Illicit tobacco growing in 17th Century England

Illicit crop cultivation in England can be dated back to the 17th Century. It has been an interesting and relevant topic ever since, particularly so at the present time, as current policy in this field has been counterproductive. Actions such as crop-eradications do not achieve their desired aim, and have been associated with violence and conflict. On a wider societal level, such measures can also be severely detrimental to subsistence farmers, who rely on cultivating these crops for their livelihoods. This can threaten their way of life, particularly if they are part of communities where economic opportunities are extremely limited. Of significant concern is the erosion of cultural traditions that can occur as a result of crop-eradications.

The impact of such ill thought-through schemes does not address the underlying issues. Present strategies for preventing drug cultivation have therefore clearly failed, and frequently have a negative and disproportionate impact on those involved in cultivating drugs. This can be observed with drugs such as cannabis, which continues to be grown despite futile attempts at prohibition. It is quite clear that we must understand the history of illicit crop cultivation in order to place today’s drug strategies in context.

Having been introduced to England in the 1570s by Sir Francis Drake, the crop was vitally important throughout the 17th Century, closely linked to England’s trading economy. In 1614, the first export of Virginian tobacco arrived in England, although at this time the quantities exported from the Virginian colonies were dwarfed by vast amounts coming from the Spanish Empire. There was potential for commercial gain, as the tobacco could be made cheaper than Spanish equivalents. This was seized on, and a wealthy family, the Stratfords, moved in.

In 1619 John Stratford paid £300 for land in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire and Cheltenham to start growing tobacco. However, Stratford wasn’t aware that tobacco is labour intensive-over 200 workers were employed during summer 1619 to maintain and harvest it-and his labour costs far exceeded the initial £300.

Just prior to harvesting, Parliament passed an Act banning the cultivation of tobacco in England. The Act appeared to be a move designed to protect the trading system that had sprung up rapidly in the Virginian Colonies. However, defying this, growing continued in Gloucestershire and Cheltenham during the 1620s. Seeing successful outcomes, some local farmers began to grow it. At least 14 other plantations grew it in Worcestershire alone.
At the same time that Stratford’s venture was taking place, the trade was developed by the Virginia Company and the Virginia Colony. Other efforts didn’t succeed or weren’t selected, and tobacco was settled on. A breakthrough occurred when it was realised that the Caribbean variation-which was sweeter and more commercially viable-could be grown in Virginian soil. This meant an export market could be set up, previously thought impossible due to the rougher native tobacco.

This export market meant jobs and opportunities for those keen to emigrate. Eager for investment, potential riches were talked up. Locals, who perhaps had experience on Stratford’s plantation, saw chances to make a new life. A group of local men recruited a crew to sail for Virginia. They left as Stratford was harvesting his first crop in September 1619, although no proof exists that he was invited, but it is likely he knew of it.

The party eventually arrived in Virginia in January 1621, and six months on, the ship was back in England with Virginian tobacco aboard. A direct link was now established between growers in the Cotswolds and the new tobacco industry in Virginia. Once ready, the crop was smuggled to London by middlemen and sold as Virginia tobacco. Experts realised differences, due to tobacco varieties. Crucially, and of frustration to London merchants, it was much cheaper.

Cotswold tobacco was thought to be mildly hallucinogenic, explaining why the government felt a need to clamp down on it. In towns like Winchcombe, tobacco growing became a vital part of the economy; it would have employed over 200 labourers in summer, lifting many out of poverty. However, the Stuart state was not very interested in this. Imports of Spanish tobacco were restricted, and James I granted a monopoly on London’s imperial tobacco trade. Tobacco from Virginia thus had to come through London, even if landed elsewhere. Tobacco smuggling increased, with leaks or storm damage blamed when landing at Bristol. If this failed, bribery could be used. 

Occasionally the Stuart state tried to clamp down on growers in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. Most efforts, a few arrests aside, met with resistance. After victory in 1651, Cromwell’s grip tightened, and the window that allowed the flourishing industry began to shut. A new Act was passed, prohibiting domestic tobacco production. Growers thought crops and jobs would be lost. Just one year’s crop was allowed to be sown and reaped.

Having ignored the Act, 1654 saw a bumper crop, leading Bristol’s merchants to protest. This led to a plea that MPs in Bristol should prevent growth of English tobacco so as to avoid harm to local trade. Special commissioners imposed the Act, backed by Parliament, prohibiting domestic tobacco cultivation. This was unpopular, and 300 locals resisted government troops.

By 1658 tobacco merchants yet again demanded that the state clamp down on farmers. A petition to stop Cotswolds growers was delivered. The army intervened, then again that same year, but were beaten back by locals. Frustrated, the state turned to legal means to beat growers. Court cases were brought for growing and curing tobacco. Owners had 2.5 acres under cultivation and were fined £400, then a huge penalty.

Pressure returned to Gloucester’s growers; a former Mayor of Bristol was ordered to resist those preventing him from destroying crops. In contrast, growing spread to other counties despite measures to prevent this. A pattern began, with Parliament applying pressure to stop Gloucestershire’s growers cultivating it. It was often backed up with force and fines. At quieter periods, new seeds would be planted. 

The market, not state intervention, drew the domestic tobacco industry to an end. Cotswolds growers were undercut-by the 1680s the high level of cultivation in Virginia made imports cheaper, with the price falling relative to English tobacco. It is possible that soil in Winchcombe and Cheltenham was exhausted and couldn’t support crops. By the end of the century, Gloucestershire’s tobacco industry had ended.