the profits that could be made from cloth production and trade in Colchester, even in a relatively stagnant economy. (fn. 4)

1500-79 1580-1619 1620-59 1660-99
no. per cent no. per cent no. per cent no. per cent
Textiles 65 26.5 104 26.4 194 37.1 82 40.0
Clothing 21 8.6 49 12.4 37 7.1 48 6.8
Leather (raw) 3 1.2 5 1.3 6 1.1 8 1.1
Household 30 12.2 24 6.1 38 7.3 53 7.5
Tools and Arms 5 2.0 1 0.3 12 2.3 27 3.8
Housing 9 3.7 18 4.6 9 1.7 38 5.4
Food and Drink 29 11.8 52 13.2 60 11.5 81 11.5
Transport 28 11.4 45 11.4 42 8.0 45 6.4
Service 19 7.8 27 6.9 22 4.2 19 2.7
Education - - 2 0.5 1 0.2 5 0.7
Medicine 2 0.8 6 1.5 8 1.5 22 3.1
Miscellaneous 34 13.9 61 15.5 94 18.0 77 10.9
245 99.9 394 100.1 523 100.0 705 99.9

Sources: Wills proved in Prerogative, Consistory, and Archdeaconry Courts in P.R.O. and E.R.O. 1500-1699.

1500-79 1580-1619 1620-59 1660-99
1 Clothier 1 Clothier 1 Baymaker 1 Weaver
2 Mariner 2 Mariner 2 Weaver 2 Baymaker
3 Weaver 3 Weaver 3 Mariner 3 Mariner
4 Smith 4 Baymaker 4 Merchant 4 Shoemaker
5 Tailor 5 Shoemaker 5 Shoemaker 5 Carpenter
6 Butcher 6 Tailor 6 Tailor 6 Woolcomber
7= Mercer 7= Draper 7= Brewer 7 Grocer
Shearman Merchant Draper 8= Draper
9= Brewer 9 Baker 9 Miller Merchant
Carpenter 10= Butcher 10= Baker 10 Tailor
11= Merchant Brewer Clothier 11= Cardmaker
Miller 12 Carpenter 12= Grocer Maltster
Innholder Miller

Note: Baymaker includes saymaker; smith includes blacksmith; weaver includes weavers of all types of cloth; draper includes woollendraper and linendraper; mariner includes shipsmaster and sailor.

Sources: Wills proved in Prerogative, Consistory, and Archdeaconry Courts in P.R.O. and E.R.O. 1500-1699.

Readjustment and Recovery, 1500-1570

The period has been seen either as one of continuing economic decline for English provincial towns or as one of readjustment and recovery from the late medieval depression, and the evidence from Colchester tends to support the latter view. (fn. 5) There, as in many towns, the fortunes of the cloth industry were crucial. Contemporary comment, (fn. 6) government legislation, (fn. 7) and case studies of Norwich, Coventry, and York, (fn. 8) all testify to the migration of textile production from town to countryside in the early 16th century, suggesting that the expanding national cloth production of those years was based on rural areas rather than towns. Occupational data from wills indicate that the Colchester industry may have been in decline: the proportion of the occupied male testators engaged in cloth production fell from almost 30 per cent in the period 1500-39 to 18 per cent in the period 1540-79. (fn. 9) Furthermore, of the 101 burgesses admitted to the freedom between 1550 and 1570 for whom an occupation is recorded only 16 were textile workers. (fn. 10)

As early as 1528 the Colchester clothmaker John Boswell the younger reported difficulty in selling his cloths in Colchester Hall in Blackwell Hall cloth market, London, but his complaint may have been special pleading to extend his credit with his wool suppliers. (fn. 11) The difficulties of the mid-century slump in the English cloth industry (fn. 12) are evident in Colchester not only in an increasing concern with poverty and unemployment, (fn. 13) but also in the charges of sedition levelled at malcontented clothworkers in 1566. One of three weavers indicted had declared 'we can get no work nor we have no money... Then will up two or three thousand in Colchester and about Colchester', while another had complained that 'weavers' occupation is a dead science nowadays and it will never be better before we make a rising'. (fn. 14)

In 1515 there were arrears of almost £10 on the duke of Norfolk's rent roll of £25 4s. 5d. in the borough. (fn. 15) The town was included among those in need of 're-edification' by the statute of 1540, but that and lists of houses destroyed or in need of repair in Head ward and among the possessions of St. John's abbey may indicate long-term decay and may indeed be preludes to a concerted renewal. (fn. 16) A much longer list of the abbey's lands in 1539 gives no suggestion of general decay. (fn. 17) The occasional record of decay in the chamberlain's account for 1548-9 is offset by more frequent references to new buildings, and many more townsmen were assessed for subsidy on land and houses in 1547 than in 1524-5. (fn. 18) In 1550 the corporation thought it worthwhile to invest £284 5s. in buying former chantry lands and houses in Colchester and the surrounding parishes. (fn. 19) Monastic or chantry lands changed hands time and again in later 16th-century Colchester, providing a significant stimulus to the land market, and John Lucas's acquisition of St. John's Abbey provided the townsmen with the custom of a substantial landed seat to replace that lost by the demise of the monastery. (fn. 20)

