Coastal and River Trade in Pre-Industrial England: Bristol and its Region, 1680-1730
This substantial study is a major product of the long-standing Portbooks Programme at the University of Wolverhampton. Members of the South West Maritime History Society will remember hearing talks on the research group's approach involving the application of computing power to the vast and complex data on shipping and cargo movements, scarcely to be contemplated by earlier generations of historians able to employ only manual approaches. Unable to spare a lifetime or two, historians had previously only attempted limited forays amongst these customs records and their potential had remained untapped.
The data itself was not the only cause of the neglect of British coastal and river trade. The author suggests that the focus of maritime economic historians on overseas trade, more accessible and apparently distinct, was a significant factor, exemplified by the early work of the Society's late President, Professor Walter Minchinton, on Bristol's overseas trade. Indeed, David Hussey takes Minchinton's work of forty years ago as his starting point returning to it in his concluding arguments. He is surely right to argue that shipping and cargo movements and the activity of the merchants that direct trade must be seen in the round. Coastal and overseas trading were inevitably interactive, the one conditioning the other. Certainly the coastal scene was neglected until the later years of the twentieth century, since when there has been much more interest, notably through the work of John Armstrong.
The study is divided into five chapters, each fully supported by detailed tables, graphs and maps, and worked through with close argument. The scene is set in the first chapter where it is immediately apparent that, although Bristol provides the focus, the region extends upriver to Shrewsbury, around the Welsh coast into Cardigan Bay, and even as far as Liverpool, and around the South West peninsula to Exeter and Lyme. Indeed, the book contains much data which will be of interest to SWMHS members concerned with particular ports, and must constitute a work of reference from this perspective. But such usage must be made with a reading of the explanation of the port books as a source, also set out in this chapter.
Chapter 2 deals with voyages and connections: the linkages which allowed the trade to operate. The magnitude is at once demonstrated in the 77 ports within the region, and 74 ports beyond found within the data set at the end of the seventeenth century. The list of course includes many now forgotten port locations. Shipping movements, including seasonal data and data on particular cargoes, are examined here, but trade in goods and commodities is the subject for Chapter 4, where the analysis is in considerable depth. The diversity of commodities handled by river and sea in this period before the development of transport by land, is huge.
In Chapter 4 the author addresses the organisation of trade: the owners, merchants and shipping involved. We are offered insights into the factors influencing commercial decisions, the ways in which merchants collaborated with each other, and the interactions between merchants and ships' masters. Amongst the numerous methodological problems faced by the study was that of the definition of 'home port' in a period before the recognition in the ship registry acts. Chapter 5 considers the coastal trade in operation. In particular, there are case studies of Hoare and Company based in Bridgewater, and of the trade in salt between Cheshire and Gloucester and Bridgewater.
Though by no means light reading, the naming of individuals and of vessels, and the description of incidents, brings life to the text. It is here that the author's attempt to vary the phrasing seems to have added a term to maritime language which is new at least to this reader. The usage, as in this example from page 36, occurs quite frequently: "
the William and Richard of Bridgewater, mastered by Philip Richards
Inevitably, such are the limitations imposed by the sources, by no means all the data presented in graphical or tabular form spans the full fifty years implicit in the title. Some are drawn from a sample year only and some spans only a few years at the turn of the eighteenth century. Nevertheless this study shows what can be achieved with difficult sources using computing approaches. Nor should it be thought that contemporary textual material has been ignored: indeed one of the author's objectives has been to integrate the two approaches to offer a balanced understanding.
Produced to the customary high standards of the University of Exeter Press, with a full bibliography, this is a well-written, important and welcome contribution to our understanding of coastal shipping and trade.
(Exeter, University of Exeter Press, 2000). Xvi + 296 pp,
tables, figures, maps, plates, appendices, notes, bibliography, index.
ISBN 0 85989 617 X. £45.00.
Reviewed by Alston Kennerley,
Institute of Marine Studies
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