Cotswold Tobacco Growing

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Not Exactly A Digger Thing?

Notes from Jim McNeill’s lecture during the Smugglers 1 events at Bristol Radical History Week 2007.

1598: In the House of Lords by Lord Harris, asked that English and Irish farmers might be permitted to test whether tobacco could be produced in this country at a profit.

1619: A London merchant, John Stratford, purchased spare land in and around Winchcombe and planted tobacco. See next section of these notes.

1619: Act banning Tobacco growing in England passed — just as first crop in Winchcombe ready to harvest.

After which much of the land on the Cotswolds was turned to growing flax but despite the ban illegal tobacco growing continued on a substantial scale and fourteen plantations in Worcestershire were known of. In Winchcombe the parish’s tithe barn was used to dry the leaves, and houses in North Street to store the cured tobacco.

1631: Charles 1st Proclamations were read out in Gloucestershire. Privy Council write to Justices of the Peace in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire demanding immediate action. This lead to a number of arrests but the practice of growing illegal tobacco and selling (sometimes as Virginia tobacco) continued.

The North American variety that was grown in Worcestershire was said to be slightly hallucinogenic, which may have explained the vehemence with which it was defended.

1635: Officers trying to interfere with tobacco growing in Gloucestershire were met with resistance.

This move against local people by the monarchist state was greatly resented and encouraged the growers to support the Parliamentary cause and the English Revolution of 1640-48. But, in the 1650s, the Commonwealth eventually took the same line and fights were rife with Parliamentary Agents, who were sent to uproot and/or set fire to the crops.

Gloucester was renowned during the Civil War and afterwards as a parliamentary and puritan stronghold. During the summer of 1643 the city successfully withstood the king’s army in a protracted siege, a victory that marked ‘the turning of the wheel, for ever after the parliament-forces prevailed‘. Subsequently Gloucester was a leading garrison town against the royalists, controlling important military operations in the west. After Oliver Cromwell’s victory over the Scots at the battle of Worcester in 1651, the city elected him high steward, and the city’s loyalty remained unquestioned until 1659. That had major economic, social, and political repercussions. At the Restoration Gloucester was, not surprisingly, singled out for retribution by the Crown.

1652: A fresh Act in prohibiting the growing was passed, and it was said that it was still forming competition with the Virginian Trade. The growers succeeded in gaining a year’s reprieve, arguing that “their crops will be perilled and lost, and it will be ye ruin of very many labourers…” Cromwell allowed just one years crop to be sown and reaped. MPs for Bristol support the Act as the city’s merchants want to maintain colonial trade (By 167 0half of Bristol’s shipping was employed in the tobacco trade).

1654: This year the tobacco crop was larger than ever leading Bristol merchants to protest in July of this year. Bristol Corporation (aka the Merchant Venturers) expressed a desire, in its ‘instructions’ that MPs for the city should prevent growth of English tobacco which was to the “extraordinary prejudice” of local trade. The constant sale of English crops nullified, to a large extent, what advantages the out-ports, e.g. Bristol gained from the prohibition of foreign tobacco.

As a result of the above campaign special Commissioners were empowered by Parliament to put into execution the Act prohibiting domestic tobacco growing. But their enforcement of the law resulted in the locals raising a force of some three hundred horse and foot to resist government troops.

1655: So popular was tobacco growing in the area the Gloucestershire hangman lamented:

Harry Hangman’s Honour, or the Gloucestershire Hangman’s Request to the Smokers and Tobacconists of London, a quarto pamphlet in the King’s Collection, June 11, 1655

“The very planting of tobacco hath proved the decay of my trade, for since it hath been planted in Gloucestershire, especially at Winchcombe, my trade hath proved nothing worth.” He adds: “Then ’twas a merry world with me, for indeed before tobacco was there planted, there being no kind of trade to employ men, and very small tillage, necessity compelled poor men to stand my friends by stealing of sheep and other cattel, breaking of hedges, robbing of orchards, and what not.”

