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Title Page
General Notes
1. Agriculture
2. Famine
3. Hardships
4. Governing
Appendix A
Appendix B
2003 Update
Manx flag (14k) ‘Considering the extraordinary dearth and scarcity of bread…’: Aspects of life on the Isle of Man in the years 1647 to 1651

1. Agriculture and Poverty

This chapter contains a discussion of the importance of agriculture in the seventeenth century for both England and the Isle of Man. Because of the limited nature of this discussion, no attempt has been made to distinguish between the agricultural regions of the Island; instead, it has been discussed as a whole. The importance of advances in agricultural techniques is touched upon before a discussion of harvests on Man is undertaken. Herring fishing on Man is also considered. The chapter concludes with a discussion of poverty, both on Man and elsewhere.

Agriculture and Shortages

Agriculture was important to seventeenth century people throughout the British Isles. Sharpe states ‘ . . . the state of the agricultural base was the most important factor in early modern English economy . . .’ [11] Annual harvests were of the utmost concern. Coward says ‘Anything that affected the quality of the harvest in any one year had serious effects on the standard of living of the mass of the people.’ [12] Weather played a major role in determining the success of the harvests. Coward cites diary entries about harvests and the weather. The quote is specific to the period under discussion here:

May 1648. Among all the severall judgements on this nation, God this spring, in the latter end of April, when rye was earing and eared, sent such terrible frosts that the ear was frozen and so died. June 1648. The Lord goeth out against us in the season, which was wonderful wet, floods every week, hay rotted abroad. Much was carried away with the floods, much inned but very dirty and dangerous for cattle. Corn laid, pulled down with weeds. We never had the like in my memory, and that for the greatest part of the summer. [13]

This reliance on harvests however, was declining in England during the early modern period. New techniques were being developed and put into place. Coward states ‘. . . after 1650 there is no doubt that English agricultural production made great leaps forward.’ [14] By the end of the century, England was able to export grain. ‘. . . grain production was adequate for national needs by the last third of the seventeenth century. . . . from the 1670s England was a regular exporter of grain.’ [15] Coward maintains that as more crops were being produced, starvation was less probable. ‘It is highly likely that by the middle of the seventeenth century England had escaped from the vicious cycle of famines that continued to affect other parts of Europe.’ [16]

This is evidenced by a decline in mortality from food shortages. Slack states ‘ . . . mortality rose significantly after every bad harvest between 1500 and 1622, . . . it rose only modestly by comparison after the bad harvests which occurred between 1630 and the end of the seventeenth century.’ [17] Appleby also states that by 1649 famine was becoming less likely.

...I think a different pattern of mortality was emerging as early as 1649 and was clearly evident in later periods of dearth: mortality began to be limited in both intensity and extent . . . The region as a whole was overcoming famine. [18]

Wrightson agrees, ‘Harvest failures in 1630 and 1646-9 brought suffering, but not widespread death.’ [19]

This is reflected in the fact that, in England, the books of orders were not reissued after 1630. These government regulations for dealing with food shortages developed from earlier policies ‘. . . initiated by Cardinal Wolsey in the second and third decades of the sixteenth century. . . . [and] publicized in printed ‘books of orders’, beginning in Elizabeth’s reign.’ [20] Slack states that the regulations were

. . . not imposed after 1630. By good fortune or good management, when England could afford the indulgence of free internal trade – when agricultural productivity was high enough to supply corn for the whole population virtually every year, and when both a market network and a system of poor relief were well enough developed to take care of its distribution – a government policy which insisted on sales in open markets, which devalued middlemen and which deterred the long-distance movement of grain, was being dismantled. [21]

These policies will be discussed further in Chapter Four.

Agriculture was also important to the economy and the people on Man. Dickinson believes that ‘. . .almost the entire Manx population was engaged in farming to a greater or lesser extent, growing crops and raising cattle and sheep for consumption on the farm, . . . ’ [22] The quality of the harvests was crucial as well, and he argues that ‘Throughout the early modern period, economic activity in the Isle of Man was generally conducted at a level only slightly above that of subsistence.’ [23]

There is less evidence on Man for the use of new methods at this time. Moore said ‘It is clear . . . that Manx agriculture, till a comparatively recent period, must have been of a very primitive kind.’ [24] Some of the advances were known about on the Island, and Blundell reports the beginning of their use.

