A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1988.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
EARLY MODERN GLOUCESTER 1547–1720
The early Tudor period seems to have been a time of mild prosperity for Gloucester, but from the mid 16th century until the English Revolution it experienced considerable economic uncertainty. Its textile and capping industries declined and new crafts were slow to develop, though there was some expansion in its importance as a market and service centre. Meanwhile the city's control of the inshire hundred generated increasing conflict with the county landowners, particularly from the end of the 16th century. It was in that era of mounting economic and political tension that Gloucester emerged as an important puritan stronghold. (fn. 1)
Estimates of town populations for the period are highly speculative, but it may be possible to discern the broad demographic trend at Gloucester. In 1548 the chantry commissioners counted 3,339 communicants, which might suggest a total population of c. 4,400 people, compared with c. 3,500, in 1524. (fn. 2) The diocesan census of 1563 enumerated c. 950 householders, indicating roughly 4,250 inhabitants; but that may be on the low side since the diocesan returns tend to under-register numbers. (fn. 3) In 1603 3,451 communicants were counted in the city, which points to a population of approximately 4,600. By the 1670s, if the hearth tax is any guide, the total number of townspeople was probably just over 5,000. (fn. 4)
From those assorted enumerations, it seems that Gloucester's population rose markedly during the early Tudor period and then more slowly in the late 16th century and the early 17th. Enumerations provide, however, only blurred snapshots of demographic trends, and the city's parish registers afford only limited help in trying to focus the picture. Records survive for only five of the parishes, mostly from the 1560s. Moreover, the surviving registers are mainly for the wealthier, commercial districts, the parishes of St. John, Holy Trinity, St. Nicholas, and St. Michael; the single poorer parishes for which we have data is St. Aldate. (fn. 5) The general picture in the wealthier parishes is of a considerable surplus of baptisms over burials in most decades. In St. Aldate, however, there was an overall deficit with burials exceeding baptisms, and that may well have typified the situation in the poorer, peripheral parishes of the city, which were most vulnerable to food shortages and disease.
Epidemic disease was recurrent in Gloucester in the late 16th century and the early 17th. During Elizabeth I's reign the city was repeatedly swept by bubonic plague: there were epidemics in the years 1565, 1573, 1575–6, 1577–8, 1580, and 1593–4. (fn. 6) In 1565 the magistrates reported that the attack was mostly confined to the poorer suburbs and back lanes and that the main streets were free. (fn. 7) In 1593 the infection began about Midsummer; by 2 August 25 houses were affected and 47 people were dead, and later that month over 120 houses were stricken. Mortality remained high until the end of November, though 'some, more or less, died weekly till the Shrovetide following'. (fn. 8) The diocesan courts withdrew from the city, as did substantial numbers of traders and shopkeepers. (fn. 9) A further outbreak occurred in the summer of 1594. (fn. 10) There were apparently fewer irruptions during the early 17th century, but they may have been of greater severity. Particularly intense was the attack of 1604–5, almost certainly spread from Bristol where there was a major outbreak. One of the first households contaminated at Gloucester, in April 1604, was that of Alderman John Taylor who traded with Bristol. Taylor allegedly concealed the sickness of his servants, continued to perform his official duties, and so may have helped spread the bacillus. (fn. 11) About 350 died in 1604, nearly a twelfth of the city's population, and deaths continued into 1605. As usual there was an exodus of wealthier inhabitants, creating problems of poor relief and public order. (fn. 12) The city was again attacked by plague in the years 1625–6 and in 1637–8. (fn. 13) Less is known about the impact of other diseases like typhus and dysentery, though they probably recurred during the period. Food shortages may have caused the modest upturn in mortality rates in 1597. (fn. 14)