1658: Thomas Colclough became a Common Councillor of the City of London. He was a monopolist who imported, in his own his ships, Virginian tobacco that mostly came from his own plantations. These plantations in turn were kept supplied with essentials from England and to export these from England required special licences from Cromwell. In 1658 Thomas was one of eight signatories to a “Petition of the Merchants and Traders to Virginia” to the Privy Council claiming that:

“…diverse persons having in a hostile manner opposed the execution of the law for suppressing the planting of English tobacco, the petitioners pray that direction may be given to destroy the tobacco and secure the peace of the country.”

This petition was referred to the Comptroller and the Lords Cromwell, Desborough and Lisle Strickland and the outcome is found in a letter dated July 31 1658; “From Jo. Beaman to Thos. Colclough. Our hopeful proceedings are clouded for this morning. I got together 36 horse and went to Cheltenham early and found an armed multitude guarding the tobacco field. We broke through them and went into the town but found no peace officer but a rabble of men and women calling for blood for their tobacco so had there been any action blood would have been spilt. The soldiers stood firm and with cocked pistols bade the multitude disperse but they would not and 200 more came from Winchcombe. Major Clarke is not come and I want advice. Ten men would not in 4 days destroy the good Tobacco about Cheltenham. The Cornet would not act and some of the County troops are dealers and planters. I was forced to retreat; the justices rather hinder than help us. The soldiers say if this be suffered, farewell all levies and taxes, and farewell the Virginia trade for tobacco. I can do nothing till I hear from you.

1658: The Republican army that had put the king himself to flight found themselves outnumbered and outmanoeuvred by the Cotswold tobacco growers. Colonel Wakefield, the Governor of Gloucester sent a Troop of Horse to uproot the crops. One contemporary pamphlet described it thus: “The country did rise against in a great body, to the number of 500 or 600, giving them very reviling and threatening speeches, even to kill them, horse and man, if that he and his soldiers did come on insomuch that the tumult being so great he was constrained to draw off, and nothing more done.

1659: Court cases were brought against plantation owners in Kempsey, Upton Snodsbury, Pensham and Eckington for growing and curing tobacco. Each had 400 poles (About 2.5 acres) under cultivation and each was fined £400 (£1 per pole).

1662: Restoration: It was once again directed that the crops should be banned, and Sir Humphrey Hooke, who was formerly the Mayor of Bristol, and Sheriff of Gloucestershire, was ordered in the May of that year to resist anybody who tried to stop him from destroying the crops. The growing of tobacco actually spread to other counties and to Ireland despite injunctions, appeals, letters of state to Sheriffs and Lord Lieutenants and military deployment.

1667: Diary of Samuel Pepys: September 19th, 1677. …the lifeguard… was sent down into the country about some insurrection, was sent to Winchcombe, to spoil the tobacco there, which it seems the people there do plant contrary to law, and have always done, and still been under force and danger of having it spoiled, as it hath been oftentimes, and yet they will continue to plant.

1670s: Force was alternated with fines (as much as pounds 10 for every piece of land planted), and then by force again. The Cotswolds remained outlaw territory – hard to imagine now – as attempts by the local constables to destroy the crop were met with a fierce, and sometimes violent, response.

1678: Thomas Colclough, again, was organiser of a petition to the King from seventy-six “Merchants, planters and traders to the English Plantations in America but more especially Virginia setting forth the great detriment of planting tobacco in England and imploring that an Act of Parliament be speedily passed to prevent the abuse

1695: John Redding of Kempsey was fined for planting, growing, setting, making, and curing tobacco at Kempsey.

1700: The industry survived until the end of the 17th century.

1900: Reports that there were still the remains of some wooden huts and sheds used for tobacco storage between Farmcote and Hailes.

2007: The exact location of the tobacco fields in Winchcombe is open to debate. The land to the south of Winchcombe, where the district hospital stands, was once known as Tobacco Piece, and the street, Tobacco Close, is on the way into the town from Cheltenham.

