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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Between the 1520s and the 1670s Colchester's population perhaps trebled and its relative size in comparison with other provincial towns increased slightly, from seventh in terms of taxable population in 1524-5 to sixth in terms of recorded hearths in the 1670s. (fn. 1) Economic growth undoubtedly accompanied demographic growth, the town successfully overcoming periods of difficulty, short-lived reversals and slumps, and the impact of plague and the Civil War, but the price which it paid for its success was a greater polarization of society between rich and poor.
Note: The returns for the 3 years 1523-5 have been conflated by nominative linkage because it is clear that the assessments of the wealthiest individuals were substantially scaled down in 1524 and 1525, and because the substantial differences between the lists for 1524 and 1525 can be explained partly by tax evasion, perhaps particularly among wage-earners. For fuller discussion of this methodology, see Goose, 'Econ. and Social Aspects', 57-62.
Sources: P.R.O., E 179/108/147; E 179/108/162; E 179/108/169.
Social Structure in the Early 16th Century
Already in the mid 1520s Colchester, like other English towns, exhibited a steeply graduated hierarchy of wealth (Table V). (fn. 2) Of the 996 taxpayers recorded in Colchester between 1523 and 1525, 484 (49 per cent) were assessed on wages, (fn. 3) a figure comparable with those for other towns whether or not they were centres of cloth production. (fn. 4) Other wage earners may have been assessed on goods and yet others may have evaded taxation in both 1524 and 1525 as many apparently did in each year (Table VI). Dependent wage earners thus probably made up at least half the adult male population in the 1520s.
Only eight people were assessed on lands or houses, and all of them except for Thomas Audley's mother-in-law Elizabeth Barnardiston, assessed in 1524 on £55 worth, held estates worth less than £10. That such a high proportion of taxpayers paid on their movables presumably reflects the depths to which land values had sunk by the early 16th century. (fn. 5) In 1547, by contrast, 50 out of 286 people (17 per cent) paid on lands, (fn. 6) a figure which may suggest the growing attractiveness of investment in urban property. In 1628, after a century of population growth and inflation, 125 of 261 taxpayers (48 per cent) were assessed on land or houses rather than on movable goods or as aliens. (fn. 7)
Sources: P.R.O., E 179/108/162; E 179/108/169.
Nine people were taxed on £100 or more (Table V), fewer than in Norwich or Exeter, much the same as in Kings Lynn and Bury St. Edmunds, more than in Great Yarmouth, Worcester, York, or Southampton. (fn. 8) Those nine, less than 1 per cent of the taxable population, owned as much as 30 per cent of the taxable wealth in the town. The 34 individuals, only 3.4 per cent of the taxable population, who were recognized as rich and required to pay in anticipation on goods worth £40 or more, owned virtually half the town's taxable wealth.
As in other towns, c. 80 per cent of the taxable population paid on £4 or less in goods or wages. (fn. 9) They were not all 'poor', as real wages were remarkably high in the early 16th century; in both Coventry and Cambridge substantial numbers assessed in the £2-£4 range kept servants. (fn. 10) The occupations of 83 men assessed on goods worth £2-£4 have been identified; they followed 34 different trades, and included 8 weavers, 5 shoemakers, 5 carpenters, 5 mariners, 4 husbandmen, 4 tailors, 4 tanners, 4 barbers, and 4 labourers. Occupations could be traced for 66 wage earners, in 33 trades, including 6 shoemakers or cordwainers, 5 mariners or watermen, 4 weavers, 4 cappers, and 4 butchers. A few people were truly indigent: in 1510 William Baker was accused of harbouring beggars and in 1514 a tailor was indicted for keeping and lodging beggars and vagabonds, (fn. 11) but both poverty and vagrancy were lesser problems than they were to become in the early 17th century.
