The Letter-Book of Thomas Baret is a leather-bound volume comprising 245 pages of copies of out-going letters sent between 1672 and 1677. An additional six pages at the rear of the volume were filled in 1695; these are copies of letters sent by Baret to Sir Josiah Child, the English merchant, economist, and politician. The volume passed into the hands of descendants of Baret’s sister, Elizabeth Rayley, and was acquired with other Rayley papers and correspondence first by Norwich Public Library, and then by the Norfolk Record Office.
Baret’s letter-book illuminates several important aspects of Norwich’s history, as well as speaking to broader British and European concerns. Crucially, the volume offers insights into the Norwich textile trade and the manufacturing of Norwich stuffs. There is no full-scale study devoted to Norwich textiles, which are the primary commodity featuring in Baret’s letter-book. There are good reasons for this, including the lack of statistical records for the Norwich textile industry and the lack of surviving textiles – there are no examples of seventeenth-century Norwich stuffs, with pattern books and samples of Norwich manufactures only surviving from the 1760s. While Baret’s export trade was primarily in stuffs, he imported a range of commodities. Some of these had links to his manufacturing operation (such as madder for dye, and whalebone for stiffening stays), but his range of imports also included various foodstuffs, iron, brass pots, and small decorative ornaments. Acting as a manufacturer as well as a merchant, Baret’s letter-book gives some insight into manufacturing practices in the Norwich textile industry in the seventeenth century, revealing Baret’s concerns about his workmen, the difficulties he faced in securing yarn and manufacturing certain stuffs, and the marketing of his produce.
The period during which Baret operated adds an additional layer of interest to this volume. Baret’s letter-book spans a period encompassing the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-4) and the connected Franco-Dutch War (1672-8), making it an excellent resource for assessing the impact of these conflicts on the Anglo-Dutch textile trade. While Baret did, inevitably, mention the war at various junctures in his correspondence, he more often displayed concern regarding the inconvenient actions of his business associates and the cultural obstacles to trade, suggesting that, despite the political context, war was not necessarily uppermost of merchants’ concerns. The volume also highlights the impact of restrictions posed by institutional bureaucracy, and we can trace Baret’s fraught relationship with the Merchant Adventurers of London (the Hamburg Company) through his letters.
That no official data survives for Norwich relating either to the volume of stuffs production or the value of its domestic or overseas trade makes the evidence contained within this manuscript particularly important. History benefits greatly from the perspective of the individuals who directly participated in it – and therefore heavily influenced it – and Baret’s experiences as a textile merchant-manufacturer add a great deal to our understanding both of the Norwich stuff trade and of early modern commerce more broadly in the late seventeenth century.
Series: Norfolk Record Society
Volume Number: LXXXV
Year of Publication: 2021
Edited By: Siobhan Talbott
- Thomas Baret
- Textile Manufacturer
- Early Modern Commerce