Britain exported tin, corn and coal until taxes killed trade

Posted in Historical articles, History, Industry, Institutions, Trade on Tuesday, 5 March 2013

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This edited article about the early British export trade originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 174 published on 10 May 1965.

Godric the exporter, picture, image, illustration

Godric wandered with small wares round the villages and farms of his neighbourhood; he grew very rich and then gave everything away to the poor, ending his days as a hermit in Durham, by Don Lawrence

When Henry the Second, the first of the Plantagenet kings, came to the throne in the year 1154, Britain was part of the largest and most powerful economic unit in Europe.

Apart from Britain, Henry ruled France from the Channel to the Loire. He married Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose lands stretched from the Loire to the Pyrenees, and soon he “overawed” Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well. This European empire facilitated tremendous growth of trade, and many merchants followed in the golden footsteps of St. Godric.

The riches of the time are shown by the style in which Thomas a Becket (later Archbishop of Canterbury), when he was Henry’s Chancellor, journeyed across France. He took with him fourteen complete changes of clothes, two hundred servants, eight chariots each drawn by five horses, containing tapestries, furniture, gold and silver, a pantry and a complete mobile kitchen.

Each chariot was guarded by a large dog and on the back of each dog rode a trained monkey. The many packhorses were each ridden by a groom kneeling on the horse’s rump. There were knights and their squires and travelling minstrels.

One of the chariots, which were really more like large carts, contained iron-bound casks of English beer, which greatly impressed the French as “surpassing wine in flavour.” This led to our first beer exports to the French nobles who were only too anxious to be drinking the same beverage as their ruler’s Chancellor.

The trading successes of the time made for the growth of town guilds, or groups of merchants and craftsmen joined in trade associations. And it was these very guilds that stopped the expansion of our trade by imposing barriers on imports.

Quite apart from shipping tolls, any foreign merchant who brought his goods to market in any sizeable English town had to pay a series of taxes whether he sold the goods or not. For instance, if he laid them out on the ground he was charged “terrage.” If he put them on a stall already there he was charged “stallage.” If he put up his own stall he had to pay “picage” in order to make the necessary holes in the ground.

He paid “thurghtolle” on his goods for carrying them through the town to the market and “pontage” for use of a bridge. He even had to pay “tronage” if it was necessary to weigh his goods for a customer.

These tolls were later spread ever wider, so that a foreigner had to pay a special tax on the food he needed while in England, right down to bread, cabbages and apples.

Although some of these rules also applied to visiting traders from other English towns, thus creating barriers between the trade of adjacent communities, the most serious result was in our exports. For foreign merchants were not allowed to take money out of England. They had to take goods.

Yet so impossible were the trading restrictions that they could not sell at a profit, and hence our exports dwindled. This short-sighted restrictive practice stopped thousands of foreign merchants bothering with our markets, and they in turn set up similar barriers to our traders overseas.

Although royal decrees tried to control the guilds and made special exemptions from tolls for merchants from certain towns abroad whose goods we needed, in practice little heed was taken. Edward the Third ordained in 1350 that all merchants not from enemy countries could sell and buy freely without paying franchises. Nevertheless, the tough bailiffs still went around demanding tolls and the sufferer’s only redress was in the courts where cases dragged on sometimes for as long as three years.

The result in the end was the impoverishment of many cities. Winchester, for example, had 997 empty houses and 17 unused parish churches in and around it. Only 200 citizens remained in Lincoln, and Grimsby had only 12 “persons of substance” left in residence.

Fortunately for the country as a whole, our major exports did not depend upon the visiting merchants. By the fifteenth century our tin exports were about £10,000 a year. Coal was also becoming more and more important. More than 11,000 tons a year was being shipped, mainly from Newcastle, to a dozen Continental cities, including Hamburg, Danzig, Amsterdam and Dieppe.

One French importer wrote that France could not live without our coal, which, he added, he bought for 2s. 2d. a “chauldron” and sold for 13 nobles – a profit reckoned at about 500 per cent.

Corn was another great export, but only if the crop was sufficient for home use. In 1436, for instance, it was ordered that grain could only be exported if its home price was lower than 6s. 8d. a quarter in the case of wheat, and lower than 3s. in the case of barley. In times of shortage the price would be higher than that, and thus export would be banned, and imports of grain encouraged.

But it was the wool trade and the cloth trade that kept England from bankruptcy, and eventually produced the money that made possible the later greatness of Britain.

Ironically, the cloth trade was largely due to the Germans, members of the historic Hanseatic League, a group of merchants with headquarters in London. And one of the greatest single obstacles to their success was English piracy on the high seas.

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