Most people who discuss the middle class of early modern London frame this discussion in terms of merchants, no other type of middle-class person coming readily to their minds. This narrow misconception should be dispelled in the course of this chapter but, for all that, merchants, defined as people trading overseas, were rather important and occupied a very special place in the upper ranks of the London middle class.
Merchants were singled out by contemporaries as a race apart from other members of the commercial world, their occupation being seen to have a certain nobility which distinguished it from the dross of shopkeeping and manufacturing. Even the snobbish Edward Chamberlayne acknowledged 'their great benefit to the publick, and . . . their great endowments and generous living', 'generous' of course meaning that they lived like the gentlemen that many claimed to be. Merchants naturally encouraged this image, as did contemporary writers on trade, who were prepared to list an unbelievable range of qualities thought necessary for a 'perfect merchant'. 'He ought to be a good penman, a good arithmetician, and a good accountant', a master of several foreign languages, a good geographer, a skilful navigator and a superb judge of his fellow men, as well as knowing absolutely everything about the produce, habits, laws and trading customs 'of all forraign countries'. Whether many merchants were quite such polymaths is doubtful, but the image stuck. 'A merchant in his counting-house at once converses with all parts of the known world,' wrote Defoe. 'This, and travel, makes a true-bred merchant the most intelligent man in the world.'
There were probably some 600 to 1000 full-time merchants in London in the later seventeenth century and perhaps as many people again were engaged in foreign trade on a part-time basis, investing in the occasional 'adventure' abroad or
trading overseas as an extension of their main home-based occupation. Between them, the merchants proper owned much the biggest accumulation of wealth in London and individual merchants predominated amongst the city's richest men. However, there was a hierarchy in overseas trade as in most of the industries discussed in the last section and there was a huge difference in wealth between the richest merchants and the average. At the top, there were some ten or twenty veritable merchant princes, men who dominated the overseas trading world of their day and engaged in a variety of other economic activities, particularly finance, as well as very often playing a part in the political world. Their fortunes often overtopped the magic six-figure mark and there is one in our sample, Peter Vansittart, an immigrant from Danzig, who was worth over £120,000. The only other men who could hope to leave such a fortune, apart from great landowners, would be top financiers and lawyers, a few doctors and the more unscrupulous public servants.
However, men like Vansittart were quite exceptional and it would be wrong to generalize about merchants on the basis of their richest representatives. Only one other merchant out of the forty-two in our sample had a fortune over £50,000 and a further seven left over £20,000. The median fortune was only £9050 and just over half the merchants had fortunes between £5000 and £15,000, which can be taken as a typical accumulation. This certainly meant that they were well off, but it does show that the typical merchant was not quite the plutocrat he is sometimes taken for. The fortunes of the richer manufacturers came into the same range, as has been seen. So did those of wealthy wholesalers, as Table 2.2 overleaf demonstrates. Nevertheless, a career as a merchant was an attractive one, not least because you did not necessarily have to start with a very large capital. A typical career pattern involved several years abroad as a factor or commission agent for established London merchants, before returning home to trade from London, and the commissions thus earned formed a valuable addition to what capital had been raised from parents and relations. Success in foreign trade however required that the young aspirant received the right training and made the right contacts and parents paid
heavily for their sons' apprenticeships to ensure that this would happen.
English foreign trade was organized in three main ways in our period. First, there were the joint-stock companies, of which the East India Company and the Royal African Company were the most important. These companies traded with a capital supplied by their equity-holders, supplemented by money borrowed on bond, and their charters gave them a monopoly of the trade with the Indian Ocean and West Africa respectively. The companies were run by a salaried staff at home and abroad, and were supervised by 'committees' or directors who were themselves usually merchants with many other interests. Then there were the regulated companies, the most important being the Levant Company in the eastern Mediterranean, the Eastland Company in the Baltic and the Merchant Adventurers or Hamburg Company. These companies also had a monopoly of their particular area of trade, but did not operate a joint-stock. Merchants acquired the freedom of the companies on payment of a fee and supported the companies' running costs by a levy on their trade, but traded for their own and not for the companies' profit. The companies, in turn, enforced the monopoly, lobbied parliament if necessary, made rules for the conduct of trade and kept consuls and agents abroad to smooth the passage of the traders and to negotiate with the local rulers. Both joint-stock and regulated companies were under virtually continuous attack as monopolies, and only the East India Company and the Levant Company of those mentioned survived throughout our period and even they had to face considerable challenge from 'interlopers' who traded illegally in their areas of monopoly.