The Growth of Poverty, and Poor Relief
The price of wheat in Colchester rose from 5s. a quarter in August 1510 to 6s. 6d. in November that year, to 8s. in December 1511, and to between 12s. and 13s. 6d. in the winter 1512-13, before falling to 8s. a quarter in October 1514 and to 6s. in November. (fn. 12) By 1560 wheat prices had approximately doubled, to 24s. a quarter, but fell to 20s. a quarter in 1566 and 16s. a quarter in 1567. (fn. 13) In 1577 wheat was 22s. 6d. a quarter. (fn. 14) Long-term inflation and short-term fluctuations in the price of grain, and hence of bread, severely affected the urban poor. It is little wonder that in 1570 the bailiffs complained to the Privy Council that the common estate of the town had decayed. (fn. 15)
In 1557, a year of both dearth and sickness, the corporation introduced a compulsory poor rate of 8d. in the noble on all houses worth more than 3s. 4d. a year, to be assessed by specially appointed parish officers. Householders were forbidden to receive any stranger unless he could show that he would not fall to begging. Those accepting 'gatherers and collectors of wood' as tenants, or buying their wood, were to be fined. (fn. 16) In 1562 the corporation ordered that alms be collected at every sermon for the relief of the poor and impotent. (fn. 17) The alms were regularly collected between 1579 and 1595, as much as 52s. 6d. being given in 1588-9. (fn. 18)
The loss of St. Mary Magdalen's hospital and of other, poorly endowed, medieval hospitals and almshouses may have exacerbated the problem of the poor, although in 1563 the borough was using St. Catherine's hospital as a workhouse. In 1565 the corporation ordered the establishment of a common hospital for 'idle youths and poor children' born in the town, to be financed by the inclosure and letting of some of the half-year lands. (fn. 19) The hospital was being built in the early 1570s, (fn. 20) children from the poorhouse were baptized at St. Mary's-at-the-Walls in 1574, and in 1579 Richard Hall, proctor of the Colchester poorhouse, was granted protection to gather contributions in Essex and Hertfordshire. (fn. 21)
In 1572, in 12 of the town's 16 parishes, (fn. 22) 300 people paid poor rate; 102 people, almost all apparently heads of households, received relief. As the population of those parishes was c. 3,700, (fn. 23) it seems that c. 8 per cent of the total population paid a poor rate which was distributed to just under 3 per cent, excluding dependents. Assuming an average household of 4.5 people, and 2.2 in pauper households, (fn. 24) over 36 per cent of households contributed, while over 12 per cent (c. 224 people or 6 per cent of the total population) received relief. Of 102 named recipients, 44 were widows. Four orphans were being maintained by St. Leonard's parish, and two men in St. Mary Magdalen's were burdened 'with a charge of children'. (fn. 25)
In 1582, in the whole town, 114 people received weekly payments, a slightly lower proportion of the total population than ten years earlier. The number of paupers varied widely from parish to parish. None was known in St. Runwald's or St. Martin's, but 20 weekly payments were made in St. Giles's, many of them to widows and other women and several for keeping children. A total of 513 people made regular contributions to the poor rate, suggesting some expansion of the tax base since 1572, the sum collected weekly amounting to 52s. 9¾d. (fn. 26)
An array of fines was also devoted to poor relief, including those for overstocking the commons, for breaching the statute of artificers or the assize of bread and of ale, for inadequate tanning of leather, for refusing office, and for not wearing livery gowns to meetings of the borough assembly. (fn. 27) The 'rawboots' fines (Table III) were distributed to the poor from 1586 or earlier, (fn. 28) as were proceeds from the town lottery and rents from some town land, probably inclosed half-year land. (fn. 29) In 1652 part of the profits from the new coal excise was earmarked for the poor, and in 1656 meat forfeited by 'foreign' butchers was ordered to be given to the needy. (fn. 30)
The corporation administered the loan charities of Lady Judd (£100), John Hunwick (£300), and Thomas Ingram (£100), (fn. 31) which were used to set the poor on work, usually in spinning, carding, combing, and flax- or hemp-beating. Interest on the loans was applied to poor relief. (fn. 32) Poor children were apprenticed to tradesand craftsmen, often in exchange for the master's freedom of the town. In 1599 the keeper of the poorhouse was given the freedom in return for maintaining two poor girls; (fn. 33) the previous year William Ware had been admitted in return for keeping his parents from becoming a charge on the poor rate. (fn. 34)
