Detail from ‘Coastal Village’ (1618). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (CC0 1.0).

Research Questions

  • Our first task is to trace as systematically as possible the changing volume of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and (where possible) opium between 1580 and 1740 and to reconstruct related changes in material culture.

  • We will also identify the producers, merchants, and retailers of intoxicants responsible for these developments; their relative position within urban and rural communities; the extent of their social and economic networks; the structures and procedures of their trade; and the political power they exerted locally, nationally, and internationally.

  • The aim is to delineate for the first time the early modern commercialisation of intoxication across the English provinces.

Find out more about this theme and our methodology in our port books blog post



The traffic in intoxicants between 1580 and 1740, domestic and international, can be best traced through port books: the annual customs reports recording England’s overseas and coastal trade. Port books are subject to the usual problems of historical data: missing years; inaccurate and inconsistent recording; and absence of data through smuggling and/or corruption. However, recent work confirms they offer the best available means of charting the volume and cost of commodities entering and leaving ports as well as providing the initial names with which to then reconstruct the communities of seaman, merchants, and sometimes producers responsible for traffic: this in an era when ports were key nodes for both the international and domestic economy (via the coastal and river trade routes). This material can be related through the database with the kind of evidence traditionally used for community case studies in order to establish the place, roles, and connections of traders within urban and rural communities.