Global trade on the North Yorkshire coast

Official imports and smuggled cargoes: North Yorkshire involvement in global maritime trade during the 18th and 19th centuries

Maritime Trade & the Port of Whitby

A fortunate combination of notable shipbuilding and prime geographical location allowed Whitby a certain prosperity and prominence during the 18th-19th centuries. Indeed, Whitby was ranked during this period as the sixth most important British port (after London, Hull, Newcastle, Liverpool and King’s Lynn). Whitby’s geographical position rendered it central to Anglo-Baltic maritime trade, with Whitby-owned and registered ships taking coal from Newcastle to Holland, then ballast to Scandinavia and the Baltic ports, and bringing timber and other goods back to England. Our records show that ports visited include Riga (Latvia), St Petersburg and Cronstadt (Russia), Stockholm (Sweden), Copenhagen and Christiana (Denmark), Memel (Lithuania) and Amsterdam (Holland).

During the 19th century, Whitby ships were additionally engaged in ‘coastwise’ trade along the east coast of England, with coals from Newcastle and Shields being regularly shipped down to London in purpose-built Whitby collier brigs. Cargoes were also freighted from larger English ports, like London and Hull, to the Bonding Warehouse in Whitby. Whitby ships also embarked on much longer voyages, to South Asia, the Caribbean, Madeira and North America. Evidence from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database also suggests that some Whitby-registered vessels were involved in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Freight Book of Barry’s shipowners, 1818-1821, pages showing trade with Bengal and Jamaica [ZW VI 5/4/1]

Countries traded with are recorded in freight books and ships’ logs, whilst ships’ disbursement logs for supplies needed during overseas voyages can tell us about their ports of call en route.

Disbursements at Naples for the ship ‘Mountaineer’, 1849 [ZW VI 16/2/20]

The wide range of goods listed in freight books, bills of lading and coast bonds include tea, coffee, sugar, rum, wine and brandy, silk and cotton textiles, tobacco, salt, and raisins, as well as wool, timber, hemp, pitch, tar, flax, grain and iron. A register for Whitby Bonding Warehouse (storing dutiable goods for merchants) also lists imported goods and records the merchants’ special identifying marks stamped on their containers alongside their names.

Register of Goods Received & Duty Charges, Whitby Bonding Warehouse Company, 1851-1883, pp 7 & 32 [ZW VI 24/1]

One of many business paperwork requirements was a Charterparty of Affreightment – a contract drawn up between merchants and the master mariners engaged to collect the imported cargo. Voyage time, duration of harbour stays for loading and discharging, together with assurances of vessel worthiness for the task, were all clearly stipulated in the agreement.

Charterparty of Affreightment between the master of the ship ‘Free Briton’ and a London merchant regarding a voyage to St Petersburg to collect the latter’s consignment of iron, 1770 [ZYZ]

Whilst undoubtedly lucrative, maritime trading was not entirely plain sailing – in addition to the obvious perils of the sea during bad weather, merchant shipping was significantly impacted by piracy and privateering, as well as by the 18th century wars with France and America.

Merchant Ships

Each voyage for a merchant ship was truly an adventure, though not without serious risk. Advance preparation was key towards ensuring success of globally traded cargoes, though safety at sea could not be absolutely guaranteed and in many respects relied on simple good fortune!

For certain voyages the Admiralty issued official passes to individual ships, granting the opportunity to sail with passengers, goods and merchandise, and could be used to hopefully deflect ‘hindrance, seizure or molestation’. The example shown below was issued on 23 June 1820 from the Port of London to a Whitby ship, Stakesby, for one voyage to the East Indies. The Stakesby is described as having four mounted guns, a registered tonnage of 437, and records William Henderson as the master. The crew numbered 26, of which 20 were noted to be ‘His Majesty’s subjects’.  The nationalities of the six others are not recorded, but it was not uncommon for crews to be multicultural.

Admiralty Pass for the ship Stakesby of Whitby, for one voyage to the East Indies, 1820 [ZW VI 16/2/8]

Merchant shipping was heavily regulated and British traders were bound by British Custom House administration. Master mariners and were responsible for ensuring full declaration of the goods they traded in and out of the country.

Coast bondswere entered into by master mariners and merchants prior to sailing, to secure discharge of the stated cargo at a stipulated destination port. Coast bonds were required even when moving goods between British ports (for example from Hull to Whitby). Landing and discharging in a different country to that stipulated on the bond – if blown of course by stormy weather, for instance – required formal explanation and risked forfeiting the bond fee. Masters also promised to present their Certificates of landing to Customs Officers at the port of destination.

Coast Bond to secure discharge of cargo, listing goods from Hull to Whitby, 1813 [ZAF 151]

Certificate that Henry Audley landed at Hull a cargo of 53 packs of British raw wool, 1767 [ZAF 150]

Bills of Lading (or loading)list all cargo items and quantities loaded aboard prior to sailing, the ports of lading and dischargeas well as naming the ship and master mariner.

