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Despite the sad end of this ill-starred association of merchant and tavernkeeper, merchant interest in such domestic enterprises was not an unusual phenomenon in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. During this long period, a number of overseas traders maintained their own inns or taverns or informally linked themselves to others. William Pepwell, for example, owned The Starr in the 1560s; and in the 1580s his son-in-law, Philip Langley, was proprietor of the George in High Street. During the early seventeenth century, such important figures as Thomas Wright and Richard Vickris leased other Bristol taverns, while several leading merchants, including Thomas James, John Barker, and Richard Aldworth, had rights to country inns near Bristol.[61] A review of Bristol wills and other surviving family papers reveals at least twelve hostelries in the hands of overseas merchants in the years from 1550 to 1640. Most of these investors were either specialists in grocery wares, such as Pepwell, Langley, and Vickris, or large-scale dealers in wines, such as Barker, James, and Wright. Like Edward Coxe and Edward Peters, they no doubt looked upon their inns and taverns primarily as ready markets for their imports.

This evidence of merchant investment in taverns and inns reveals Bristol’s overseas traders to have been dependent, if only in small degree, upon their customers among the city’s retailers. This dependency was mutual. So long as it was possible to turn a profit of as much as 25 to 35 percent on retail sales, as some shopkeepers were said to do,[62] it was to the advantage of the grocer, mercer, and vintner to maintain good relations with their sources of supply. Merchants, moreover, usually sold their wares to shopkeepers on credit, thereby supplying them with the necessary capital to renew their retail trading stocks.[63] This meant that the merchant ordinarily enjoyed a double hold on his customers among the retailers. Not only were they in his debt, but without him they would have lacked the necessary stocks to run their businesses.

What Bristol’s merchants wanted from the import trade was a quick turnover of their investments. Keeping full storehouses was not a typical pattern; it only idled capital and blocked credit. When stocks built up, merchants sometimes retailed their wares, either openly or illicitly, especially if perishable goods were involved.[64] At times the Privy Council was even enlisted to stimulate sales, as when the Bristol merchants petitioned “to haue the vyntners of this Citty to take from the Marchant yeerly a competent quantity of wines…for that they haue great quantities of wines vpon their Hands which are not taken of as formerly haue ben don.”[65] But because many of the imports were expensive, scarce commodities, their markets were highly elastic and volatile; a small oversupply could dramatically drop prices and cut profits. It was thus necessary for merchants also to control import prices through a form of “ingrossing,” which, according to theory, kept

commodities in reputation to maintain a trade thereby: as when men of meanes do ingrosse and by vp a commoditie, and for a reasonable gaine they sell the same again to shop keepers and retailers. This is much vsed amongst Merchants of all nations, otherwise when aboundance of a commodity doth so much abate the price of it, that Merchants do become losers and discouraged, then the traffique and trade is thereby ouerthrowne, to the generall hurt of the Commonwealth: in which respect it is better to pay somewhat more for Commodities, than to haue them altogether ouercheape.[66]

Such a procedure introduced a degree of predictability into the import trade without which commerce in all but staple items would have been too risky to undertake.

These conditions meant that the relationship between merchants and retailers was always in delicate balance. There was an inherent rivalry between the wholesale trader and the shopkeeper. When the latter invested in overseas commerce on his own account, not only did he keep the merchant’s share of the profits, but he could afford to buy at a somewhat higher price and to sell at a somewhat lower price than his competition. It was not even necessary for the shopkeeper to travel overseas to undertake this business. The services of a factor could be used to carry out his orders. These men, usually young merchants traveling abroad on their own business or resident in some foreign city, regularly acted as commission agents for merchants living at home. Their charges were moderate, typically only 2.5 percent for each transaction, far cheaper than the rates received by merchant middlemen, so that the shopkeeper’s final price was lower even though he now had to pay the freight charges and customs. The incentive for retailers to become their own suppliers thus was large.[67]

Wholesale merchants were especially concerned about this form of competition, for it threatened their control of the market. “The rich retailers,” the merchants warned, “as the grocer, mercer, haberdasher, soapmaker, vintner, &c., adventuring themselves, must needs undo all the poorer sort who do not adventure, and eat out the meer merchants, who have but those to whom they make their vent.”[68] The fear was rooted in economic reality. Provided the shopkeeper conducted his overseas ventures on a cash-and-carry basis and not on credit, he was free to buy when prices were at their lowest, at the peak of supply, and to hold his purchases from the market until consumer demand was at its highest.[69] For many of the items in which he traded, these periods were readily predictable; they came at fair times and festivals in the winter, spring, and summer. If grocers, vintners, and other retailers maintained their own stocks of foreign commodities, however, the market became difficult for the wholesale merchant to judge, since there was no telling when a hitherto unknown supply of a particular commodity would appear for sale. But unless the true state of local supplies could be estimated, the decision to purchase additional imports as prices rose was extremely risky. Buying the remains of the previous fall’s vintage, for example, might be a worthwhile investment if local supplies were nearly exhausted, but it could prove disastrous if the vintners were maintaining an independent stock. The entrance of retailers into foreign trade significantly increased the uncertainties of commercial dealing for the wholesaler.

On the whole, however, the relations between individual overseas traders and retailers were not troubled by competition. Only the very richest shopkeeping grocers, drapers, mercers, or vintners were likely to engage frequently in foreign commerce. For most of the rest, as Smythe’s ledger suggests, ties with merchant suppliers typically were extremely stable, with the shopkeeper dependent on the wholesaler for the continued conduct of his business. Yet relations between wholesale merchants and retail shopkeepers deeply affected the underlying social order of sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Bristol. As those Bristolians who engaged in overseas trade became an increasingly tight-knit community exclusively engaged in wholesale enterprise, separate from other crafts and trades of the city, a reorganization of society occurred that touched nearly every aspect of social life in the city, as we shall see in the following chapters.


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Mere Merchants
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