English trade was thus becoming increasingly open to all-comers in the areas of former monopoly, as it was in most other parts of the world. Here, individual merchants or partnerships were free to trade as they wished, provided they observed the laws of England and of the countries to which they traded. One result of this freedom was that many more small men traded to such places as Spain, Portugal, France or Holland and to the English colonies in America, particularly in the earlier part of our period. However, there were economies to scale in overseas trade, as there were in many industries, and what evidence we
have suggests that, by the early eighteenth century, nearly every branch of English trade was being engrossed into fewer and fewer hands. In the world of the merchants, as in that of the manufacturers, the small man was being squeezed out.
Most merchants at least started as specialists, confining themselves, for instance, to the wine trade and often a particular branch of the wine trade, or to the trade with the Baltic or the Levant, these 'Turkey traders' being almost a synonym for great wealth in the later seventeenth century. Such specialization made good sense, enabling the young man to know everything he needed to know about specialist products, the problems, laws and customs of trading with particular areas, the qualities of his competitors and foreign trading partners, and in general to get the best advantage of his training, which would have often involved the learning of one or more foreign languages.
However, it is clear from inventories that an initial specialization very often overflowed into considerable diversification. The basic form of the Levant trade, for instance, was an exchange of English broadcloth for Turkish and Syrian raw silk and many traders confined themselves to that, with the addition perhaps of some other English exports, such as lead, and a few other Levantine imports, such as cotton and dyestuffs. However, many Levant merchants traded also with Italy, North Africa and especially with Spain, an attractive business which provided cash in the form of pieces of eight, which in turn eased the problems of paying for their main return cargoes of raw silk. Some Levant merchants diversified much further. Some combined Mediterranean trade with re-export to Hamburg or the Baltic; some developed a West Indian business on the side. Some, like Sir Jonathan Dawes, who died in 1672 worth over £38,000, might still have a basic Levant trade at the heart of his business, but actually traded just about everywhere in the known world.
The same patterns can be seen in every other trading area. The Baltic posed a problem for the merchant, since it was unable to absorb very large quantities of English exports, and many traders specialized almost entirely in imports from one particular area, such as John Ferney whose business was devoted to the import of iron and pitch from Sweden. But the
very nature of such an unbalanced trade encouraged diversification. Some merchants engaged in a clandestine trade with the Spanish colonies to provide them with a flow of cash to pay for their Baltic imports. Others financed their Baltic trade through re-export of Asian, Mediterranean or American goods, as did Peter Vansittart, who traded in all three.
The main business of traders to America and the West Indies, the fastest growing section of English overseas trade, was the import of sugar and tobacco in exchange for what was called a 'sortable cargo', a mixed cargo of textiles, clothing, metal goods and furniture, wines, spirits and beer, re-exports of Asian goods and anything else 'that may furnish the tradesman there with parcels fit to fill their shops and invite their customers'. However, these sugar and tobacco merchants diversified like everybody else, often into the slave trade from Africa, a logical direction in which to move since the planters who supplied them with their exports were always complaining that the Royal African Company, the official monopolists, did not deliver sufficient slaves. They also engaged in re-export of their wares to Europe, since England was unable to absorb all of the increasingly large imports, a process which could lead to the sugar or tobacco merchant becoming a Baltic merchant as well.
These merchants also acted as agents or factors for the planters, selling their goods on commission and providing many other services. They lent money to the planters by allowing them to draw on them for cash, they searched out delicacies unobtainable in the colonies, looked after the planters' children, lobbied parliament and provided information for the Board of Trade which might further their own interests and those of the plantations. Such services played a vital role in linking together the far-flung parts of the English trading empire and were by no means confined to the American trade. 'Most merchants are factors for one another in this shape and reckon it the most certain, though not the most profitable part of their business.' The factorage business and hence the general efficiency of the London market was helped by the large numbers of foreign merchants who settled in London in the late seventeenth century. This influx of Huguenots, Jews, Dutchmen, Germans and merchants like Vansittart from the Baltic was to give the
mercantile community that cosmopolitan quality that it has had ever since. Their presence in London also signalled the fact that England had now finally arrived as a trading nation.
