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A little of the history of Dartmouth in Devon….

My recent research into the comings and goings of those involved in the Perkin Warbeck mystery revealed some interesting facts about the history of Dartmouth, now famous and loved for the coastal beauty that brings thousands of people to see it every summer. In the course of delving around for information, I came upon what is to me an exceedingly interesting piece from the By the Dart website. and have taken the liberty of reproducing some of it here. I take no credit at all for the contents, which is all down to the folk at By the Dart.

Maybe it does not mention Richard III, but it does give a glimpse of what Dartmouth was like during his time. The town’s past was as colourful as its present.

cog ship - 15th century - Dartmouth, Devon

Triangular Trade – The Making of Dartmouth

In the 13th Century, Dartmouth’s rich became wealthy often by participating in the Bordeaux wine trade.

The King, Henry II, father of Richard the Lionheart and the cowardly John – he of Robin Hood and Magna Carta fame – ruled a large area of France, including Aquitaine and Bordeaux.

This led to a rather handy situation in which imports of the famous Bordeaux wine were not subject to import duties. Men with ships capable of sailing back and forth across the unpredictable Bay of Biscay – such as John Hauley, the town’s Mayor, MP and brigand for hire – probably made their fortune from this trade.

But then in 1453, Bordeaux fell to the French, thanks to the inept rule of Henry VI, and suddenly rich merchants had nowhere with which to trade for free….

But then came Newfoundland.

From the early 16th century, fishermen had been travelling from Dartmouth, across the Atlantic in tiny boats, and spending the summer months fishing in the abundant fishing grounds off Canada’s Newfoundland shore.

For most of that time they had shared the fishing grounds with Spanish ships, and were in fact outnumbered by them. But then the Spanish confiscated a number of British ships in a Dutch harbour and gave the Crown a great excuse to throw its weight around. Many of the Spanish ships fishing the Newfoundland shore were boarded and taken to England. Spain, stretched by a protracted war in Europe, left the area completely undefended.

Suddenly there was a chance to make the fishing grounds really pay – and Dartmouth sailors were at the forefront of the charge to do so. The triangular trade was born.

24 ships would set out each spring, collect salt from the Bay of Biscay, and then sail for the Newfoundland shores – 16 would fish and 8 would prepare the catch using the salt and collect other valuable products such as oil for lamps and soap from the fishes’ livers.

The ships would be packed over the season and then would sail to the Mediterranean or sometimes to the Caribbean. They would exchange the fish products for wine, fruit or sugar – and then sail back to England to sell these valuable products, along with some of the fish. Boats would flock to Dartmouth to buy the fish and other products. The people of Dartmouth bought wood and high quality products including beautiful cloth, and began to lead an easier life.

They also began to build the town’s infrastructure which we see around us today.

This trade started around the same time that Britain was creating strong ties with Portugal – the two countries fought together against their common enemy Spain – and so British traders were  spared heavy import and export duties on goods.

Portuguese wine was discovered to ‘age’ well into Port after being used as ballast in some of the boats on their two leg trading mission. Dartmouth ships began to have their holds stocked with the stuff to age as they sailed across the Atlantic and then sold on for a high profit.

It was on this ‘triangle of trade’ that Dartmouth’s wealth was based for the next two centuries . . . .

. . . . Brave men sailed across a wide and merciless sea in ships modern sailors would hesitate to take around to Torbay for this influential trade. Hard work, detailed planning and a determination to bring prosperity to their community resulted in the remarkable growth and development of Dartmouth.

First Published June 2011 By The Dart

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One thought on “A little of the history of Dartmouth in Devon….

  1. Pingback: Warwick, the “Kingmaker” in Dartmouth…. | murreyandblue

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