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Age of Invention: Shellfish Monopolists
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For the last few weeks I’ve been reading all I can about the English Parliament of 1621. It was a watershed event in constitutional history, but is essentially unknown to the public at large, and seems to be very poorly understood even by many historians. It matters, because Parliament very suddenly and unexpectedly decided that it wasn’t just a legislative body, but a court of law. It brought down the Lord Chancellor, Francis Bacon, for corruption — yes, that Francis Bacon famous for his philosophy of science. It systematically examined and decried patent monopolies, which had been granted by the king. And by the end of it, a core group of MPs had defiantly asserted their right to discuss whatever they wished in Parliament as an “ancient and undoubted birth-right and inheritance of the subjects of England”, rather than being dependent on the king’s grace — an idea that James I had already warned them was downright “anti-monarchical”. At this defiance he dissolved the Parliament in disgust.
I’ll write up all the fuller details in the months to come. There are still quite a few mysteries I’m trying to untangle about why things happened the way they did, and there’s still a lot for me to research — nine full volumes of eyewitness notes from the House of Commons, some more from the Lords, and plenty of surrounding gossip to give the wider context. I even spent a whole day reading through a collection of scandalous libel poems and ballads, which were usually written anonymously and then left in public places for all to read. Some of them are gobsmackingly offensive. And regular readers might recall that we’d already begun to look at some of the very early proceedings of the 1621 Parliament, with its witch-hunt against one Sir Giles Mompesson, who had a controversial patent for licensing inns and was on a commission for gold and silver thread (which was far more significant than it sounds). It all has everything to do with the eventual Statute of Monopolies of 1624 — often considered a founding document in the history of English patents for invention — which first appeared in the Parliament of 1621 as a bill.
More on all that later. But in the meantime, there are a few interesting bits and bobs that have really stuck out at me, especially when it concerns industries and inventions. In the last post we looked at a 1621 debate about whether to ban imported grain — an early proposed version of the infamous Corn Laws. This week, I was very struck by a debate over a patent for catching lobsters.
One of the great things about the 1621 Parliament, as a historian of invention, is that MPs summoned dozens of patentees before them, to examine whether their patents were “grievances” — illegal and oppressive monopolies that ought to be declared void. Because of these proceedings, along with the back-and-forth of debate between patentees and their enemies, we can learn some fascinating details about particular industries.
Like how 1610s London had a supply of fresh lobsters. The patent in question was acquired in 1616 by one Paul Bassano, who had learned of a Dutch method of keeping lobsters fresh — essentially, to use a custom-made broad-bottomed ship containing a well of seawater, in which the lobsters could be kept alive. Bassano, in his petitions to the House of Commons, made it very clear that he was not the original inventor and had imported the technique. This was exactly the sort of thing that early monopoly patents were supposed to encourage: technological transfer, and not just original invention.
The problem was that the patent didn’t just cover the use of the new technique. It gave Bassano and his partners a monopoly over all imported lobsters too. This was grounded in a kind of industrial policy, whereby blocking the Dutch-caught lobsters would allow Bassano to compete. He noted that Dutch sailors were much hardier and needed fewer provisions than the English, and that capital was available there at interest rates of just 4-5%, so that a return on sales of just 10% allowed for a healthy profit. In England, by comparison, interest rates of about 10% meant that he needed a return on sales of at least 15%, especially given the occasional loss of ships and goods to the capriciousness of the sea — he noted that he had already lost two ships to the rocks.
At the same time, patent monopolies were designed to nurture expertise. Bassano noted that he still needed to rely on the Dutch, who were forced to sell to the English market either through him or by working on his ships. But he had been paying his English sailors higher wages, so that over time the trade would come to be dominated by the English. (This training element was a key reason that most patents tended to be given for 14 or 21 years — the duration of two or three apprenticeships — though Bassano’s was somewhat unusual in that it was to last for a whopping 31.)
But the blocking of competing imports — especially foodstuffs, which were necessaries of life — could be very controversial, especially when done by patent rather than parliamentary statute. Monopolies could lawfully only be given for entirely new industries, as they otherwise infringed on people’s pre-existing practices and trades. Bassano had worked out a way to avoid complaints, however, which was essentially to make a deal with the fishmongers who had previously imported lobsters, taking them into his partnership. He offered them a win-win, which they readily accepted. In fact, the 1616 patent came with the explicit support of the Fishmongers’ Company.