The corporation ordered parish overseers to distrain the goods of those who refused to pay poor rates, (fn. 35) and Elizabeth, widow of Sir Thomas Lucas, appealed to the Privy Council in 1627 after the St. Giles's overseers had distrained a cow and calf for £3 rates. (fn. 36) When 23 inhabitants of All Saints' parish refused in 1629 to contribute to the relief of St. Botolph's poor, their churchwardens and overseers seem to have supported them, claiming to be unable to find any goods to distrain. (fn. 37) The corporation ordered additional assessments to be made in periods of particular need. In 1623, when high grain prices aggravated distress caused by depression in the new drapery trade, most inhabitants and occupiers of land in the town were ordered to be rated 'for 52 weeks over and above their weekly contribution'. (fn. 38)
Dearth and Depression
During the dearth of 1527 the 'substantial people' in Colchester were accused of stockpiling grain for themselves, and Cardinal Wolsey intervened to ensure that wheat in the town was actually sold to the inhabitants. (fn. 39) In 1551, another year of bad harvests, the Privy Council required the J.P.s of Kent to provide Colchester with 560 qr. of grain at reasonable prices. (fn. 40) In April 1563 the bailiffs and aldermen took charge of the distribution of 500 qr. of grain brought from Danzig by alderman John Best, evidently in response to the bad harvest of the previous year. (fn. 41) In 1586, another year of dearth, the borough assembly levied a compulsory loan from the inhabitants to provide 400 qr. of Danzig rye. (fn. 42)
The years 1594-7 witnessed four successive bad harvests. (fn. 43) Between 1590 and 1593 the price of wheat averaged c. 23s. a quarter, (fn. 44) but by September 1594 it had risen to 42s. 10d.; it peaked at 48s. in November 1596 and remained at that level until August 1597. (fn. 45) Only in 1598 did the price fall back, to 32s. 6d. a quarter in October. (fn. 46) The response of the borough authorities was immediate. In November 1594 every alderman was ordered to lend £20, every first councillor £10, and every second councillor £5 for corn for the poor. In December a baker was appointed for each ward to bake three 'seams' of the town's grain for the poor. By May 1595 £408 had been collected and £380 spent on 289 qr. of grain; the small cash balance was distributed to the poor. (fn. 47) In December 1597 the bailiffs feared that many poor people would perish, in spite of the loan and of high poor rates which overburdened other townsmen, and in January 1598 Sir Robert Cecil allowed 400 qr. of grain to be shipped to Colchester from Norfolk despite the general restraint on the movement of corn. (fn. 48)
All that activity may not have been enough to prevent the poor from either starving or dying from disease induced by severe malnutrition. Although plague was not recorded, mortality reached double its average level in 1597 in four of the five parishes for which burial registers survive. (fn. 49) The poor parish of St. Botolph's was particularly severely affected, while St. James's, St. Leonard's, and St. Mary's-at-the-Walls also suffered. Numbers of deaths rose in July, and remained very high between September and December, a pattern at least compatible with a growing shortage of food towards the end of the harvest year 1596-7, capped by yet another bad harvest in 1597. The below-average number of baptisms in 1598 presumably reflects a shortfall in conceptions the previous year, perhaps induced by malnutrition and hence amenorrhea. (fn. 50) Further more, burials, particularly in St. Botolph's, fell sharply in January 1598, coinciding with the acquisition of grain from Norfolk. (fn. 51)
In other years the corporation's relief measures generally helped stave off such dire consequences. (fn. 52) The next period of severe difficulty started in 1629, when the bailiffs tried to prevent the export of 1,000 lasts of grain from Colchester because of the high local prices and the great number of poor in the town. (fn. 53) By December 1630 they were seeking to purchase rye in Norfolk for the poor with money lent or given, and in February 1631 they complained with effect to the Privy Council that local farmers, notably two Layer Breton yeomen, neglected to supply the town's market so that the poor were 'almost ready to famish and to commit outrages for want of corn'. (fn. 54) The harvest of 1630 was again very bad, the price of wheat and rye in Colchester rising to 46s. and 34s. a quarter respectively, (fn. 55) and the standard size of loaves of bread being reduced to that of the worst years of the 1590s. (fn. 56) Nevertheless plague rather than famine seems to have caused the doubling of the average mortality rates in St. Leonard's and St. Mary's-at-the-Walls in 1631. (fn. 57)
The dearth of 1630-1 was aggravated by the slump in the new drapery trade. In April 1631 it was reported that the suffering in Essex was particularly bad in the bay-making areas where the clothiers were not giving work to poor weavers. (fn. 58) In May 1631 the Privy Council, on the petition of 300 poor inhabitants of Colchester, ordered the bailiffs and aldermen to raise wages to their former level, or to provide a stock to set the poor on work, as had been done at Sudbury, or to take other measures to relieve the poor. (fn. 59) The Colchester authorities argued that raising wages would only reduce the amount of work given to the poor, (fn. 60) and the clothiers, ordered to raise wages by a sixth, replied that they could not provide employment even if they cut wages by a sixth. (fn. 61)
