Meyricke Serjeantson













The Economic background: poverty or prosperity?

Shrewsbury was considered by contemporary observers to have been a prosperous town. Sir William Brereton, later to become M.P. for Cheshire in the Long Parliament, and a strong opponent of the Crown, passed through the town in 1634-5 and described it in glowing terms.

“This is a very fair, large, spacious town, famous for that trade of stuff which is here maintained, and it is one of the richest towns in these parts of England, Newcastle-upon-Tyne exepted. It is a very great town, governed by two bailiffs. Here is a very stately market house, a very great, vast brewhouse of Mr Rowleyes, the brewing vessells wherein are capable of 100 measures; a well-ordered Free-school ****. This town is seated upon the river Severne, which is hitherunto navigable, though with much strain, force, and pains, the vessels being hauled up by strength of men against the stream many miles.” 1

Camden, writing thirty years earlier, described the town in similar terms and stressed the importance of the trade with Wales.

“This city **** is grown rich by the industry of its inhabitants, by the cloth manufacture, and by the trade with the Welsh. For hither almost all the commodities of ales are brought as to one common market, it being inhabited both by Welsh and English, who speak each other's language” 2

The first assessment of ship-money on the inland towns called for a total of £500 from Shrewsbury, over one tenth of the total for the whole county.3 Even though this sum was later reduced to £450, it indicates the position of the town, both within the county and in the country as a whole, it being one of the highest assessments made. Naturally enough the townspeople attempted to reduce this assessment by pleading poverty. The excuse most often used was decimation by plague. A petition from Thomas Lloyd, of St Alkmond's, to the corporation in 1632 speaks of an attack of plague in that year and also of one not long previously. Another attack is mentioned in 1635. A petition of the bailiffs to the Council appealed for a reduction of the town's ship-money assessment on the grounds that

“ Shrewsbury had been greatly impoverished of late by the plague.4

The corporation took strong measures to alleviate the effects of this particular attack, so that it can be assumed that some severe dislocation of normal town life had been experienced. The magistrates ordered that there should

“Furthwith be levyed out of every allotment within five miles of the uttermost liberties of the town of Shrewsbury, the some of £6 out of an entire allotment, and soe p'portionably out of every part of each allotment as shall be within the distance aforesaid, for every moneth, til further order shal be herein taken, towardes the present reliefe of the poor and infected persons within the towne and libties of Shrewsbury.” 5

The last existing evidence of a decline in the town's prosperity is a complaint written in March 1642 about the damage caused to the town's trade and commerce by the late troubles, particularly those in Ireland. 6

In general, despite the complaints of the corporation, which had an interest in proving the town's poverty, it would seem that Shrewsbury enjoyed a period of moderate prosperity in the years before the Civil War. The fact that Shrewsbury was a market centre meant that it would be hard hit by the war-time disruption of commerce. The main dividing line between the strongholds of the two sides effectively cut the trade routes between Wales and London upon which Shrewsbury depended for much of her livelihood. The towns of central Wales were, themselves, badly ravaged in the war, thus further injuring the town's prosperity. 7

The economy of Shrewsbury was dominated by the textile industry, with the Drapers' Company playing a leading role in the affairs of the borough. A narrative account of the Company and of its rise to power within the town, already exists in far greater detail than this context merits. 8 Suffice it to say that, by 1623, the staple for the Welsh cloth market had, as the result of the freeing of the Welsh cloth trade in 1621, become fixed in Shrewsbury. The Drapers' Company had long opposed the Free Trade Bill, believing that it would open up the market to competition from the London merchants but it actually had the effect of giving the Shrewsbury drapers a virtual monopoly. The fights between the drapers of Shrewsbury and Oswestry, the London merchants and the Council, which had characterized the early years of the century thus came to an end, with Shrewsbury being victorious.

Following the great depression at the turn of the century, the textile industry followed an uncertain course. The crisis over freeing the market in 1621 coincided with a general slump in the export of cloth. Currency manipulations in the Baltic area, combined with instability in the rest of Europe, caused the old markets for English (and Welsh) cloth to collapse. After 1622, however, the sales of cloth improved, with 1624 seeing a great boom. War with France, and an era of bad relations with Spain, caused another decline in exports, which did not fully recover before the Civil War. The exact effect that these fluctuations had on the Shrewsbury drapers is uncertain. Mendenhall, however, claims that

“The decline, after 1623, of controversy and complaint which had previously seemed almost endemic to the manufacturing and Shrewsbury ends of the industry is at least negative evidence of their modest, if quiet, prosperity.” 9

The other industries in the town are much less well documented, there being little information of a conclusive nature. The only surviving petition to the central government from a guild other than the Drapers' comes, in 1641, from the Fraternity or Company of Corvisours. This complains of illegal selling of leather by the tanners, which was possible because of the absence of proper controls in the town and asks for a day to be set aside for the proper searching and marketing of leather. 10 Brereton's description mentions the existence of one flourishing brewery in the town. 11 A document from 1637 certifies that William Rowley, William King and Isaac Scott were fit to be admitted common brewers. These three, together with Thomas Harris, who had already been admitted, being sufficient to supply the town's needs. 12 Unfortunately, there is no evidence, other than Brereton's comment, about the size of the vessels, to allow speculation about the degree of capitalist enterprise involved in this industry.

Outside the town there are two main features of economic interest, the growth of mining and the condition of agriculture. Coal was discovered in the Shrewsbury field in 1571, when the inhabitants of the town agreed to raise the sum of £100 towards the sinking of a coal pit. This move does not, however, seem to have been as successful as had been hoped, for the passage of coal up the Severn from Coalbrookdale was still vital to the town during the Civil War. When the river was blockaded it was recorded that Shrewsbury was

“In great distress **** for want of coles.13

Gough mentions the mining of copper at Harmer Heath, just to the north of the town, and the fact that this was disrupted when the King arrived and all the miners left to join the army. 14 This activity can only be seen as being of minor importance to the town and it would be wrong to see it as playing a major role in the events leading up to the war. Agriculture was important, in that the local gentry were to have a strong influence on the town in 1642 but the condition that it was in is not recorded. All that is known is that the county had a relatively high percentage of enclosed fields. 15 Gough mentions the enclosing of Harmer Moss but other similar actions have not found their way into the local records. 16 None of the sources mentions any serious anti-enclosure riots, although there does seem to have been some activity by Clubmen during the war.

There is not enough information to enable any serious attempt at an analysis of the relative wealth of the different social groups within the town.  Consequently, further analysis of the reasons behind the town's decision to join the King's side must almost totally ignore the socio-economic theories so beloved by recent historians of the period.  Except for the references to the poverty caused by the plague, nothing is known about the economic welfare of the mass of the people.  One can only infer from the lack of references to popular disturbances that there was no widespread popular unrest.  If, as seems to have been the case, the textile industry was moderately prosperous, unemployment in the town must have been at an acceptable level.  All that can really be deduced from the existing information is that the Drapers' Company played a vital role in the economic life of the town and that the decisions taken in 1642 must have involved its members to a considerable extent.