In the Days of the Merchant Princes
A stranger travelling through Britain cannot fail to notice that in place after place two kinds of memorials exist. There are old castles, great and small, recalling the Norman warriors and Tudor kings who built them. There are great philanthropic institutions, hospitals, schools, libraries and orphanages, keeping fresh the names of the merchant princes who established and endowed them. Very few men who made great riches in the Middle Ages are remembered, even by name, unless they devoted their means to public service and the public good.
One recalls the many relics of the old-time merchant princes still to be seen. There are the old merchants' halls in various parts of the country, as the Wool-staplers' Hall at Chipping Campden; also the noted church at Lavenham, Suffolk, built through the generosity of the wealthy clothiers.
George Heriot's name will be for ever coupled with that of Edinburgh. Bristol citizens still lay fresh flowers every week by the effigy of Edward Colston, and hold annual banquets in his honour; Humphrey Chetham will be remembered so long as Manchester remains. These are but a few of many names that might be given.
Merchant princes began to make their appearance in Britain in Tudor days. Fighting was gradually giving place to trade. Some of the old knightly families that had come over with the Conqueror plunged into the business of wholesale buying and selling. The merchant guilds, which were in effect strict trade unions mostly of retail traders, sought to limit business to their own members. But foreign trade could not well be confined in this fashion. Young men able to command the means would build a ship, hire a crew and set out on a voyage of adventure and of trade, to the coast of Guinea or to the Mediterranean. They ran big risks. Pirates abounded; beys and chieftains, especially in North Africa, were quick to surround and capture any small ship that ventured near their shores and to carry off master and crew into slavery. But if the risks were great, profits were big. Cargoes were to be bought or seized, at trifling cost, and could be sold at home at high figures. Two or three successful voyages made a fortune for the trader.
The first British merchant prince whose record it is possible to trace was Sir William de la Pole, of Hull. His effigy in alabaster, dressed as a merchant, in mantle buttoned close to neck and with the figure of his wife lying by his side, is still to be seen in the church of Holy Trinity, Hull. Pole was a member of a noble family; his ancestors had come over with the Conqueror and had fought as knights in different wars. His brother was the king's chief butler, a post of great dignity and honour. Pole himself was a woollen merchant with establishments in France and in England. He was also an authorised agent and collector for the Flemish merchants living in England.
His brother's position as the king's chief butler brought Pole into close contact with the Court. He became in effect the private banker for young King Edward III, and' advanced him a great deal of money. For this he was given the office of gauger of wines throughout the monarch's realm.
Relations between him and the king grew more and more intimate. There are many despatches still to be read where Edward III speaks in the highest praise of the help Pole had given him. When Edward was hard pressed during his war with France and could raise no more funds by taxation or by forced loans, Pole voluntarily went to him and lent him various sums equal to-over a million pounds of our currency to-day.
Nothing was now too good for the Hull merchant. He was not only made collector of customs at London and at Hull, but was appointed Baron of the Exchequer, that is, collector of the royal revenues all over the land, and was knighted.
But King Edward relused to be satisfied even with Pole's generosity. The merchant knight had drained his own resources to the utmost, and had done everything possible to raise money from the people. But when the king sent insistent demands for still more and more, Pole faced him and told him bluntly that what he wanted was not to be had, and that if he tried to raise what he had asked, there might be a rebellion.
King Edward was exceedingly angry Pole was arrested, imprisoned and his estates seized After a time he was released, and when an old man was forgiven and his forfeited estates restored, he, on his side, releasing the king from his debts to him. His son was made Earl of Suffolk and the earldom later became a dukedom. His descendants ranked among the greatest families of the land and cast eyes even on the throne of England itself.