Further depression in the bay and say trade late in 1636 and in 1637 produced renewed controversy. Four weavers, claiming to speak for 2,000 others, petitioned the Privy Council against their low wages and troublesome work, alleging that many of them with their children were 'ready to perish'. Particular complaints were made against Thomas Reynolds, baymaker, for 'forcing them to take dead commodities such as they cannot put off'. (fn. 62) Reynolds had already, the previous January, been forced to recompense weavers to whom he had given overvalued says in lieu of wages. He denied the new charges, saying that he had given the men work and even lent them looms, and accusing three of them of being involved in burning down his house. Although he was supported by six Colchester clothworkers, the Privy Council concluded that he had oppressed and abused poor weavers. He was committed to the Fleet until he had paid each of the petitioners double the wages he had defrauded them of, and was ordered to withdraw all actions against them and pay all their expenses. Within a week he had made full satisfaction and was released. (fn. 63)
Economic and Social Regulation
In the absence of independent craft guilds the corporation played a major role in economic regulation. It controlled wages and set the assize of bread, and also appointed bakers' and butchers' wardens, searchers of leather, and overseers of the town lands. Trade disputes were often settled in the borough courts. (fn. 64) The Dutch had achieved a high degree of success in regulating the bay trade, (fn. 65) and from the later 16th century the corporation also devoted increasing attention to cloth production. In 1602 it established or re-established a weavers' company governed by two wardens, one chosen by the bailiffs and aldermen, the other by the freemen weavers. The wardens swore to ensure that all weavers performed their work skilfully and faithfully, and to enforce many of the provisions of the Statute of Artificers of 1563. The company laid down rules governing the length of apprenticeships, and the conditions of employment for journeymen, regulations repeated in 1608 and 1609. (fn. 66) In 1618 a company of English bay and saymakers was established, parallel to the Dutch company, for the reform of 'deceits and abuses' in the craft. (fn. 67) Among other matters the new company was required to regulate wages and impose reasonable rates, and was apparently doing so more assiduously than the Dutch company in 1622. (fn. 68)
The weavers' and other trade ordinances discriminated against 'foreigners', as did the borough authorities. Despite the welcome extended to the Dutch settlers in 1565, (fn. 69) it was ordered in 1580 that no more Dutch be allowed to settle without the consent of the bailiffs and aldermen. In 1584 householders were forbidden to receive tenants likely to prove a charge on the town, and in 1591 they were forbidden to let houses or rooms to anyone who had not lived in the town for three years or else given two sureties of £20. The constables were ordered to eject recent immigrants from employment and put longer-term residents in their places, and to remove from the town all the poor who had been there for less than three years. (fn. 70) The corporation claimed in 1613 that the increasing number of 'incomers' was the main cause of the rising numbers of poor, and in 1622 that the failure to exclude immigrants was the principal cause of the great poverty in the town. (fn. 71) Restrictions on immigrants continued in force into the 1630s. (fn. 72) In 1637 the corporation attempted to protect the interests of those who had been born free or served long apprenticeships by raising the fine for purchasing the freedom to £10, and requiring the consent of six free burgesses of the same trade to the admission. (fn. 73)
Nevertheless considerable numbers of people settled in Colchester in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, enough to sustain a population growth well above that obtainable by natural increase. (fn. 74) On average 150 migrants were apprenticed in Colchester each decade between c. 1580 and 1630. Of the 1,014 apprentices whose indentures record their place of origin (Table VII), (fn. 75) a quarter came from Colchester itself, a further third from elsewhere in Essex and a fifth from Suffolk. Less than a fifth came from outside East Anglia, mainly from the south midlands, particularly the cloth-working areas of Cambridgeshire. Trading contacts with south and east coast ports probably account for the c. 5 per cent of apprentices from the east midlands, the south, and the south-east. Very few came from the more westerly regions of the country.