To offset the high mortality caused by disease and to expand its population, Gloucester relied very considerably on immigration. From the evidence of witnesses appearing before the church courts in the years 1595–1640, it appears that threequarters of male citizens had moved at some time in their lives; nearly a quarter had come to Gloucester from the county; and over a quarter had travelled from outside the county. The picture was broadly the same for women. (fn. 15) The sons of countryfolk, mainly the offspring of yeomen and husbandmen, flocked to the city to become apprenticed to traders and craftsmen. Sizable numbers of apprentices, particularly those in poorer trades, never had their agreements formally recorded, but of those who did between 1595 and 1640, 69 per cent were born outside the city, the great majority in the county. (fn. 16) While apprenticeship migration tended to be localized, other newcomers came from further afield. Many were tramping poor. In 1615 the magistrates complained of the vagrants that swarmed in the city; further great numbers were reported in 1631. (fn. 17) Many poor labourers tramped to Gloucester from the northern and western uplands of the kingdom. Also recorded were occasional troupes of gypsies, itinerant entertainers, and quacks. (fn. 18) In 1636 and 1637 the city relieved a small contingent of German refugees, fleeing from the horrors of the Thirty Years War. (fn. 19)
Like many other middle-rank county and cathedral towns in Tudor and early Stuart England, Gloucester had a mixed economy, depending on a medley of industrial, marketing, and service activities. Its economic structure was clearly more sophisticated than that of the two dozen or so small market towns in the shire, places like Stow-on-the-Wold, Tetbury, or Marshfield. According to the detailed muster returns of 1608, Gloucester had 68 different occupations, compared with the 20–25 found in the small centres. On the other hand, Gloucester did not completely dominate its area. There was strong economic competition from the larger market towns, as well as from Bristol in the south. Tewkesbury had an almost equally complex economy in 1608, with 67 different occupations listed, and at Cirencester the comparable figure was 58. (fn. 20) That may help to explain why there was considerable and growing economic instability at Gloucester from the end of the 16th century. The situation was particularly difficult during the 1620s and 1630s. In 1626 the magistrates lamented how compared with the past Gloucester was 'so much impoverished'. They put the blame on: 'the great fall of trade generally in this city by reason of the late great and yet continuing plague, the excessive number of poor, chiefly occasioned by the decay of clothing … besides the knights and gentlemen … within this county now for the most part residing in other places'. (fn. 21) Other complaints of economic hardship were voiced before 1640 (fn. 22) and are confirmed by detailed evidence.
Up to the mid 16th century, the city's established industries of broadcloth production, capping, and metal working were still fairly prosperous. Thus persons belonging to the metal, textile, and clothing trades comprised nearly 40 per cent of all the city freemen admitted between 1535 and 1554. (fn. 23) In the 1550s the clothier and alderman John Sandford had an agency at Frankfurt am Main for the export of cloth to Germany. (fn. 24) In the earlier 16th century the successful cappers John Falconer and Sir Thomas Bell had kept 'great numbers of people at work on spinning and knitting of caps'. (fn. 25) By 1600, however, the textile and capping industries were in obvious decline. In 1582 it was said that the trade of cappers and clothiers was 'much decayed in Gloucester within 20 or 30 years past'. (fn. 26) The corporation's anxiety to revive the trade was evident in 1581 when it lent the first payment received by the city from the charity of Sir Thomas White to four clothiers, who were each required to add one loom to those they had in work. Another loan charity, given in 1585 by the Barton Street clothier Gregory Wilshire, also benefited those in the trade. (fn. 27) One of the last important clothiers was Lawrence Wilshire, who was mayor in 1606 and died six years later. (fn. 28) The muster rolls of 1608 listed only 4 clothiers, 29 weavers, and a handful of dyers and shearmen. (fn. 29) By the 1620s it was reported that there were only two or three clothiers whereas once there had been nearly '20 men of good estates who have kept great number of poor on work'. (fn. 30) In 1634 an elderly broadweaver bemoaned the fact that previously the city had had more than a hundred looms, but no more than six or seven looms were then at work. The weavers' company was in disarray and within a few years the last clothier had left Gloucester. (fn. 31) The collapse of capping was largely the result of a change in sartorial fashion, with the new popularity of hats, either imported or made in London. In the case of textiles, the decline stemmed from several factors: the vigorous competition of rural clothing in the Stroud valleys, aided by its exemption in 1557 from the Act against rural textiles; (fn. 32) the heavy dependence for sales on London merchants and the North European market, frequently disrupted by war; and the failure to take up the 'new draperies' which were increasingly adopted in the south-west by 1640 and exported to the Mediterranean. Several silk weavers worked in the city in the early 17th century and there was a municipal scheme in 1639 for making stuffs, but those new trades did not become established before the Civil War. (fn. 33)