Returns of Colchester's overseas and inland trade in the earlier 16th century were included under those for the headport of Ipswich. If the Ipswich figures reflect Colchester's experience, the later 15th and early 16th centuries witnessed expansion rather than decline, and the town may have escaped the recession that affected so many provincial ports between the 1520s and 1550s as trade became increasingly concentrated upon London. (fn. 21) It is also possible that the growth of coastal traffic benefited Colchester as it did other east coast ports in the earlier 16th century; a predominantly coastal trade may explain the small average tonnage of the 23 vessels belonging to the town in 1550. (fn. 22) The annual farm of tolls and profits of the Hythe, which may have fallen from £29 in 1501-2 to £24 in 1504-5 and then rose only to £28 in 1521-2, the sum still paid in 1548-9, is not necessarily a reliable index. (fn. 23) There were difficulties with the Colne channel, which in 1536 had reportedly been 'much filled' with silt for 10 or 12 years past. A voluntary collection for its repair failed to raise a sufficient sum, and in 1549 a rate was levied on the borough which, with other contributions, yielded £290 for repairs. (fn. 24)

Ordinances enacted in the 1560s provide indirect evidence of the level of internal trade. Between 1562 and 1565 the corporation showed considerable concern with the regulation of marketing in general and that of 'foreigners' or non-freemen in particular. (fn. 25) Careful licensing of chandlers was introduced to ensure adequate provisions and fair prices. Detailed charges were imposed upon all 'foreigners' buying hides and skins in Colchester market, while every tanner was enjoined to bring as much tanned leather into the market as he took hides and skins out. The two wardens of the butchers continued to be sworn annually, one chosen by the butchers and the other by the bailiffs and aldermen. No 'foreign' butcher was to sell meat in the market after 2 p.m. between All Saints' and Shrove Tuesday, and after 3 p.m. between Easter and All Saints'. Only butchers living in the town and those who had served a seven-year apprenticeship might be admitted free, but a butcher's widow might carry on his trade. Other regulations were designed to ensure adequate quality and supply of meat. New regulations were enacted for the fishery in 1567 when there were said to be twice the customary number of oyster dredgers. (fn. 26) Only those licensed by the bailiffs were to dredge for oysters, on pain of 40s. fine, while all oysters, mackerel, and other fish were to be sold in the market at the Hythe, unless bought by householders for their own consumption.

A more general attempt to regulate economic activity was made in 1562, when the town was said to be very much decayed by immigrants intent on 'their own singular lucre', whose activities brought into contempt the authority of the corporation. The main problem was those non-freemen who kept open shops and warehouses in Colchester and thus profited from the town without contributing to it. No 'foreign' retailer or artisan was to live in the borough unless he first compounded with the bailiffs and aldermen for his freedom or for his foreign fine, on pain of 40s. No 'foreigner' was to buy any corn, grain, salt, coal, herring, fish, merchandise, or anything else from any other 'foreigner', on pain of forfeiture. No goods were to be 'foreign bought and sold' without payment of appropriate fines, while inhabitants were required to sue only in the borough courts unless granted special licence to sue elsewhere. (fn. 27) Taken together the ordinances represent a concerted attempt by the corporation to keep control over economic activity in the town, to protect the interests of the inhabitants, particularly of the freemen, against a perceived threat from the activities of outsiders. In 1565 regulations for taking up the freedom by birth were tightened. (fn. 28)

Had the town still been in economic decline there would have been little need to protect the burgesses from competition, and further proof of the borough's attraction to traders is provided by the limits and bounds of St. Dennis's or the Pardon Fair set out in 1562. On the south side of High Street stood fletchers, bowyers, saddlers, collarmakers, ropers, glovers, smiths, haberdashers, hollandshiremen, grocers, linendrapers, and mercers, their stalls extending from East gate to St. Runwald's church. On the north side of the road were the fishmongers and salters, then the shoemakers whose stalls extended up to the butchers' shambles. 'Foreign' linendrapers were set apart, and next to them were the pewterers, brasiers, and tinkers, town dwellers or 'foreign', followed by the tanners and soapers, who stood near St. Runwald's church. Beyond them, towards the cornmarket, stood nailmen, ironmongers, 'Ipswich men being coverlet men', foreign woollendrapers and hosiers, turners, basketmakers, 'bowlmen', and traders in butter, cheese, and corn. The goldsmiths also had an appropriate, but unspecified, location. The injunction that stalls were only to line the streets and not to be placed crossways or alongside each other implies competition for space, a bustling hive of activity for the eight days of the fair. (fn. 29) It may well be that in mid 16th-century Colchester, as in Norwich, increasing internal trade and manufacture for home consumption compensated for a depressed textile industry. (fn. 30)

The number of burgesses admitted to the town supports that interpretation. The total admitted each decade by purchase remained roughly stable during the earlier 16th century, at a level comparable to that of the later 15th. (fn. 31) That it was still proving difficult to attract migrants is perhaps suggested by the frequent concession of 3s. 4d. of the standard 23s. 4d. fine early in the century, until a sum of 20s. became the norm in the 1530s. (fn. 32) Evidence of the desire to attract inhabitants of the right calibre is provided by the agreement to reduce the fine payable by John Neve, clothmaker, of Stowmarket in 1516, from 20s. to 10s. provided he remained in Colchester for at least five years. Remain he did, immediately becoming a common councillor, later an alderman, and eventually bailiff four times before his death in 1542. (fn. 33) He was among the wealthiest townsmen in the 1520s, being assessed for subsidy on £40 in goods. By 1542 his wealth had increased substantially, and he left £400 to buy lands and houses worth £20 a year to pay annuities. (fn. 34) In the 1550s there was a decisive increase in the numbers purchasing the freedom of the town, to 107 from 59 in the 1540s. If the complaints of the 1560s are to be believed, many more were assuming the freemen's privileges without paying for them. Despite the textile depression a distinct quickening of economic activity is evident in mid 16th-century Colchester, enough to sustain the urban economy through a difficult period for its staple industry and to permit some demographic growth across the second and third quarters of the century.