. . . it is expected yt [that] ye [the] soil here will be much improved, and ye island much enabled to yield much more quantity of corn, by the late governor’s [Greenhalgh] practice . . . for they now marle their arable ground with lime, which was never there put in practice before; but in my opinion the expectation would be far greater if the natives knew the preparation of the sea-weed, whereof they have great plenty cast up daily upon the shore by the flowing of the sea, and were taught the use and practice of it, as we have in England, . . . [25]

When Sacheverell wrote, after having served as Governor in the 1690’s, many of the new techniques were still not in use, at least partly due to the expense of implementing them.

. . .the whole has been of late years greatly improved by the late Governor Greenhalgh, who taught them the art of liming their lands, which they likewise improve by sea weeds, and in many parts of the country there is marle; but the people have not the skill or the purses to lay it out on their grounds, and I do not doubt but turnips would be an admirable improvement on the northside, were they able to enclose their lands, that they might secure them. [26]

Dickinson says similarly, ‘Conservative farming methods persisted as much from the poverty of the farmers as from any unwillingness to change.’ [27] If the Island was behind England in making such advances, they may well have been behind in eliminating the threat of famine.

Harvests on Man

Dickinson used the available sources to identify years in which harvests on Man were deficient or bad in the Stanley period. The first was in the late 1590s and corresponded with bad harvests in England. Regulations about the price of wheat, barley and rye were issued, among others. [28] Additionally, a limit of four licensed brewers in each town was put into place. According to Dickinson this ‘. . . was indeed a drastic move, considering that Douglas had, on average, about thirty licensed alehousekeepers at this time and Castletown had almost fifty.’ [29] The next deficient harvest, in 1607, was matched by bad harvests in the west of England. [30] A rise in price and regulation of exports for barley indicate shortages on Man. [31]

There were regulations that governed the export of grain from Man.

Whenever farmers wanted to export corn, it was normal practice for four men to be chosen in each parish to view every man’s ‘Store of Corne’ and to assess how much could be spared, after due allowance ‘for their seeding, housekeeping and furnishing of the markettes.’ If it was deemed that there was sufficient for some ‘to be sold foorth of the Cuntry.’ the governor granted licence for transportation; if not, or if there were some reason to fear that the harvest would fail, the farmers had to be content to sell in the domestic market at prices set by the officers. [32]

In 1628 grain shipment was prohibited for a short time [33] indicating an insufficient harvest in that year.

The next period of bad harvests that Dickinson identifies took place in the late 1640s, the period discussed in detail in this dissertation. Dickinson relates that ‘. . .England endured half a dozen deficient or bad seasons, beginning in 1646, which were caused by bad weather.’ [34] He cites a contemporary source. ‘. . . during the Preston campaign in August 1648 . . . a Lancastrian captain. . . lamented that ‘Such a wet time this time of the year hath not been seen in the memory of man.’’ [35] The government issued a number of orders during this crisis that are detailed in Chapter Four.

In 1662 it is likely that bad harvests caused the reissuing of certain of these orders and Earl Charles issued orders to refuse ‘. . . to permit any merchant or farmer to export corn from the island, . . .’ [36] Dickinson further identifies 1673 and 1674 as bad harvest years with the years before 1691, but there is little evidence and apparently no government regulations relating to them. [37] Bad harvests between 1695 and 1700 did lead to some government action, however. At least two separate assessments of surpluses were ordered and a maximum price for grain set. [38]

Bad or deficient harvests took place, therefore, in a number of years, sometimes spanning consecutive years as in the period under consideration here. The government was apparently willing to step in when the seriousness of the situation warranted, and they appear to have done so more in the late 1640s then at any other time. Unlike in England, where the books of orders were not being reissued after 1630, on Man, regulations were issued in times of shortage until much later. A paper from the early eighteenth century details occasions when the Keys ‘. . . have been called by ye govern[o]r to consider and joyne w[i]th him and the Officers in matters relating to some publick affairs of the Island . . .’ [39] The first item on this list reads ‘ffor setting Rates on Corne in times of Scarcity’ and lists the following cases: ‘Lib Plit 1597 and Lib Scacc 1648, 1687, 1695’ [40] Bad harvests would have made life difficult for the residents of Man, but in the late 1640s there were additional pressures that will be discussed further in Chapter Three.

