How to look for records of... Merchant trade records: port books 1565-1799
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide to find out how port books can help in researching the development of trade, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries.
If you can’t find what you are looking for in this guide, you could try:
- information relating to foreign or overseas vessels in HCA 32
- certificates and related bonds pledging not to ship cargoes overseas in E 209
2. Essential information
The port books are locally created records of customs duties paid on overseas trade. They cover 1565-1799 but for many ports they stop well before 1799.
A number of port books have been published by local record societies. Search the internet to find your local record society, or check the British Association for Local History website.
E L C Mullins’ Texts and calendars, ‘Royal Historical Society’ (1983) summarises what is available in print. Check this before ordering original documents on site at The National Archives in Kew.
An index of ports is available at The National Archives in Kew. It is on pages 564-566 of the E 190 list in the printed version of the catalogue.
It is helpful to know that:
- although some 20,000 port books have survived, many are in a poor state of preservation and there are many gaps. For example, there are no London port books for 1697-1799
- before 1600 many entries in the port books are in Latin – by 1660 most are in English
- lesser ports (in 16th-century terms), sometimes known as ‘creeks’ or ‘havens’, were grouped together under ‘head ports’. Therefore the returns for Liverpool, Beaumaris and Conway are with those of the head port of Chester
3. Using our catalogue to find records
For tips on searching the catalogue, use the help page.
Look for mentions in this guide of:
- department references such as E (Exchequer)
- series references such as E 122
These will help you to focus your search for relevant records using the advanced search option in our catalogue.
The port books themselves are in record series E 190.
Use the search box in E 190 entering one or more keywords such as:
- name of port
- creator of the book (controller, collector or searcher)
- type of trade (overseas or coastal, import or export)
Our catalogue contains descriptions of our records. Very few of the records described in this guide are available online.
4. Key sources
4.1 Records available onsite at The National Archives in Kew
The Port books are in records series E 190 – see section 3 for how to look for records.
Other useful record series include:
- CUST 2 Mainland English, Scottish and Irish outport records
- E 122 Exchequer records containing details of duties paid at particular ports
- CUST 2-17 and CUST 22-37 registers of imports and exports from 1696
- CUST 50-102 Outport letter books containing correspondence relating to the daily work of those ports, not duties paid on individual shipments
4.2 Online sources
5. How were port books created?
The port books were created by different types of local customs officials:
- the Collector or ‘Customer’ – who had to make a return of all goods exported or imported and all moneys received, for which he issued a cocket (receipt)
- the Controller – who had to make a similar return but did not receive the payments
- the Searcher – appointed to prevent fraud, who had to make examine the goods and return a warrant to show he had done so
Exchequer officials checked these returns (normally fair copies rather than the originals after 1700), warrants and cockets against each other.
As a further check, Surveyors were appointed in the 17th century to check the work of the Searcher.
6. What do they tell you?
A typical list of what you can find is below but please be aware entries differ slightly for overseas and coastal trade.
For overseas trade, they record:
- the issue of cockets (receipts) for payment of duty
For coastal trade, they record (at the port of unloading)
- exports only
- the issue of the certificate declaring that the cargo was not subject to duty, as it was not overseas trade
Entries normally include:
- the date duty was paid (not the date of arrival or unloading)
- the name, tonnage and home port of the ship
- the name of the ship’s master
- the ship’s destination or port to which it was sailing next (false information was sometimes supplied, for instance if a merchant was infringing the rights of a monopoly trading company)
- the names of the merchants (sometimes giving the merchant’s mark) and whether they were aliens (aliens paid 25% higher duty)
- the cargoes they were shipping and the amount of duty paid, based on the official valuation as laid down in the Book of Rates, except for coastal trade books
- whether the ship was British built (only applies in the 18th century)
7. Interpreting the port books
7.1 Possible pitfalls
Information in the port books can be difficult to interpret. Bear in mind:
- there might be more than one ship with the same name so even if other details from the port books match up, you can’t be sure it is the same ship
- the names of foreign masters or merchants, given verbally, might be written down wrongly or anglicised
- merchants and masters are sometimes described as native (‘indigenus’, often abbreviated to ‘Ind’) or alien (‘alienigena’ often abbreviated to ‘Al’)
7.2 Example of a port book entry
The example below is an entry from Chester port book, customer’s account of inwards traffic (E 190/1323/10):
PG [PG is the merchant’s mark] xii  July 1566 Patrick Garratt of Dublin merchant by Robert Brerewood his factor [agent] doth enter in the bark called The Jesus of Hilbre Master Thomas Queyntrie of the burthen of xiiii  tonnes or thereabouts ix C  sheep fells [sheep skins] @ vii s vi d [7s 6d] xxvi C  brook fells [badger skins] @ iiii s 4d conteined in three packes and two fardells [bundles]. xi s x d [11s 10d duty paid]. This same ship appears later in the outwards port book taking cloth, soap and coal back to Ireland.