Growth and Development, 1570-1700

The town's economy grew decisively in the final third of the 16th century, and the key to that growth was the revival of its cloth industry. The lesson of the mid-century crisis in the English cloth export trade was that demand for the traditional heavy woollen product was inelastic, and that it was dangerous to rely so heavily upon one type of cloth, (fn. 35) whether exported in its raw state or dyed and dressed as in Colchester. Innovation was widespread, and in Colchester such innovation was inspired by the arrival of Dutch immigrants in the 1560s. (fn. 36) Late in 1561 the corporation agreed that the bailiff Benjamin Clere should treat with the Privy Council for the taking in of Dutch refugees, and the first 55 persons in 11 households arrived in 1565. (fn. 37) In 1571 there were 185 resident aliens, 431 two years later, and 1,291 by 1586. Only then did the influx slow, a census of 1622 recording 1,535 aliens. (fn. 38) The annual average number of baptisms in the Dutch church in the mid 17th century stood at 48, (fn. 39) suggesting that the size of the community had stabilized at about 1,500 in a total population of some 10,500- 11,000.

The immigrants were granted considerable privileges, most notably control of the Dutch Bay Hall to which all 'new draperies' were taken for inspection and sealing before sale. Despite recurrent disputes with English weavers during the later 16th and early 17th century those privileges were repeatedly upheld. (fn. 40) The introduction of the new worsted draperies, particularly bays and says, was the key contribution of the Dutch, for those cloths were relatively light and cheap, and appealed to a wide market in southern as well as northern Europe. (fn. 41) The quality control imposed by the Dutch, although limited in 1631 to bays and says, was crucial to the reputation of the Colchester cloth, which was frequently reported to be sold simply upon inspection of its seals. Colchester bays became a byword for quality in the 17th century, and were still known in the early 18th century 'over most of the trading parts of Europe'. (fn. 42)

The revival of the Colchester textile industry is evident from the town's occupational structure (Tables I and II). In the period 1580-1619 the percentage of the occupied population engaged in cloth production and distribution rose to 26, with baymaker fourth among the town's leading occupations. By the period 1620-59 baymakers had achieved first position, and 37 per cent of the occupied male population was employed in cloth production and sale. That figure rose to 40 per cent later in the century, by which time Continental producers were attempting to emulate the English product. (fn. 43) In the period 1660-99, only 2 clothiers, 3 clothworkers, and 3 dyers were found in a sample of 705 occupations, showing that the dominance of the new draperies over the old in Colchester was complete. Occupations of Colchester apprentices enrolled between 1580 and 1630 tell the same story, the proportion involved in textile production rising from little more than a quarter in the 1580s to almost a half in each of the first three decades of the 17th century. (fn. 44) In 1629 it was claimed, with typical exaggeration, that 20,000 persons were maintained by bay and say manufacture in Colchester alone, producing 400 bays and as many says each week. (fn. 45) In the early 18th century it was suggested that the town returned '£30,000 weekly in ready money for these stuffs'. (fn. 46) Celia Fiennes found that 'the whole town is employed in spinning, weaving, washing, drying, and dressing their bays', (fn. 47) while Defoe's impression was that 'The town may be said chiefly to subsist by the trade of making bays' and that the whole county was employed, and in part maintained, by spinning wool for the bay trade of Colchester and neighbouring towns. (fn. 48)

The industry's progress was not entirely trouble free, particularly in the unstable trading conditions of the 1620s and 1630s. (fn. 49) Hostility between England and Spain in the 1620s resulted in the prohibition of exports to that important market, reportedly reducing weekly production of Colchester bays from 400 pieces to 50, and leaving over £6,000 worth unsold in 1629, besides says to a similar value. (fn. 50) By 1631 Colchester's poor were petitioning against an abatement of their accustomed wages, (fn. 51) and in 1635 the bailiffs and J.P.s, in response to another complaint by the bayweavers, imposed a sliding scale of payment, 10s.-12s. a bay depending on the current market value of each ell of cloth. (fn. 52) Two years later weavers accused a baymaker of paying low wages and forcing them to accept payment in kind, (fn. 53) and attempts to cut costs may have led to the abuses in bay manufacture of which London merchants complained in 1635, a year in which exports from Colchester slumped. (fn. 54)

Notwithstanding such vicissitudes, the long-term trend in production of new draperies in Colchester was decidedly upward. The officers of the Dutch Bay Hall collected 'rawboots', fines for faulty workmanship by English manufacturers, which from 1636 provide an index of bay production (Table III). The decennial average figure rose steadily until the 1690s when a combination of poor harvests and warfare caused difficulties for English foreign trade in general. (fn. 55) The impact of the siege of Colchester of 1648 is clear, as is that of the plague of 1665-6, (fn. 56) but the speed with which production recovered from each setback and then rose to new heights testifies to the resilience of the industry.

