1600, Thomas Watkyns petitions from prison about corruption in Bristol

Petition of Thomas Watkyns. SP 12/274 f. 85 (1600)

[marginalia: The copie of customes her majestie is deceived of / Agaynst Master Dowtes the customer of Bristoll]

To the right honorable lordes of her majesties most honorable privie counsell and the righte honorable Sir Roberte Cecill secretary to the Quenes most excellent majestie

Your honnors poore petitioner Thomas Watkyns being nowe laide in prison for the space of this halfe yeere and more and there yet remayneth by the cruelest customer her highnes hath by reason I have taken her highnes parte in revealinge of great abuses offered to her majesties highenes by the saide customer [illegible] in his sinister dealinge in his office of customershipp in Bristoll as here after ensueth in this booke craveing but justice at your honnours handes againste the saide customer


Report by Lesley Scott-Stapleton

Master Dowtes turns out to be John Dowles (or Dowlie) who in 1593 obtained, with the support of the mayor and aldermen of Bristol, Robert Cecil’s permission (as Secretary of State) to take over the position of Customer Inward from his near relative,[i] William Hulbert (or Hubberte).[ii] The position of ‘Customer’ was a form of ‘tax farming’, where individuals, in exchange for paying a regular sum to the government, held rights to extract certain customs dues, taxes, fees, etc. Here Dowles was authorised to collect import duties on goods coming into the port of Bristol, which even done lawfully should have been quite lucrative for such a major port.

Disputes between merchants and with the Customers were probably not that unusual. William Hulbert is mentioned in a case where a quantity of raw indigo was seized and believed sold in lieu of a disputed customs charge.[iii]  Thomas Watkyns, who became a clerk to John Dowles seems to have been apprenticed as a draper for eight years from 1576; in the Bristol Apprentice Rolls, he is listed as being a master to apprentices from 1586. In his petitions, Watkins states that he owned a shop in which he is assumed to have traded as a draper until May 1594 when he became a clerk for Dowles.[iv]

In the first of his petitions in 1598,[v] Watkyns recounts events of the preceding year, starting with his suspicions of Dowles’ refusal to verify his accounts. When Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset required a copy of the accounts made out from Watkyns’ books, Dowles seized them by threats and then manipulated circumstances to have Watkyns arrested and imprisoned for debt. Lord Buckhurst’s interest assumedly having been satisfied, Watkyns must have been released from the debt, however he continues in his position, either because Dowles has a hold upon him, or because he has no means to return to his former trade.

The abuses and fraud on Dowles’ part clearly continue, and in 1600, probably using the same mechanism of debt, Watkyns is again imprisoned. In a new petition,[vi] he sets out a series of examples of the Revenue being defrauded, plus accusations of outright evasion.

No more is heard until 1604, when a stern warning letter is sent to John Whitson, the mayor (and sometime MP) of Bristol,[vii] that Dowles must be investigated. The mayor is spared on account of ‘the present sickness and mortality’ in the city from being issued a warrant necessitating his attendance in parliament.[viii] No further information about Thomas Watkyns has come to light, but Dowles is recorded as still being Customer Inward in 1637.[ix]


[i] ‘The Hulbert One-Name Study’, https://hulbert.one-name.net/intro/discussions/speculations-and-mysteries/william-hulbert-customer-of-bristol-who-was-he/

[ii] ‘Queen Elizabeth – Volume 245: May 1593’, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Elizabeth, 1591-94, ed. Mary Anne Everett Green (London, 1867), pp. 346-352. British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/edw-eliz/1591-4/pp346-352 .

[iii] Jean Vanes (ed), Documents Illustrating the Overseas Trade of Bristol in the Sixteenth Century (1979), p.52, https://www.bristol.ac.uk/Depts/History/bristolrecordsociety/publications/brs31.pdf.

[iv] Oliver Dunn, The Petitions of Thomas Watkyns against Customer John Dowle 1598 – 1600, p.3, http://www.bristol.ac.uk/Depts/History/Maritime/Sources/2006dunn. pdf.

[v] ‘Queen Elizabeth – Volume 267: May 1598’, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Elizabeth, 1598-1601, ed. Mary Anne Everett Green (London, 1869), pp. 45-59. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/edw-eliz/1598-1601/pp45-59.

[vi] Jens Engberg, ‘Royalist finances during the English Civil War 1642–1646’, Scandinavian Economic History Review, 14:2, pp. 73-96 (1966), p. 65,  https://doi.org/10.1080/03585522.1966.10407649.

[vii] John Whitson, also sometime MP for Bristol, ‘List of Mayors and Lord Mayors of Bristol’, https://www.bristol.gov.uk/documents/20182/138093/Bristol+Mayors+from+1216.pdf/1f34b6f6-efa2-452b-bea6-8d2f2bc301c0

[viii] ‘House of Commons Journal Volume 1: 26 April 1604’, in Journal of the House of Commons: Volume 1, 1547-1629 (London, 1802), pp. 185-187. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/commons-jrnl/vol1/pp185-187.

[ix] Joe Beveridge, Assess the Political Stance of Bristol Merchants during the Constitutional Struggles of the late 1620s (2011), p. 27, http://www.bristol.ac.uk/history/media/docs/ug-dissertations/2011beveridge.pdf.

This report is part of a series on ‘Petitioners in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, 1600-1625’, created through a U3A Shared Learning Project on ‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’.