Shipowning was another important activity in which merchants engaged. Most ships were owned by syndicates, the commonest share held by an individual being one-sixteenth or one-thirty-second for the really large ships. Shares could be sold or mortgaged and so provided a useful liquid asset, and merchants were much the commonest owners of shares, followed by mariners and people engaged in shipbuilding or the supply of equipment, who often accepted shares in lieu of payment. Few people could be described as shipowners pure and simple, for it was rare to invest a high proportion of one's fortune in such an expensive and risky asset, liable to become a total loss in a storm or to capture by privateers in wartime.
Ships could of course be insured and marine insurance was another activity in which merchants played a prominent role, most underwriters being merchants. Other pursuits included finance and the management of the trading companies, while some merchants had domestic interests in wholesaling, manufacturing or property on top of their overseas business. A few even had retail interests, though most contemporaries thought it beneath the dignity of a merchant to keep shop. Most merchants, then, were busy as well as prosperous men. They were also employers of large numbers of subordinates: warehousemen to manage their extensive storage space, factors overseas and apprentices, clerks and book-keepers in their counting-houses, the equivalent of the modern office.
The hub of the London mercantile world was the Royal Exchange, where merchants trading to different regions each had their separate walks, 'the place where the merchants assemble every day to transact business'. Here was the place to seal a bargain, to charter a ship, to fix up an insurance. Here was the place for gossip, news and advice about the myriad byways of the English trading world. The Exchange was also the place where merchants were likely to meet wholesalers, a vitally important middle-class group who have been very little studied by historians. Some London wholesalers doubled as overseas merchants, retailers or manufacturers, but their main function in the English economy was to make London work as an
entrepôt, acting as middlemen between merchants and manufacturers, between merchants and shopkeepers and, above all, between the great market of London and the provinical traders, who so depended on the metropolis both as a market for their goods and as the source of supply for those other goods which were not available in their vicinity. The wholesalers, in short, acted as the pump which, in Defoe's metaphor, circulated England's blood to and from the heart that was the metropolis.
Most wholesalers specialized as middlemen in the market for a particular product. One group of these specialists has already been mentioned, the Blackwell Hall Factors who acted as intermediaries in the cloth trade, selling cloth made in the provinces on commission to exporting merchants and to the London woollen-drapers, another important wholesaling group. They also supplied the clothiers with raw materials, such as oil and wool, and were often rich enough to give credit to clothier and cloth exporter or draper alike, thus providing an invaluable service to England's largest industry. Such a business obviously favoured the man with a big capital, as indeed was true of every wholesale trade, and as a result the number of factors shrank from about fifty in the late seventeenth century to just a few very wealthy men half a century later. The Gentlemen's Magazine summed up the position in 1739: 'The Blackwell-Hall factor, originally but the servant of the maker, is now become his master, and not only his, but the wool-merchant's and draper's too.'
Few importing merchants dealt directly with the final users or consumers of their wares, preferring to sell in bulk to a wholesaler and so turn over their trading capital more rapidly. There were, as a result, specialist wholesalers in every major import trade. One group were the silkmen, who combined dealing in imported raw silk with silk-throwing, selling the final yarn to weavers in London and the provinces. Leather-sellers performed a similar function, dealing in hides and skins, which they often had dressed before selling them to glovers and other manufacturers. Then there were the linen-drapers, who bought cotton textiles at the quarterly sales of the East India Company and linen from merchants who specialized in its import, sometimes organizing the finishing of the cloth before selling to retailers in London and provincial towns and also to
salesmen called 'Manchester men' who travelled all over the country. In the imported food trades, there were the wholesale grocers, who, together with the refiners, were the main purchasers of the sugar retained on the home market, and the wholesale tobacconists, who acted as intermediaries between the importers and the retail tobacco shops, men like Sir Richard and Francis Levett, who had a working capital of between £30,000 and £40,000 in 1705 and traded on a bigger scale than any of the merchants from whom they bought tobacco.
