The Tobacco Trade
It is difficult to imagine a time when Bideford was outranked only by London as a trans-Atlantic tobacco trading port, but it is a fact nonetheless – a matchless achievement for a port of its size and population.
A little less than two centuries separate the rise and demise of Bideford’s tobacco trading activities; its beginnings can be traced back to 1585 and its downfall coincided with the end of the American War of Independence in 1783. Those two hundred turbulent years uncover a fascinating trail that leads us to discover why the fates and fortunes of our small community became completely entwined with a commodity grown and harvested along what were then the boundaries of the known world.
The stories from this period of Bideford’s unique history are still alive in its buildings and infrastructure, though many are no longer recognised as having any such significance. The stories are also alive in the names of Bidefordians that can be traced to the old Plantations of Virginia and North Carolina. The fact that the C21 town that still hems in the River Torridge looks so very similar to the C18 town that became what G W Maton describes as an ‘Abode of Opulence’ (Maton W H, qtd. in Nix, 26), is a gift to be treasured. It means those stories can be told again and again in their authentic settings and so it affords us the duty and the privilege to keep them alive.
Towards the end of the sixteenth century, demand for tobacco in England was growing, especially at court. To meet demand, more supplies were needed. This acted as a further pretext for colonial expansion of the east coast of North America and the cultivation of new tobacco plantations that would counter the Spanish and French-dominated supplies from further south. It was a question then, for Bideford, of being in the right place with the right people at the right time.
The direct role played by Sir Richard Grenville, Lord of the Manor of Bideford, in attempts to settle the first colonies on the north-eastern seaboard of North America, was unprecedented for such a tiny port. The fact that Grenville lived in the town immediately placed Bideford at the forefront of the maritime colonial expansion demanded by Elizabeth I and the boldness of that enterprise alone has been likened by one contemporary historian to landing a man on the moon. Between 1585 and 1588, Grenville planned expeditions, built and manned ships from his beloved port, began and ended his voyages to America from the town’s tiny, sandy shore, near to the western end of the Old Bridge.
The first colonial adventures to Roanoke Island ended with the disappearance of John White’s so-called Lost Colony. This, combined with the death of Sir Richard Grenville in 1591 fighting the Spanish Armada strengthened Sir Walter Ralegh’s resolve to settle the area he had named Virginia for his beloved Queen Bess. “I shall yet live to see it an English nation,” he vowed (Rowse, 225). He ordered further voyages to Virginia to ascertain what had become of The Lost Colony, but no definitive answers were found.
It was not until the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 that renewed efforts towards sustainable colonial settlement were embraced in earnest., economically centred around the planting of tobacco in order to satisfy growing European markets for the fashionable herb, As Charles Kingsley wrote in his fictional account of the period, Sir Richard Grenville and his men had “picked the lock of the new world” (10). Now it was up to the next generation of Bideford men to ensure his efforts had not been in vain.
Planting the Lotus Leaf of Torridge 1603-16
The next colonial push was presided over by a consortium of London merchants and West Country mariners, both of whom could see massive potential to turn tobacco into profit – the activities of the Virginia Company, founded in 1606, paved the way for Bideford’s progress. The primary function of the Virginia Company was to create settlements to grow lucrative tobacco crops in Virginia. It was headed by Thomas Smythe, whose London merchants provided both the wealth and the determination to succeed against substantial odds.
Jamestown, founded first in 1607, was a settlement owned entirely by the Virginia Company and all settlers were employed by the Company or dependents of the employees. To begin with, disease was rampant and loss of life was heavy. Settlers were on the brink of starvation. In 1608, the first true colonial leader emerged. John Smith sustained the colony through the winter of that year and began to promote further colonial development in North Virginia which later became New England. There, he encouraged trade in fishing which helped “revive colonial activity in the West Country, in whose sphere New England lay” (Rowse, 231). Smith returned from Virginia in 1609 following a serious injury. But he carried on with his colonial evangelism and in the summer of 1616, visited West Country sea-port towns, handing out maps and books indicating shipping routes to North America and collecting support for his colonial efforts. No specific mention is made of Bideford but it is possible that it would have been included in Smith’s tour.
