Age of Invention: Empire of Wool

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In the last post I pointed to the extraordinary, unprecedented growth of London in the period 1550 to 1700. From a medieval peak of about 50,000 inhabitants, it ballooned to a population of well over half a million. A whopping tenfold increase that propelled the city from an unexceptional regional centre to being Europe’s foremost metropolis. Having promised an explanation, I’ve spent the past few weeks researching how.

But first, a personal note. This newsletter is now been going for over a year. I started it when I left a temporary job at a university, which was not going to be made permanent, to take more time out to write my second book. I quickly decided that I wanted to try and carve out an alternative kind of academic career — one that allowed me to ignore various incentives in the profession, such as the pressure to write papers instead of books, and to submit and then endlessly resubmit to paywalled journals rather than writing immediately for a wider audience. It just wasn’t for me. I wanted to write books and blogs, and be free to research whatever I want, at my own pace.

So it’s been a huge validation, given this grand experiment, to have won the Emergent Ventures prize for best new blog. And that my first book, Arts and Minds, was chosen by Tyler Cowen as one of his non-fiction books of the year. The book came out in May, at the worst possible time, when all bookshops had just closed. Yet thanks to many of you, it seems to be doing alright. So thank you to everyone who’s been reading, reviewing, and raving about it. And welcome to those of you who’ve now subscribed to this newsletter via Tyler’s recommendation.

Back to the reason you’re reading: the causes of London’s extraordinary tenfold growth before 1700. As I said last week, supplies of fuel and food — from coal and enclosure — do not quite seem sufficient as prime movers of the city’s rise. Intercontinental trade, too, to the Americas and Asia, were too small and late to be satisfying. So if foreign trade was important for London’s growth, then the answer probably has something to do with changes to England’s trade with Europe, particularly in cloth made from wool. This was, after all, the good that accounted for the vast majority of the city’s exports, and which paid for its luxurious imports from afar. In the 1550s, cloth accounted for over 90% of England’s exports. And London exported over 90% of that cloth.

It’s a shocking statistic, because hardly any of that cloth was actually made in London itself. The traditional centres for the production of wool cloth were situated around cities like Exeter and Norwich. Travellers riding through the surrounding counties reported seeing thousands of women at their spinning wheels out in the streets and lanes of the villages, or walking up and down while spinning with a rock and distaff. Both cities even expanded, taking for themselves a slightly larger share of the cloth export trade. Norwich grew from just 10-12,000 people in the early sixteenth century to about 30,000 by 1700. An impressive tripling. Likewise, Exeter more or less doubled, from roughly 8,000 to 14,000.

So why did London grow so much faster, and account for so much more of the export trade? I’ve found a few potential reasons. One was that in the 1550s pretty much the entire English export market had become concentrated on a single city: Antwerp. Just a short sea voyage from London, in the early sixteenth century Antwerp had become Europe’s major entrepôt. The lifeblood of its trade was the overland route to Italy — relatively short, safe, and reliable at the time, compared to the risks of travelling by sea. Italy sent its wares to Antwerp to be sold on to the rest of northern Europe, along with various Venetian-imported luxuries from Turkey, Persia, and farther afield. Antwerp was also where the Germans sold their copper, metalwares, and silver, which in turn resulted in the Portuguese using it to sell imports of ivory, sugar, and spices. To trade in Africa, the Portuguese needed German metalwares, and to trade in the Indian Ocean, they needed German silver. Antwerp was the best place to find both. (The silver mines of the New World did not come into their own until the late sixteenth century.)