Herring Fishing

On Man fishing was also an important occupation and the sea provided both employment and food for many. Blundell stated

The principal commodity which the inhabitants of Man have in most abundance wherewith they traffick and transport to all the 4 neighbouring nations, and to ye more southward, unto France, all along its north and west parts, and wherewith the less sort of Manks people of both sexes, both in town and country, do every day constantly feed upon, is herrings. [41]

But he also wrote that during his stay on the Island there were complaints of poor herring harvests. ‘The fishermen complained much at my being there, for of late years they have not taken half the quantity of herrings which they used to take in former times, . . .’ [42] Blundell’s comments, and some made later by Sacheverell, provide hints about the success or failure of herring harvests, but there is little evidence otherwise about fluctuations in fishing. Dickinson was able to evaluate the size of the catch for only two years towards the end of the century. [43]

Exports recorded in the customs records for the period 1647 to 1651, along with some data provided by Dickinson for other years, are shown in Table 1.

Table 1

Year    Barrels    Maze
1630 [44]139 1
1647 [45]60  
1648 [46]82  
1649 [47]54½43
1650 [48]12½ 
1651 [49]65 20
1667 [50]485 339
1685 [51]388 1

Customs records began at Midsummer each year so that the records for 1647, for example, run from June 1646 to June 1647. The herring exports for the five years examined for this paper are all lower than the three years taken from Dickinson. This suggests that herring harvests were lower in the period, or that more herring was needed on the Island because of the shortage of grain, or both. A detailed study of these records for a longer period could prove useful in determining average amounts of herring exports and might allow identification of years when the harvests were less successful.


Coward tells us that ‘. . . poverty was a predominant feature of early modern English society.’ [52] Wrightson attempted to define the extent of the problem for some parts of England.

Occasionally surviving local records permit an unusually detailed knowledge of the problem – as in one parish of Salisbury in 1635 where in addition to those paupers actually in receipt of poor relief a further one third of the inhabitants were regarded as poor. Again, at Heydon in Essex in 1625, some 43 per cent of the householders were regarded as being on or below the poverty line, while a further 23 per cent . . . were just above it and might easily be forced on to the relief system in a bad year. [53]

Poverty was also a problem on Man in the seventeenth century. Sacheverell, writing after serving as governor in the 1690s paints a bleak picture of life on the Island.

. . . I shall now endeavour to shew what natural misfortunes the country labours under. I think I may comprehend them all under the miserable name of poverty, which is occasioned by a thin soil, and unfruitful blasts from the sea air, and the want of experience, rather than that of labour in the people. They likewise want all sorts of timber, salt, wrought iron, coals, . . . [54]

However, he felt the Island could meet the needs of its people. ‘. . . there is an universal plenty and cheapness, that as there are few that can be properly said to be rich, so neither are there many that can be said to be miserably poor; and I believe, fewer beggars in proportion than in any nation.’ [55] Blundell, writing about forty years earlier, was critical of the Island’s beggars.

Now for beggars at Douglas I found divers both of the natives and of the Irish; ye natives of this Island were somewhat more civil, the Irish more clamorous, but both bold, for the natives will not cry and beg at doors, but without knocking; if the doors be shut, they will draw ye latchet, or if they find it open they will enter in, take a stool, and sit down before the midst of the fire, and then demand an alms. [56]

Blundell also told that tradesmen had few resources.

Of manual trades in these townes there are but few, and those yt are, very poor, . . . Now to demonstrate their poverty I will give you an instance in the smith. If a Manksman in the country have his plow-share to be mended, or any man’s horse wanteth a shoe, or but a nail being loose, and either of these do come to make use of the smith, they must both bring coals to make the fire, and iron to make the shoe or nail, for the smith is not provided with either, yet will he exact extreamly for his labour, because he is assured you must make use of him, no other of that trade being there but himself. [57]

It is difficult to define the extent of poverty on Man in this period. No formal poor relief was available, so there are no records similar to the English ones. There are hints in various documents that might help if an in-depth study of poverty on Man was undertaken. Some court records, for instance, record where fines were remitted because of the poverty of one or both of the parties involved. Such analysis is outside of the limits of this dissertation.