Burgess admissions similarly record predominantly short-range migration and a distinct bias towards the east coast of England among those moving longer distances. Birthplaces can be identified for 1,425 of 1,500 men admitted in the 16th and early 17th centuries. (fn. 76) Of those, 435 (30.5 per cent) were born in Colchester, a further 386 (27.1 per cent) elsewhere in Essex, and 232 (16.3 per cent) in Suffolk. Significant numbers came from Yorkshire (46), Norfolk (31), London and Middlesex (26), Cambridgeshire (21), Kent (21), Lincolnshire (18), Hertfordshire (15), Lancashire (13), Buckinghamshire (12), Staffordshire (11), and Northumberland (10). Thirty-five were born overseas.
Migrants arriving to take up apprenticeships or to purchase the freedom stood at the more respectable end of the social spectrum. Others less respectable and less welcome also found their way to Colchester. Many such vagrants had come from other towns, and a high proportion of them had travelled considerable distances. Of the 236 predominantly single men or women apprehended in and expelled from the town between 1630 and 1664 whose place of origin is known, a little over 28 per cent had moved over 100 miles, while over 70 per cent had moved more than 40 miles. Only 88 (37.3 per cent) came from East Anglia, 42 (17.8 per cent) from London and Middlesex, and as many as 20 (8.5 per cent) from Ireland. The dearth
The whipping and expulsion of vagrants was only one part of an often punitive policy towards the poor. Alehouses were attacked in 1598 as 'harbourers of thieves, harlots, and other lewd persons' and blamed for beastliness and drunkenness which was 'the utter undoing' of many poor people. (fn. 78) Alehouse keepers, like Thomas Wilson in 1601, had to swear to prohibit cards, dice, and other unlawful games, not to permit drunkenness, and to forbid all drinking during the times of church services. They were to sell food and drink only to legitimate wayfarers or to the poorer sort of townsmen, to take no lodgers for more than a day and a night unless they could vouch for them, to control the sale of goods in their houses, and to admit the constables and other officers at all times. (fn. 79) The town was well supplied with inns and alehouses: 7 innkeepers and 69 tipplers were recorded in 1574, and 5 taverners, 5 innkeepers, and 38 alehouse keepers in 1577. (fn. 80) In 1613 the borough ordered a reduction in the number of alehouses and stricter vetting of their keepers to keep out 'incomers' and to suppress idleness, (fn. 81) but in 1686 the town was second only to Chelmsford in the county in the number of beds (198) available in its inns, and there were still at least 31 inns or alehouses in 1705. (fn. 82) years 1630 and 1631 produced particularly large numbers of long distance immigrants. (fn. 77)
Note: Regional groupings as follows:
East Anglia: Essex, Suff., Norf.
South Midlands: Beds., Bucks., Cambs., Herts., Hunts., Northants., Oxon.
East Midlands: Derb., Leics., Lincs., Notts., Rut.
South and South-East: Berks., Hants, Kent, Mdx., Surr., Suss.
North: Ches., Cumb., co. Dur., Lancs., Northumb., Yorks., Westmld.
South-West: Cornw., Devon, Dors., Som., Wilts.
West Midlands: Glos., Herefs., Mon., Salop., Staffs., Warws., Worcs.
Other: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Overseas.
Only counties from which 10 or more apprentices came to Colchester are listed separately.
Sources: E.R.O., D/B 5 Cb1/2-9; Cb2/3-11.
