Ness A. Creighton: Extracting and Analyzing a Taxonomy of Commodities from the Port Books of London: Tracking the Imports of Silk and Mixed Silk Textiles in Early Modern London (1565-1696)

MEDEA Spring Meeting, Wheaton College, Norton, Mass.
Thursday, April 7, 2016 [return to program overview]

Panorama of London, 1647. The Pool of London is visible on the right.

Panorama of London, 1647. The Pool of London is visible on the right.

Ness A. Creighton
Georgia State University

This presentation will discuss the application of the Guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) for the encoding of financial records to the Port Books of London, and the use of such models for the extraction and analysis of multiple types of a textile product imported into an early modern port city. As well, it will discuss the use of principles of type systems and abstract data type design, as well as some object-oriented design theory, in the creation of a taxonomy of early modern silk textiles products.

These issues have arisen out of a larger project that seeks to analyze the imports of silk into the Port of London in order to discuss the larger topic of the evolution and creation of the English silk industry, as well as its dependence on imported raw silk, particularly from Italy. As such, there has been a need to. Create a taxonomy of different silk products, including identifying analogous or synonymous terms for products; developing a methodology to record volume of imports, both monetary and physical; and then developing a method for extracting the desired information from the documents, none of which previously existed in a digital form.

The Port Books of London represent a wealth of account data recoded by the Office of the Exchequer regarding the daily economic activity of the port, one that is vastly under-utilized in terms of tracking economic activity, particularly for single groups of commodities, in an early modern trade hub. There are just over 860 surviving Port Books for the Port of London, the majority of which are in fair condition and held at the National Archives at Kew. Those that survive for the Port of London span from 1564, when the Office of the Exchequer ordered their creation, to 1696, when the Board of Customs registers replaced them for most ports. Most interestingly, three (sometimes four) officials recorded separate books, and officials of the Exchequer’s office checked each record against the others. This allows, in the years that at least two different officials sets survive, cross checking these records. However, it presents significant challenges in encoding, due to the many different styles of record keeping over time, and between different officials.

While the creators of these books did not intend them to be records of economic statistics, the wealth of data present regarding the types of goods reported is astounding. For overseas trade, these records include a wealth of data concerning the flow of goods through the port, as well as about the people and ships involved. In many cases, each record includes a date for the payment of the duty, the name, tonnage, and home port of the ship, the name of the ship’s master, the next destination port for the ship, names of merchants whose goods were being transported, if the merchants were alien or resident, cargoes shipped and duty paid on this cargo, and if the ship was British built (18th century and later). Officials separated imports and exports by alien merchants into their own books, as well as some types of commodities, in some years. As such, these books are a wealth of data about goods, people, ships, and duties, as well as valuation and record keeping practices.

Little recent modern work exists cataloging the contents of the Port Books in order to track specific commodities over time, and officially created digital forms of these records do not exist. The last major attempts by historians at such data collection occurred in the mid-1950s to the late 1960s (see particularly A. M. Millard’s work). Such work fell from fashion due to the unreliability of certain aspects of the records in the Port Books (particularly omissions, falsely given information by merchants and ship’s masters, and even fraud) in the early 1960s. However, with the use of TEI models, these historians can use these texts again as a source for economic and material data, as it allows for a much richer understanding and analysis of the material.


Image credit: Wenceslaus Hollar, Panoramic View of London, 1647, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Daniel Becker (March 17, 2016). Ness A. Creighton: Extracting and Analyzing a Taxonomy of Commodities from the Port Books of London: Tracking the Imports of Silk and Mixed Silk Textiles in Early Modern London (1565-1696). MEDEA. Retrieved July 21, 2024 from

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