The supply of food to London provided opportunities for many other specialist middlemen, who made a mockery of a large body of ancient statute law which said that farmers were supposed to sell direct to housewives or bakers in the market. A few wealthy farmers did bring their grain to market or at least sold it in London through commission agents, but most grain consumed in the metropolis was sold by wholesalers, who 'buy the corn even in the barn before it is thresh'd, nay sometimes they buy it in the field standing, not only before it is reap'd but before it is ripe'. Many groups competed for the profits to be made out of London's huge imports of grain, flour and malt—corn-factors, who bought as described above or sold on commission for farmers and country wholesalers; jobbers, who were speculators pure and simple; mealmen and rich bakers, who competed for the flour market; and millers and maltsters, who bought and sold grain as well as processing it. Carriers also developed functions as wholesalers in addition to their basic role—the bargemasters of the Thames and Lea valleys, the Kentish hoymen, and the carters and waggoners, of whom a writer complained in 1718, 'They having, by their quick and frequent passing and repassing between Town and Country, a better opportunity of knowing how the markets are likely to rise and fall; and by these means they draw off a considerable, though a very unjust gain out of all provisions of this kind.'
Londoners did not live on bread alone; indeed, according to John Houghton, they were consuming 88,400 beeves and 600,000 sheep a year in the 1690s, or about one beef animal for every family and just over a sheep a head. They also consumed large numbers of pigs, some of which were bred on the spot and fed on the city's waste or on the mash left over in the breweries.
Naturally enough, there were wholesalers in these meat trades as well, in this case the 'carcase butchers', who bought the live animals from drovers and graziers and were often major graziers themselves, using their own pasture land to fatten the beasts which they had bought 'at the town's end'. The other major wholesalers in the food trades were the cheesemongers, who dealt in both cheese and butter. These men kept factors in the dairying regions to buy at fairs or direct from the farmers, and they owned most of the vessels which shipped cheese and butter coastwise to London. Some of them ran very big businesses, such as Abraham Daking, who, in 1733, sold about one-fifth of all the butter traded on the London market in addition to a very large cheese business.
The biggest, or at least the bulkiest, of all London's import trades was that in coal, which was averaging nearly a ton per head of London's population in our period. Nearly all of this was shipped from Northumberland, Durham and the east coast of Scotland, passing through the hands of several middlemen on its journey from the pits to the Thames, by which time it was usually the property of the owners of the colliers, the shipmasters acting as travelling merchants. It was then sold to the London wholesale coal merchants, who broke the cargoes down into smaller lots to sell either direct to manufacturers or the wealthier private users or to the retailers or small-coal-men who hawked the fuel to the final consumers.
London may have got its food and fuel from the provinces, but it sent plenty back in return, the metropolis supplying provincial industry with much of its raw materials and provincial shops and travelling chapmen with their stock in trade. Such goods might be purchased direct from the warehouses of the London wholesalers, from servants travelling on behalf of London firms, from factors established in provincial towns or at the country fairs which still flourished in our period. The historian of Nottingham described how, in the late seventeenth century, the local shopkeepers 'depended upon the great annual Martin-mass Fair at Lenton, a village about a mile distant from Nottingham, where they used to buy their mercers, drapers, grocers, and all sorts of goods they wanted, brought thither by the Londoners'.
The greatest fair of all was that held in September at
Stourbridge, outside Cambridge. Defoe, who describes it in his Tour, was especially impressed with the 'wholesalemen, from London, and all parts of England, who transact their business wholly in their pocket-books, and meeting their chapmen from all parts, make up their accounts, receive money chiefly in bills, and take orders. These they say exceed by far the sales of goods actually brought to the fair, and deliver'd in kind; it being frequent for the London wholesale men to carry back orders from their dealers for ten thousand worth of goods a man, and some much more.' The debt-collecting aspect of the fairs was particularly important and is reflected in inventories, such as in that of the wholesale tobacconist, Francis Levett, where debts collected at Lenton, Gainsborough, Boston, Beverley and Houlden Fairs are listed.
'You cannot go to a shopkeeper of any note in the remotest town in England, but he holds some correspondence at London,' wrote Defoe, 'or else he must be a mean tradesman, that buys his goods of some of his better furnish'd neighbours, and they buy at London. . . . As all these country tradesmen buy at London, so they are all in debt at London more or less.' The truth of Defoe's observation is only too apparent when we look at the names and addresses of the creditors of provincial bankrupts. In the years 1711–15, for instance, 154 provincial bankrupts from 41 English and Welsh counties were sued by Londoners. Nearly four-fifths of the debtors were retailers of textiles, food, drink or tobacco and three-quarters of the creditors were wholesale distributors of these same products, linen-drapers, mercers and haberdashers being the commonest of the London creditors.