Begging by any but the 'very lame and aged not able to work' had been prohibited in 1591. Six years later an overseer and a beadle, paid for by an additional poor rate, were appointed to prevent able-bodied men from begging. (fn. 83) From 1622 four beadles were appointed to seek out unlicensed beggars, and to control the licensed ones, who were to be confined to particular parishes. (fn. 84) In 1613 a new workhouse was founded to employ the poor, lame, and impotent. (fn. 85) It was governed by four aldermen and sixteen common councillors who appointed other officers to punish and order the idle persons brought there. The new institution was clearly both workhouse and house of correction. Indeed, it was regularly called the house of correction, and its inmates included men like the Norfolk tailor committed in 1636 for drunkenness and swearing and for abusing the high constable. In 1622 detailed regulations were made for providing work for the more respectable poor in their own homes. (fn. 86)
Between 1622 and 1639 the clerk entered in the register the condition or occupation of many of those buried in St. Botolph's parish. (fn. 87) Poverty was widespread. Of the 11 people buried in June 1622, for instance, 6, including 3 widows, were 'poor' and 1 'very poor'. Many of those buried were described as weavers or 'poor weavers', a substantial number were Dutch, and a few were vagrants. The high proportion of children among them may be further evidence of poverty. By the later 17th century there appears to have been less official concern about poverty. The problem had apparently been relieved by the stabilization of population and prices and the reduction in immigration, combined with the continued growth of the town's economy. (fn. 88) The substantial increase in 'rawboots' as bay manufacturing expanded presumably helped to alleviate poverty, but special relief payments were necessary on several occasions. By 1678 the declining Dutch community was having considerable difficulty in maintaining its poor, as it had agreed to do when it was first established. (fn. 89) At the close of the 17th century Colchester petitioned parliament for the establishment of a new workhouse to cope with the increasing numbers of poor, to prevent idleness and disorders among the 'meaner' people, and to reduce the burden of the poor rate. An Act of 1698 authorized the establishment in the town of a workhouse under the control of a corporation of the poor. (fn. 90)
* All those exempt in West Donyland were paupers, needing no exemption certificate, and hence not included with the exempt.
Source: P.R.O., E 179/246/22.
Social Structure in the Later 17th Century
The hearth tax return of 1674 (Tables VIII and IX), indicates that 53 per cent of households were too poor to be taxed. To those must be added a figure, c. 10 per cent of the population, for the paupers who were omitted from the returns, making altogether 1,406 households, or 57 per cent of the total. (fn. 91) The base of the social pyramid, the poor or relatively poor, was a broad one, broader than that found in most other provincial towns. (fn. 92) That reflects the town's economic structure, for the poverty of many weavers and other workers in the labour-intensive cloth industry was amply attested by contemporaries, and the Essex textile areas all exhibited relatively high proportions of people exempt from hearth tax. (fn. 93) The high proportion of small or exempt households in St. Botolph's and St. Giles's parishes is explained by the number of weavers there: of 109 weavers and clothworkers identified in the town in the period 1620-99 as many as 47 (43 per cent) lived in those two parishes. (fn. 94) St. Giles's and St. Botolph's also received the largest abatements for poverty, £6 7s. and £5 15s. respectively, in Colchester in the poll tax of 1667. (fn. 95)
Source: P.R.O., E 179/246/22.
The funds generated by a labour-intensive industry were produced at the cost of the depression of a large section of the urban labour force. The figures reflect the impact of population growth and inflation throughout the 16th century and the early 17th, and possibly also the development of increasingly capitalistic methods of production, the decline of the independent weaver or small clothier, and a growth in the numbers of dependent textile wage workers. The corporation attempted to limit the size of units of production, in 1613, for instance, prohibiting the employment of more than five weavers, or the use of more than two broad looms and one narrow or three narrow looms and one broad. Its failure to halt the trend is demonstrated by the claims of Thomas Reynolds and others in the 1630s to employ large numbers of hands, and by the distress of many workers during the textile slumps of the 1620s and 1630s. (fn. 96)
At the other end of the social scale economic development generated considerable wealth. In 1674 c. 7 per cent of those assessed for hearth tax lived in households with 6 or more hearths, and there was a distinct contrast between the poorer suburban parishes, like St. Giles's and St. Botolph's, and the central and wealthy St. Runwald's, where over 20 per cent of households fell into that category. Of the 9 heads of household with 10 or more hearths whose occupations can be traced, 5 were merchants, 2 were bay- or saymakers, 1 was a joiner, and 1 an innholder. Twenty-six occupiers of dwellings with 6-9 hearths could be identified by occupation. Eleven were bay- or saymakers, and 3 were merchants; the only other occupation to feature twice was that of brewer. As in the 1520s, cloth production and mercantile activity were the main, though not the only, avenues to prosperity in the town.
