Bar Man, by Jeff Hoyle, July 7, 2017

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The Norfolk Record Society was founded in 1930 and each year publishes a transcript of significant manuscripts relating to Norfolk.

There is, for example, a volume detailing the results of a census of church attendance throughout the county on Sunday 30th March 1850. The notes for the entry listed as Salem Chapel No mistake, Confirmed Unitarians, erected about the year 1801, recorded an attendance of 120 with the remark that ‘The Unitarians would be more numerous if there was more intelligence and less bigotry in Lynn’.

However, it is another volume to which we must turn our attention. The Kings Lynn Port Books 1610-1614 detail the trade passing through ports of Norfolk from Wisbech to Wells to and from overseas destinations. This is in the reign of James I, well before Henry Bell built the Custom House with its statue of Charles II, and whilst some of the trade listed is predictable enough, there are some interesting surprises. Live hawks (falcons, gyrfalcons, merlins and tiercels) from Iceland, whilst hides exported to the Baltic included sheep’s leather, lambskin, coney and rabbit skin, fox skins, otter skins and even catskins.

However, it is beer I am searching for, and it is there in abundance, evidence of a thriving brewery industry in Lynn at the time. Our most important trading partner was Scotland (this is well before the 1707 Act of Union) with the Netherlands close behind.

A random page from 1610 lists 8 tonnes of beere in ‘The Gift of God’ of Kircaudy, 5 tonnes of beere in ‘Le Grace of God’ of Kircaudy, 12 tonnes of beer in ‘Le Jacob’ of Kircaudy and 12 tonnes of beer in ‘Le Pelican’ of Aberdeen, amongst many other shipments of beer.

Sometimes it is clear beer is taken for the voyage as well as a cargo. ‘Le John’ of Lynn carried 69 barrels of beere besides the allowance. This suggests the portion used for the journey was exempt from taxation. Moving on to summer of the same year, many of the shipments are listed as ‘stronge beer’, which I guess has a higher tax rate and may well be a seasonal product, being better able to endure the higher temperatures.

Without analysing all the records, a sample suggests almost all the beer is destined for Scotland, with Kirkcaldy being the main port, but shipments to others such as Aberdeen, Leith, Montrose and Dundee are also listed. The same ships and merchants keep reappearing, so there was a strong established trade.

I know from other sources, beer from Norfolk was also exported to the north of England, so this is far from the whole story. Is it complete?

One expert on trade of the time concluded ‘a merchant’s primary duty was to ensure the safe arrival of his cargo at the point of discharge, his second was the evasion of customs’, so it is possible some of the cargo passing through went unrecorded, especially as the area included a number of isolated creeks.

Francis Shaxton, a leading burgess of 16th Century Kings Lynn and mayor in 1569, was described as ‘most notorious smuggler in eastern England’. At one stage the official seal from the customs house was ‘borrowed’ and Shaxton received over 120 forged blank cockets (official parchment receipts for payment of duties on export items), just one of the many questionable practices he was involved in.

It is possible the export of beer was even greater than recorded in the Port Books. A corrupt politician. Who would have thought it?