Metal working may have fared better. Bellfounding faded away in the late 16th century, and in 1607 the city fathers declared that the metal trades were in decay. (fn. 34) Other crafts, however, were starting to expand before 1640, including pewtering, (fn. 35) wiredrawing, (fn. 36) and pinmaking. One or two pinmakers were working at Gloucester in 1608. (fn. 37) In 1627 the corporation loaned £20 to John Tilsley, a Bristol pinmaker, and furnished him with a house to set 30 boys on work (fn. 38); by the 1630s he employed 80 boys and girls and was said to be worth over £2,000. (fn. 39) However, the growth of pinmaking into a major trade at Gloucester occurred mainly after the Restoration. (fn. 40)
In the period before 1640 one of the most buoyant crafts was tanning. In 1608 one in eight of the men whose occupations were listed in the muster returns belonged to leather trades, principally tanning. (fn. 41) Hides from the vale of Berkeley, Herefordshire, and Wales were processed in the city with oak bark from the Forest of Dean. (fn. 42) The leather was then shipped to Bristol and also up river to Bewdley (Worcs.) and so into the West Midlands as far as Lichfield (Staffs.) (fn. 43). Shipbuilding probably disappeared at the time with the contraction of Gloucester's long-distance trade and the growing size of ships. (fn. 44) A newer, consumer trade was starch making, in which wheat was used. In 1594 the city obtained a government order against people converting corn into starch during the dearth. (fn. 45)
Starch production was undoubtedly linked with Gloucester's burgeoning importance in the late 16th and early 17th centuries as a centre for marketing and shipping grain. For the same reason the food-processing industries also prospered, providing for the increased population of the city and its hinterland. In 1608 the muster returns indicate that baking was one of the five largest occupations. (fn. 46) From the bakers' company records it is evident that the number of masters grew considerably in the eighty years before 1640. At the same time, production may have become concentrated in the hands of certain major bakers, with some masters working for their colleagues as journeymen, as well as keeping their own shops. (fn. 47) A similar increase both in output and the scale of production is also visible in brewing. Between the mid Tudor period and 1629 the number of common or wholesale brewers at Gloucester roughly doubled. (fn. 48) In addition there was considerable brewing by innkeepers and alehouse keepers. (fn. 49) The magistrates tried to limit brewing to the common brewers in 1548, 1573, and 1629 (fn. 50), and in the 1630s their efforts were reinforced by the Crown's scheme to establish brewing monopolies. (fn. 51) By 1640 Gloucester had a cluster of prominent common brewers, including John Woodward whose estate was probably worth over £2,000 at his death in the 1640s. (fn. 52) Also affluent were maltsters. With at least six holding civic office between 1580 and 1600, they were the third largest occupational group on the corporation. (fn. 53) During the harvest failures of the 1590s there were allegations that leading maltsters were making malt and shipping it down river at a time when local inhabitants were short of food. (fn. 54) Further abuses in 1613 prompted the corporation to act against the maltsters, imprisoning 17 of them, including several civic leaders. (fn. 55) Most of the malt was transported to Bristol and the south-west. (fn. 56)