Some members of the Dutch community amassed substantial wealth from the new draperies which they had introduced. Francis Hockee in 1638 bequeathed a total of £660 in cash to his children, while Francis Pollard left over £520 cash in 1630, and another Francis Pollard, saymaker, left well over £1,000 in 1670. In 1687 Andrew Fromanteel devised a number of houses in Colchester, besides lands at Frating, Great or Little Bentley, and Stanway (Essex), at Aldham, Hadleigh, and Stratford (Suff.), and at Bennington and Boston (Lincs.). George Tayspill, saymaker, bequeathed over £3,000 in money in 1666, and the Tayspill family became one of the wealthiest and most important in the town. (fn. 97)
The profits of saymaking were not confined to the Dutch. William Johnson bequeathed £1,400 in cash in 1634, besides the 'competent estate' he had already settled upon his son William. In 1652 Robert Smith, baymaker, left £800 to two of his children, and £30 a year to his wife from his lands and houses in St. James's parish, and in Copford and Birch. Henry Franklin, another baymaker, in 1683 made bequests of over £1,300 in cash and devised houses and land in All Saints' parish and in Wimbish, Thaxted, Lamarsh, Alphamstone, Thorpe-le-Soken, and Tendring. Drapers also prospered; Ralph Creffield the elder in 1666, having already provided for two daughters, bequeathed £700 cash, and lands and houses in St. Peter's, St. James's, and St. Botolph's, and in Great and Little Wigborough, Elmstead, Alresford, Frating, Thorrington, and Great Bentley. Two years later Edmund Thurston of St. Runwald's, draper, left cash bequests totalling over £2,600 to his wife and children, besides his land and houses in Colchester and in Dedham, Great Horkesley, Colne Engaine, Thorpe-le-Soken, Little Holland, St. Osyth, Fingringhoe, Wix, and Walton, and in Stoke-by-Nayland (Suff.). (fn. 98)
Among the other later 17th-century tradesmen and craftsmen to leave several hundred pounds, usually in addition to both town and rural land, were a vintner, a brewer, a maltster, a coalmerchant, an ironmonger, a cutler, a carpenter, a cooper, and a tanner. As early as 1624 Geoffrey Langley, grocer, bequeathed almost £1,000 in cash besides an impressive landed estate in Colchester and elsewhere. In 1686 John Furley the elder, merchant, bequeathed over £2,000 in cash, and land in Essex, and houses in Holy Trinity and at the Hythe. In 1696 Isaac Shirley left £1,000 and his lands and houses to his four children, and in 1698 William Talcott of All Saints', whose daughter Ann had married into the Furley family, left enough land, including an 117-a. wood at Stanway and an 111-a. one at East Donyland, to underwrite bequests of £80 a year besides c. £1,000 in cash. (fn. 99)
By the later 17th century several men described themselves as gentleman or esquire. Some were still clearly engaged in trade, like Henry Lamb esquire who in 1688 bequeathed his three ships, Anne, Abigail and Thomas, and Resolution, besides houses in St. Runwald's, St. Martin's, St. Giles's, and St. Nicholas's and over £1,200 in cash. Others may have retired from trade or have been country landowners attracted to the town by the lure of urban society. Such urban gentlemen often exhibited considerable wealth. In 1690 Joseph Thurston, probably a descendant of Thomas Thurston woollendraper and alderman, bequeathed over £3,400 in cash as well as a large urban and rural estate. Ralph Harrison of St. Leonard's left over £2,000 in cash in 1655, and Thomas Reynolds of St. James's over £3,500 in 1665; both were aldermen and gentlemen and both also owned lands and houses. (fn. 100)
The resilience of the town's economy was demonstrated by its rapid recovery from the siege of 1648 and from the plague of 1665-6. (fn. 101) Despite the recent expense of caring for its own sick poor, in October 1666 Colchester collected £103 8s. 9d. for the relief of London after the Great Fire. (fn. 102) Although by the late 17th century borough finances were precarious, with indebtedness preventing the construction of a new fishmarket in 1687, (fn. 103) the town was able to tap into the wealth of its leading citizens, and also to take advantage of an asset that had been a key to its economic success for over 100 years, when it mortgaged the Dutch Bay Hall and its profits besides the borough lands to wealthy burgesses. (fn. 104)
Seventeenth-century Colchester witnessed the simultaneous growth of wealth and poverty, and the development of political and religious factions, its inhabitants being called a factious multitude by the bishop of London's commissary in 1623, (fn. 105) but the urban social fabric held together remarkably well. In the early 1640s, however, religious and political differences were aggravated by economic distress as the cloth trade, which had been sluggish for 18 months, ground to a halt in 1642. There was a spate of petitions to parliament from Colchester and other towns and counties. Rumours grew of profiteering by the town's M.P., Harbottle Grimston, while the weavers spread the view that M.P.s only sat 'for their own ends to enrich themselves'. (fn. 106) Such grievances fuelled the flames of the Civil War factions. (fn. 107)