For English merchants, Antwerp was thus where they could most readily exchange their cloth for cash, or for the various luxuries of the wider world. Though they also had little choice in the matter. By the 1550s, England had just experienced a major century-long shift in its foreign trade, as cloth replaced mere wool as the country’s main export. As a result of the change, the new English cloth had actually been banned from Flanders in the fifteenth century, where English wool had traditionally been spun and woven. The Flemish cities did not want the competition, and thus English cloth was barred from other major trading centres like Bruges. English cloth merchants were also then shut out of potential alternative markets in the Baltic, Scandinavia, Gascony, and the Mediterranean. Antwerp, which lacked a cloth-making industry of its own to protect, was one of the only major nearby markets that would have them. It was happy to import the English cloth unfinished, to dye it before re-exporting it to the rest of Europe.

Yet the hold of Antwerp over English trade cannot be the only explanation for London’s meteoric rise. Because by the 1580s Antwerp’s role as the continent’s commercial centre had been all but annihilated. It was disrupted by the upheaval of the Dutch Revolt in the 1560s, and in the 1580s its trade was throttled by the nascent Dutch Republic, which blocked its access to the sea by controlling the mouth of the River Scheldt. Certainly, the concentration of powerful mercantile interests in London may have been prompted, at first, by the funnelling of so much English trade to Antwerp. But something other factor must have been at play in the next century and a half for London to have maintained that concentration and then increased it further.

Perhaps the question we should ask, then, is why didn’t London also decline, along with Antwerp? After all, English merchants struggled to find alternative places to sell their cloth. The guild that regulated the English cloth trade — the Company of Merchant Adventurers — first tried to decamp the whole trade to Emden. But it wasn’t good enough, and the trade became fractured and messy. They began to trade with the Dutch via Middelburg, while the rest of the northern trade kept moving between cities like Emden, Hamburg, and Stade, with some of its merchants even trying out Frankfurt. Forever gone was the simplicity of having a single, central mart for English cloth. In terms of there being a concentrating effect, Antwerp’s loss was certainly London’s loss too.

Yet the fall of Antwerp also happened to coincide with dramatic changes in the capabilities of English merchants. Through improvements to navigational techniques, and to shipbuilding, English merchants were increasingly able to venture farther afield. Rather than having to rely on foreign merchants to take their wares from some nearby foreign port to the rest of Europe, they gained the ability to establish direct trade routes with places like Morocco and Russia, as well as the eastern Mediterranean (not to mention across the Atlantic, and from the 1600s into the Indian Ocean). That technological capability made a stark contrast to the early sixteenth century, when English ships had largely hugged the northern European coastline, rarely venturing further than the northern coasts of France, the Netherlands, or Spain. But it went even further than that. The English did not just access these southern markets. They very quickly came to dominate them.

This is still something I need to look into in terms of the details, but it appears that the new English ships, albeit slower than the Dutch flyboats, were especially good at defending themselves. They were soon the only merchants able to hold their own against the latest Mediterranean predators, whether it be Turkish pirates, hostile Spaniards, or Algeria-based corsairs, and so the English soon monopolised the southern European trade, outcompeting even the once-mighty Venetians in their own seas. As early as 1600, an English visitor to Venice remarked at how slow and cumbersome the Italian ships were, making them vulnerable to both ill wind and attack. Generally a very sober commentator, he went so far as to claim that “our English ships coming forth of the harbour of Venice together with a Venetian ship, will sail into Syria and return back again, before the Venetian ship can come thither.”

Curiously, however, the domination of these new markets did not result in much more English cloth being sold abroad. Overall, cloth exports from England actually stayed fairly stable in the period 1550-1650, generally hovering around the 100,000 cloths mark, though with occasional slumps. And compared to the average of 70-80,000 cloths that the Merchant Adventurers sent to northern Europe each year in the early seventeenth century, the amounts sent to Morocco (3,000), Russia (2,500) and the eastern Mediterranean (6,000) seem paltry. But the cloth sent to the new markets was growing, at a time when the traditional northern markets were in decline. The new markets for English cloth thus came to replace the old.