Colchester's economy flourished in other ways from the later 16th century. The thrice-weekly market continued to sell a variety of foodstuffs including 'garden stuff', the Dutch having stimulated the development of horticulture. (fn. 57) As a corn market Colchester was unrivalled in the county, (fn. 58) and the importance of its grain trade in the 17th century is shown by the appearance of maltsters among its leading tradesmen. Pontage was levied in 1635 on corn, timber, firewood, straw, hay, clay, sand, bricks, tiles, household implements, and wool carried to and from the town by road. (fn. 59) Hides, skins, and pelts were particularly important in the town, which possessd its own leather hall. (fn. 60) In the later 16th century a new shambles and a new market cross were built, to improve and perhaps enlarge the market. (fn. 61) The twice-weekly woolmarket was reorganized in 1592 and 1595 and continued throughout the 17th century. Nevertheless, wool was still sold in inns and private houses, the lessee of the market claiming in 1685 that the aldermen and common councillors were the greatest offenders. (fn. 62) In 1624 the meat market was 'of late years much increased', while a succession of complaints against trade in meat and hides after the appointed market hours and outside the market place suggest that private marketing was growing too. (fn. 63) The 1693 charter granted a new Tuesday market and a new fair in July; both concentrated on livestock, building upon a long established trade in horses and cattle. (fn. 64) Growing numbers of inns, alehouses, and taverns catered for those attending the markets. (fn. 65) The increased overland traffic, transporting cloth to and raw wool from London, was probably chiefly responsible for the worsening roads; in 1616 the highways between Colchester (and other Essex towns) and London were being badly damaged by overloaded wagons. (fn. 66) By the later 17th century considerable quantities of raw wool were also brought from inland counties, even though the coastal supplies were becoming increasingly important. (fn. 67)

Year £ Year £ Year £ Year £
1636 33 1652 38 1668 101 1684 233
1637 34 1653 41 1669 115 1685 172
1638 39 1654 61 1670 121 1686 198
1639 39 1655 59 1671 125 1687 200
1640 48 1656 58 1672 120 1688 214
1641 41 1657 55 1673 140 1689 215
1642 25 1658 54 1674 143 1690 188
1643 34 1659 53 1675 139 1691 174
1644 46 1660 83 1676 125 1692 144
1645 53 1661 86 1677 134 1693 128
1646 42 1662 77 1678 139 1694 197
1647 38 1663 94 1679 124 1695 200
1648 36 1664 97 1680 165 1696 183
1649 67 1665 92 1681 188 1697 162
1650 73 1666 31 1682 225 1698 173
1651 49 1667 61 1683 248 1699 174

Source: E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb3-6, passim.

The town's overseas trade tended to follow the fortunes of its cloth industry. Port books suggest an expanding export trade in the late 16th century and the early 17th, based chiefly upon the new draperies. (fn. 68) Exports of new draperies increased approximately fourfold in the 17th century, with rapid expansions in the periods 1600-30 and 1670-1700, a slump in the 1630s, and a slow recovery to 1670. Exports of traditional woollen cloths, depressed in the 1590s, mirrored the general recovery of that trade in the early 17th century, only to fall off steadily after 1622. (fn. 69)

In 1571-2, apart from cloth, Colchester exported hides, leather and leather goods, coal, beer, wax, rough horns, and 'woadnets' (perhaps 'woadnuts' or balls of woad), all in small quantities. (fn. 70) In 1607-8 and 1621-2 cloth was supplemented by coal, beer, salt, aquavitae, sheepskins, iron, wax, mustard seed, peas, hats, deal, stockings, cordage, and old wool-cards, while in 1638-9 exports included hops, starch, ginger, cinnamon, paper, lead, copperas, oil, lime, and haberdashery wares. (fn. 71) In the later 17th century the range of commodities narrowed while the quantities of particular items increased. A little coal, some old wool-cards, hops, rapeseed, saffron, peas, some clothing, a ton of 'old iron', and the occasional horse appear, but quantities of dressed calfskins, leather, rye, wheat, and oysters dominated the non-textile export trade. Export of oysters grew remarkably, the annual average for the four years 1679-80 and 1700-1 amounting to 1,140 bu., while in the peak year of 1682 over 4,000 bu. were shipped overseas. (fn. 72)

Imports also grew and diversified. In 1571-2, apart from various types of cloth, Colchester imported some Spanish wool and unspun cotton, handles for cards and wire, new wool-cards and combs, teazles, and red and green dyestuffs. Several shipments of salt were received, besides luxuries such as sugar, prunes, raisins, pepper, cloves, and ginger. Household items included French knives and drinking glasses, bottles, brown and white paper, pins, and thread. (fn. 73) By 1660-1 a great deal of French and Rhenish wine was imported, as was iron, iron wire, iron vessels, oil, and various household items. Battery, copper wire, stone bottles, cordage, quern stones, rope, fish oil, vinegar, spirits, French salt, Spanish salt, Norway deal, 'timber to make cardboard', Holland cheese, clapboards, prunes, cloves, refined sugar, pickled herrings, wine lees, Osnabruck and broad Hamburg cloth and other manufactured items, foodstuffs, and raw materials came to the town, largely from Rotterdam but also from ports in France and Norway. (fn. 74) By 1678-80 Dutch and German cloth was becoming more prominent, until between 1699 and 1701 various types of Dutch and German linen (particularly osnaburgs, duck, holland, and burlaps) and broad and narrow German cloths predominated; there were also pantiles and stone of various kinds, stone pots and earthenware, Norway wood, haberdasheries, paper, bullrushes, 'prepared metal', and household goods. (fn. 75) By then the range of imports was even wider, still mainly from Rotterdam, indicating the growing importance of Colchester as a centre of consumption and redistribution.

