Connecting Manchester and Southampton in the Sixteenth Century

By Keith Lawrence

What was the Eighteenth Century route that was supposed to run from Manchester to Birmingham and Oxford (Rusholme & Victoria Park Archive – A Tour of Wilmslow Road – or Oxford and then to Southampton (Wikipedia – Wilmslow Road –  While it has been suggested this is likely to be the A34 – in one of its guises – perhaps the route goes back a further 200 years, into the Sixteenth century.

Many of the Manchester histories remind us that by the Sixteenth Century Manchester had established itself as an important town based on the weaving of linen and wool. The linen was initially local sourced from around Preston and Salmesbury (an area adjacent to Preston on the A59 road to Blackburn), subsequently supplemented with Irish imports. The linen cloth tended to be sold in the local markets for local use. However the coarse woollen cloth was exported to far wider market through the ports of London, Hull, Liverpool and Chester. The Blackwell Hall cloth market in London dealt with so much cloth from Lancashire that a specific ‘Manchester Hall’ was built to handle the wares. Manchester dealers became well known in the capital as substantial business men. When the list of countries importing Manchester cloth is reviewed – France, Portugal, South America and Spain – one of the obvious ports of transit is missing. A large portion of the Sixteenth trade with mid-France, Portugal and Spain was through Southampton; a much shorter sea crossing than from London.

John Speed 16th Century Map of Southampton

Do any records exist of Southampton’s trade with the North-west of England in the Sixteenth Century remain? Fortunately there is a reasonable run of useful information running from 1492 through to 1584. Did Manchester trade with Southampton? If yes, what was the likely route the goods travelled?

Through a series of Brokage Books (customs and tolls charged on goods entering and leaving Southampton), Cloth Hall and individual Merchant accounts a picture of trade with the North-west emerges. Named individuals, their home town and the nature of the goods are recorded. The most interesting group, in this respect, are the Westmorland pack-horse men. This short article will not cover individual packmen only what they carried to Southampton. Amongst the array of woollen cloths from northern dozens to kerseys we find a very specific description – ‘Manchester cottons’.

In the 1541 Act, 33.HenryVIII.c. 19, (Expounding a certain statute concerning the shipping of cloth) it is clear the cotton textiles referred to are made from wool. Cottoning was a process of “dressing and frisying” by which the nap was raised and curled. A clearer explanation can be found in the 1551/52 Act of Edward VI (5&6. Edward VI.c.6 – Act for the True Making of Woollen Cloth), which regulated the manufacture of wool in an attempt to stimulate and encourage trade. “… all cottons called Manchester, full wrought to the sale, shall be in length twenty-two yards and contain in breadth three-quarters of a yard in the water and shall weight thirty pounds in the piece at least.” In Camden’s Brittania, in section on the Bishopric of Durham, he refers to Manchester cottons, as “certain woollen clothes there wrought and in great request”. Manchester cottons traded into Southampton give us a potential tie-up with Manchester, being brought hence by the Westmoreland pack-horse men.

A connection between Manchester and Southampton has now been established as early as the sixteenth century but can we suggest a route? It is likely that the Westmoreland pack-horse men would have left Lancashire through Warrington heading southwards along the modern A50 through Knutsford, Holmes Chapel to join the modern A34 at Talke. The route south then could have followed the current A34 to Newcastle-under-Lyme before reaching Stone. At Stone the route to Birmingham was a choice of either Lichfield or Stafford. The Lichfield road was of greater antiquity, if the Gough Map is to be believed, as Gough shows no ongoing connection to Birmingham via the alternative through Stafford.  There is enough contemporary evidence to show that this is purely the lack of a line on the map rather than a real break in the potential route mirroring the A34. From Birmingham the route was through the Midlands towards Banbury, Oxford, Reading or Newbury, onwards towards Winchester and finally Southampton. Much the same alternate routes as shown in the examination of coach and carrier traffic some 200 years later.

The connection has one more twist – where did the Westmorland pack-horse men pick up the ‘Manchester cottons’? They could have left the Preston area in the general direction of the modern A6 heading directly to Manchester or have just bought the cloth in Warrington – delivered locally from Manchester.

This tale is ultimately unsatisfactory even though we have a named product made in Manchester arriving in Southampton for export to the Continent. We know it was carried to Southampton by the Westmoreland pack-horse men. However, the route they used in conjecture, although it is likely some part of the A34 was included.

The packhorse men brought cloth to Southampton and back loaded to the North – alum, canvas, oil, soap, raisins and wine.




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