7.3 Useful published sources for interpreting port books
The following books may help you to identify unfamiliar descriptions of goods and quantities occurring in the port books:
- R E Zupko, ‘A dictionary of English weights and measures’ (1968)
- S W Beck, ‘The draper’s dictionary’ (1886) [for textiles]
- N S Gras, ‘The early English customs system’ (1918) which includes the 1507 Book of rates listing commodities and duties payable
- A Millard, ‘Glossary of some unusual words in the London Port Books (imports) for certain years between 1588-1640’ (1960)
- A Millard, ‘Some useful weights and measures in the London Port Books’
- T S Willan (ed), ‘A Tudor book of rates (1962) for 1582’
- H Crouch, ‘A complete view of the British customs (1745)’ which lists rates of duty from 1660 onwards
8. Passengers listed in the port books
Names of passengers do not normally appear in the port books, but it is worth considering the following possibilities below.
- Before 1678 some passenger names are in the ‘Licences to pass beyond the seas’ which you can browse in E 157.
- If people had to pay duty on goods they were shipping, their names are sometimes in the port books. This applied to emigrants such as those travelling to America – you can find names in Peter Coldham’s Complete book of emigrants series.
- Traders are sometimes listed in port books. For instance a Weymouth port book (E 190/875/8) names 26 ‘planters’, sailing to New England in 1633, with a note that they had been allowed to export ‘diverse sorts of household stuff, apparell & other provisions’ to the value of £960 6s 8d, free of duty.
There is an index of ships, merchants and passengers to the American colonies whose names are recorded in the port books (mainly those of London and Bristol) for 1618-1668 available at The National Archives in Kew.
9. Trading activity shown in port books
The port books do not provide a full picture of trading activity because of smuggling, evasion and fraud.
However, they are still a vital source of evidence about the development of trade, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries.
They are particularly valuable for those periods when the customs were farmed out (1572-1588 and 1585-1590 for certain ports and generally after 1605).
When customs were farmed out, general accounts of the farm syndicates appear in the ‘declared accounts’ in E 351 and AO 1, but be aware that the summary totals for each port were not recorded on the ‘enrolled accounts’ in E 356.
10. Similar records before 1565
Exchequer records in E 122 contain details of duties paid at particular ports. They also include some accounts after 1565 and some subsidiary accounting documents (including cockets) into the 19th century.
The record descriptions include the name of the port and sometimes the names of customs officials, merchants and goods. They are dated by regnal year.
Click on E 122 and search using the name of the port.
Local accounts, sometimes also known as port books, may survive in local record offices. Find contact details for archives elsewhere using Find an archive.
11. Similar records after 1750
After the Board of Customs introduced its registers of imports and exports in 1696 (CUST 2-17 and CUST 22-37), the port books became effectively redundant and most ports had ceased sending them in by 1750.
The Customs outport letter books in CUST 50-102 are also sometimes misleadingly referred to as ‘port’ books but contain correspondence relating to the daily work of those ports, not duties paid on individual shipments.
They are more fully described in Carson’s Customs records as a source for historical research (see further reading below).
12. Further reading
- T S Willan, The English coasting trade 1600-1750 (Manchester 1938)
- N J Williams, The maritime trade of the East Anglian ports 1550-1590 (Oxford, 1988)
- R W K Hinton, The port books of Boston 1601-1640, Lincoln Record Society, vol L (1956), useful for understanding how the port books were compiled
- D M Woodward, ‘Port books’, Short guides to records No 22 (Historical Association, reprinted 1994)
- E Carson, ‘Customs records as a source for historical research’, Archives, vol XIII (1977-1978)
- R C Jarvis, ‘Sources for the history of ports’, Journal of transport history, vol III (1957-1958)
- R C Jarvis, ‘The archival history of the customs records’, Journal of the Society of Archivists, vol I (1955-1959)
- N J Williams, ‘The London port books’ in Transactions of the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, vol XVIII (1956)