Despite its expanding trade, Colchester was not in the front rank of English provincial ports. Figures for customs payments in the 1590s place it 14th out of the 19 ports for which evidence survives, (fn. 76) while on the basis of the annual average cloth custom and subsidy paid by 15 ports between 1600 and 1640 Colchester stood in 10th place, paying less than half the total collected at Ipswich and less than an 11th of that paid by Hull. (fn. 77) Most of the growing export trade in the town's new draperies was conducted through London. In 1635, during a dispute with Colchester merchants, the Merchant Adventurers Company claimed that the town could boast only four or five merchants trading overseas, and that those bought only a fraction of the cloth made at Colchester, most bays being taken to London to be bought by the Merchant Adventurers and others. (fn. 78) Little had changed by the end of the century. In the four years 1697-1701 the annual average national export of double bays was 36,872 cloths, of which 1,137 (3.1 per cent) were exported directly from Colchester. Only 3.6 per cent of the says, serges, and perpetuanas exported nationally left from Colchester, 0.4 per cent of the single bays, and none of the treble bays. (fn. 79) Coastal shipments of bays to London in 1698-9 amounted to nearly 25,000 cloths, twenty times the town's direct exports. (fn. 80)

The geographical horizons of Colchester's trade were not extended by its expanding new drapery exports. In 1571-2 Colchester traded almost exclusively with Rouen and la Rochelle in France, with Flushing in the Netherlands, and with 'Camphere' (perhaps Quimper, France, or Kampen, Netherlands). One or two ships went to Bordeaux and Dieppe (France), to Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), to Hamburg and Stade in Germany, and to the unidentified 'Newhaven'. Imports were additionally received from the unidentified 'Olderne' and 'Borwage' (possibly for Norway), and from Emden (Germany). (fn. 81) By the 1590s trade was heavily concentrated upon Middelburg (Netherlands), and in the earlier 17th century on 'Camphere' and Rotterdam. Occasional shipments were made to Seville (Spain), the Spanish Islands and the Azores, but the bay trade to the Mediterranean was dominated by London. (fn. 82) Colchester played little part in the Eastland trade in which Ipswich was so heavily involved. (fn. 83) Only an occasional Colchester vessel sailed to the Baltic between the 1560s and 1590s, and relatively few thereafter apart from flurries of activity in the 1600s, the 1680s, and at the very end of the 17th century, which never exceeded seven passages each way in any one year. (fn. 84) The alderman John Hunwick was a member of the Eastland Co. and of the Spanish and Portuguese Cos. in 1583. His apprentice John Eldred was a member of the Eastland Co. by 1608, and of the Muscovy Co. by 1624. (fn. 85) John Braxted was described as a merchant adventurer in 1604, (fn. 86) and although in 1619 the town claimed to have no merchants free of any company John Wiles of Colchester, who had served his apprenticeship with John Eldred, was a merchant adventurer in 1622. (fn. 87) In 1634, however, the restoration of the privileges of the Merchant Adventurers Co. of London led to a Privy Council order confining Colchester merchants to trade with Rotterdam. (fn. 88) Despite occasional shipments to Norway, Hamburg (Germany), Dunkirk and Bordeaux in France, and 'Stockholland', the Rotterdam connexion dominated the town's overseas trade throughout the later 17th century and into the 18th. (fn. 89)

Colchester's coastal trade centred upon London throughout the later 16th and 17th centuries. In 1568-9 cheese and butter were the main goods sent to the capital, followed by wheat, oats, malt, wood, and faggots. A greater variety of products was received in return, notably dyestuffs, soap, oil, groceries, ironware, coal, and canvas. A few shipments of butter and cheese went to Faversham, Gravesend, and Sittingbourne (Kent), occasional journeys were made to Southampton and Exeter, while Newcastle received considerable quantities of rye. Trade with Newcastle was second in importance only to that with London: of 77 inward cargoes in 1568-9, 44 were from London and 25 from Newcastle, the latter consisting largely of coal and salt. (fn. 90) Colchester merchants had been sending grain to Newcastle since the early 16th century, when Ambrose Lowth was accused of attempting to store a shipment of wheat and rye at Newcastle until he could set his own price. (fn. 91) In 1510 Lowth was presented in the borough court for regrating salt coming to Colchester market. (fn. 92) By the 1590s, Colchester vessels were venturing to the Scottish coast for salt. (fn. 93)

The importance of the coastal connexion with London grew as bay and say manufacture developed, until by 1649 two vessels laden with draperies sailed twice a week between Colchester and London. (fn. 94) Towards the end of the century the exchange of cloth for wool dominated the traffic, and by 1698-9 as many as 117 of 135 outward coastal cargoes were destined for London. London-bound cargoes contained coarse locks, grain, potash, household goods, ironware, beeswax, groceries and spices, leather, and foreign linens, many presumably imported from Rotterdam. Large quantities of wool for textile manufacture were received in return, followed in importance by oil, soap, tobacco, wine, iron, and various drapery, grocery, and household wares. Ten cargoes to Newcastle, four to Sunderland, and three to Whitby, consisted largely of rye and peas, supplemented by barley, beans, hay, chairs, and 'many other goods', whose diversity apparently defeated the patience of the customs officers. (fn. 95)

In 1619 Colchester possessed 26 vessels, including fishing boats and hoys, the six largest being coal ships averaging c. 100 tons. (fn. 96) By 1702-4 the 25 Colchester vessels involved in the coal trade with Newcastle averaged c. 48 tons. (fn. 97) In 1612, out of a total of 2,407 shipments of coal from Newcastle, 48 were made in Colchester ships, placing the town tenth among provincial ports involved in the trade, while a return of the tax collected under the new coal excise in 1651 places Colchester eighth of 57 provincial ports. (fn. 98) By the end of the 17th century Sunderland had overhauled Newcastle as the main source of coal. In 1698-9 as many as 47 cargoes of coal were received from Sunderland, only 27 from Newcastle, but the latter also contained salt, glass, tanned calfskins, butter, and grindstones. Other imports, mainly of raw wool and fuller's earth, came largely from Kentish ports, particularly Rochester and Faversham. (fn. 99)