These London wholesalers were the creditors not just of provincial but also of London shopkeepers, the next group of metropolitan traders who will be considered. Shopkeepers, indeed all retailers, were seen as rather lowly creatures in the social hierarchy, above the 'lusty mechanicks or handy-craftsmen' but below the 'whole-sale-men' and in a completely different social world from the 'merchants of forrein traffick'. This did not seem to worry the young men of our period, for retailing was seen to be 'an easy life and thence many are induced to run into it', with the result that shopkeepers formed one of the larger groups in the middle station. Many writers
thought it too easy a life and complained that too many young men were being drawn into retailing by the generous credit offered by wholesalers. Shopkeepers certainly were vulnerable in a world that expected long retail credit and well-stocked shops but, for all that, most retailers made a respectable living. There are, for example, twenty-nine shopkeepers in our sample who could be described as haberdashers. Two died insolvent, another left only £20 and a further ten under £1000. All the rest left over £1000, three of whom were mainly wholesalers and left over £10,000. It may have been 'an easy life' but, for most who tried it, the life was not an unprofitable one.
There had been shops in London since the middle ages, but it is really only in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that shops and shopping as we understand them came of age. This was mainly a function of the growth of the market and the separation of retailing from manufacture, which was discussed in the last section when considering such people as pewterers and ironmongers. Many people did still buy goods from the 'shop' at the front of industrial premises; many bought goods from wholesalers or from merchants. However, for most articles, except for food bought in the markets, it was the normal practice by the late seventeenth century to go to a well-stocked shop and there to bargain with a specialist retailer for their purchase.
The appearance of the shop was altering in line with its development as a specialized retail outlet. Some of the early shops were little more than stalls or sheds encroaching on to the pavements at the front of houses. Such ramshackle structures survived at the bottom end of the retail business, but the permanent shop occupying the ground floor of a house was becoming the norm. Some of these had very little depth and customers were served through the open window, over which a hinged shutter or awning offered protection from the weather. Others, probably the majority by the end of the seventeenth century, were fully enclosed shops with glazed windows through which the prospective customer could admire the choicer goods on offer before being stampeded by the shopkeeper or his apprentice standing at the door.
Mercers, drapers and high-class haberdashers had the smartest shops. Joseph Floyd, a mercer of Milk Street, had what was
quite a common arrangement, a front shop lined with wainscotting and a back shop (often called a warehouse) separated by an arch. The shop furniture included leather chairs for his customers to sit on, looking-glasses in which they could admire themselves, several presses and chests to hold his stock, shelves, counters and twenty 'specklewood' ells and yards with which to measure out the silks and stuffs which he sold. A good idea of the interior of such shops can be seen from the fine engravings which sometimes illustrate the trade-cards of high-class retailers. These enable one to see that London shops could be attractive places in which to pass the time. They looked indeed very like the high-class drapers' shops familiar to our grandparents, though the absence of gaslight or electricity made for gloomy interiors, and the dangers of being fooled when buying things by candlelight form a recurring theme in the literature of the period. These mercers' and drapers' shops were, however, decidedly up-market and most London shops were fairly chaotic places, with floor, shelves and counters all overflowing with packets and parcels containing a little of this and a little of that. Many shops were subdivided, such as that of Sarah Kellett, milliner, whose shop-goods were 'on one side of the shop only' and Edith Clarke, hosier, who traded 'on the other side of the said shop'.
