Civic Traditions in the Atlantic World: Bristol and London – Mercantile Hubs of the Seventeenth Century

The second week of my research took me to the two greatest port towns in England’s seventeenth-century commercial world. London was by far and away the largest and busiest English port, but Bristol was also a key mercantile center, especially for the Atlantic trade as the century progressed.

As a result there were inevitably more individuals to trace in these cities. My research methodology was thus tweaked slightly during this second week; I began with a list of ten to fifteen individuals in each town and initially had to spend time skimming lists of burgesses and apprenticeship registers to find possible matches. Those whose connections became quickly apparent were then pursued because of the limited time available to me – the pursuit of the less well documented men had to be postponed for another time. Obviously there were many disadvantages to this selectivity, but because the most well documented individuals were not always the wealthiest, and because the purpose of the research was primarily about exploring the texture rather than the quantity of urban-cultural connections, I feel it was my best option.

So, what did I discover? The short answer is a great deal of diversity in city politics. Previous scholarship on both towns has emphasized that Atlantic merchants tended to be radical opponents of urban oligarchies, but my research suggests that there were also plenty of immigrants in the Chesapeake who had positive experiences as part of England’s machinery of urban government. One such Bristol family were the Woorys – John Woory Snr. worked his way through the strict craft system of the town as a grocer, and then in 1633 he married Patience Yeamans, from the important Yeamans clan within the city. Even if the Woorys had been inclined to religious dissent and political radicalism then this advantageous marriage made such associations difficult because Patience’s family remained loyal to the King through the civil war. Robert Yeamans was even executed for attempting to open the city gates to royalist forces. After the war, though, these associations paid off for the Woorys, as the Yeamans family came to dominate the reformed corporation in Bristol, and Patience’s older brother John became a hugely wealthy Barbadian sugar planter and a proprietor of the Carolina colony. The Woorys’s younger son Samuel secured a place as a mercantile agent for the Yeamans family in Virginia, and it was in this capacity that he came to represent Isle of Wight County in one of the crucial assembly sessions that debated urbanization in Virginia. Woory’s family experience was far from the norm of Virginia burgesses in these years, but it demonstrates the way in which each decision maker who shaped the settlement and political structure of the colony had an individual back-story of their own rooted in English experiences with the tense politics of the borough.

In London links to the corporation politics were even harder to trace because the city was so much larger and thus the dozen or so men on the Alderman’s bench represented an even narrower subset of the whole population. However, using the records of the livery companies of the city – which are still housed in the ancient Guildhall in the heart of London’s financial district – I was able to locate a few important individuals in these lower rungs of city life. A good example here is William Rousby. In the late 1650s William was made free of the grocer’s company in London after serving an apprenticeship and he appears to have continued to exercise this trade in the city. However, his younger brother Christopher went to Maryland in search of his fortune, and won a lucrative role as a royal customs collector in the late 1670s. The position, however, put him at odds with Maryland proprietor Lord Baltimore, who wanted to personally control the flow of trade and revenue from his colony, and who was busy founding narrowly administrative port towns for precisely this reason. Eventually Christopher met his death at the hands of one of Baltimore’s cousins, but not before he had made a number of visits back to England. He very likely met his brother, and heard of the perilous state of the Grocer’s Company in these difficult years – which is clearly visible in the surviving London records. It is easy to imagine that he return to the colony with a very different vision of urban life, imparted by his citizen brother, to the autocratic proprietary towns that he saw Baltimore founding.

There is, of course, a healthy dose of speculation incorporated with all of this work. It could not stand apart from my more thorough analysis of the governmental records of the colonies during this period. If these men who bridged two worlds – rural colony and urban corporation – had made the political ramifications explicit then they would most likely have already been picked apart by historians. However, the connections are suggestive. They remind us that even men who travelled to Virginia and Maryland in their twenties and thirties came with city traditions and ideas, and that they were not without knowledge of the English civic scene. They used this arsenal of urban experience to filter the torrid process of town development in the colonial context.