Colchester's developing trade led to a fairly steady growth in the mercantile tonnage owned by the town (Table IV). The check in that growth in the late 16th and early 17th centuries may well have been due to the increased involvement in Colchester trade of merchants from the Low Countries. Whereas in 1571-2 London merchants had competed for Colchester cloth exports, in the exceptional year 1605 'strangers' carried 1,095 double and 614 single bays out of the town. (fn. 100) In 1621-2 while trade with Rotterdam, Calais, and the Azores was dominated by Colchester and Wivenhoe vessels, shipments to 'Camphere', 'Rickade' and 'Crill', c. 40 per cent of exports, were monopolized by 'strangers'. (fn. 101) There may have been some truth in the town's complaint in 1616 that a 'great concourse of strangers' shipped into the port and carried away the goods of both English and Dutch merchants, and in the claims made in 1616 and 1619 that Colchester's shipping was much decayed. (fn. 102) Shipping had recovered by 1629, and the middle years of the century saw considerable growth. By the end of the century Colchester vessels and Colchester merchants dominated the town's export trade, importing Dutch and German linens and a vast array of other products from Rotterdam, and also wood, iron, and pitch from Norway. (fn. 103) In 1582 there were 106 mariners in the town, 344 by 1702. (fn. 104) The annual rent payable for the lease of the tolls and profits of the Hythe increased only from £24 in 1504-5 to £42-£44 between 1597 and 1665, but whereas no fine appears to have been paid for the lease in 1504-5, and only 30s. in 1597, the sum charged in 1642 was £101 and in 1665 £150. (fn. 105) Through a combination of its overseas and coastal trade Colchester had done far more than hold its own in the face of the increasing activities of the capital, and it was described in 1707 as very rich and populous, inhabited by merchants of considerable estates and great traders. (fn. 106)

Date Number of Vessels Total Tonnage
1550 23 840
1582 42 1,246
1619 26 c. 1,080
1629 13 1,460
1676 49 c. 3,930
1702 34 3,675

Sources: 1550, G. V. Scammell, 'English Merchant Shipping at the end of the Middle Ages: some East Coast Evidence', Econ. H.R. 2nd ser. xiii. 338; 1582, P.R.O., SP 12/156/45; 1619, P.R.O., SP 14/105/114; 1629, 1676, 1702, Burley, 'Econ. Development', Table XIII.


