The Ship that came home?
One of the most enduring stories regarding the origin of the wealth of the first Sir William Blackett of Newcastle has often been repeated since it first appeared in print in 1819. Blackett was said to have speculated in a large shipment of flax which was then thought lost at sea possibly due to enemy action. The ship miraculously survived, as Blackett saw from a hedge as it came back up the Tyne. He rode at high speed straight to London where flax was fetching a high price due to news of the fleet’s loss, and was consequently able to sell his cargo at a huge profit before other ships limped home. Straker, the author, says only that this ‘interesting anecdote has been communicated to us from a source, which induces us to have not the least doubt of its authenticity’, perhaps a family member. If so, it would have been three or four generations after the event.
Perhaps the story is rooted in truth, if embellished over time with hedges and hard riding to London. It would not be at all surprising to find that Blackett traded in Baltic flax, for it was a common staple of Newcastle’s commerce, and the dates might work if mention of ‘the enemy’ placed the event in the first Anglo-Dutch War of 1652-4. This was, however, seven years into Blackett’s career as a merchant rather than ‘soon after he commenced’.
Trade records available online might now be able to take us a little further. A toll was levied by the King of Denmark on shipping passing through the narrow bottleneck between Elsinore and Helsingborg between the North and Baltic Seas, the Sound. The registers of the Sound Toll have been transcribed and made available online. This is a hugely valuable resource for historians of trade in northern Europe between the 16th and 19th centuries. For each passage through the Sound, the ship’s master, cargo and toll levied are shown and often also the master’s home port, point of departure and onwards destination. Can they identify the mythical flax ‘ship that came home’?
A cargo carried by shipmaster George Grey, recorded at the Sound Toll on 13th May 1652, catches the eye. In his hold were 67.5 lasts of flax, about 63 tons, substantially larger than the usual consignments of 10-30 lasts. Grey had cleared eastwards through the Sound on 23rd March en route from Newcastle to Koeningsberg (today’s Kaliningrad) with northern kersey cloth, woollen stockings and salt on board and was now heading back to Newcastle with a cargo of flax, hemp and iron, just as the Anglo-Dutch war was breaking out. No other vessels were recorded headed back to the North Sea through the Sound that day, so if this was the ship it was already on its own, with the most dangerous part of the voyage lying ahead.
What might 63 tons of flax be worth in England in normal conditions and what might the price have risen to in the expectation of a sudden supply shortage? There is little data to go on but a 1647 Newcastle merchant’s inventory valued two parcels of flax at 4.8d and 6d per pound. At a crude average of 5.4d, a 63 ton cargo had a sale value in England of nearly £3,200. As for a scarcity premium, the impact of a wild speculative frenzy is always unpredictable and we have no guide to the flax market. However, when food grain harvests were severely deficient in those days prices seem not to have doubled from their long-term average. Grain supplies were surely far more critical to consumers’ needs than flax, even though it was the raw material for the linen needed for ship sails under pressure of wartime demand. Even so, it seems unlikely that the flax price rose by quite as much as when grain was short. Suppose the price rose by 50%. A merchant able to offer a supply at that price might reap a £1,600 windfall profit on a 63 ton cargo over and above the expected and probably far more modest return on the voyage. While a substantial sum, particularly if coming into the hands of a young trader, £1,600 would not constitute a fortune.
The trouble is that this cargo cannot be linked to Blackett, and we can do no more than wonder about the English flax market in 1652. But whether or not the story is grounded in truth it must have sounded believable enough to have been passed down through the years. It probably resonated with what people knew or believed of William Blackett – that he was bold, lucky, had a trader’s flair and could react fast to opportunities. These qualities were certainly on display elsewhere in his rise to fortune.
Greg Finch’s new book, The Blacketts, a northern dynasty’s rise, crisis and redemption is out in November 2021, available from Tyne Bridge Publishing here:
www.newcastle.gov.uk/NLTyneBridgePublishing (ISBN: 978-1-8382809-5-6, 376pp, hardcover)
Based on extensive and meticulous new research, it is a flowing account of the first Sir William Blackett’s family background, life and times. It charts in greater detail than has hitherto been possible his dramatic rise, the opening up of the North Pennines lead industry, the creation of a huge business - and what the following three generations of Blacketts did with it. As well as an account of one family it tells a compelling story of Newcastle, its hinterland, sea-faring economy, commercial culture and influential place in the nation during a turbulent century of change and progress.
The illustrated hardcover book is accompanied by detailed appendices, available as a digital download, which chart the trading, coal and lead businesses of the Newcastle Blacketts, estimates of the wealth left by each Sir William, a review of the identification of the Blacketts in the Wallington Hall portraits, and family trees of the Hamsterley and Newcastle Blacketts and the the Newcastle Kirkleys.
 J.Straker, Memoirs of the Public Life of Sir Walter Blackett of Wallington, (1819), pp27-8.
 An introduction to the Sound Toll project, the toll, and context on the circumstances in which the toll was levied and the registers kept is available at http://www.soundtoll.nl/index.php/en/over-het-project/sonttol-registers (extracted 24 June 2019).
 C.J.Harrison, ‘Grain Price Analysis and Harvest Qualities, 1465-1634’, Agricultural History Review, 19, (1971).