Overseas Trade (and Smuggling) in Early Modern King’s Lynn

The King’s Lynn Port Books 1610-1614

While not as important as London, King’s Lynn was still definitely in the premier division of the urban commercial leagues in the early modern period, alongside ports such as Newcastle, Hull, Southampton, Bristol and Chester. Liverpool and Glasgow at that time were still ‘emerging’ and would have to wait until the age of the Industrial Revolution for their glory days to dawn. Lynn’s overseas trade in the reign of James I was heavily concentrated on the North Sea, with particularly brisk exchanges of goods with the Scottish ports on the Firth of Forth. Kirkcaldy was the most important, followed by Leith, but also significant was Culross, which is still a major visitor attraction in the region with its cobbled streets, well-preserved houses and a splendid so-called ‘Palace’ built by the entrepreneur Sir George Bruce. He was a notable trader through King’s Lynn and he once received special attention in an edition of the BBC TV series Coast which focussed particularly on his coal mining activities. The Scottish ports sent coal, cloth, yarn, salt and fish to Lynn and took in exchange wheat, barley and malt, peas and beans, but also considerable quantities of beer, evidence of a very considerable brewing industry in the Jacobean town. Although England and Scotland had the same king after 1603 Scotland was still regarded as a foreign country for commercial purposes, even if it was not quite so foreign as before. The Scottish merchants were now identified as ‘Scots’ and not as ‘aliens’, the word used routinely to describe Dutch, French and Baltic traders, and they did not now have to pay the additional twenty five per cent levy on their goods that other foreigners were liable for.

A port book entry from 1612 in TNA E190/433/12, showing the merchant’s mark of Thomas Snelling.

Other significant trades were with the Dutch ports of Amsterdam, which was rising rapidly after 1609 as Europe’s new commercial emporium, Enkhuizen, Rotterdam, Dordrecht, Middelburg and Flushing (now called Vlissingen), and also the Baltic ports of Danzig (now Gdansk) and Elbing (modern Elblag). Lynn’s principal export to these places was grain, when harvest conditions in the hinterland were favourable, and a certain amount of cloth, but another of the more notable exports consisted of considerable quantities of skins and hides which were sent to the Baltic – sheep skins, both raw and seasoned, rabbit and cony skins, and even cats could never feel safe in Lynn’s hinterland! One of the principal merchants involved in this trade was Thomas Snelling, who was a citizen of London and a member of The Skinners’ Company. He became mayor of Lynn but died during his year of office at the age of only thirty eight. There is a civic portrait of him in the Lynn town hall, and he has a splendid memorial in St Nicholas Chapel. The imported goods from the northern trades included pitch and tar, rye and timber from the Baltic, with much timber coming also from Norway, and a huge range of commodities from the vast international hypermarket of Amsterdam – Spanish and French salt, Baltic rye and timber, Icelandic fish, French, Rhenish and Spanish wines, East Indian spices, paper, glass, kettles and pots, bricks and tiles, and much more; almost anything seemed to be on offer in the emerging Dutch commercial capital.

Civic Portrait of Thomas Snelling (King’s Lynn Town Hall)

The Lynn merchants, and also those from the principal ‘creeks’ of Wells and Burnham (lesser ports, associated with the ‘head port’ of Lynn), were quite heavily involved in the annual Iceland venture, a fishing-cum-commercial operation which set out in the spring and returned in early autumn, bringing in fish of various kinds, dried and heavily salted, train oil, live hunting birds (Icelandic hawks were particularly prized by the aristocracy and gentry) and the strange cloth called wadmal (which the customs clerks characterically recorded as ‘woadmole’), both in its raw state and also sometimes made up into stockings and mittens. However this branch of trade is only very sketchily recorded in the official records, which have to be squeezed very hard to reveal some of their secrets.

There was also a most intriguing commercial link between Lynn and Dieppe in northern France which is worth mentioning even though none of the Lynn merchants had anything to do with it. It was handled by men from other ports and consisted of fairly regular consignments to Dieppe of old bones of various kinds, ox-horns, broken glass and old shoes, presumably an early example of waste recycling. The Lynn merchants did, however, have serious trading links with Bordeaux and Rochelle in south-west France, particularly William Atkin (who is also commemorated in a fine civic portrait in the town hall, the earliest that the town possesses) and his brother-in-law Gervase Wharton. This was mainly an import trade based on salt and wine, together with prunes, which the Elizabethans and Jacobeans apparently consumed in great quantities; there were also imports of honey, vinegar, feathers and rosin. In addition to the inevitable wheat, barley and peas, Lynn exchanged smaller amounts of fish, coal, pitch and tar, timber, wax and cloth.

Civic Portrait of William Atkin (Kings Lynn Town Hall)

All of these details come from the port books, some of which (covering the years 1610-1614) were published by the Norfolk Record Society in 2009. These documents were royal customs accounts, produced for the central government exchequer (and now kept in the National Archives at Kew), and therein lies one of the possible problems. Although they do contain considerable amounts of detail about trade and shipping, there remains a nagging suspicion that they might still be very incomplete. Merchants were as much concerned with evading the royal customs as they were with ensuring the safe return of their ships, and in the Elizabethan period there had been a major scandal involving one of the mayors of King’s Lynn, Francis Shaxton. He had evaded customs for years, using some of the established devices such as persistent under-registering cargoes and the entering of coastal destinations (duty–free) rather than foreign ports, but he had also resorted to the outright forging of customs documentation in collusion with a disgraced customs clerk. When the scandal broke it became clear that much of the commercial and political establishment of King’s Lynn had also been implicated. Amazingly they appear to have got away with nothing more than a severe ‘rapping of knuckles’ – otherwise the town government might have collapsed completely – but enough evidence survives to throw a considerable shadow over the veracity of customs records from this period, and there are further hints that some of the Lynn merchants might have been up to their old tricks in the following reign. One of the major customs officials was Matthew Clarke, who had succeeded his father as searcher of the port (they both have another notable memorial in St Nicholas Chapel, erected by the son during his own lifetime). He is conspicuously absent from the port book record for 1610-1614, even though we know that he was a shipowner and a very wealthy man. He became both mayor of the town and one of its members of parliament. It may be no suprise to learn that in 1613 he was summoned to appear before the privy council, no less, to answer charges of failing to perform the duties of his office as searcher; but he was not dismissed!

Memorial to Richard and Mathew Clarke in St Nicholas Chapel, King’s Lynn (Philip Marriage)

The King’s Lynn Port Books 1610-1614 was edited by G. Alan Metters (Published October 2009) and is available from the Norfolk Record Society.

This blog post was written by G. Alan Metters