  • 1. Goose, 'Econ. and Social Aspects', Tables 1.1 and 1.2, pp. 35, 37.
  • 2. P.R.O., E 179/108/147, 162, 169.
  • 3. Occupations identified mainly from wills and borough court rolls.
  • 4. P.R.O., PROB 11/19, ff. 28 sqq.
  • 5. Towns in Societies, ed. P. Abrams and E. A. Wrigley, 159-69; Urban Hist. Yrbk. (1978), 60-72; Econ. H.R. 2nd ser. xxxix. 182-4.
  • 6. Tudor Econ. Doc. ed. R. H. Tawney and E. Power, iii. 117-18; Discourse of Commonweal of Realm of Eng. ed. M. Dewar, 76-7, 91.
  • 7. 25 Hen. VIII, c. 18; 1 Mary Stat. III, c. 7; 2 & 3 Ph. & Mary, c. 11; 4 & 5 Ph. & Mary, c. 5.
  • 8. Towns in Societies, 178-9; Past and Present, xl. 61; W. R. D. Jones, Mid-Tudor Crisis 1539-1563, 122-3; Past and Present, xxxiv. 49-69; C. Phythian-Adams, Desolation of a City, 31-67; D. Palliser, Tudor York, 162, 201, 208-10.
  • 9. Sources cited for Tables I and II.
  • 10. Burgess admissions extracted from E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr117- 134.
  • 11. L. & P. Hen. VIII, iv (2), p. 1831.
  • 12. Econ. H.R. 1st ser. x. 153, 160; G. D. Ramsay, Eng. Overseas Trade During the Centuries of Emergence, 22; J. D. Gould, Great Debasement: Currency and the Economy in mid-Tudor Eng. 140-1.
  • 13. Below, this chapter, Soc. Structure (Early 16th century).
  • 14. Cal. Assize Rec. Essex, Eliz. I, p. 51; F. G. Emmison, Elizabethan Life: Disorder, 62-4.
  • 15. B.L. Add. Ch. 215.
  • 16. 32 Hen. VIII, c. 18; E.R.O., D/Y 2/2, p. 13; P.R.O., E 310/13/40; Urban Hist. Yearbk. (1978), 63; below, this chapter, Topography (Town to 1640).
  • 17. P.R.O., SC 6/Hen. VIII/976.
  • 18. B.L. Stowe MS. 829, ff. 12-40; below, this chapter, Soc. Structure (Early 16th century).
  • 19. E.R.O., Boro. Mun. Acc. C1: Misc. Deeds, item 2; Cal. Pat. 1549-51, 420-1.
  • 20. Cal. Pat. 1547-8, 204, 252-7; 1548-9, 86; below, Religious Houses.
  • 21. D. Burwash, Eng. Merchant Shipping 1460-1540, 145-64 and App. II, Tables of Group IV; E. M. Carus-Wilson and O. Coleman, Eng.'s Export Trade 1275-1547, 71-4, 114-19; R. Davis, Eng. Overseas Trade 1500-1700, Table 1, 52.
  • 22. Econ. H.R. 2nd ser. xiii. 338-9.
  • 23. Britnell, Growth and Decline, 278; Bodl. MS. Rolls Essex 2; B.L. Stowe MS. 829, f. 14.
  • 24. E.R.O., D/B 5 R2, loose fol.; B.L. Stowe MS. 829, ff. 26 and v., 55 and v.
  • 25. E.R.O., D/B 5 R5, ff. 91v.-92v., 93v., 102-104v.
  • 26. Ibid. ff. 111-12.
  • 27. Ibid. ff. 90v.-91v.
  • 28. Ibid. ff. 107v.-108; below, this chapter, Boro. Govt.
  • 29. E.R.O., D/B 5 R5, ff. 89v.-90.
  • 30. Past and Present, xxxiv. 49-69.
  • 31. Burgess admissions from E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr83- 163; D/B 5 Cb1/2-4; D/B 5 Cb2/2-4. Figures for 15th cent. are in Britnell, Growth and Decline, 279-80.
  • 32. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr82-109.
  • 33. Ibid. D/B 5 Cr87, rot. 23; Cr89, rot. I; Cr96, rot. 1.
  • 34. P.R.O., E 179/108/147; ibid. PROB 11/29, f. 1.
  • 35. Econ. H.R. 2nd ser. xxii. 423-5.
  • 36. Immigrants and Minorities, i. 261-80.
  • 37. E.R.O., D/B 5 R5, f. 92; Roker, 'Flemish and Dutch in Colch.' 85.
  • 38. P.R.O., SP 12/78, no. 9; SP 12/190, no. 2; SP 14/129, no. 70; E.R.O., D/B 5 R7, ff. 296v.-299.
  • 39. Calculated from Reg. Dutch Ch. of Colch. (Huguenot Soc. xii).
  • 40. Immigrants and Minorities, i. 266, 269-72.
  • 41. Econ. H.R. 2nd ser. xxii. 424; Ramsay, Eng. Overseas Trade, 50-4; Davis, Eng. Overseas Trade, 20-5; Univ. Birmingham Hist. Jnl. vii. 50-1.
  • 42. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1619-23, 247; 1635, 266-7; Acts of P.C. 1592, 76; 1630-1, 200; Hist. MSS. Com. 2, 3rd Rep. p. 71; Hist. MSS. Com. 6, 7th Rep. I, H.L., p. 131; Hist. MSS. Com. 7, 8th Rep. I, H.L., p. 134; D. Defoe, Tour, ed. G. D. H. Cole (1927), i. 17.
  • 43. E. Kerridge, Textile Manufactures in Early Modern Eng. 242.
  • 44. Apprenticeships from E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr142-186; D/B 5 Cb1/2-9; D/B 5 Cb2/3-11; D/B 5 Gb1-3; Goose, 'Econ. and Social Aspects', Table 3.1, p. 94.
  • 45. 17th Cent. Econ. Doc. ed. J. Thirsk and J. P. Cooper, 224.
  • 46. T. Cox, Magna Britannia, i. 707.
  • 47. Journeys of Celia Fiennes, ed. C. Morris, 142.
  • 48. Defoe, Tour, i. 17.
  • 49. B. Supple, Commercial Crisis and Change in Eng. 1600-1642, 52-8, 108-12, 122-4; Econ. H.R. 2nd ser. xxii. 239-40; cf. Univ. Birmingham Hist. Jnl. vii. 49.
  • 50. 17th Cent. Doc. 225.
  • 51. Acts of P.C. 1630-1, 358-9; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1625-49, 430.
  • 52. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cb1/10, f. 84v.
  • 53. P.R.O., PC 2/47, pp. 389-90; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1637, 32, 44, 70, 87-9, 115.
  • 54. P.R.O., PC 2/45, pp. 15, 37-8, 312, 435-6; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1635, 266-7, 306, 603; Econ. H.R. 2nd ser. xxii. 245.
  • 55. Morant, Colch. 79; D. C. Coleman, Econ. of Eng. 1450-1750, 135.
  • 56. Above, this chapter, Intro.