If a haberdasher is defined as 'a dealer in small articles appertaining to dress, as thread, tape, ribbons etc.', in other words as someone who is virtually synonymous with a milliner, then haberdashers were much the commonest type of shop in London, apart from food and drink outlets. Many of them specialized in particular branches of the trade and so were known as threadmen, ribbon-sellers and the like, but nobody specialized so much that they did not overlap not only with every other haberdasher but also with what were usually thought of as completely different trades, such as mercers, drapers, paper-sellers, jewellers or those sellers of fancy metal, ivory and horn goods known as toymen. Thomas Pead, for instance, specialized in thread, tape and ribbon, and sold most other sorts of haberdashery, but he also sold paper, playing cards, primers and hornbooks, all of which pertained to the bookseller's trade. Total concentration on any one type of product was in fact fairly unusual. Mercers sold chess-boards
and looking-glasses, as well as silk fabrics; jewellers sold lace as well as jewellery. Some dealers traded in an amazing variety of goods. Thomas Oldham, a member of the Girdlers' Company, sold whips, canes, sticks, spurs, powder and drinking horns, knives, forks, scissors, combs, chess and backgammon men, leashes, hawking bags and other equipment for hawking and cock-fighting such as collars, swives and heel spurs . . . as well, surprisingly, as girdles. It was, perhaps, too varied a stock to bode well for, when he died in 1672 aged thirty, he was insolvent.
Much of the Londoner's food was bought in the markets, the City proper being especially well served after the Fire, when new and better arranged central markets were built. Much was also bought from the great army of mainly female hawkers who roamed the streets of the city and suburbs selling bread, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, much of it carried in baskets on their heads. However, there were also large numbers of food shops—butchers, bakers, cheesemongers and, commonest of all, the chandlers, who dealt 'in all things necessary for the kitchen in small quantities' and thus were the main resort of the poor, who would buy here in pennyworths what their wealthier neighbours might buy from more specialist food retailers.
Finally, there were the salters and grocers, the grocers concentrating almost entirely on imported goods and selling more or less what one would expect them to sell. Samuel Hayward had a typical stock in his City shop when he died in 1700. His main lines were sugar, molasses and raisins of various kinds, but he also sold figs, prunes, dates, rice and virtually the whole range of oriental spices. He also sold tobacco, as did nearly all grocers and many other types of shop, though there were also specialist tobacconists, in many of which one could smoke the weed in the shop's pipes. Tea and coffee, which later became part of the normal stock of grocers, were usually handled by specialist dealers or sold from coffee-houses in these early days.
Grocers were quite distinct from salters, who dealt in 'wet goods' and also in a range of other things related to the chandler's and hardware trades. A typical salter's stock would include oil, salt, vinegar, soap, anchovies, capers, cucumbers
and olives. Many also sold bacon and ham. John Pott of Cornhill had a very smart business, stocking the very finest Florentine and Genoese olive oil, caviar, mangoes, samphire, pickled mushrooms and walnuts, as well as the normal range of salter's wares. No wonder he included the Archbishop of Canterbury and Brasenose College amongst his customers. Other salters kept a line in such household necessities as brooms, blacking, bedcord and string, thus gradually merging into other trades such as hardware dealers and suppliers of the specialized requirements of fishermen and gardeners.
Nearly all these shopkeepers needed to borrow money to run their businesses and this section concludes by looking at where they were likely to get it from. Our period is sometimes described as the Financial Revolution, what one might call the first 'Big Bang', a description which normally refers to the revolution in public finance which started in the 1690s and saw the founding of the Bank of England and the creation of a long-term national debt, developments which were to make it much easier for the government to borrow money and so win wars. The same decade sees a rash of company promotion and the development of a fledgling stock exchange, complete with jobbers and brokers, whose ability to manipulate the market made them a much-hated race. Meanwhile, ever since the 1630s, there had been an expansion in the provision of banking services in the city.
Two main groups competed for this work. Probably the first to develop were the scriveners, a very active group whose original work had been the writing of bonds and other legal documents, work which placed them in a good position to put borrowers in touch with lenders and so earn a 'procuration' for the introduction, such commissions earning the scrivener some two to five per cent of the sum lent. But scriveners did much more than this, as can be seen from the papers of Paul Wicks. He wrote all sorts of bonds, mortgages and other legal documents to do with property, such as conveyances. He introduced his customers to people who wanted to borrow money on bond or mortgage, collected the interest and attended the law-courts should litigation ensue. He bought and sold houses, drew up leases and managed London property for clients, collecting rents, seeing to repairs and dealing with recalcitrant tenants.
He acted as the man of business for people in the country, receiving their rents, collecting their pay if they held a government office, paying their bills and carrying out a wide variety of other commissions. The relative importance of such activities obviously varied from scrivener to scrivener. Some did little more than draw up legal writings for a fee. Some specialized in estate agent business. Some were virtually bankers.