Malt was only one of the commodities shipped from the port in the decades before the Civil War. Shipping may have been encouraged by the establishment of a separate port at Gloucester in 1580, against the fierce opposition of Bristol. (fn. 57) The dimensions of the city's commerce cannot be plotted statistically because the port books do not differentiate sufficiently between trade out of Gloucester and that of the down-river creeks under Gloucester's jurisdiction. (fn. 58) Nonetheless, the impression is that some direct overseas commerce continued into Elizabeth I's reign, mainly shipments of grain to the Mediterranean in exchange for wine, citrus fruits, and oils. (fn. 59) That was, however, a diminishing element in Gloucester's trade. Only a small number of Gloucester merchants were members of the London-based French Company in James I's reign. (fn. 60) Nor apparently did Gloucester men play any significant part in the activities of the Bristol Merchant Adventurers. (fn. 61) Rather they turned to purchasing imported wares at Chepstow (Mon.), Neath (Glam.), and Bristol (increasingly dominant in the southern trades), mostly in return for wheat, barley, and malt. (fn. 62) By the late 16th century Gloucester had become the principal grain port on the river Severn, its business enhanced by the rise of specialist corn growing in the vales of Berkeley and Gloucester. (fn. 63) In 1582 it was said that 'Gloucester quay is the … place where three parts [in four], of all grain … is laden for Bristol, Devonshire, Cornwall, Wales, and Ireland'. (fn. 64) For the late Tudor period the Welsh port books confirm that Gloucester was a leading supplier of grain to Carmarthen and Pembrokeshire. (fn. 65) In the south-west Gloucester shipped wheat, malt, and peas to Barnstaple (Devon), St. Ives (Cornw.), and Padstow (Cornw.). (fn. 66) Other agricultural produce, including apples and cider, was transported coastwise from Gloucester. (fn. 67) The port was also the focus of activities like fishing, piracy, and smuggling. (fn. 68) In the 1580s it was claimed that the number of small boats based at Gloucester had increased to c. 40, varying between 15 and 30 tons in burden. (fn. 69) The muster returns of 1608 record few mariners actually resident in the city; most probably lived at Gatcombe, in Awre parish, and other creeks down river and only came to Gloucester to ply their trade. (fn. 70)
The port was an essential pillar of the city's role as a marketing and distribution centre. By the last part of Elizabeth I's reign that role was the most flourishing aspect of the urban economy. The city was described in the 1580s as a 'great market situated in the heart of the country where great concourse of people is'. (fn. 71) Forty years later John Taylor wrote that Gloucester's markets are 'always stored with abundance of varieties of all commodities'. (fn. 72) By ancient custom the city could hold markets every weekday, but in practice they took place only on Wednesdays and Saturdays. (fn. 73) The city's market region is difficult to plot, doubtless varying from one commodity to another. For cattle it extended into south Worcestershire, (fn. 74) while villagers from the Forest of Dean with its paucity of market towns came to trade in 'wood, coal, corn, and divers other necessary victuals'. (fn. 75) Most visitors, however, travelled from neighbouring parishes. By 1600 the market specialized in grain, fruit, and cattle, but there was also a lively trade in imported and consumer wares brought from Bristol, many no doubt purchased by farmers profiting from the high price of corn shipped down the Severn. (fn. 76) After the charter of 1605 the city had three fairs within its limits, a three-day fair in March, the ancient Midsummer fair lasting seven days, and a three-day fair in November. Barton Fair, held in September outside the city boundary, continued in private ownership following the dissolution of Gloucester Abbey. (fn. 77) The Midsummer fair was well known for cattle. Customers probably journeyed to the fairs from a large area of the Marches and the west. (fn. 78)
Before 1640, however, there are indications, as in other provincial towns, that the open markets were losing business to so-called private marketing. Merchants and farmers preferred to trade in the greater comfort, security, and privacy of inns, taverns, and similar premises. In 1617 the common council denounced the sale of linen and woollen cloth and other merchandise in city inns and other houses (fn. 79); two years later the meal sellers were condemned for deserting the meal market. (fn. 80) To combat the problem the corporation tried to improve the facilities of the city's market houses, (fn. 81) but the trend away from open marketing was inexorable. By the early Stuart period there was also strong competition from the mercers, goldsmiths, and other distributive traders, who now boasted permanent retail shops on the London model and catered for the gentry and prosperous farmers of the shire. (fn. 82) Their shops were stocked with a mixture of imported and metropolitan wares. (fn. 83) Trade with the capital grew steadily before the Civil War. In 1602 Alderman John Browne the elder was said to have 'returned' up to £20,000 to London for himself and other Gloucester mercers, primarily to cover purchases of goods. (fn. 84) Several Gloucester traders had relatives and friends acting for them in the capital. (fn. 85)
