The early boroughs were military foundations that with the growth of the English kingdom became administrative centres. Their reeves, courts, markets, and mints were all under royal administration.
Defence of the borough fell upon the landowners of the surrounding shires. By the eleventh century the original ‘military’ constitution was virtually obsolete. Mercantile interests, as traders settled under the protection of the borough’s peace, had tended to become dominant.
The Port – In the dooms (codes) of Edward the Elder, the king ordered that ‘no one shall trade except in a port and with the witness of the portreeve or other responsible official’. Athelstan amended it by ‘providing that transactions involving less than 20d (the price of a cow) may be lawfully conducted elsewhere’. He also forbade the coining of money outside of a port.
Later, in King Æthelred’s time, a description by Bishop Ælfric, tells how the borough merchant imports precious metals, gems, fine cloth, perfumes, drugs, ebony, glass, wine, and oil. The royal dooms contemplate commercial dealings that transcend the local cattle market.
The Guild Merchant is traceable back to the generation of the Conquest and no earlier. It was a system, probably an importation from the Continent. Prior to that the boroughs were predominated by agriculture.
Intercommunications and trading with Normandy and the Continent introduced an elaborate organisation, namely the League of Cinque Ports. Four of which, Dover, Sandwich, Romney, and Hythe previously received certain commercial privileges under Edward the Confessor. A charter of King Edward I confirmed its existing custom. The original Cinque Ports were five and included Hastings with the above, which was similarly privileged. King Richard further added the two ancient towns of Rye and Winchelsea to make up a complete shipping and defensive naval fleet.
Commercial cities at that time were led by London, the first place paying taxes, three times as much as the next, York. They were followed at a distance by Norwich, Lincoln, and Northampton whose men had been farming that borough from the sheriff since 1086. Sixth position went to Dunwich, Exeter then Winchester. Next in line came Gloucester, Oxford, Canterbury and Cambridge, all ancient boroughs. Most of the subsequent port towns of importance were on the east coast including Ipswich. These were the youthful trading centres of King Henry II’s list.
Burgesses of Cambridge, Gloucester and Grimsby held the privilege of farming their own revenues for brief periods. Richard gave Shrewsbury the fee-farm in 1200 and John conferred it with the right to elect their Reeve. Freemen and Guilds of merchant towns on major rivers were able to gain great trading advantage. Without decent roads or railways, the rivers provided the potential means to transport very heavy loads. The development of the navigable waterways was at an early stage and required much engineering to make them safe enough for regular traffic.
The seventeenth century can be regarded as the beginning of the ‘modern period’ of England’s history. English pioneers settled in America. There were wars among the three kingdoms and Rebellion in Ireland in 1641. This was closely followed by the Civil War in England and the changes in the supremacy of Parliament over the kings. By 1660 Cromwell’s protectorate was ended and the monarchy restored.
Science and technology were beginning to be employed across the spectrum to improve efficiency. The old agrarian society gave way to an Agricultural Revolution that introduced new methods of farming with more efficient crops and selective breeding of livestock. Perhaps the greatest change was that affecting the working classes whose ‘common lands’ were enclosed and taken into private occupation. This largely effected the rise in movement of the population toward the new urban-dwelling society of the labouring class.
Trade was largely in woollen textiles, corn, agricultural produce, fishing, raw materials, timber iron and coal. China clay was mined in Cornwall and shipped to the emerging Potteries in Staffordshire. The inland boroughs were at a disadvantage until the waterways were developed to provide an improved distribution network. As the demands for transportation increased it was clear that the poor condition of road surfaces was such that the rivers should be employed to carry the heavy cargos.
River Navigation – The rivers provided the means to carry goods from the industrial centres to the coastal ports and onwards for international trading. Such rivers as the Thames, Trent, Mersey, Severn Stour, and Tyne became hugely important and were instrumental in the successes of the Industrial Revolution.
At Gloucester in 1793 the merchants obtained an Act to construct a canal to improve and bypass a dangerous passage of the River Severn, namely the Sharpness Canal. Regular traffic with boats of sixty tons could reach Ironbridge Gorge and take 40 tons to Shrewsbury. In the 18th century, some 100,000 tons of coal per year were ferried from midland collieries. Pig iron from the Forest of Dean and salt from Droitwich and timber to and from Gloucester. Grain delivered through Sharpness became hugely important.
Small towns gained high status and gild merchants’ large profits by improving their river navigation. Sudbury, Suffolk was already an industrial centre for the supply of woven cloths and silk. Through the development of the River Stour navigation, materials including bricks, grindstones, corn, milk, flour, and barley for malting were taken to Mistley, for shipping through the major ports of Ipswich, Colchester, Harwich, and London.
The Waterways creation of the great network of canals were eventually developed in order to ensure England as a prosperous trading nation. A single horse could pull a barge weighing over thirty tons. Railways, after 1850 would eventually compete in reducing the costs of land transport by over 95% but it was the development of the canal network that truly supported England’s drive as a successful manufacturing nation.
The Industrial Revolution brought great rewards for the borough freemen and their gilds/guilds. Previously where the major industry had been manually created in the manufacture of woollen cloths this was being superseded by machined textiles in factories. Iron and coal were the great founding requirements for the manufacture of the heavy machinery.
Newcastle upon Tyne and its twin city Gateshead had anciently held a monopoly in the coal trade. The Newcastle ‘Hostmen’ were burgesses of the city who formed a cartel to control the export of coal. This was done by the application of ‘hosting’ visiting merchants. The Hostmen owned the ‘Keels’ boats operated by the ‘Keelmen’. Governors of the Hostmen were politicians and invariably the MPs of Newcastle dating back to1600. Coal, iron, and timber were the raw ingredients of the Industrial Revolution.
With the invention of the steam engine came the machines to manufacture a vast range of products previously reliant on the skills of artisan craftsmen. Industrial towns grew at such a rate that they became badly overcrowded. Places such as Leeds and Nottingham were changed out of all recognition. Manchester, Liverpool, Bradford, and Birmingham rapidly emerged as beacons of the Industrial Revolution.