In this last respect, the scriveners were competing with the goldsmith-bankers, a 'new fashioned' tribe who had been growing up since the Civil War. The ordinary work of the goldsmith was to fashion articles out of gold or more often silver, make jewellery and deal in coins, jewels and precious metals. What was happening in the middle of the seventeenth century was that some of the wealthier goldsmiths were taking in deposits of cash and precious metals from their customers, initially because their premises offered good facilities for safe keeping, an activity which led them into the business of lending out this idle money, so that soon they became true deposit bankers. The receipts issued by the bankers for deposits operated as a sort of bank note and, at the same time, an infant cheque system grew up, a simple written order to the banker being sufficient for payment to a third party. Meanwhile, the banker lent out the money deposited with him in order to make his profit. In 1677, the first London directory listed forty-four goldsmiths who kept 'running cashes' or, in other words, allowed their customers the drawing and chequeing arrangements discussed above. By 1725, bankruptcy, death, retirement and consolidation had reduced the number of private banks in London to twenty-four, which was probably a more realistic number for the business available.
Banks and banking tend to attract the attention of historians, because of their modern importance. However, they never dominated the financial world of our period as they were to do later. Most people who wanted to borrow money did so in fact from some sort of money-lender rather than a banker. The commonest type was the pawnbroker, dealing mainly with the poor and advancing money on a variety of pawns, mostly of low value. Such businesses were very necessary in the London of our period, when few people had a regular income and when many of the working population might expect to be unemployed
for several months of the year. Loans were not simply used for consumption purposes but also as a source of working capital for small-scale handicraftsmen and for hawkers, 'such as persons who cry fish, fruit or other wares . . . to purchase the several commodities they deal in'. Some idea of the return to pawnbroking is given in a pamphlet of 1706, which claimed that pawnbrokers 'commonly take six pence in the pound per month for what they lend upon pawns, which is 30 per cent per annum' and that they rarely lent more than a quarter or a third of the value deposited. The rates on very low value pledges were even higher, a witness in 1745 saying that 'for every pledge of the value of is. he took a 1/2d. per calendar month' or 50 per cent per annum, good business when the maximum legal rate of interest was supposed to be five per cent.
A rather more respectable business was that run by the money-lender, who lent in larger amounts against paper securities, a common business for the men of the middle station. Nathaniel Axtell, for instance, who died in 1672 worth over £7000, was a member of the Vintners' Company but the only wine in his household was for his own consumption. All his assets, apart from domestic goods and cash, were in advances made from his own capital. His liabilities totalled a mere £126, of which £100 consisted of legacies owing to his children from their grandmother. Money-lending did not of course need to be the citizen's only activity and we can find many examples of businessmen who combined a very considerable degree of money-lending (and other forms of investment) with their everyday business. Men of any occupation at any time in their life-cycle might decide to do this, since money-lending at five or six per cent might well seem as good a prospect as selling cheese or linen. There was, however, a tendency for men to lend out more of their assets as they got older, many men in their fifties and sixties being effectively retired, with all their assets in loans or investments and no sign of any former trading or manufacturing activities in their inventories. It is also possible to discern various groups who were particularly inclined to lend out a large proportion of their assets, however old they were. Widows were one such group, many of them having no practical business skills and thus relying for their incomes on the interest which they could earn by investing or lending out their former
husband's business assets, often using a scrivener as intermediary. The other main group were the professional people whose earnings were mainly in fees and perquisites and who had no need to plough back those earnings into a stock in trade.
The men in commerce considered in this section probably represented the largest section of the middle class. Some idea of the relative wealth and the variety of occupations of the people in this group can be seen in Table 2.2 on p.36, which can be compared with Table 2.1 (p.32), where the wealth of the manufacturers was shown. The table certainly makes clear the dominance of the merchants amongst the wealthy members of London's commercial class, no less than sixteen out of the twenty-five people who left over £10,000 being overseas traders. However, what the table also shows and what I hope has been made clear in this section is that many wholesalers were in very much the same financial class as the average merchant, even if few were numbered in the really top ranks with fortunes over, say, £20,000. Historians have begun to realize that inland trade was rather important in early modern England; what they need to do now is to find out rather more about the inland traders who drove this commerce.