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10 February 2011

Tobacco Trade: part Two. The Bideford Connection

by Helen Hollick

The Devonshire town of Bideford was of little consequence until Elizabethan era. It developed beside a ford over the Torridge, and was given by William Rufus  to the Grenville family in the early 12th century. From then until 1744, Bideford remained their property.
The town was granted a Market Charter in 1272, but prosperity began to develop when Later, Bideford became a thriving port trading with the American Colonies under the Grenvilles family. From 1550 for almost 200 years Bideford thrived on importing timber from Newfoundland for shipbuilding, the production and export of wollens and cloth and importing tobacco. Supposedly, the first commercial cargo of tobacco carried by Sir Walter Raleigh was unloaded at Bideford.

Sir Richard Greville
After the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 colonial settlement was centred around the planting of tobacco to ply the European markets, presided over by a consortium of London merchants and West Country mariners, who could see the potential of making a profit from  tobacco. The function of the Virginia Company  was to create settlements to grow tobacco, .
Jamestown was founded in 1607, a settlement owned entirely by the Virginia Company; all settlers were employed by the Company or dependents of the employees. Disease was rampant and the colony was close to starvation. In 1608 John Smith (of Pochahontas fame) sustained the settlers through a harsh winter and promoted further development in North Virginia. Smith returned to England in 1609 following a serious injury, but in the summer of 1616 he visited the West Country sea-port towns, handing out maps and books of shipping routes to North America. 
Tobacco rapidly became an economically viable commodity. Exports rose from 20,000 pounds in 1617 to 4,000,000 pounds in 1640. Bideford had many experienced ship owners and merchants who took out blankets and returned with tobacco.  
The English Civil War began in 1642 and left the Virginian planters to develop crops and settlements. When the Civil War ended and the Monarchy was restored in 1660, Bideford enlarged a fleet of tobacco ships and built  the Quay in 1663, funded by the corporation of Bideford.
Bideford merchants built tobacco trading links with Northern Europe where good quality Maryland tobacco was popular.  Bideford earthenware and wools were traded along the Maryland and Virginia rivers directly to settlers - their return voyages laden with fresh, early tobacco, which fetched a high price.  Goods would be paid for in tobacco and the trade was one of the reasons of Bideford’s success. Many colonial ships’ masters were related to  prominent tobacco merchants, further strengthening trade. In 1676, one ship, the Bideford Merchant, brought home 135,000 lbs of tobacco.
As a result of the prosperity improvements were made to the town. Bridgeland Street was built in 1692 and the Quay was extended to it from the bottom of Cooper Street, but wars with France from 1689 to 1697 and 1702 to 1713 caused disruption to shipping. European markets were cut off, causing heavy losses. Financial burdens, brought about by increases in tobacco duty became too heavy for many merchants and finally, the American War of Independence (1775 – 1783) ended colonial trading for Bideford forever.
see also Part One That Obnoxious Weed

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