Bill of Lading regarding shipment of eight casks of bristles on the ship ‘Free Briton’ from Cronstadt to London, 1768 [ZYZ]

Bill of Lading regarding shipment of one hundred quarters of barley from Newcastle to London, 1802 [ZW VI 16/2/6]

The sort of fees incurred during shipping of goods include import duty to Customs, pierage (toll paid for the use of a pier or wharf), primage (an allowance paid by a shipper to the master and crew for safe handling of the cargo), average accustomed (a duty or tax charged on goods, or any charge or expense over and above the freight incurred in shipment, to be payable by the owner) and pilotage (guiding of ships in and out of harbour).

Other vital preparations for voyages included securing full insurance for each sailing, as well ensuring enough food supplies and other necessary equipment on board, to support the crew and maintain the ship during months at sea.

  • Left: Insurance document for the Whitby ship Free Briton, valued at £2000, covering coal coasting and foreign trade for 9 months, 1753 [ZW VI 16/2/1]
  • Right: Inventory of the stores of the ship William Botsford (no date) [ZW VI 16/2/19]

Merchant Seamen

During the 18th century the Government began keeping details of ships’ crews. Personal details of the men who crewed merchant ships can be found in crew lists and agreements (also known as muster rolls). These ‘Agreements and Accounts of Crew’ record the ship’s particulars, including its owner and master mariner, and details of the intended voyage destination and duration. Each crew member then signed his agreement against provided details of his place of birth, his capacity onboard (for example, mate or able seaman), the ship last served, date and place of discharge and agreed monthly wage amount.

Agreement and Account of Crew, for the ship ‘Alliance’ of Whitby, 1867 [NG/RS]

Crew agreements also record reasons for discharge – whether this be regular discharge at end of voyage, or due to injury, death, or desertion. As a form of insurance against injury or death, companies of shipowners and seamen established common funds, to which owners and crews contributed each voyage. These funds could then be distributed to help those in need. Seamen’s hospitals in major ports also helped provide relief.

Allotted provisions for each sailor are also clearly stated in the agreement. Daily ration amounts of beef, pork, bread, tea, coffee and water are listed, but there are strictly ‘no spirits allowed’!

Detail showing daily provisions, from the Agreement and Account of Crew, for the ship ‘Alliance’ of Whitby, 1867 [NG/RS]

It was common for crews to be comprised of men from different British ports, as well as from other countries. The agreement and crew list for the Whitby ship Alliance (1867), for instance, lists seven members from Whitby, Kent and London, and one member from Sweden. The master reports that two crew members deserted his ship and were committed to prison for one month as punishment.

Mariners could register with the General Register and Record Office of Seamen, London, to obtain their Mariner’s Register Ticket. This ticket acted as a form of identification, bearing the owner’s name, date and place of birth, capacity onboard (for example, steward or cook) and noting key personal features, such as height, hair and eye colour. Tickets were presented to the master mariner at the outset of each voyage, to be returned to the holders at the end.

Mariner’s Register Ticket of Henry Dale, 1844 [ZW VI 20/5]


Not all maritime trade was conducted on a legitimate basis. Some masters and sailors were tempted to smuggle goods into the country, hiding items onboard and hoping to evade discovery, by Customs officers.

Contraband came in on large ships as well as on smaller British and French fishing vessels. If found it was seized by Customs on behalf of the Crown, and subsequently either sold or destroyed.

Goods were discovered sequestered in such places as boot stores, potato stores, in and under bunks, in lamps, amongst clothing, and even on the sailors themselves (often in their large boots, hence the nickname ‘bootleggers’).

Appraisal of goods smuggled into the port of Whitby, 1724 [ZAF 145]

Indentured appraisals of goods and National Government Registers of Seizure (18th-20th century) describe confiscation by Customs officers at the ports of Whitby and Scarborough of goods ‘clandestinely run’.

Scarborough Register of Seizure, 1860-1955, pp 1867, 1887 & 1901 [NG/CE/SC]

The wide range of goods smuggled includes brandy, wine, tea, muslin, pepper, ‘foreign’ Cavendish tobacco, cigars, Eau de Cologne – and even, in the 1950s, foodstuffs such as macaroni and tinned fruit!

Stringent laws introduced during King George III’s reign attempted to curb smuggling, though were fiercely opposed by Whitby shipowners, angry at confiscation of their cargoes at port on account of misconduct by masters and seamen. Whilst never completely eradicated, smuggling’s decline finally came in 1784, when Parliament passed the Commutation Act under William Pitt the Younger. It reduced the duty on tea from 119% to 12.5%.

Further reading:

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database

Jones, Stephanie Karen (1982) A Maritime History of the Port of Whitby 1700-1914 (PhD thesis, University College London)