Yet it was one thing to be able to reach these new southern markets, and another thing to have something to sell in them. For the shift in the markets for wool cloth exports also required major changes in the kinds of cloth produced. In this regard, London may well have been a direct beneficiary of the 1560s-80s troubles in the Low Countries that had caused Antwerp’s fall, because thousands of skilled Flemish and Dutch clothmakers fled to England. In particular, these refugees brought with them techniques for making much lighter cloths than those generally produced by the English — the so-called “new draperies”, which could find a ready market in the much warmer Mediterranean climes than the traditional, heavy woollen broadcloths.

The introduction of the new draperies was no mere change in style, however. They were almost a completely different kind of product, involving different processes and raw materials. The traditional broadcloths were “woollens”. That is, they were made from especially fine, short, and curly wool fibres — the type that English sheep were especially famous for growing — which were then heavily greased in butter or oil in preparation for carding, whereby the fibres were straightened out and any knots removed (because of all the oil, in the Low Countries the cloths were known as the wet, or greased draperies). The oily, carded wool was then spun into yarn, and typically woven into a broad cloth about four metres wide and over thirty metres long. But it was still far from ready. The cloth had to be put in a large vat of warm water, along with some urine and a particular kind of clay, and was then trodden by foot for a few days, or else repeatedly compacted by water-powered machinery. This process, known as fulling, scoured the cloth of all the grease and shrunk it, compacting the fibres so that they began to interlock and enmesh. Any sign of the cloth being woven thus disappeared, leaving a strong, heavy, and felt-like material that was, as one textile historian puts it, “virtually indestructible”. To finish, it was then stretched with hooks on a frame, to remove any wrinkles and even it out, and then pricked with teasels — napped — to raise any loose fibres, which were then shorn off to leave it with a soft, smooth, sometimes almost silky texture. Woollens may have been made of wool, but they were no woolly jumpers. They were the sort of cloth you might use today to make a thick, heavy and luxuriant jacket, which would last for generations.

Yet this was not the sort of cloth that would sell in the much warmer south. The new draperies, introduced to England by the Flemish and Dutch clothworkers in the mid-sixteenth century, used much lower-quality, coarser, and longer wool. Later generally classed as “worsteds”, after the village of Worstead in Norfolk, they were known in the Low Countries as the dry, or light draperies. They needed no oil, and the long fibres could be combed rather than carded. Nor did they need any fulling, tentering, napping, or shearing. Once woven, the cloth was already strong enough that it could immediately be used. The end product was coarser, and much more prone to wear and tear, but it was also much lighter — just a quarter the weight of a high-quality woollen. And the fact that the weave was still visible provided an avenue for design, with beautiful diamond, lozenge, and other kinds of patterns. The new draperies, which included worsteds and various kinds of slightly heavier worsted-woollen hybrids, as well as mixes with other kinds of fibre like silk, linen, Syrian cotton, or goat hair, thus came in a dazzling number of varieties and names: from tammies or stammets, to rasses, bays, says, stuffs, grograms, hounscots, serges, mockadoes, camlets, buffins, shalloons, sagathies, frisadoes, and bombazines. To escape the charge that the new draperies were too flimsy and would not last, some varieties were even marketed as durances, or perpetuanas.

Curiously, however, while the shift from woollens to worsted saved on the costs of oiling, fulling, and finishing, it was significantly more labour-intensive when it came to spinning — even resulting in a sort of technological reversion. Given the lack of fulling, the strength of the thread mattered a lot more for the cloth’s durability, and the yarn had to be much finer if the cloth was to be light. The spinning thus had to be done with much greater care, which made it slower. Spinners typically gave up using spinning wheels, instead reverting to the old method of using a rock and distaff — a technique that has been used since time immemorial. Albeit slower, the rock and distaff gave them more control over the consistency and strength of the ever-thinner yarn. For the old, woollen drapery, processing a pack of wool into cloth in a week would employ an estimated 35 spinners. For the new, lighter worsted drapery it would take 250. As spinning was almost exclusively done by women, the new draperies provided a massive new source of income for households, as well as allowing many spinsters or widows to support themselves on their own. Indeed, an estimated 75% of all women over the age of 14 might have been employed in spinning to produce the amounts of cloth that England exported and consumed. Some historians even speculate that by allowing women to support themselves without marrying, it may have lowered the national fertility rate.