  • 57. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb1, 31 July, 29 Nov. 1592; 6 Nov. 1598; D/B 5 Gb3, ff. 4, 38v.-39, 42v.; Gb4, ff. 217, 227; Gb5, f. 264; J. Norden, Description of Essex, 14; Cox, Magna Britannia, i. 707; W. Cunningham, Alien Immigrants to Eng. 177; E. Kerridge, Agric. Revolution, 269; Morant, Colch. 76; Agrarian Hist. Eng. and Wales, v. 503-7.
  • 58. F. Hull, 'Agriculture and Rural Society in Essex 1560-1640' (Lond. Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1950), 127-8.
  • 59. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb3, f. 140.
  • 60. E.R.O., D/B 5 R5, f. 92v.; D/B 5 Gb1, 2 Nov. 1579; Gb2, f. 130v.; D/B 5 Aa1/2, 5, 14; D/Y 2/10, f. 128.
  • 61. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb1, 2 June 1595; below, Markets.
  • 62. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb1, 2 June 1595; Gb2, ff. 147v., 185 and v.; Gb4, ff. 54v., 228v.; Gb5, f. 177v.-178v., 238-241v.; Gb6, p. 113.
  • 63. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb1, 2 Nov. 1579; 6 Nov. 1598; Gb3, ff. 38v.-39; Gb4, f. 150; Gb5, ff. 236, 283v.
  • 64. P.R.O., PC2/75, pp. 120-1; PC 2/77, pp. 376-7; Colch. Charters, 174; W. Walker, Essex Markets and Fairs, 32.
  • 65. P.R.O., SP 12/116, no. 12; Cal. Pat. 1569-72, 14-15; E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb2, ff. 119v.-121v.; below, this chapter, Soc. Structure (Economic and Social Regulation).
  • 66. Cal. Assize Rec. Essex, Eliz. I, p. 167.
  • 67. C.J. xiii. 570, 720; K. H. Burley, 'Econ. Development of Essex in later 17th and early 18th cents.' (Lond. Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1957), 300-2, 310-11; P. J. Bowden, Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart Eng. 66-7; R. B. Westerfield, Middlemen in Eng. Business, 262, 269.
  • 68. Econ. H.R. 2nd ser. xxxix. 170-1 and Table 1.
  • 69. Ibid.; ibid. xxii. 245; P.R.O., E 190/610/3; E 190/610/11; E 190/612/12; E 190/620/4.
  • 70. P.R.O., E 190/589/7; O.E.D. s.v. woad.
  • 71. P.R.O., E 190/599/5; E 190/602/1; E 190/605/1.
  • 72. Ibid. E 190/610/3; E 190/610/11; E 190/612/12; E 190/620/4; Burley, 'Econ. Development', 87.
  • 73. P.R.O., E 190/589/7.
  • 74. Ibid. E 190/606/5.
  • 75. Ibid. E 190/610/3; E 190/610/11; E 190/619/12; E 190/620/4.
  • 76. Calculated from Hist. MSS. Com. 9, Salisbury, v. 393; T. S. Willan, Studies in Elizabethan Foreign Trade, 75.
  • 77. Calculated from Econ. H.R. 2nd ser. xxii. 244-6.
  • 78. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1635, 103.
  • 79. P.R.O., E 190/612/12; E 190/620/4; Burley, 'Econ. Development', Table XL; calculated from E. B. Schumpeter, Eng. Overseas Trade Statistics 1697-1808, Table XIV, and p. 44.
  • 80. P.R.O., E 190/618/15; E 190/618/18.
  • 81. Ibid. E 190/589/7.
  • 82. Ibid. E 190/599/6; E 190/602/1; E 190/605/1; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1625-49, 121; 1629-31, 209; 1631-3, 27; Willan, Studies in Foreign Trade, 75; A. Friis, Alderman Cockayne's Project and the Cloth Trade, 65, 116, 128.
  • 83. R. W. K. Hinton, Eastland Trade and the Commonweal in 17th Cent.; J. Fedorowicz, Eng.'s Baltic Trade in Early 17th Cent.: Study of Anglo-Polish Diplomacy; H. Zins, Eng. and Baltic in Elizabethan Era.
  • 84. N. E. Bang, Tabeller over Skibsfart og Varetransport gennem Oresund 1497-1660; N. E. Bang and K. Korst, Tabeller over Skibsfart og Varetransport gennem Oresund 1661-1783.
  • 85. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr145, rot. 8d.; D/B 5 Cb2/7, f. 191; Acts of P.C. 1623-5, 393.
  • 86. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cb1/5, f. 416v.
  • 87. P.R.O., SP 14/105, no. 114; E.R.O., D/B 5 Cb2/7, f. 191; Friis, Alderman Cockayne, 116.
  • 88. P.R.O., PC 2/45, p. 15.
  • 89. Ibid. E 190/606/5; E 190/610/3; E 190/610/11; E 190/619/12; E 190/620/4; E 190/627/8; Bull. Inst. Hist. Res. xxix. 229-30.
  • 90. P.R.O., E 190/587/10; E 190/588/1; Hist. MSS. Com. 73, Exeter, 375.
  • 91. P.R.O., REQ 2/12, no. 206.
  • 92. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr83, rot. 1d.
  • 93. Hist. MSS. Com. 9, Salisbury, iv. 543-4.
  • 94. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1649-50, 317.
  • 95. P.R.O., E 190/618/15; E 190/618/18.
  • 96. Ibid. SP 14/105, no. 114.
  • 97. Westerfield, Middlemen, 229 n.
  • 98. P.R.O., SP 18/17, no. 93; J. U. Nef, Rise of Brit. Coal Ind. ii. 26 n. London and Newcastle are excluded from the calculations.
  • 99. P.R.O., E 190/618/15; E 190/618/18; T. S. Willan, Eng. Coasting Trade 1600-1750, 120-1, 124, 130, 137, 139, 141; C. W. Chalklin, 17th-Cent. Kent, 177-8.
  • 100. P.R.O., E 190/589/7; ibid. SP 14/17, no. 66.
  • 101. Ibid. E 190/602/1.
  • 102. Cal. S.P.Dom. 1616-17, 59-60; P.R.O., SP 14/105, no. 114.
  • 103. P.R.O., E 190/606/5; E 190/610/3; E 190/610/11; E 190/619/12; E 190/620/4.
  • 104. P.R.O., SP 12/156, no. 45; Burley, 'Econ. Development', 240.
  • 105. E.R.O., D/B 5 R2, f. 78v.; D/B 5 Gb1, 3 Aug. 1597; Gb3, f. 229v.; Gb4, f. 314.
  • 106. J. Brome, Travels Over Eng., Scotland and Wales, 112.