It was at this time that tobacco became an economically viable export commodity, as well as satisfying the needs of wealthy courtiers. Exports rose from 20,000lbs in 1617 to 4,000,000 lbs in 1640. The initial survival phase of the new American plantations had passed successfully. Now the door was open for substantial trans-Atlantic trade to develop. The new plantations had no local means of supply and, until they could fend for themselves, they could still die. There was a need for woolen goods, pottery and household supplies.
Bideford had long traded in woolen goods and pottery was one of its oldest commercial enterprises. In return for these, the colonies would send back tobacco and sugar. The town’s westerly aspect was a distinct advantage for trans-Atlantic trade and the whole town was eager to exploit the opportunities on offer.
Bideford had experienced sailors. It already had an established and substantial fishing trade in Newfoundland, which had began at almost the same time as Grenville’s Roanoke exploits, when Sir Humphrey Gilbert first landed with 260 men at St John’s Harbour in 1583. With its notoriously dangerous and difficult sailing route, fishing to and from the Grand Banks stretched Bideford fishermen’s’ maritime proficiency and the journey was known locally as the “nursery of seamen” (Grant, Breaking the Mould, 123). Such maritime prowess would be necessary if regular passages were to take place.
Bideford already had experienced trans-Atlantic ship owners and merchants. For example, local ship owners George Shurt and John Strange (also the Mayor of Bideford who died in 1646, helping his townsmen during the Plague) owned or part-owned a number of ships, including some that were engaged with the Newfoundland Fisheries. Both were significant in setting up trade with Virginia and New England. John Strange was one of few North Devon members of the Virginia Company and George Shurt traded back and fore with their large ships Friendship (80 tons) and Fellowship (170 tons), sending out blankets and returning with tobacco. His brother, Abraham Shurt, was an agent for two wealthy Bristol merchants and was one of the earliest Bideford emigrants. Local men George Buck and John Davie had already sailed to Virginia with Grenville. They seized the opportunity to acquire extensive tracts of land in the new colonies, offering financial incentives to local people to populate them and thus ensure a two-way enterprise.
Bideford had local tradesmen who would have already sailed the Atlantic with Grenville and who would be familiar with the needs of settlers and the conditions that would have to be endured. Craftsmen of all kinds were in great demand.
The men of Torridge, then, had local expertise, enterprise and entrepreneurs who were in a far stronger position than many in neighbouring outports to exploit the emerging markets in Virginia and New England. Bideford was poised to become An Abode of Opulence.
Building an Abode of Opulence: The Colonial Merchants, Mariners and Agents of Bideford 1625-1783
The English Civil War which began in 1642 left the Virginian planters in relative peace to develop. Crops and settlements flourished and Bideford entered its own Golden Age. When the Civil War ended and the Monarchy was restored in 1660, Bideford built up a fleet of tobacco ships and the Quay was first built in 1663 by the corporation of Bideford, to assist in the burgeoning trade with the colonies and other European ports.
Until the 1690s, goods leaving Bideford – notably earthenware and woollen goods – were traded along the rivers in Maryland as well as Virginia, often directly to settlers. Markets and fairs were seldom held in the fledgling colonies and the stocks of planters’ storekeepers were sparse. With stores seldom open all the year round, demand from settlers for domestic goods and warm textiles was high. Though relatively small, cargoes from Bideford’s ships sold well because of their ability to negotiate deep into the river estuaries and their return voyages were laden with “fresh, early tobacco, which fetched a higher price” (Grant, North Devon Pottery, 119). Because of this direct trading, Bideford’s merchants and ship owners were well placed to survive competition from the larger ports and Bideford’s reputation as a tobacco importer was greatly enhanced.
Bideford merchants also built tobacco trading links with Northern Europe where the good quality Maryland tobacco was popular. This meant that Bideford was, in turn, able to export not only more pottery to the developing settlements, but to return with high quality Virginia leaf to sell on. Often, the Bideford goods would be paid for in tobacco and these interconnecting markets were one of the secrets of Bideford’s success. Many colonial ships’ masters, the most respected of mariners, were related to the prominent tobacco merchants, further integrating relationships to strengthen trade.