Plymouth is rich in memories of the merchant adventurer typified by Sir John Hawkins, slave dealer, buccaneer and a very pugnacious and wealthy gentleman. It was from Plymouth that Hawkins set out on his three great adventures, when he led his ships to Sierra Leone, landed parties of fighting men, seized the natives, carried them off, and then sold them as slaves in Spanish America at his own price. When the Spaniards thought his figures too high, he fought them until they were compelled to yield.
The city of Bristol gave early examples of a different type of merchant. This city built its prosperity first around the cloth trade, and then around the opening up of the American market. Three great names are specially remembered among its earliest merchant princes. First among these must be named William Canynges, and of the same family from which George Canning, the statesman, afterwards came, famous as merchant and shipowner, whose vessels traversed all the seas, from Iceland to South America. He was mayor of Bristol, and the fine church of S. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol was due to his munificence. You will find his effigy twice in S. Mary Redcliffe, one figure showing him as a priest, which he became towards the end of his life.
But the man Bristol keeps in special honour is the old bachelor merchant philanthropist, Edward Colston. There is probably not another case in the world where, between two and three hundred years after a man's death, fresh flowers are still placed every week on his grave. Societies meet every year to recall his memory, and big philanthropies are still originated and promoted by the impulse of his memory. Memorials to him are found in Bristol, old and new Only twenty years ago the citizens, feeling that still another was wanted, subscribed money to place a stained glass window in his honour behind his effigy in All Saints' Church. Three societies, Whig, Tory and neutral, the Dolphin, the Grateful and the Anchor, have dinners on November 13 each year, in his name, when large sums are raised for charity. A fourth society, the Colston, also works in his honour.
Edward Colston was a great merchant, trading in the West Indies, member of an old merchant family. He was a somewhat dry stick; tradition describes him as a woman-hater, and in politics he was a Tory of the deepest dye. But Colston gave his means and himself to his fellows. He founded alms-houses, schools for boys and many other great works, and left his ineffaceable stamp on his city.
The third of Bristol's great figures was Robert Thorne, the merchant who took a leading part in helping Sebastian Cabot to set out on his expedition - shortly after Columbus returned - when he discovered Newfoundland.
Liverpool built up its great prosperity in the eighteenth century on the tobacco trade with Virginia and by the slave trade. There were the Cunliffes, rich merchants and mighty slave dealers, Sir Thomas Johnston and many other great merchants, such as the Roscoes, Norrises, Claytons, Rathbones and Croppers. Some of these were as much against slavery as others were for it. The great figure among the Liverpool kings of commerce of a hundred years ago was Sir John Gladstone, father of the famous statesman. The son of a Leith shopkeeper, he went to Liverpool when a young man as an assistant to a firm of corn-merchants, soon became a partner, and almost at once made his mark on the life of the city.
Liverpool's neighbour, Manchester, has produced many outstanding characters. Two among them typify the old and the new. In Manchester Cathedral a statue will be found of Humphrey Chetham, Manchester's great man in the days of the Cavaliers and the Roundheads. He was a merchant and a private banker who acquired great wealth. He was also a man of unusually retiring character, and when first king and then Commonwealth tried to force dignities upon him, he did all that he could to avoid them. He paid a fine rather than accept a knighthood, and he begged his friends to prevent any posts of honour being bestowed upon him. When he retired on his fortune, he bought land around Manchester and began to interest himself very much in the fate of poor boys. He supported a number of them, boarding them in the homes of his working-class acquaintances and seeing to their education. When he died, he left £7,000 for a hospital for helping and rescuing poor boys, and the fine Chetham college stands as its outcome. He founded the great library that bears his name John Rylands, Manchester's most famous character of modern times, is one of the outstanding figures of nineteenth century industry. As a lad, he ran a small weaving business; when he was eighteen he entered into partnership with his older brothers, and his venture grew and grew until it became the largest manufacturing undertaking in Great Britain, if not in the world. His mills and his warehouses, his foreign branches and allied enterprises were one of the commercial wonders of his age. Finally, he turned his business into a limited company, with a capital of two million pounds, keeping the control of this great enterprise in his own hands.