Tracey & Stratford Families

The old Saxon town of Winchcombe is located is on the ancient Droitwich to Hampshire Salt Way. Since a large levy could be made from salt, which was a valued commodity at that time, Winchcombe became a prosperous town. But during the 16th and early 17th centuries the area in and around Winchcombe was in decline and the tenants and small holders were extremely poor. The prosperous trade in wool and cloth had fallen away while the dissolution of the great abbeys at both Hailes and Winchcombe ended the traffic in pilgrims and the money that trade brought to the area. Whereas the population in England in general was rising fast in the Tudor period, in towns like Winchcombe it was declining. It was during this period that a powerful, aristocratic family of Norman descent, named Tracy established themselves at Toddington. The eldest son, Sir John Tracy, became involved with a John Stratford who was related to him by marriage, they were to set up a business together to grow tobacco with plantations at Toddington and Bishops Cleeve.

John Stratford was a London-based merchant and a member of the Salter’s Company, he was a dealer in woollen stockings and a member of the Eastland Company who dealt in broadcloth, his vast business interests also included the manufacture of tallow, oil, potash and soap.

1619: John Stratford, purchased spare land in and around Winchcombe and Cheltenham at a cost of £300. Tobacco is a labour-intensive crop and as many as 200 workers were employed between May and October to maintain and harvest the crop. His labour costs were considerably higher than the price of the land.

At the very time of the first crop in the area coming to maturity domestic tobacco growing was banned by the state, this was done in order that it could be grown on a commercial scale in the Colonies of Virginia and the Sommer Islands (Bermuda).

John Stratford is thought to have followed the law, pulled up his tobacco crop and replaced it with flax. However as we shall see, in 1621 he purchased tobacco seed imported from Virginia from John Smith. With one and a half million tobacco seeds to the ounce one senses from where the local small holders got their initial seed supply.

But then, like the opium fields of Afghanistan today, tobacco appeared to a drug in demand and as we see in the section above, people grew tobacco themselves

Locals leave for Virginia

At the same time that John Stratford’s tobacco growing venture had taken place, and probably due in some part to the Government Legislation banning the crops, the Virginia Company and the Virginia Colony was in the process of developing the trade. Maybe because local residents in and around Winchcombe had experience of the cultivation of tobacco, they saw their chance in the New World, to make a living, and to make a success of a new life there.

The men involved in their recruitment were, Richard Berkley, of Stoke Gifford, John Smith of Nibley, and Sir William Throgmorton, to whom the Stratfords were related, of Clearwell, and George Thorpe of Wansell Court, in Berkley. They were responsible for the ship called ‘ The Margaret ‘, containing thirty six men, to sail to Virginia in September of 1619. You may note that this is also the same year in which John Stratford harvested his crop of Cotswold tobacco.

The initial intention was to settle in Virginia, and create a New Town or Area to be known as Berkley. In 1620, George Thorpe himself, had set sail to direct the operation in the Colony, but, to the despair of the other Partners, Sir William Throgmorton, withdrew from the venture, and William Tracy was seconded to the project. The Throgmortons, Tracys and Stratfords, were all related by marriage, and William Tracy’s father, Sir Thomas Tracy, was a member of the Virginia Company, and had attended a Quarter Court of the Company in the May of 1620, which now further increased the Gentry of Winchcombe’s involvement in the project. There is no record to hand, or other evidence that John Stratford was invited to join these people, although it is safe to say that he would have known about it. William Tracy was enthusiastic to take his wife and two children to Virginia, which he indicated in a letter to John Smith, and planned, along with his own household, of between sixteen and thirty people, to take a total of sixty five settlers, and of which he would be appointed Governor.

Sir Edward Sandys, the Treasurer and Governors of the Virginia Company, promised to lend livestock on the party’s arrival, and other people promised contributions. The passages of a further twenty men and women were paid for from Hailes and Bristol. Amongst them was Giles and Alexander Broadway, from Postlip, who again were related to the Stratfords. On the eve of William Tracys departure, he was thrown into jail for debt, and one of his financial helpers was Timothy Gates, with whom John Stratford had been involved in with own tobacco growing venture. Gates called William Tracy his good cousin.

William Tracy’s ship was becalmed at Bristol for some time, and he wrote on the 24th of September 1620, that he was not now all that enthusiastic of the prospects before him, and said in his letter ‘This is purgatory that we shall live in till landing after.’ The response had been more than expected, and some people had to be turned off of the ship because of the overcrowding. The time spent waiting at Bristol was using up Tracy’s money. which caused him concern, and when the ship eventually did sail it sprang a leak in the Irish Channel, and had to dock at Kinsale, in Ireland for repairs.

