William Hill, William Jacob and the Salt Trade 1795-1808

Diana Crane reveals how two men dominated a boom in the salt trade on the Stroudwater Canal during the Napoleonic War.

Salt Trade on the Canal

Salt warehouse at Brimscombe (on right) 1978
Salt warehouse at Brimscombe (on right) 1978
Salt warehouse at Brimscombe (on right) 1978
Salt warehouse at Brimscombe (on right) 1978

‘A Scheme to make the River Stroudwater Navigable’, written in 1756, gives as a point in favour of the scheme that ‘Hereby the heavy Burden, which Land-carriage lays upon many of the Necessaries of Life, may be prevented, more especially on heavy Goods, such as Corn, Salt, Coals, &c.’ before listing twenty-two other trade categories ‘and many other Articles, too tedious to mention’.  The order in which the goods are listed emphasises the great importance of the trade in salt, which is prioritised even over coal; once steam power was introduced to Stroud in the 1800s, the order might perhaps have been reversed. The salt referred to here is common salt, which was needed in every community.  Quite apart from its importance in improving the taste of food, its antiseptic properties were appreciated and it was essential and used in large quantities for the preservation of food, especially meat, as well as being an essential food supplement for herbivorous livestock and for people eating a diet containing very little meat.  It was also used as a ‘manure’ or soil improver: the sodium in salt displaced potassium from potassium compounds and this could improve crop yields by up to 20% in the short term. The trade was taxed and was an important source of government revenue. The tax was applied at the source of production, but the cost was passed on to the consumer.  As with petrol and whiskey today, the tax was many times the cost of production and as salt was an essential for everyone, the cost was borne by the population at large.  The salt tax only ended in 1825, when the use of salt in industry had increased greatly.

The main source of salt traded on the canal was Droitwich, where salt was extracted by boiling water from saline wells, probably since Roman times, certainly from the mediaeval to early modern period.  Initially it was transported by pack animals in various directions on well-recognised ‘salt ways’: salt for London was taken over the Cotswolds to Lechlade and transferred to boats there.  By 1770, Brindley had upgraded the River Salwarpe to a canal, connecting Droitwich to the Severn, to Bristol and potentially onward by sea.  When the Stroudwater canal opened, salt could be loaded on ‘salt trows’ in Droitwich and brought directly via the Severn to the Stroudwater and, once the Thames and Severn Canal was completed in 1789, to Lechlade and on to London.  The first two cargoes of fine Droitwich white salt reached Lechlade in February 1790.  By 1793 cargoes were reaching the Upper Thames wharves in London.

William Hill

In the 1790s and early 1800s William Hill was by far and away the major importer of salt up the Stroudwater navigation: others brought smaller amounts to wharves up to Wallbridge but Hill carried 95% or more of the salt taken to Brimscombe.  Part of this cargo would be delivered to Cirencester, Cricklade and Lechlade and their environs: the bulk of the remainder probably went to London.

William Hill was a Cirencester man, described in 1791 as a wheelwright and salt merchant.  In addition to salt he also carried coal and other goods which we are not concerned with here.  He was baptised in Cirencester in March 1750, the son of William Hill.  In 1786, he married Sarah, the daughter of Edward Croome, by licence – both were living in the parish of Cirencester. The witnesses were Elizabeth Clutterbuck and Elizabeth Richardson – all parties signed the register in an educated hand.  The Croome and the Clutterbuck families were businessmen and property owners, so Hill was well connected.  In 1796 Hill was noted as a subscriber to Jones English system of book keeping, by double and single entry. Property owned by William Hill in 1807, at the end of the period we are interested in is listed as a house in Cirencester; property at the lower end of Dyer St; ‘tan pitts’ and premises bought from Robert and William Croome; a house in Quay Lane in Gloucester; Hill’s Wharf in Cricklade; 15 acres of arable land in Lechlade; a building used as a counting house in Droitwich with two pans used for making salt from the adjacent brine pit and the Fire Engine used for working the pans; premises at Nutshalling Hants and a piece of land used as a coal yard in Cricklade.  Hill was thus concerned in salt production as well as trading.

War Breaks Out

Salt trade on the Stroudwater Canal 1795-1808
Salt trade on the Stroudwater Canal 1795-1808
Salt trade on the Stroudwater Canal 1795-1808
Salt trade on the Stroudwater Canal 1795-1808

Tension between France and Britain had been rising steadily in the late 18th century and in 1799, war with Napoleon broke out.  This had a major deleterious effect on trade by sea: not only was there a risk of ships being taken by enemy vessels with loss of the cargo, the need to expand British naval forces dramatically led to a major recruitment of experienced sailors, along with conscription of the unemployed, sometimes forcibly by press gangs.  All of this greatly disturbed coastal shipping and enhanced the desirability of transporting cargoes by canal instead.  The graph shows the effect on the Stroudwater salt trade in the time of the most intense naval conflict on the European station.