Poor Laws

In England poverty was dealt with in a number of different ways. ‘Taken together, private charity, municipal schemes, government orders and parliamentary statues are a remarkable response to the early modern poverty problem.’ [58] Private charity was important, especially in the earlier parts of the early modern period.

Landed gentlemen considered it their duty to look after the poor by distributing largesse. ‘Twice a week’, wrote Sir Hugh Cholmondley, a Yorkshire landowner, looking back to the 1630s, ‘a certain number of people, widows and indigent persons were served at my gates with bread and good pottage made of beef, which I mention that those which succeed may follow the example.’ [59]

On Man Derby exhibited some generosity towards the poor. In the charge books for Castle Rushen each year, under the entries for ‘Rewards and Penc[i]ons’ is an entry for ‘The poore of the Islande’ with the sum of eight pounds remaining constant throughout the five-year period considered. [60] Additional entries within the charge books record other episodes of magnanimity. ‘p[ai]d as layd downe at Easter for his Lo[rdshi]pp to give to the poore 5s; p[ai]d as laid downe for my Lady at ye same tyme 5s.’ [61] Sometimes his munificence was extended to a specific person. ‘p[ai]d for my lord in ye chappell to give a poore woman 2s 6d’. [62]

England in this period was developing a centrally managed system of poor relief and poor laws were being put into place. ‘. . . during the course of the seventeenth century the poor-law system was gradually put into operation in all parishes. Moreover, when the central government put the full weight of its pressure behind the system, as in the 1630s and 1650s, it worked well.’ [63]

Sharpe states: ‘Traditionally, poverty had been dealt with by free-range begging and by the charity of better-off individuals and the church: both these phenomena, despite the introduction of systems of relief, were to continue throughout our period.’ [64] Slack identifies a new category of poor that was coming to be understood in society. ‘Alongside the ‘impotent’ poor, the widows and orphans traditionally regarded as meriting charity, there were now frequent reference to labouring householders who did not earn enough to support their children.’ [65] The poor relief system was not set up to handle short-term crisis, but was a response to the ever present ‘impotent’ who could not survive without assistance.

It needs to be stressed that public assistance under the poor law was intended for these ‘impotent’ persons -- the poor who were always there; and although short-term crises or periods of high pressure might necessarily increase the number claiming relief, there was no shortage of claimants at other times. [66]

The earliest poor laws related more to punishment of beggars than helping those in need. ‘The first Tudor poor laws of 1495 and 1531 were largely concerned with ways of punishing vagrants and sending them home, though the second added that deserving paupers could be licensed to beg.’ [67] A statute in 1536 went further, but lapsed soon after it was passed. It did, however, lay the groundwork for future legislation. [68] Later acts defined things more clearly.

The Vagrancy Act of 1598 simplified penalties and procedures: parish officers could whip vagabonds and return them home; there was no need for quarter sessions to deal with every case, as in 1572. . . . The burden of raising rates, relieving the impotent, setting the able-bodied to work and apprenticing poor children, was placed firmly on the shoulders of churchwardens and overseers of the poor in every parish. [69]

By the beginning of the seventeenth century everything was in place. ‘In all essentials, . . . the poor law was complete in 1601.’ [70] Implementation took longer.

The implementation of the poor law depended upon a combination of forces as complex as its creation. Continued direction from the centre, at least until 1630, further contributions from committed activists in the localities, and the slower response of parish officers conspired to produce the national welfare system which the poor law had become by 1700. [71]

The poor rates were especially slow to be put into place in rural areas.

