The Merchant Adventurers, comprising three branches of Drapers, Mercers and Boothmen

The borough of Newcastle upon Tyne, distinguished by some privileges in former charters, was honoured very early in the reign of King John, with new franchises and more extensive immunities. It was not, however, till his 17th year, A. D. 1215, that he constituted therein a society of free merchants, the members of which he exempted from pleading any where without its walls to any plea, but that concerning foreign tenures: he released them also from the duties of toll, lastage, pontage, and passage in all the sea-ports of his dominions at home and abroad, empowering the mayor of Newcastle, or sheriff of Northumberland, to give them reparation for whatever injury they might sustain. The above charter was confirmed to the merchants of Newcastle by the succeeding sovereigns, Henry III. Edward II. and Edward III. with the addition of new privileges.

In 1281, an Italian merchant occurs making large shipments of wool and leather at Newcastle, a privilege not granted to the guild of Merchants. In 1343, they complained that the other burgesses of the town were permitted to purchase merchandise at prime cost, for their private use, out of all ships in the port, which was an infringement of their immunities. In 1353, Edward III. removed the staple of English wool from the Flemings to England, when Newcastle became one of the nine staple towns; and in 1397, Richard II. granted leave to the Newcastle Merchants to carry woolfels, and other commodities, to any other foreign port, besides Calais, on paying custom and subsidy. This licence was, in after reigns, often repealed and renewed, just as the Merchants succeeded in bribing the crown. A considerable trade, at this time, seems to have been carried on between Newcastle and the ports of the Baltic.

In the year 1480, the society of Merchants of Newcastle subscribed a written agreement for the better government of that body, which was to remain in force for six years. They bind themselves to meet and hold their courts at the Maison Dieu Hall, on the Sandhill, on the last Thursday of every month; their head meeting (called a guild) to be on the Thursday next after "Mid-fast" Sunday. Apprentices to serve seven years. The society are to go in procession on Corpus Christi Day, when they are to appear in the meal market, by seven o'clock in the morning. (By an after insertion, the time is altered till "after high mass be done.") Those persons of the society who, for the time being, shall be mayor, sheriff, or aldermen, to attend, with their officers and servants, upon the holy sacrament, and according to seniority of office, are to be principal in the said solemn procession, in which the latest made burgess is to walk foremost. The name of the play they acted was "Hogmagog." Many entries occur in their books concerning the expenses of the above procession and play.

On December 4th, 1504, a licence was granted by King Henry VII to the governor and merchants of the Merchant Guild of Newcastle upon Tyne, empowering them, till the 1st of August next, to buy any wools or woolfels of the growth of Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmoreland, Durham, Allerton, and Richmondshires, and ship them from Newcastle to any part of Flanders, Brabant, Holland, Zealand, or any foreign parts, at two shippings, paying for every sack of wool 10s. and the like sum for every 240 woolfels. December 11, 1509, King Henry VIII. renewed the above grant: and, in 1517, he made an exemplification of former grants to the merchants of Newcastle. The exports of this society, about the year 1520, appear to have been canvas, sheep skins, lamb-fels, lead, grindstones, coals, and rough-tanned leather.

A. D. 1546, King Edward VI. granted the charter under which the present company of Merchant Adventurers took their corporate title of "The Governor, Assistants, Wardens, and Fellowship of Merchant Adventurers of the Town and County of Newcastle upon Tyne," which is their present name of incorporation. Previous to this time, they were styled "Merchant Venturers in the Ports of Brabant beyond the Seas." By this charter, it was directed that a governor, twelve assistants, and two wardens, should be elected, and sworn on the 9th day of October in every year; that the company should have a perpetual succession; power to sue and be sued, &c. a seal, a clerk, and beadle; power to purchase lands, to take recognizances, to make bye-laws, to buy and ship to foreign parts, &c. as before by Henry VII.

Original members

The following are the names of the original officers of the company, inserted in the charter, viz.—Henry Anderson, Governor; Robert Brandling, Robert Lewen, George Davell, Mark Shaftoe, Cuthbert Ellison, Robert Brigham, William Carr, Bartholomew Bee, Roger Mitford, Thomas Bewicke, Bertram Anderson, and Oswald Chapman, Assistants; Bertram Bewicke and John Rawe,. Wardens. Charters of confirmation were subsequently granted by Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, and King James I.

All the members of this company seem to have been eligible to become Merchant Adventurers of England, and subsequently to join the Russian Company and Eastland Company of Merchants. In 1556, two ships of war conveyed the fleet of the Newcastle Merchants to Zealand. In 1622, an order was made by this society to restrain the secret transportation of money, gold, plate, or bullion, or any foreign gold or money, more than was barely requisite for necessary expenses, tolls, &c. by the brethren of their fellowship, on pain of disfranchisement.

William Warmouth, Esq. Merchant Adventurer, thrice mayor of Newcastle, and who died July 22, 1642, aged 83, by his last will, dated the day of his death, gave £100 to the common council of that town, to be lent for three years, without interest, to a young merchant. His son, Henry Warmouth, Esq. by his last will, dated April 8, 1654, left £100 to the common council of Newcastle, to be disposed of at their discretion, to ancient decayed merchants.

William Carr, by will, dated April 11, 1660, bequeathed to this society £200, to be lent in £50 shares for five years; and Thomas Davison, by will, dated November 25, 1675, bequeathed £7, 10s. being part of the rents of lands in the Leazes, to the widows and children of poor merchants. On August 10, 1681, this society, for an annual rent of £13, payable by the corporation, sold them this land, consisting of 94 ridges in the Castle Field. John Rumney, by will, dated February 3, 1694, gave this company £100, to be lent a young brother for three years; and Timothy Davison, by will, made four days afterwards, gave £200, the interest to be paid to the poor brethren and widows of the company. Joseph Atkinson left by will, in 1712, £100, to be lent to a young trading member for five years without interest. In 1755, Thomas Davison, Esq. sunk £500 in the corporation of Newcastle, the interest of which, when amounting to £50, to be given to a young member, to assist him in beginning business. The yearly revenue of the company being found inadequate to defray the necessary expenditure, it was agreed, June 4, 1760, that each member should pay 5s. annually. This society has often voted loyal addresses.

This company, as before observed, consists of three branches:

  • 1. Drapers, or Merchants in Woollen Cloth.

    They first occur as one of the Twelve Mysteries in the ordinance for the government of Newcastle upon Tyne, which was confirmed by King Edward III. October 20, 1342. The oldest ordinary of this society, the original of which, having affixed to it many seals and skin-marks, with the names of the brethren, is dated June 1, 1512, and is still preserved in their archives. About the year 1650, a violent dissension arose between this company and the Merchant Adventurers, the latter claiming the sole privilege of being styled Merchant Drapers, and of choosing two electors, and calling the former by the nickname Cappers, meaning a sort of people who traded in making up caps. Influence prevailed; and on September 29, 1652, the Merchant Adventurers procured an ordinary, by which the true society was excluded from the privilege of choosing electors and auditors. Brand mentions a Mr. Rutter, an attorney, who, in his day, was almost the sole representative of the old company.

  • 2. Mercers, or Merchants of Silk.

    No ordinary or other record of the society of Mercers, as a distinct fellowship, is now to be found. A copy of their oath, on admission, dated 1517, is preserved in the books of the Merchant Adventurers.

  • 3. Boothmen, or Merchants of Corn.

    Of this society, considered as a separate Mystery, no record, prior in date to their incorporation as one of the branches of the company of Merchant Adventurers, has been transmitted; a few scattered memorials preserved in the books of that society excepted.