Winchcombe, Bristol, and 17th Century Virginia and Gloucestershire Tobacco Policy

In 1619, a London merchant with Gloucestershire ties, John Stratford, bought land around Winchcombe in Gloucestershire to plant tobacco. In the same year, Parliament passed a law prohibiting the cultivation of tobacco in England.

An illicit tobacco growing trade evolved in Gloucestershire, which sometimes was apparently sold as “Virginia tobacco”. In 1631, Charles I’s administration moved against the Gloucestershire tobacco crop, the King’s privy council demanding that the sheriffs of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire take action, creating a backlash of support for Parliament in its battle against the monarchy.

From the periodical Gloucestershire Notes and Queries:

1321. TOBACCO GROWING IN GLOUCESTERSHIRE. The announcement recently made by the Government of their intention to permit domestic experiments to be made in tobacco culture may render the following facts interesting to Gloucestershire agriculturists. Tobacco growing in the southern and western countiesof England became so common about 1652 that the Commonwealth Parliament of that year passed an Act prohibiting the culture of the plant, and giving liberty to anyone finding it to cut it down.

This Act appears to have caused great dismay and irritation in Gloucestershire. In August, 1653, soon after the reassembling of the House of Commons, “the humble petition of some of the inhabitants of Gloucestershire concerning the planting of English tobacco ” was presented by General Desborow. who, from having been governor of Bristol, was probably well known in the district.

Another petition, from the Society of Merchant Adventurers and other inhabitants of Bristol, was presented at the same time, and this was accompanied ” by a Certificate from the Mayor of Bristol.” The minutes are provokingly brief, but the House resolved “that there be an inquiry into this Eiot mentioned in this Certificate,” from which it is fair to suppose that the attempt to enforce the law had led to a serious disturbance.

On the same day the House resolved that “threepence upon every pound of tobacco planted in the county of Gloucester shall be paid by the planters to the use of the Commonwealth,” which was followed by a further resolution,” that the planters of English tobacco in Gloucestershire shall enjoy the tobacco by them planted this year only, without interruption or molestation” (Commons’ Journals, vii. 301). An Act to carry this decision into effect was ordered to be brought in, but no further reference to the subject is made in the minutes of the session.

The Council of State, in a circular addressed to the sheriffs of counties in June, 1658, assert that, according to information received, ” divers persons are preparing to plant vast quantities of tobacco,” and the local authorities are ordered to enforce the law vigorously. This was not likely to be done during the feeble administration of Eichard Cromwell.

The growth of ” the weed,” in fact, extended, and the Parliament of 1660 passed another Act, prohibiting the culture of the plant “the existence of the plantations [West Indies] depending on its growth there.” The penalties for infringing the law were the forfeiture of the crop and a fine of 40s. per rood. A proclamation was issued in 1661, enjoining the local officers to prevent infractions of the statute.

Nevertheless, a lengthy communication was received by the Government from Bristol, on the 7th August, 1667, doubtless emanating from persons interested in the West India islands. It states that the Act was imperfect, giving power to destroy home-grown tobacco ” only to such magistrates as receive information of it ; that the plant was grown throughout Gloucestershire, even on the land of justices of the peace ; and that as half the profits of the land are paid to the owners for rent, their interest forbids them to destroy it ; that by the King’s order given to the- High-Sheriff of Gloucestershire, with a list of places where tobacco is growing, it was ordered to be cut down, and the names of the owners returned to the Council ; suggesting, as a remedy, a letter from the King to the Judges of Assize for Gloucestershire, ordering returns to be made, and setting fines for neglect ; and that as much tobacco is grown in the neighbouring counties, a strong prohibition be issued against its sale, and a commission given to search for and destroy it” (State Papers, Domestic, 1667, p. 366).

The Government appears to have followed the advice contained in the concluding sentence of this document. In a letter dated Bristol, 19th August in the same year, from an official underling, J. Fitzherbert, writing to Secretary Williamson, is the following : ” Met 120 horse of the King’s and Duke’s guards at Leicester, making to Winscomb in Gloucestershire, to cut down the tobacco planted there in con- tempt of the law.” (76., p. 399.)