By 1600 most of the larger towns seem to have had poor rates, . . . but only a small minority of rural parishes, most of them probably in the south-east [had them]. In some places rating was tried only for a year or two; in others it was said to be unnecessary; many parishes did nothing. . . . It was a slow process, but by 1660 at least a third of parishes were probably well accustomed to raising rates. [72]

These poor rates may have had little impact on poverty before the middle of the seventeenth century. Slack states that the impact ‘. . . cannot have been very great in the century before 1660. Poor rates were too small and the number of the poor too large.’ [73] Later, however, the poor rates began to make a difference. ‘In the century after 1660 . . . Poor rates rose to 1 per cent or so of the national income, enabling 8 per cent of the population to be relieved by 1750; and philanthropy would add substantially to those figures.’ [74] Similar legislation in Scotland was effective later. ‘Like England, Scotland had a Reformation leaving a vacuum in charitable activity; the social need was even greater; there was even a poor law on paper not unlike England’s. But the law had little impact before the end of the seventeenth century.’ [75] Similarly, in Wales the effects of poor relief were felt much later. ‘. . . weakness at the county sessions level . . . explains the failure to implement much of the poor law in Wales until well into the eighteenth century.’ [76]

Poor Relief on the Isle of Man

Legislation for poor relief on Man began in a similar way to that in England, with concerns for punishing beggars, though it began much later. An order dated 24th of April 1641 states: ‘Forasmuch as at this present there is a Multitude of Poore beggars (and much more than in former times), which wander abroad in the Countrie begging over the Island in general from parish to parish to the great annoyance of the Islanders.’ [77] It was ordered act that ‘. . . every parish shall keep and manteyne their own poore by setting the able of bodie to work and releevinge the impotente.’ [78] The lockman [79] of the parishes were ordered to:

. . . apprehend the Bodies of all such beggars they shall find begging and wandering out of the parishes where they were borne or where unto they belonge by their latest habitation; and to whippe them severely, and after that to expell and bringe them out of his and their severall jurisdicons from Lockman to Lockman till they come to their own parishes they belonge unto as aforesaid. [80]

According to the Statute Book, however, these orders were not passed as law, but were later referred to in a Statue of 1665 [81], which contains some elements of the English poor laws. First, ‘the Poor of the Isle shall not range or begg out of their own Parish . . .’ [82] and second,

That none be relieved as the Poor of any Parish but such as are blind, lame, mayme, or decrepitt in respect of Age, or other Infirmity; and that all young and sound Persons shall either labour for their Livelihood, or be made to serve by a Jury of Servants, or otherwise to be committed until they submitt thereunto; . . . [83]

No provision was made, however, for the establishment of poor rates to support the poor of the parishes. Moore tells of later legislation, from 1692 for ‘. . . the provision of a “public work house,” where “all lazie persons, vagabonds, and all public beggars, all fornicators, drunkards,” & [and] c., were to be confined.’ [84] This act is not, however, in the Statue Books and Moore states ‘We do not know whether this institution was established then or not, but it was certainly not in existence a few years later.’ [85] It was not until 1888 that government regulated poor relief became available to the poor of Man. Prior to that period, the church was responsible and Moore states:

In the country, the poor people are, in most of the parishes, well looked after by the vicars and wardens, or by their relatives and friends. But in the towns, . . . there are many who, during the winter, are dependent on charitable assistance. This assistance was, till recently, given by various voluntary associations, instead of one organization, in each town, the result being that many of the poor, and those often the least deserving, received much more than their share and others much less. [86]

Moore was writing when these poor laws were still new to Man.

In the middle of the seventeenth century, then, the poor on Man would have had to rely on the charity of others. There was no formal system of poor relief, but the earliest act, from 1641, does state that parishes were responsible for their own poor. Derby did distribute some money towards their relief, and presumably those with sufficient means would have been expected to do so as well.


The situation in England appears to have been rather different from that in Man in the late 1640s. Agricultural advances were being made in England and more food was being produced to meet the needs of the people. It is generally agreed that starvation from food shortages had been eliminated from most areas of the country by this time. On Man, these advances were being put into place more slowly.

While food shortages did take place in England in the late 1640s, the books of orders were not reissued. In contrast, on Man a great deal of legislation was issued to deal with the shortages of that time, much of it like the earlier English books of orders. This will be discussed in more detail in Chapter Four. In terms of agriculture and harvests, therefore, it appears that the Island still experienced difficulties in dealing with food shortages and people were more likely to suffer on Man than in England during deficient harvest years at that time.