This spinning, of course, was not done in London. It was largely concentrated in Norfolk, Devon, and the West Riding of Yorkshire. But the new draperies provided employment of another, indirect kind. As a product that was saleable in warmer climes it could be exchanged for direct imports of all sorts of different luxuries, from Moroccan sugar, to Greek currants, American tobacco (imported via Spain), and Asian silks and spices (initially largely imported via the eastern Mediterranean). The English merchants who worked these luxury import trades were overwhelmingly based in London, and had often funded the voyages of exploration and embassies to establish the trades in the first place, putting them in a position to obtain monopoly privileges from the Crown so that they could restrict domestic competition and protect their profits. Unsurprisingly, as they imported everything to London, it also made sense for them to export the new draperies from London too.

Thus, despite losing the concentrating influence of nearby Antwerp, London came to be the principal beneficiary of England’s new and growing import trades, allowing it to grow still further. The city began to carve out a role for itself as Europe’s entrepôt, replacing Antwerp, and competing with Amsterdam, as the place in which all the world’s rarities could be bought (and from which they could increasingly be re-exported). Indeed, English merchants were apparently happy to sell wool cloth at below cost-price in markets like Spain or Turkey — anything to buy the luxury wares that they could monopolise back home.

In parallel with the tenfold increase in the London’s population then, between the 1580s and the 1680s the shipping owned by its merchants rose from about 12,000 tons to 150,000. And tens of thousands of people were required to repair, maintain, supply, load, unload, transport, and warehouse, the ever-growing tonnage of shipping that cleared the port each year. By 1700, the port was handling over 300,000 tons of international trade a year, not to mention the hundreds of thousands more tons of English produce required to provision the city — mountains of flour, cloth, cheeses, beer, meat, fish, fruit, iron, timber, lead, leather, and coal — as well as the city’s own manufactures sent to the rest of the country, such as pottery, soap, glass, and paper. In 1700, an estimated quarter of London’s workforce may have been directly involved in making the port run smoothly, with more people also employed in shipbuilding and related industries.

And the imports themselves directly attracted England’s big spenders. Tempted by London’s plentiful imported luxuries, the country’s nobility started to buy houses for themselves in and around the city, where they stimulated various other luxury industries. Coachmakers, glassmakers, publishers, silk weavers, and later watchmakers. Their money stimulated London’s service sectors. Thousands of domestic servants, as well as innkeepers, grocers, cooks, ale-sellers, vintners, tailors, and entertainers. It was, after all, the age of Shakespeare. Not to mention about a thousand lawyers in the early seventeenth century, and probably hundreds of prostitutes (“Cuckoldshaven”, in the suburb of Rotherhithe, even boasted a tall flagpole covered with “horns of all kinds and descriptions”).

As early as 1600, foreign visitors were already remarking on Londoners’ enjoyment of imported luxuries. They were famous for their sweet tooths — all those Greek currants — and were known to “put a great deal of sugar in their drink.” It was a German visitor who noticed that Elizabeth I’s teeth had gone black, which he remarked was common among the English. A sign, perhaps, that it was not so common elsewhere. And the English were everywhere smoking tobacco. Shakespeare’s plays must have been seen through a heavy haze. By the 1660s, a Dutch observer noticed that even in relatively far-flung Cornwall “everyone, men and women, young and old, puffing tobacco, which is here so common that the young children get it in the morning instead of breakfast, and almost prefer it to bread.”

Thus, off the back of the new draperies, and with their extraordinary access to the markets of southern Europe, Londoners made themselves populous, indulgent, and rich.

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