View all news

Fraud and Corruption

Press release issued: 1 March 2001

Fraud and Corruption in Bristol

New research by Bristol University published in February's Economic History Review reveals that 16th-century Bristol was a hotbed of organised crime in which the city's top merchants, politicians and officials co-operated to run and protect a major international smuggling ring.

Using techniques similar to those employed by modern fraud investigators, Dr Evan Jones, Lecturer in Economic and Social History, has reconstructed the illicit business practices of Bristol's richest and most powerful men. The research involved years of investigation into the commercial records of the period, with much of the information coming directly from the private account books of merchant-smugglers.

The scale, complexity and profitability of Bristol's 16th-century smuggling operations are staggering. By the 1540s, up to half the city's export trade involved smuggled goods and this was by far the most profitable element of the city's international trade.

'When most people imagine the smuggling of past centuries', said Dr Jones, 'they picture casks of brandy being unloaded on dark nights in remote coastal coves. But this wasn't like that. Smuggling operations in 16th-century Bristol were highly organised and firmly under the control of the city's senior merchants. These men knew how profitable the illicit trade was and used their money and political power to bribe customs officials, block Crown investigations and stop outsiders from breaking into this lucrative business.'

The result was that the merchant-smugglers were almost never caught and even more rarely punished, for material evidence had a mysterious way of disappearing and potential witnesses could be arrested by the civic authorities on trumped-up charges.

The goods being smuggled were also different from those usually imagined. Most of the smuggling involved the export of agricultural produce, such as grain. Although this might seem a fairly harmless activity, in 16th-century England it was considered a serious crime: at a time when food prices were already rising, exporting agricultural goods could make basic foodstuffs too expensive for the poor to afford. The result could be hunger, civil disorder and even famine.

Of the 15 Bristol merchants Dr Jones identifies as being involved in the smuggling ring, ten served as mayors, sheriffs or MPs of the city - indeed, some were all three. Others included customs officers, a mayor of Gloucester and even senior officials in the navy.

The Bristol men included some of the city's most important 16th-century figures - including John Smyth, who founded the fortunes of the Smyth family of Ashton Court, and Nicholas Thorn, a major Bristol benefactor and the son of Robert Thorn, the principal Bristol backer of Bristol's early voyages of discovery to North America. For such men, with power and wealth behind them, crime really did pay.

Back to archive

Copyright: 2001 The University of Bristol, UK
Updated: Thursday, 01-Mar-2001 17:40:44 GMT

Edit this page