Poverty was a concern for both countries, however their respective governments handled the issue differently. By the mid-seventeenth century English poor laws and poor relief were established. While their effectiveness at this time is questionable, especially in rural areas, they were beginning to assist the poorest residents. For the Manx poor no such relief was available. It is not possible to state that the poor on Man were worse off, however. It is unknown how much voluntary relief was being given to the parishes for the support of the poor on the Island, or indeed in some parts of England at the time. It is possible that a formal system of poor relief was not put into place on Man because the problem did not warrant one.

These discussions have, hopefully, provided some background to the period. Agriculture was vitally important and harvest failure led to serious consequences, especially for those at the bottom of the social scale. The next chapter takes a look at what happened to the people on Man as a consequence of the harvest failures in 1647 and 1648.

11Sharpe, EME, 129.
12Coward, B., 1988, Social Change and Continuity: England 1550 – 1750, Revised Edition, Longman, London, 10.
13Ibid., 106.
14Ibid., 12.
15Sharpe, EME, 132.
16Coward, 1988, Social Change and Continuity, 12.
17Slack, P., 1988, Poverty & Policy in Tudor & Stuart England, Longman, London, 48
18Appleby, FTSE, 155-6.
19Wrightson, ES, 146
20Slack, P., 1992, ‘Dearth and Social Policy in Early Modern England’, in Social History of Medicine, 5:1, 1.
21Ibid., 14.
22Dickinson, LMUS, 76.
24Moore, History, vol. ii, 913.
25Blundell, History, vol. i, 40.
26Sacheverell, Account, 12.
27Dickinson, LMUS, 82.
28Ibid., 93.
29Ibid., 94.
32Ibid., 95.
34Ibid., 97.
36Ibid., 103.
38Ibid., 104-5.
39DP 1722/46, (MF/DP5)
41Blundell, History, vol. i, 85.
42Ibid., vol. i., 87.
43Dickinson, LMUS, 264.
45IO (bundle 1644-1647) Waterbailiffs’ accounts, 1647, Outgates.
46IO (bundle 1648-1651) Waterbailiffs’ accounts, 1648, Outgates.
47IO (bundle 1648-1651) Waterbailiffs’ accounts, 1649, Outgates.
48IO (bundle 1648-1651) Waterbailiffs’ accounts, 1650, Outgates.
49IO (bundle 1648-1651) Waterbailiffs’ accounts, 1651, Outgates.
50Dickinson, LMUS, 264.
52Coward, 1988, Social Change and Continuity, 69.
53Wrightson, ES., 141.
54Sacheverell, Account, 6.
55Ibid., 6-7.
56Blundell, History, vol. i, 64.
57Ibid., vol. i, 83.
58Coward, 1988, Social Change and Continuity, 73.
59Coward, B., 1994, The Stuart Age: England 1603 – 1714, 2nd Edition, Longman, London., 65-6.
60RD 1647 – 1651, Books of Charge, Castle Rushen: rewards and pensions, (MF/DP12)
61RD 1649, Book of Charge, Castle Rushen: provisions and necessaries. (MF/DP12)
62RD 1648, Book of Charge, Castle Rushen: provisions and necessaries. (MF/DP12)
63Coward, 1988, Social Change and Continuity, 73.
64Sharpe, EME, 216.
65Slack, P., 1990, The English Poor Law, 1531 – 1782, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 4.
66Ibid., 6.
67Ibid., 9.
68Ibid., 9-10.
69Ibid., 10-11.
70Ibid., 11.
71Ibid., 14.
72Ibid., 18.
73Ibid., 45.
75Ibid., 49.
77Gill, J.F. (ed.), 1883, The Statutes of the Isle of Man, volume 1, 1417-1824, London, 91.
79The deputy to the coroner in each parish, see Dickinson, LMUS, 49-50 for a full description of his duties.
80Gill, The Statues of the Isle of Man, volume 1, 91.
82Ibid., 124.
84Moore, History, vol. i, 408.
85Ibid., 409.
86Ibid., vol, ii, 688-89.

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