Tobacco Growing in the Vale of Evesham,
Winchcombe and District,
and John Stratford.
By Gerald H. Stratford.


Doctor Joan Thirsk, has noted that a great controversy was in being between the years 1586 and 1624, regarding the Granting of Monopoly Privileges, granted by the Crown. The intention being to promote new industries throughout the Realm, and also to encourage Trade throughout the World.

Naturally, some of the privileges were abused, and caused a number of Monopolies Debates, between the Crown and Parliament. Irrelevant of this, the new industries created employment, and especially for the poor classes, and, it was eventually realised, by all the different classes, that they were mostly a good thing, for everybody, and the Country as a whole. Such was the enthusiasm, that it spread rapidly to the New American Colonies.

The Eastern Vale of Tewkesbury, was sadly in need of some new economic ventures, and had suffered even more, so, after the Dissolution of all the local Religious Houses, between 1534 and 1539, although it is fair to say, that although they had created some employment in the area, it was not a great deal. Thomas Dekker claimed that a Beggar's Fair, held at Deerhurst, on the Two Holy Rood Days, that you would see more rogues than were ever whipped at a cart's arse through London, and more beggars than ever came dropping out of Ireland. A pamphlet said to be written by Harry the Hangman, and published in 1655, after attending Deerhurst Fair, said, ' A place in Gloucestershire, famous for three things, old clothes, lice, and shitten stiles' Taking one by one, he wrote that the old clothes were plentiful at the fair, because, 'The corners there unto wanted money to buy new' The lice were 'Goody, fat and tall, and that a louse from the Fair hath carried as much tallow as an Ox that comes from Smithfield Bars.' The shitten styles were 'Done out of a State Policy the preserve the place from an infection or contagion that might be left there by means of clothes coming from diseases parts and places.'

Harry the Hangman, appears to have made a lucrative living, as he related, 'Then was a Merry World with me before tobacco was planted, there being no kind of Trade to employ men, and very small tillage, necessity compelled poor men to stand my friends, by stealing sheep and other cattle, breaking of hedges, and the robbing of orchards, and what not.' He continued by stating that from Breedon Hill, 'Yonder is rich Worcester, brave Gloucester, proud Tewkesbury, beggarly Evesham, drunken Pershore, and roguish Winchcombe, and Bridewell was erected to be a terror to idle persons.'

During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth Century, Winchcombe was very poor, and when granted a Fair, it was said that the Borough, ' was fallen into so great ruin and decay, that its inhabitants, were not able to support, and repair it, for great poverty that reigned amongst them.'

After the Dissolution, the Winchcombe Manors were bought by Sir George and Thomas Whitmore, who married into the Stratford Family, who at this time, and later, had great Manors and Estate holdings from Barton on the Heath, in Warwickshire, right across the Cotswolds to Bushley, west of Tewkesbury in Worcestershire. These Gentlemen were Members of the Haberdasher's Company, and loaned money to the Crown, and had also bought Crown Lands, but there is no evidence shown to the effect that they ever tried to improve the conditions of the poor of Winchcombe.

Another Family, the Tracys, had established themselves at Toddington which lies north of Winchcombe, and the eldest son Sir John Tracy, became involved with John Stratford, in the growing of tobacco, within the area, and, because of both Families Status, they may have received advantageous terms for leases of land for growing tobacco. Richard Tracy and another John Stratford, the ancestor of John the tobacco grower were Commissioners at the Dissolution of Hailes Abbey near Winchcombe, and Richard Tracy was descended from Sir William Tracy, one of the four Knights responsible for the murder of Thomas O'Beckett.

The Tracys and Stratfords were very closely knit, having inter married, exchanging land, inter trading, and also assisting each other as Executors to Will's and Deeds. John Stratford appears to have been the chief instigator for the growing of the tobacco in and around the Cotswolds, the Vale of Tewkesbury, and as far south as Wiltshire.

Doctor Thirsk continues by stating that John Stratford found himself in London, and as Salt was once high on the list for development, became a Member of the Salters Company, arriving in about 1580. Essential commodities such as oil, wine, woad, salt and soap were being imported, and it was therefore essential that these should be produced at home, and the initiative was taken to provide the same within the Vale of Tewkesbury. The area of Winchcombe is crossed and recrossed by the Salter's Routes, travelling through the old Stratford Family Estates, but, John Stratford, although a Member of the Salter's Company does not appear to have been involved in its production or distribution. He initially traded in Cheshire Cheese, and in the Will of John Stratford of Hoarston Grange, at Nuneaton, Warwickshire, it shows a large quantity of it in storage at the taking of his Inventory of Goods. John Stratford was also dealing in woollen stockings, brought in from the Rural Districts, and resold by him in London.