In 1676, one ship, the Bideford Merchant, brought home 135,000 lbs of tobacco to the merchants Abraham Heiman, Anthony Hopkins and John Davie. The growing prosperity from tobacco drew in merchants from outside the town and Bideford’s ability to trade even more widely was significantly increased. Such merchants included Huguenot Antoine Juliot and Irishmen Thomas Power, Hartwell Buck and John Smith. Smith traded with Waterford and Ross, where his father and brother provisioned ships for the colonies. Another of his brothers owned a plantation in Virginia and another was ship’s master in colonial trading. Smith had ships built in the colonies where there was an abundant supply of timber and waterways less crowded than tiny Bideford tight shipping channel. It was through Smith’s enterprise on both sides of the Atlantic, that Bideford became an entrepôt which shipped tobacco from Virginia to European and Irish ports in exchange for other goods to return with to Virginia.
By far the most eminent of the colonial merchants was John Davie, whose increasing profits allowed him to build ‘Colonial House’ at the eastern end of Bideford Bridge. It remains to this day as part of the Royal Hotel. In the last twenty years of the seventeenth century, Davie frequently sent earthenware to Ireland and also to the colonies, where he reloaded his empty ship Bideford Merchant with high quality tobacco from Maryland.
John Smith’s wealth rivalled that of Davie’s. He had a 200-ton ship called the Factor, which he had built in 1696 on the banks of the Chester River in Chesapeake Bay, along with the John which was also built there in 1697. Smith was sole owner of both ships, preferring not to share either the investment of capital or risk with the ships’ masters. His other colonial trading ships, all owned by him, were the Francis (50-ton ship) and the Blakiston (50-ton brig) as well as having shares in the Northam-built ship, the Tryall.
As a result of the prosperity, great improvements were made to the town. Bridgeland Street was built in 1692 and the Quay was extended to it from the bottom of Cooper Street. According to W H Rogers, 1693 was a year of particular significance: “the Town of Bideford was filled with inhabitants amongst whom were a great number of Merchants who carried on a very considerable commerce in the importation of Tobacco from Virginia and Maryland, of wool from Ireland, and in the fishery of Newfoundland, also in the importation of train oil, iron, salt, deals, pitch, tar, tallow, linens, timber, wines, hemp, flax and many other kinds of merchandise which employed in that year 64 sail of ships trading to foreign ports as appears by the Custom house books.” (Rogers, 97)
The acquisition of colonial land by Bideford merchants was an attractive proposition and a good investment. Together with master mariners, they paid for land by offering free passage to anyone willing to give up the fifty acres to which they were entitled if they emigrated to populate the new colonies. This was known as the Headright System. The cost of passage was around £10 and emigrants could recover that and also make a profit by subsequently handing over their land. Servants also emigrated, their contracts being sold by the merchants for between £15 and £30.
The End of the Golden Age
The zenith of tobacco trading took place in Bideford between 1680 and 1730 but, as a small port compared to London, Bristol and Topsham, it was always more susceptible to the vagaries of wars that continually served to upset the delicate trading balance and hinder its full potential. Wars with France from 1689 to 1697 and 1702 to 1713 caused disruption to trade and shipping. European markets were cut off, causing heavy losses in Newfoundland commercial activity and severely curtailing the importation of tobacco.
An inauspicious and nervous start heralded in the eighteenth century. In addition, some Navigation Acts widened the port remit and diluted Bideford’s domination. Financial burdens, brought about by increases in tobacco duty, became too heavy for many of the town’s merchants to bear. Despite requesting respite on a £1500 debt due on tobacco importation bonds, John Smith died bankrupt in 1706 and his estate which had racked up debts of some £10,000, was seized. Finally, the American War of Independence (1775 – 1783) ended colonial trading for ever and Bideford could only look at itself, so entirely changed, and reflect on its Golden Age and commercial scenes that would never again be repeated. Its sons and daughters spread far and wide, it was time for Bideford to regroup and consider how the legacy of its glorious tobacco trading could take it forward once more.
Author Pauline Smith 2009
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