They eventually arrived in Virginia in the January of 1621, and by the July of the same year, the ship was back in an English Port with a cargo of Virginian tobacco, and the crew still asking for part of the money due for taking Tracy’s Party there in the first place. This was eventually paid off by John Smith, and Richard Berkley. John Smith had ordered Virginian tobacco seed, and in October 1621, sold it to John Stratford, along with the crop, which John Stratford was not allowed to grow himself.

Governor, now Sir William Tracy, was probably born at Hailes, near Winchcombe, or certainly in that area in about the year 1580. He had married Mary Conway, and as already stated went to Virginia with his wife and two children, Joyce and Thomas. Sir William Tracy died in the Indian Massacre of 1622 there, which almost wiped out the Jamestown Colony.

Sir William Tracy’s son Lieutenant Thomas Tracy, was born in 1610, and died in Norwich, Connecticut, on November the 7th 1685, having married at Wetherfield in 1641, and then, married a further twice. He had by his first wife Mary the widow of Edward Mason, seven children.

Sir William Tracy’s daughter, Joyce married Nathaniel Powell, in 1620. Powell had emigrated to Virginia in 1607, and served as Acting Governor from April the 9th to April the 19th, 1619, and was appointed to the Virginian Council, and served until he was killed on the 22nd of March 1622, also in the Indian Massacre at Jamestown.

!!! The undefeated tobacco growers of the Cotswolds !!!

Their tobacco crops were grown in small plots in the fields, then brought into back gardens for finishing, and hung up in the cottages to dry. It was then handed over to middlemen, smuggled down to London and passed off as Virginia tobacco. An expert would have been able to tell the difference, for the tobacco grown in Gloucestershire was nico-tiana rustica, a very different (and hardier) variety from the kind cultivated in Virginia or on the Sommer Islands (Bermuda). But it was no doubt cheaper. What follows is an interesting example of the failure of law enforcement in 17th century England in the face of resolute and combined resistance by the very people who had placed their hope and their families lives on the line for freedom during the English Revolution. Despite further proclamations in 1627,1631 and 1634, the tobacco growers continued their tobacco growing. And from 1640, once the English Revolution had begun, there was little interference from the authorities for over a decade.

These small holders defeated the Stuart Monarchist State, the Authority of Cromwell and his Major Generals and the might of the restored puppet monarchy of William I.

They did it, without doubt, with the protection of their landlords (the Tracys, the Berkleys and the other landowners of Norman origin) who refused to enforce any laws because of the return they got from tobacco in the form of rents and because they will, most probably, have gained financially through the smuggling of Cotswold-grown tobacco to London.

Another benefit for the small holders is they will not have been inclined to sign up to become indentured labourers to work for masters and grow tobacco in Virginia ~ they were doing quite well growing it at home!

That the Merchants of Bristol, London and elsewhere tried in vein to destroy this industry in the Cotswolds gives lie to the argument often heard by apologists for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade who say, and I paraphrase, “Slavery? There’s always been slavery, slavery’s 1,000s of years old. It’s just part of the human condition.” Well no, it is not. The Merchants of the 17th Century had a choice. They could buy home-grown tobacco or import slave grown tobacco from colonies where its continued growth displaced native populations. They deliberately chose the latter option. They chose a monopoly of trade where they: (i) grew tobacco on colonial plantations and smallholdings in Virginia and Bermuda; (ii) imported it to England; (iii) processed it and sold it throughout Europe; (iv) sent processed tobacco to Africa to trade for slaves; (v) deported those enslaved Africans to Virginia where they grew more tobacco on the merchants plantations.

In the end it was the market, and not the state, that put a stop to tobacco growing in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. By 1680s the high level of tobacco cultivation in Virginia meant that imports grew and its price fell. The Cotswold growers found themselves undercut. It was also probable that the soil around Winchcombe and Cheltenham was exhausted, and could no longer support the crop.

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