With marketing and distribution so important in the economy, it is not surprising to find mercers, drapers, and goldsmiths playing a prominent part in city life. Distributive traders held well over a third of the seats on the corporation between 1580 and 1600. A number, men like Thomas Machen or John Browne the elder, were tycoons by Gloucester standards. (fn. 86) At the same time, the service sector was also expanding, albeit at a slower rate. How far the city suffered from the loss of pilgrimage and other religious traffic as a result of the Reformation is difficult to say; but there was some compensation with the establishment of the new diocese at Gloucester in 1541, whose church courts attracted substantial numbers of litigants and witnesses to the city. (fn. 87) By 1600 Gloucester was also a significant centre for Crown administration. With the general expansion of local government under the Tudors, assizes, county quarter sessions, muster meetings, and similar shire gatherings brought justices, gentry, and other country people to the city in unprecedented numbers. (fn. 88) In 1592 the Council in the Marches kept Trinity term in the cathedral close, sitting in the chapter house. (fn. 89)
Among the beneficiaries of the influx of visitors were the city's inns, taverns, and alehouses. A country cleric complained in 1580 that because 'lodging in the assizes time was scant' he was forced to share his bed at a Gloucester inn with four strangers. (fn. 90) By 1583 the major inns numbered 12 and the corporation recognized their importance by setting up a company of innkeepers and cooks. (fn. 91) Grandest of the inns was the New Inn, which had its own tennis court in James I's reign. (fn. 92) Inns with their numerous servants and extensive stabling served mostly the wealthier classes. A visitor to Gloucester in the 1630s remarked how the New Inn was 'much frequented by gallants, the hostess there being as handsome and gallant as any other'. (fn. 93) In such establishments gentry and merchants might lodge, feast, drink wine, and do business. As well as inns, Gloucester had about four taverns. (fn. 94) They sold wine to more respectable customers, though without usually providing accommodation. They were substantial premises: Edward Barston's tavern had 16 customers when it was closed in 1604 because of plague. (fn. 95) Far more numerous than either the inns or taverns were the alehouses which seem to have multiplied at Gloucester in the 16th century as elsewhere. In 1575 the Privy Council censured the excessive number in the city (fn. 96) and the corporation tried repeatedly to control them. In 1548 the magistracy appointed special overseers to supervise alehouse keepers and issued other regulations, anticipating the Licensing Act of 1552. (fn. 97) Most alehouses were rudimentary establishments selling ale and beer and a little food, with perhaps a bed for the itinerant. Their clients came largely from the lower orders. Under Edward VI the city fathers complained of the many poor craftsmen and journeymen resorting to them to drink and play at dice, cards, and other unlawful games. (fn. 98)
Professional men took advantage of the influx of country visitors and the increased demand for their services in the period before the Civil War. In the last decades of the 16th century about 20 lawyers are known to have been operating in the city. A certain number were eccclesiastical lawyers working in the church courts; one or two were barristers, such as Henry Robins, later town clerk and counsel to Sir Arthur Porter; (fn. 99) the majority were attorneys, generally not officers of the London courts, though several served the Council in the Marches. As well as advising and acting for town and country clients in lawsuits, attorneys helped draft wills and leases and worked as manorial stewards and surveyors. In addition, Gloucester had a small group of medical practitioners — physicians, apothecaries, and surgeons, as well as a larger number of traditional healers and quacks. John Smyth of North Nibley, steward of the Berkeleys, regularly consulted Gloucester men about his health. (fn. 100) Most medical men are shadowy figures, but John Deighton was a prominent surgeon in Charles I's reign and was chosen as city sheriff in 1620 and 1624. (fn. 101)