It sounds like it became a large enterprise, and I suspect that it probably did lower the price of lobsters in London, bringing them in regularly and fresh. With a fleet of twenty ships, and otherwise supplementing their catch with those caught by the Dutch, Bassano boasted of how he was able to send a fully laden ship to the city every day (wind-permitting). This stood in stark contrast to the state of things before, when a Dutch ship might have arrived with a fresh catch only every few weeks or months, and when they felt that scarcity would have driven the prices high.
Bassano’s ships all aimed to fill up the next ship to go to market, rather than just trying to fill their own holds. Otherwise, if there were a free-for-all, it would take two to three weeks to catch enough lobsters to fill any single ship, and they would arrive irregularly, sometimes all at once to cause a glut that would eat into profits, and sometimes none at all for long stretches to cause a scarcity that would harm consumers. Regulation of trade in this way was an important consideration in the seventeenth century, especially when voyages were infrequent and full of risk, and were a common justification for why so many long-distance merchants tended to be organised into companies.
Bassano’s ships even seem to have had a kind of staging ground at Queenborough, in Kent, not far from the mouth of the River Thames, where they could keep the lobsters alive “in their own element the sea” before sending a fully laden ship of only the highest-quality lobsters onto the city. Bassano thus argued for efficiencies of both scale and coordination, claiming that they never sold lobsters to the fishmongers at over £6 per hundred, and all of high quality, whereas before the Dutch had sold them at £5 when of bad quality and a whopping £9 when good.
The big problem, however, was that there were new and younger London fishmongers who were tired of buying from Bassano and his partners. Although they had never bought lobsters before, they wanted the freedom to buy from wherever they wanted. Bassano and his partners enforced their patent, getting a few of these interlopers imprisoned under Francis Bacon’s authority as a judge. They even bought the richest of them off by admitting them to the partnership.
But there was still resentment, and the opposers had a pretty strong legal case. There were plenty of old laws establishing the freedom to catch and sell fish — it was a foodstuff after all — and some MPs testified that the price of lobsters had risen in areas outside of London, particularly in the west and north. Bassano argued that these objections were all part of a plot by the Dutch “to bring all to confusion”, so that the Dutch could come to control the trade again. And he was probably right, because in 1618 the Dutch ambassador to England had indeed complained about Bassano’s business. But it was all to little avail. On the basis of raising prices, denying imports, and imprisoning people for their lawful trades, Parliament declared the monopoly to be a grievance, adding it to a long list of patents that they would ask the king to revoke.
Parliament was probably correct to do so on a purely legal basis, though I suspect that the evidence of its effects outside of London wasn’t worth much. Bassano for example noted that there were still plenty of lobsters being sold in London that had not been brought fresh from him and his partners. Instead, these were bought dead from Newcastle mariners, presumably alongside the coal that they brought to supply the city’s heat. And the patent didn’t cover the north or west of the country anyway — just the selling of lobsters within 21 miles around London. Considering that one of the main lobster spots off the coasts of England was Lindisfarne, not far off the border with Scotland, it’s hard to credit the notion that rising prices in the north had anything at all to do with the patentees.
Nonetheless, Parliament’s actions did not immediately bring an end to the lobster business, though they might have slowed its expansion. In his petitions, Bassano noted that he had recently managed to bring Scottish salmon fresh and unsalted all the way from Scotland to London “in the hottest and most unseasonable times of the year; and for a sample and testimony thereof, presented one alive to the Lord Mayor of London … which never any Englishman or other did before.” It was an impressive feat, centuries before the age of aquariums, easy refrigeration, and widely available sushi. But Bassano noted that he could not invest in scaling up the brand new salmon-transporting business until he knew whether his patent was secure. (There’s an intriguing hint here, that Parliament’s investigations of monopolists may have had a chilling effect on some industries.)
Nonetheless, despite Parliament’s condemnation, the patent did manage to survive for at least a little longer. In 1622, after Parliament had been dissolved, Bassano and his partner Sir John Lawrence managed to get the patent upheld by promising the government that they would not stand in the way of any English fishmongers wishing to buy lobsters from the Dutch. But in 1624, with the passing of the statute of monopolies, the patent would almost certainly have been rendered void. Although I’ve not been able to find evidence of whether the business survived, I suspect that it didn’t. Who knows whether they ever started providing fresh salmon to London, as promised — or what English cuisine might have turned out like had they succeeded.
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