Running alongside of his amazingly successful business life was a different side to his character, equally strongly developed. He was a man of intense religious belief, a great book-lover and untiring in his philanthropy. When he died, his wife - his third wife, by the way - carried out a plan that speaks much for her high qualities. She purchased one of the most famous libraries in the world, the Althorp collection, from Earl Spencer, built a wonderfully beautiful home for it in Manchester, and gave it to the nation. The John Rylands library stands to-day the admiration of book-lovers of all lands, and the most splendid memorial that modern merchant has ever had.
Glasgow, like Liverpool, built a large part of its prosperity on its development of the tobacco trade with Virginia, and some of it on the slave trade. Great Glasgow merchants of the eighteenth century brought their slaves over from the Indies and made them serve them in the Scottish city.
The interesting figures of the old merchant princes of Glasgow are Patrick Colquhoun, first chairman of the Chamber of Commerce in 1782, and David Dale, the outstanding man of his time in the city. One ought not to forget characters such as Thomas Ewing of Strathleven - the Howard of Glasgow, as he was called - who did so much to limit the monopoly of the East India Company, the Monteiths, famous among the cotton masters, and Charles Tennant, the father of the great chemical industry of the Clyde. The last-mentioned died in 1906, leaving over £3,000,000.
David Dale was an extraordinary character. The son of an Ayrshire grocer, herding cattle in his youth, he was apprenticed to a Paisley weaver, and then started out for himself by purchasing home-spun linen yarns from farmers' wives in the country and selling them in Glasgow. From this, he became an importer of fine yarns, and his fortune grew apace. He married the daughter of a rich banker and merchant, and built for himself a great house. He was a pioneer in the cotton trade. He established the first Turkey-red dyeing works in Scotland, became a mighty banker and a great financial power in the land. All his enterprises were directed, watched and fostered by himself. system and order enabled him to control them all.
One of his most characteristic works was in New Lanark, where he established his new cotton mills He tried to build a model town here with fine homes for the operatives and healthy surroundings. But the Scottish people did not take kindly to factory work. Then David Dale, like some of the Lancashire mil] owners, went to the workhouse and brought thousands of homeless children into the mills. Unlike some of the men of the south, he had the children carefully watched and guarded, they were kept under strict supervision, were worked moderately and fed liberally. There were schools for them.
When David Dale, after many years of active philanthropic work, was getting on in life a young reformer, Robert Owen, came to see him. Robert Owen was not only a successful business man, but a dreamer of a socialist paradise. He fell in love with David Dale's daughter and married her. Then he bought the New Lanark mills from his father-in-law and carried out there a great social experiment by managing an industrial community on the lines of public service rather than private profit. David Dale left a mighty fortune when he died, but everyone knew that he had given away while he lived twice as much as he left behind him.
The merchant princes of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries occupied a greater space in the life of the community than do the rich merchants of to-day. In those times the merchant worked largely individually. Often he combined finance and commerce, being both banker and trader, and sometimes also manufacturer. The opening of America, the Napoleonic Wars and the triumphs of Britain on sea and land gave them ever-increasing markets.
Many great names are associated with London, as, for example, Richard Whittington, the famous knight, who is best remembered as Dick Whittington, who was thrice lord mayor of London, and was knighted and died in 1423; and later we have the Childses and Couttses.
The popular tale woven about Whittington appears to have originated in 1605, and at the foot of High-gate Hill is Whittington's Stone, on the traditional site of the stone on which he is said to have sat as he heard Bow Bells chiming the refrain "Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London." The ever-popular story of Dick Whittington and his cat has delighted generations of children and is the theme of many a pantomime.
The great figures in the provinces like the Gurneys of Norwich were a type of the men who were even more potent in shaping the England that was to be than were some of our famous warriors. They bequeathed to the present generation a legacy of business acumen which went hand in hand with public service of a useful kind.