Detail from ‘Coastal Landscape with Lighthouse and Ships Anchored in the Bay’ (1740). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (CC0 1.0).

England’s traffic in intoxicants between 1580 and 1740, both domestic and international, can be best traced through port books. As such, me and my fellow Research Associate Tim Wales have spent the last six months – and will spend the next two – trawling through the relevant collection (E 190) at The National Archives for our respective case studies (Cheshire and Norfolk), doggedly on the trail of intoxicant-related commodities for our first research strand, and associated dataset, on the Economy of Intoxicants and Intoxication.

Port books are essentially records of England’s overseas and coastal trade. They are described at length in this introduction from TNA, but in short are neat copy summaries of the customs duties paid on goods traded through harbours returned to the Exchequer by three kinds of local official – customer, controller, and searcher – on an annual basis. Some 20,000 of these unique manuscripts survive for the period 1560-1799, ranging in size from single pages for sleepier creeks to hundreds of folios for larger ports. My case study focuses on a decadal sample of around seventy books from the head ports of Liverpool and Chester; Tim’s features a decadal sample of around seventy books from Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn, and Blakeney.

Getting hands-on with a selection of port books at our first sources workshop at The National Archives.

The books are fantastically rich documents that have arguably been under-utilised by economic and social historians of early modern Britain (although there are exceptions, such as Nuala Zahediah’s The Capital and the Colonies [2010], which rests largely on a statistical analysis of the 1686 books for London, or Matt Greenhall’s 2011 thesis on the Anglo-Scottish trade). They are a treasure trove for the historian of intoxication. As well as containing descriptions of the volume and sometimes cost of intoxicant-related imports and exports – from aqua vitae to tobacco pipe clay, from coffee pots to over fifty varieties of wine – the fact that each entry in a book also includes date, personal names, ship names, and place names means we can construct a three-dimensional view of each transaction that will ultimately allow us to recover broad trends in time, space, and social networks as well as a multitude of highly granular individual exchanges.

An intoxicant-related entry, typical in both content and formatting, is highlighted below:

Detail from E 190/493/5 (Yarmouth, Overseas [Searcher], Xmas 1692-Xmas 1693), The National Archives.

In this example, from Great Yarmouth in 1662, we learn that on the 24th of the month (in this case November) a trader called Richard Ferrier imported three hogsheads of vinegar and three hogsheads of French wine from Bordeaux. The ship was called The Agreement, was also based in Great Yarmouth, and was sailed on this occasion by a master called Richard Cox. The ship name in this case is prosaic, although there are many more colourful ones, as per this Tweet which caught our eye last week:

Lively maritime nomenclature or not, many thousands of such intoxicant-related entries will be captured by the project, representing the first substantial increment of data for our database, and providing a basis for various kinds of maps, timelines, charts, and other visualizations as well as a flurry of precious personal names – especially of merchants – for us to pursue across records related to our other research themes.

Port books are not without their difficulties, most of which were given a good airing at our first sources workshop at TNA back in October. One, afflicting all series records of this kind, is patchy survival; the pre-1680 run for both the North West and Norfolk is inconsistent, with a particularly frustrating gap between 1640 and 1670 (Liverpool also drops off after 1720). A record of taxable goods only, the books shed no light on illicit trade or commodities included as ballast, and there is evidence of corruption on the part of customers, searchers, and controllers, as well as inconsistent recording practices across the three kinds of official. Physically, notwithstanding some heroic preservation efforts, these manuscripts are in an unusually advanced state of decrepitude – regarded for centuries as an insignificant administrative by-product, they were ‘discovered’ rotting under a tarpaulin at the old Public Record Office site on Chancery Lane – with mould and water damage, extreme crumpling, and inexplicable missing chunks representing the three main categories of damage. Fortunately, we are now working mostly from our own photographs, so our exposure to the grimy originals is limited.

‘The Olde and Worme-Eaten’: The port books are in unusually poor physical condition.

Our creation of the port book data model and online data collection system, undertaken in conjunction with Mike Pidd and our lead developer Kathy Rogers at HRI Digital, has also thrown up a range of methodological, analytical, and technical challenges. Capturing a dazzling variety of receptacles, weights, measures, and numerical values, put together by shippers and assessors in a seemingly endless range of combinations, has required flexible input forms capable of multiple configurations. Conceptually, assembling a robust vocabulary and tagging architecture – necessary for clean, actionable data – while also preserving the languages used by contemporaries to describe intoxicants has proved interesting. We are combining standardised descriptions – based as far as possible on the successive Books of Rates – with fields for ‘as marked’ in an attempt to combine these approaches. Mapping our place names to a stable gazetteer and fixed geographical coordinates, and using computational algorithms to translate contemporary measures into standard modern variants – for example, converting the fifteen different kinds of early modern barrel into litres and gallons – will give us plenty to get our teeth into at the data manipulation stage.

The Intoxication Station: Our online set-up for port book data entry.

If we’ve whetted your appetite for port books, specifically the intoxicant-related goods and communities they contain, be sure to Follow Us on Twitter, where we’ll be live-Tweeting some highlights before our work on the books finally comes to an end in the summer.

Further Reading