Paternalism and the politics of “toll corn” in early modern England by Hillary Taylor

More than any other commodity in early modern England, grain was embedded within a web of assumptions about the social order and the ideologies that sustained it. While historians have examined how the politics of grain supply and marketing were informed by paternalism in various ways, my article considers a topic that has received relatively little attention: toll corn and the disputes that it generated.

‘Toll corn’ — like tolls on other goods — could involve monetary payments, but the term typically referred to a portion of grain that was taken from the total amount that sellers brought to market. A wide array of tolling practices operated from one market to the next, and toll corn was put to different uses depending on who had the right to its revenue. But in some markets, it played a role in local economies of poor relief or enabled grain to be distributed to poor consumers via extra-market channels.

Toll disputes in early modern England

From the second half of the sixteenth century, there was an increase in the price of agricultural products and the volume of trade in England. In light of these developments, disputes about tolls — how long they had been taken, how much (if anything) could be collected, who had the right to their revenue, who was exempt from paying them by dint of their civic or tenurial privileges — generated a fair amount of controversy. These controversies — a subset of which involved toll corn — played out in a variety of ways and in a variety of venues, depending on the market in question and the particular constellation of groups involved in the conflict.

The bulk of my Social History article looks at a protracted dispute about toll corn in Gainsborough’s market, which began in the late 1590s, rumbled on for years, and generated a lot of depositions in the courts of Exchequer and Star Chamber. Gainsborough was a seigneurial borough, which had historically been under the control of the Burgh family. While traders had previously paid toll corn in its market, for much of the sixteenth century the Burghs had allowed the grain to be retained by various ‘poor’ labourers who served as toll collectors and were also tasked with sweeping and cleaning the market streets.

This 1930’s photo of a display in Guildford’s seventeenth-century guildhall features the dishes that were used to collect toll corn in the local market. Source: Surrey History Centre, Reference CC1101/3/72/527.

The situation changed after a London merchant named William Hickman bought the manor in 1596 from the indebted (and largely absentee) lord and began a revenue-maximizing campaign. Many of Hickman’s innovations targeted local tolling arrangements. He was accused, among other things, of increasing the size of the dish in which the toll corn was collected; implementing new passage tolls on grain that was transported through Gainsborough on the River Trent; and appropriating toll corn that had previously gone to labouring individuals for himself. Hickman’s local critics had few illusions about his motivations: he had taken the toll corn ‘into his own hands’ because he knew ‘corne to be inhaunced to some good valew’ as a result of the harvest failures of the late 1590s.

Mobilizing paternalistic rhetoric

In the lawsuits that arose in the course of the Gainsborough dispute, the competing sides emphasized their regard for the poor in an effort to defend their respective claims. In doing so, they drew on contemporary discourses about the obligations involved in good lordship; the demands of equitable market dealing; and moral prohibitions against profiting at the poor’s expense, particularly during periods of dearth. Hickman and his allies claimed that he was a model paternalist who defended the poor’s interests and enforced regulatory measures in Gainsborough’s marketplace — for instance, by distributing improperly weighted bread to the poor. Hickman’s detractors, including members of the Lincolnshire gentry, suggested that he had sacrificed his lordly responsibilities at the altar of personal gain. Such rhetoric was not unique to this case; it was also used by litigants in other toll corn disputes that ended up in the equity courts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Whether such rhetoric was sincere, tactical, or some combination of the two is an open question.

Paternalistic rhetoric was one thing; practice was another. The Gainsborough case is particularly valuable because one of its depositions contains the most detailed account of a paternalistic interaction between members of the gentry and labouring poor that I have come across in years of research. To be sure, we have lots of contemporary prescriptive texts that described how paternalism was supposed to operate and outlined the obligations that members of the gentry had to their subordinates. We also have accounts of paternalistic aid that individual members of the gentry dispensed to their labouring inferiors. But such sources tend to describe paternalism in idealized, abstract, or laconic terms.

The Gainsborough account of an interaction between the Burghs and labouring toll collectors who sought their assistance when some traders refused to pay toll corn — which I analyze in the final section of the article — is unique because it demonstrates how gentry paternalism and disdain for its beneficiaries were not mutually exclusive. While it is an exceptional archival find (and, some might argue, an exceptional account of an individual lord and lady’s rudeness), it provides a window into aspects of social relations that might otherwise remain obscure and sheds new light on how paternalism negatively impacted members of the labouring population.

Hillary Taylor was recently a University Lecturer in Early Modern British Social and Economic History at Cambridge. From the 2023-2024 academic year, she will be a Marie Skłodowska–Curie Fellow at the University of Padua, working on a new project about violence and labour discipline in early modern England.