Probably, not making enough money out of this he became a Member of the Eastland Company, in about 1601, selling English Broadcloth in the North of Europe. Doctor Thirsk states that he started with two hundred pound capital, and in two years made a fortune in those days of One thousand two hundred pounds capital, then, he handed over the Broadcloth Trade to his Partners, so to concentrate on flax, but this did not appear to have lasted long. The Netherlanders, outpriced John Stratford, and therefore his flax enterprise fell away.

The Salter's Company, by tradition, had connections with other businesses, and John Stratford became involved in the manufacture of tallow, potash, soap ashes and oil, and, in 1616, set up a soap boiling house with his Step Brother Ralph Stratford, who was also a Member of the Salter's Company. But again he must have felt that he was not making enough money out of these projects.

He started buying land in the Winchcombe area, where the Family had initially moved to in the previous fifty years, and this seems to have worried some of his Partners, as one is quoted as saying ' He charged himself with too many trades and occupations ' and this maybe was one of the reasons he sold his interest in flax to his Partners. lie then turned his hand to the new crop, tobacco, where the land that he had bought would be suitable for such cultivation of the crop.

It would appear that prior to this that the Stratfords had been involved with the growing of woad, for at Nether Guiting, where they had been Lords of the Manor for some time, there had been a Woad Mill, and certainly in 1634 and 1656, but I have no evidence that John Stratford was involved in this.

Records show that the first season of tobacco growing began in the year 1619, in the Winchcombe Area, and at Bishop's Cleeve, starting with a crop of one hundred acres. John Stratford paid out in labour costs a total of One thousand four hundred pounds in the first year, at a wage of Eight pence per day, which represented forty two thousand labour days, and the labouring days of say from the First of May to the Thirtieth of November, being a total of Two hundred and fourteen days, would calculate out at one hundred and ninety six men in the fields. This most certainly helped the employment of the poor in the area. John Stratford, was quoted as saying that he took himself to Gloucestershire where poor people do much abound.

In the year 1650, the population of Winchcombe was three hundred and forty families, and in the same year Bishop's Cleeve had two hundred families, and therefore the growing of tobacco must have relieved some of these families from poverty.

Unfortunately for John Stratford, at the end of the year 1619, the Government banned tobacco growing in England, as an incentive for the crop to be grown in Virginia, in the new Colonies, and John Stratford, being law abiding, stopped immediately, but others continued, which caused considerable trouble with the Government.

The ban caused financial trouble for John Stratford, as he had taken out long Leases on Land, to grow the crop, and he was instructed by the Courts, to continue to honour his Agreements. Not to be out done he turned his hand to the growing of flax, and the supply of labour was still available, and commenced on forty acres at Winchcombe and Cockbury. For this venture he was employing two hundred people, and made himself unpopular with his late Partners, who were still importing flax. John Stratford replied to them, ' It is desirable to employ Englishmen for their better relief, and the good of the Commonwealth, seeing an inconceivable distress and misery increasing amongst the multitude of poor people, that live in the Towns, where no clothing or help of other work is.'

John Stratford also said, 'The more flax we sow, the greater quantity of tillage it will begat, as the sowing of the woad does prepare the land better for corn afterwards,' and continued, 'It offers the chance to put to better use mean land, such as the uplands of remote forests, chases and other commons which doth now increase, and nourish idle people, and is the breeding ground of weak and unserviceable horse, and the bane of the sheep.' He must have been remembering the poor of Winchcombe when he wrote, 'If our idle poor had flax raised here, as they might have, and were compelled to work, if they will not willingly otherwise, whereas now they are an intolerable burden to the abler sort, by begging and stealing, they would contrawise become profitable to the Commonwealth, paying for food and clothing, and living according to God's Ordinances, by the sweat of their face, in a more Religious Order.'

John Stratford's flax growing venture started in 1623, and was still under way in 1627, when he paid off eight thousand pounds of his debts incurred through the ban on tobacco growing.

In July 2012, Margaret Davison sent the following information: Your interesting history of Winchcombe mentions brothers Sir George and Thomas Whitmore as Lords of the Manor. They were the younger brothers of Sir William Whitmore of Apley, Shropshire and London to whom they passed the manor but I am sorry to say that there is no connection with the Stratford family amongst these Whitmores. The above Thomas Whitmore was not Thomas Whitmore of the Pantry. Sir George's brother died unmarried prior to the reign of Charles II. There are, however, several other branches of the Whitmore family and the Thomas you mention may be one of them. Sir William's descendent,Sir Thomas Whitmore M.P, was a courtier of King Charles II but married Lady Frances Brooke (Cobham Brooke family). I should be interested to know if anyone finds a connection to one of the other branches of the Whitmore family - if you do,

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Data transcribed by Colin Hinson from:
A document written by
Gerald H. Stratford in 1988.
Reproduced here by permission
© Gerald H. Stratford.