Changing times for the sailing colliers, 1727

Harwich Harbour, from 'Ports, Harbours, Watering places of Great Britain', William Finden
Harwich Harbour, from ‘Ports, Harbours, Watering places of Great Britain’, William Finden

Daniel Defoe takes to his boat from Manningtree to Ipswich by ‘Maningtre-Water’ and ‘Ipswich-Water’ and reflects on the trade of the colliers, which brought wealth to the town, until the arrival of more economical Dutch flyboats, ‘vlieboot’ or ‘fluyt’, in the early 18th century.

From Harwich therefore, having a mind to view the harbour, I sent my horses round by Maningtree, where there is a timber bridge over the Stour, called Cataway Bridge, and took a boat up the River Orwell, for Ipswich; a traveller will hardly understand me, especially a seaman, when I speak of the River Stour and the River Orwell at Harwich, for they know them by no other names than those of Maningtre-Water, and Ipswich-Water; so while I am on salt water, I must speak as those who use the sea may understand me, and when I am up in the country among the in-land towns again, I shall call them out of their names no more.

It is twelve miles from Harwich up the water to Ipswich: Before I come to the town, I must say something of it, because speaking of the river requires it: In former times, that is to say, since the writer of this remembers the place very well, and particularly just before the late Dutch Wars, Ipswich was a town of very good business; particularly it was the greatest town in England for large colliers or coal-ships, employed between New Castle and London. Also they built the biggest ships and the best, for the said fetching of coals of any that were employed in that trade. They built also there so prodigious strong, that it was an ordinary thing for an Ipswich collier, if no disaster happened to him, to reign (as seamen call it) forty or fifty years, and more.

But to return to my passage up the river. In the winter time those great collier-ships, abovemention’d, are always laid up, as they call it. That is to say, the coal trade abates at London, the citizens are generally furnish’d, their stores taken in, and the demand is over; so that the great ships, the northern seas and coast being also dangerous, the nights long, and the voyage hazardous, go to sea no more, but lie by, the ships are unrigg’d, the sails, &c. carry’d a shore, the top-masts struck, and they ride moor’d in the river, under the advantages and security of sound ground, and a high woody shore, where they lie as safe as in a wet dock; and it was a very agreeable sight to see, perhaps two hundred sail of ships, of all sizes lye in that posture every winter. All this while, which was usually from Michaelmas to Lady Day, The masters liv’d calm and secure with their families in Ipswich; and enjoying plentifully, what in the summer they got laboriously at sea, and this made the town of Ipswich very populous in the winter; for as the masters, so most of the men, especially their mates, boatswains, carpenters, &c. were of the same place, and liv’d in their proportions, just as the masters did; so that in the winter there might be perhaps a thousand men in the town more than in the summer, and perhaps a greater number.

To justify what I advance here, that this town was formerly very full of people, I ask leave to refer to the account of Mr. Camden, and what it was in his time, his words are these. “Ipswich has a commodious harbour, has been fortified with a ditch and rampart, has a great trade, and is very populous; being adorned with fourteen churches, and large private buildings.”

Daniel Defoe, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies Letter 1 part 2: Harwich & Suffolk, 1727 (London: JM Dent and Co, 1927)

Vision of Britain: Daniel Defoe

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