The State Papers for the remainder of the reign of Charles II. have not been published; but it may be inferred that the efforts of the Government to suppress an industry which injured the public revenue .were temporarily successful. In the course of time, however, the culture of the plant seems to have been renewed on an extensive scale, for in Bristol : Past and Present, vol. iii., p. 151, there is a summary of a petition of Dorothy Gray, widow, to the House of Commons, to the effect that, in 1692, her late husband, John Gray, discovered nine plantations of tobacco, extending over 1300 roods, growing near Bristol, and belonging to rich merchants, some of them members of the corporation.

The forfeitures on these plantations, which were destroyed, are alleged to have amounted to 15,000, but the petitioner complained that though her husband was entitled to one-third of the money as informer, he never had any share of it, and was ruined in this service. Mrs. Gray appears to have got no redress, but the laws were afterwards vigorously executed, and we hear no more of a branch of industry in Gloucestershire which seems to have been profitable. j L

The following questions should be answered:

1) Is there a relationship between the activities of John Stratford in 1619 and the activities of RICHARD TRACY and GYLES CARTER at the same period, who sailed from England to the Coast of Virginia.


The following paragraphs are from the website

Tobacco Leaf Growing

It was during the 16th and early 17th centuries that the area around Winchcombe was extremely poor , it was during this period that a family named Tracy established themselves at Toddington, the eldest son Sir John Tracy became involved with a John Stratford who was related to him by marriage, they set up a business together to grow tobacco in the area, with plantations at Toddington and Bishops Cleeve.

Tobacco was widely grown on the Cotswolds, the Vale of Tewkesbury and in an area which extended as far south as Wiltshire.

Winchcombe was crossed and re-crossed by Salters routes, John Stratford was a member of the Salter’s Company, he was a dealer in woollen stockings and a member of the Eastland Company who dealt in broadcloth, his vas business interests also included the manufacture of tallow, oil, potash and soap.

At the very time of the first crop in the area coming to maturity in 1619 tobacco growing in the British Isles was banned, this was done in order that it could be grown on a commercial scale in the Colonies where it was considered that the need for employment was greater.

After which much of the land on the Cotswolds was turned to growing flax but despite the ban illegal tobacco growing continued on a substantial scale this resulted in a proclamation being read out by a parliamentary agents declaring it illegal, many fights broke out between them and the local populace who could see their livelihoods being lost.

As a result of such disturbances a fresh act of parliament was passed in 1652 banning the growing. Despite this continued and further disturbances took place when in 1667 the authorities sent in a platoon of Life Guards to destroy the crops and to quell the dissenters.

However, records show that the locals were still defiant as planting had taken place as late as 1675 at Winchcombe. The connection with tobacco and the past at Winchcombe still exists – there is a road named Tobacco Close and despite the lapse in time the occasional tobacco plant is still found growing in the Cotswolds.

[WHB Notes: I have compiled some of my Gloucestershire results that directly relate upon the above information in the following posts:

Gyles Carter of Badgeworth (? – c.1627) which discusses a trip that Gyles Carter and Sir Richard Tracy took to Virginia on board the ship Supply from the port of Bristol in 1620.

2) Was the Crump family referred to as being centered in Charlton Abbots and Winchcombe engaged in the Gloucester tobacco trade, prior to members of the family emigrating to Virginia?

3) Which of the ancestral Gloucestershire families of  whom I am descended, were involved in the growing or investment in tobacco in England, prior to their emigration to Virginia?

[WHB: Note that two surnames are associated with the tobacco growing ventures in the Cotswolds – Tracy and Stratford, both families of whom intermarried with the CARTERS of Gloucester County. The names appear in both Miscellaneous Documents from Early 16th Century Gloucestershire and Miscellaneous Documents from Early 17th Century Gloucestershire.]


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