On occasion purely economic grievances did lead to riots, but such disturbances were infrequent. In 1538 some 23 Colchester men had been involved in an inclosure riot. (fn. 108) Two inclosure disturbances broke out in 1603, one said to involve 100 people, the other 400. Pales, posts, and rails on St. John's green were pulled down, possibly with the encouragement of Sir Thomas Lucas, who maintained that the pales encroached on the green. (fn. 109) More immediately related to the condition of the urban economy was the abortive rising of under-employed weavers in 1566. (fn. 110) There is little evidence of rioting in the town in the earlier 17th century, despite recurrent hardship resulting from harvest failure and depression of the cloth trade. (fn. 111)
It was in the later 17th century, when conditions for the lower classes were generally improving and economic pressures decreasing, that the borough's textile workers next flexed their muscles. (fn. 112) In 1667 the people of St. Giles's attacked the commissioners for the collection of the hearth tax, pursuing them to the King's Head inn where the J.P.s were sitting. (fn. 113) In 1675 as many as 300 or 400 poor weavers, summoned by a horn, assembled at 2 a.m. in St. Mary's churchyard, marched to St. John's fields, where the mayor and officers failed to placate them, and thence through the town to John Furley's house, which they threatened to plunder and pull down. Their main demand was for better wages for bay weaving, although Furley's particular crime was 'selling corn out of the land'. With the help of some townsmen the rioters were eventually dispersed, but the trained bands were raised and kept on the alert for three weeks. (fn. 114)
Four years later, in 1679, a great company apparently marched through town 'in a rude and tumultuous manner' led by a man with colours flying, (fn. 115) and further rumblings were heard in the 1690s after a succession of bad harvests. (fn. 116) There were riots in April 1693, a year in which disturbances occurred in a number of towns upon rumour that corn was being bought up and exported to France. (fn. 117) In 1695-6 the borough paid for taking four rioters to Chelmsford. (fn. 118) In 1703 ten men rioted at the stocks at Lexden; like the rioters of 1675 they had been summoned by a horn, suggesting that the apparently minor affair might have developed into a more general protest. (fn. 119) In the early 18th century more serious disturbances arose from depression in the cloth trade and the consequent fall in wages. In 1711 two men declared that all baymakers who would not pay weavers 10s. a bay should be pulled from their beds by the poor, carried to St. John's fields, and there hung up. (fn. 120) Matters came to a head in 1715 when an assembly of 700-800 weavers stopped proceedings at the Dutch Bay Hall and effectively paralysed both government and industry in the town for three weeks. (fn. 121)
The town had weathered earlier trade slumps and poor harvests without such outbreaks of violence. It was some time before the decline of the high real wages of the early 16th century caused distress, (fn. 122) and the expansion of the textile industry after the arrival of the Dutch had shielded the town from the worst effects of trade slumps. (fn. 123) Even in years of dearth, coarse grain and fish such as sprats, 'the weavers' beef', were usually affordable, (fn. 124) and in difficult years the borough authorities were able to do enough to alleviate the short-term problem and to show their concern for the welfare of the poor. (fn. 125) By the early 18th century, however, the bay trade had started to contract, organized social protest was more common, and the borough authorities had lost some of their power to regulate the town's economy in the interests of social stability. Fewer foreigners were willing to purchase the freedom, preferring to risk fines for 'keeping open shop' in the borough. (fn. 126) The sale of the freedom for political or financial ends can only have tended to discredit the corporation. (fn. 127) In 1698 the bakers were accused of conspiring to defraud the poor by counting only 12 instead of 13 or 14 to the dozen, and other traders of forestalling butter and eggs before they reached the market. Critics asked for the public display of the assize of bread so that the poor should know what they ought to have for their money. (fn. 128) In 1712 several bakers who had been punished for breaking the assize sued the mayor and aldermen. (fn. 129) That antagonism between rulers and ruled, rich and poor, contrasts with the paternalism of Thomas Christmas's will in 1520, (fn. 130) and illustrates the distance which separated early 18thcentury Colchester society from that which had existed two centuries earlier.