Despite some growth of its service sector, Gloucester never emerged as an important social centre in the decades before 1640. Only a handful of minor landowners are known to have been residing there in 1625, and the following year the city fathers pointed to the absence of county magnates. (fn. 102) In 1628 to attract visitors the corporation encouraged the opening of a fashionable bowling green at the Long Butts outside the south wall. (fn. 103) Nevertheless the landowners of the shire stayed obstinately away. In large measure that reflected the deteriorating political relations between the city and county over Gloucester's control of the inshire. (fn. 104) The mounting political hostility of the gentry had a serious effect on the city's economic performance as it tried to diversify away from its failing industries. As one local landowner confirmed, the city was 'hindered and depressed in [its] trades and subsistence by those of the county'. (fn. 105)
Full participation in the urban economy was in theory, and to a considerable extent in practice, confined to the freemen. Between 1534 and 1554 an average of 23 were admitted each year to the freedom; by the mid 17th century the annual number was roughly 50 per cent higher. (fn. 106) The total freeman body may have numbered about 400–500 at any one time in the early 17th century. (fn. 107) The principal routes to the freedom were through apprenticeship and patrimony. Freedom by purchase was increasingly expensive for outsiders: the typical fine rose from about £2 in the 1570s to over £10 in the 1630s. (fn. 108)
Freemen belonged to the trade companies. In 1634 there were officially 14 companies — the mercers, weavers, bakers, tanners, haberdashers, innkeepers, tailors, butchers, shearmen, glovers, shoemakers, barbers, metal men, and joiners; of those the shearmen's company was defunct. (fn. 109) According to a rate for 1573–4 the tailors were the wealthiest company with the weavers, butchers, and mercers next in rank. (fn. 110) Almost certainly the mercers grew in importance over the next decades, but little is known about that development. Evidence for the companies is patchy and it seems unlikely that they ever played the major role in civic life at Gloucester that they did in other provincial towns.
After the dissolution of the chantries in 1548 the wider religious and social activities of the companies declined and some of their lands were lost. (fn. 111) New civic ordinances for the butchers and bakers in 1549 and 1550 emphasized the companies' role as economic agencies. (fn. 112) The common council intervened more and more in their affairs, controlling and reorganizing them. (fn. 113) Social corporateness survived to some extent. In the 1630s the weavers' company still met every St. Anne's day at its hall and elected its officials. 'From thence in decent manner with a great cake consisting of a bushel of wheaten meal decked with flowers, garlands, silk ribbons, and other ornaments carried before them with music', company members processed the streets of Gloucester to the new master's house. By that time, however, the weavers' company was declining fast owing to the collapse of the cloth industry. (fn. 114) Indeed, the decades before 1640 saw Gloucester's companies confronted with serious difficulties. First, there was the failure of the textile trades, which swept the dyers, shearmen, cappers, and finally the weavers into oblivion. The metal workers also had to be reorganized as a company in 1607 because several trades were in decay. (fn. 115) Second, tension developed within companies, such as the bakers, which was fostered in part by the growing power of the leading masters. About 1602 the journeymen weavers set up their own rival company, which was recognized by the common council though it soon disappeared. (fn. 116) Internal divisions may help to explain the frequent refusals to serve as company officials by the 1630s. (fn. 117) Even more menacing to the Gloucester companies was a third problem: competition from outsiders. From the late 16th century non-free inhabitants, unable or unwilling to afford to become burgesses, were constantly trying to breach company monopolies. In 1581 the shoemakers' company denounced sundry men aged about 30, never apprenticed, some of them labourers or smallholders, who had set up in the trade. (fn. 118) The city was also invaded by country craftsmen and tradesmen who sold in and out of the markets, taking advantage of the upsurge of private trading. (fn. 119) The bakers' company repeatedly prosecuted foreign retailers; legal costs imposed a severe burden on the company. (fn. 119) Protectionism in lesser occupations like shoemaking and baking was virtually impossible. Only modest capital and skill were needed to enter the trade and there were large numbers of poorer townsmen and villagers eager to work. By 1640 Gloucester's trading institutions, along with the urban economy as a whole, were in a state of flux and depressed uncertainty.