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The Impact of the English Civil War on the Economy of London, 1642-50

Author(s):Coates, Ben
Reviewer(s):Quinn, Stephen

Published by EH.NET (September 2005)

Ben Coates, The Impact of the English Civil War on the Economy of London, 1642-50. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004. xii + 242 pp. $94.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7546-0104-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Stephen Quinn, Department of Economics, Texas Christian University.

Ben Coates has put together a useful examination of how the English Civil Wars affected the economy of London. The book derives from Coates’s Ph.D. thesis at the Centre for Urban History at Leicester University. Over the course of the book, Coates makes a basic economic argument. The major effect of the Civil War on London was to disrupt trade. Seventeenth-century London was the hub of England’s internal and international trade, and Coates concludes that sharp commercial contractions in 1643-44 and in 1648-50 hit London hard. In contrast, taxation, war finance, military expenditure, and military recruitment had real but minor effects on the metropolis.

The long-run effect of either of these economic crises is not clear. Coates finds that London rebounded from the recession of 1643-44 rather quickly once internal British trade routes were restored. The recession of 1648-50, however, was a product of bad harvests and weakness on the seas. Privateers, a mutiny, and a resurgence of the Dutch combined to devastate London-based shipping and related industries. The consequence was that the Republic expanded its navy, enacted the first Navigation Acts, and, presumably, began a series of wars with the Dutch. The role of the Civil War was to make English foreign trade particularly vulnerable exactly when the Dutch reasserted their commercial advantages at the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1648).

To support his points, Coates’s usual style is to offer a germane example. He does offer more quantitative evidence when he can, but data sets for this era are hard to find. It is noteworthy, then, to mention that he does collect some data from archival sources. Noteworthy calculations by Coates include London’s contribution to parliamentary taxation (Table 2.1, p. 51); receipts from taxes on internal trade into London (Table 6.3, p. 15); tax receipts from cloth brought to Blackwell Hall (Figure 6.7, p. 162); and apprenticeship enrollment for a number of manufacturing companies (pp. 203-12).

Chapter 1 outlines London before the Civil Wars. The Thirty Years’ War on the Continent had helped London’s port boom. Shipping and related industry prospered along with consumer spending and the suburban (West End) population.

Chapter 2 examines Parliamentary taxes and levies. London was central to Parliamentary revenue from the customs and excise taxes. Customs revenue focused on London because of the port, but so did the excise for the same reason. The excise tax was introduced in 1643, and by 1647-50, Coates finds that goods imported through London accounted for more than half of London’s excise payments, and London accounted for 57 percent of all excise revenue in that period (p. 33). Given London’s wealth, however, Coates finds that the tax burden was not particularly heavy relative to other areas. Rather, the principle objection by Londoners was that taxes disrupted links between London and the rest of the country.

Chapter 3 considers Parliamentary finance in London. Parliament began with unsecured borrowing in 1642, but it lost effectiveness by 1643 when Parliament shifted to taking advances on particular revenue streams. When those backing pledges were not carried out, “popular enthusiasm for lending waned” (p. 59). Ironically, by 1644, Parliament attempted to force loans, something Charles I was criticized for doing. In 1645, the New Model Army brought new model finance as advances were given on the excise. By 1646, new borrowing was again becoming difficult, so Parliament resorted to a scheme called doubling. If a creditor doubled up a loan (lent the principal again), then the creditor was put on the fast track for repayment. Demand for doubled debt was encouraged by allowing it to be used to purchase confiscated Royalist lands. In the end, creditors who sold their doubled debts to land investors did well. Those who held their doubled debts faced large discounts. Creditors who never doubled suffered near complete defaults.

Chapter 4 argues that London easily supplied armaments for the New Model army, but war demand for guns did not push workshop production into more capital-intensive modes of production.

Chapter 5 notes that the internal blockades of the early 1640s hurt trade and tax revenues, but they were a passing event. In contrast, the naval pressure brought against London in the late 1640s was far more damaging. Privateers seized ships. Parliament’s navy mutinied. In 1648, London’s maritime trade was nearly brought to a halt (p. 137). The long-run consequence was that the post-war government made building naval power a priority.

Domestic trade and consumer spending are discussed in Chapter 6. The disruption of internal English trade in 1643-44 is revisited. Traded items like Newcastle coal had sharp price increases while local grain was less affected. Using stall fees from St. Bartholomew’s Fair, Coates argues that there was a large drop in consumer retailing from 1642-45 (p. 156). Luxury items like silverware were particularly hard hit.

Chapter 7 turns to international trade. Coates finds that the domestic blockades of 1643-44 spilled over to depress demand for imports, but the real difficulties came in 1648 when Royalist privateers, a mutinous Parliamentary navy and the Dutch combined to cause a collapse in international trade. The East India Company found it difficult to raise money, supply ships, and sell its imports. Londoners came to increase their use of the Dutch for their carrying trade. The situation led the Republic in the early 1650s to pass Navigation Acts and expand the navy.

Manufacturing in London is the topic of Chapter 8, and Coates finds that the only sectors that did well were ones that supplied Parliament’s army. Depressed demand and military recruitment combined to decrease apprenticeship enrollment by two-thirds. The author pins most of this on the drop in demand for final goods. The drop in demand then caused a drop in demand for labor (p. 203). The author, however, does not have price data with which to confirm this claim.

The book concludes with Chapter 9’s assemblage of the book’s points into a sequential story. Again, Coates’s overall story is that the Royalist blockade of 1643-44 disrupted internal trade, and London was more bothered by this disruption of trade networks than with increased tax levels. Mid-decade saw economic recovery, but renewed fighting in 1648 set off another economic downturn. In this last period, Parliament’s naval woes were the important issue. Naval weakness left English shipping defenseless and prompted a policy change towards a stronger navy.

The Impact of the English Civil War on the Economy of London, 1642-50 is an important book for scholars interested in the English Civil War or seventeenth-century London. While addressing economic issues, the book is not a cliometric study, so potential readers should not expect extensive use of economic theory or quantitative data.

Stephen Quinn is an Associate Professor of Economics at Texas Christian University. He recently published the chapter “Money, Finance and Credit” for Volume I (1700 to 1860) of Floud and Johnson’s The Cambridge Economic History of Britain (Cambridge, 2004). He is currently working on the role of the Bank of England during the early years of the British National Debt and, separately, on the role of the Amsterdam Exchange Bank in conquering debasement in the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century.

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):17th Century