In 1799, a new name appears for the first time in the salt trade to Brimscombe.  In 1799, William Jacob imported 40 tons, nothing in 1800, 176 tons in 1801, 95 in 1802, 93 in 1803 and then no more.  In themselves, these figures are not particularly impressive but a further investigation of William Jacob reveals a wider story.

William Jacob - Early Years

William Jacob must be one of the most interesting, active and accomplished men ever to have traded on the Stroudwater.  Apart from his trading activities, which extended far beyond salt, he was a scientist, a pioneer statistician and economist, a politician, an author, a civil servant and an agriculturalist, who lived a long and very active life.

William Jacob was born around 1762.  Little trace of his early life has been found, but William himself provides a single clue.  In his eighty ninth year, shortly before his death, he filled in his 1851 census return in an exemplary fashion, as befitted a man who pioneered the collection of national statistical information.  In this he gives his place of birth as Dorchester, Dorset. Examination of the baptismal records for Dorchester reveals that there were a number of Jacob families in the town and at least one other William of similar age but the family that best fits all the circumstances are John and Rebekkah Jacob whose son William was baptised on 4th May 1763 in the Pease Lane Presbyterian church in Dorchester, of which they were active members.  Their other surviving son John was baptised at the same church in 1761 and a sister Martha followed in 1764.   Dorchester at the time had an excellent endowed school open to all boys born in the town, which offered a good education up to the age of 16.  We cannot be sure he attended, but there may also have been non-conformist schools. The family’s nonconformity would explain the fact that William did not attend university.

Between 1790 and 1811, his elder brother John and William Jacob were known as warehousemen and linen merchants, trading from London. They had premises in Newgate Street and warehouses in Upper Thames Street.  In 1791 William was resident in the London parish of St Nicholas Coles Abbey, when he married Martha Stuckey in Langport.  His father-in-law Samuel was himself a trader before founding a bank for the convenience of his customers.  This proved very successful and eventually was one of the banks which merged to form the National Westminster Bank.  William Jacob’s family lived in London.  They had at least four children who survived to adulthood, Edward (1796), Lucy (1798), Elizabeth (1800) and Mary (1803).

William Jacob and the Salt Trade

The coming of war must have sharpened Jacob’s interest in trading to London by canal.  We know that he traded from the ‘Droitwich salt warehouse’, Upper Thames Street, c.1800-4.  This must have involved far greater quantities of salt than the relatively insignificant amounts he moved up the Stroudwater personally.  At the same time, William Hill was moving far greater quantities of salt up to Brimscombe than were needed to supply the hinterland of the canal.  It is likely that the salt was transhipped at Brimscombe, making use of the substantial and quite sophisticated salt store which still exists.  It has a central heating system to keep the salt dry – a tiled flue in the wall around the circumference was fed with hot air from a stove.  Salt stores were often erected at the merchant’s expense. While the Stroudwater archive can offer no evidence of what happened to the salt between Brimscombe and London, it seems very likely that Hill and Jacob were cooperating in moving the salt to London and disposing of it there.

The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 finally secured British naval dominance in European waters with improved safety for shipping by sea.  Trade to London by canal also had problems, particularly in the section between Lechlade and Abingdon where there were many different landowners and multiple tolls.  Once the danger to shipping at sea had diminished, salt import along the canal plummeted and the trade passed largely into other hands.

Trade had made William Jacob’s fortune and enabled him to marry well, but it was only one of his occupations.  His major interest was in statistics, understood at this time as the collection and analysis of information concerning the workings of the state.  Along with Malthus, the population theorist, and others, he was a member of the London Statistical Society.  He appears also to have been a valued colleague of William Huskisson.  Huskisson is now mainly remembered for his misfortune in being the first person to be killed by a passenger train, but he was in fact a prominent politician and the leading money theorist of his time. In 1806 he was Secretary to the Treasury and it may have been through his influence that William Jacob entered Parliament as member for Westbury in that year.  Jacob was a leading advocate of trade with South America.  In 1809, Hansard reports that he contributed to a debate on duties on salt: Mr. Jacob ‘entered into a chemical analysis of the nature of salt and shewed, that the slower the process of drying the salt the slower the evaporation, the stronger the salt , and, that of course, if the process by fire was contrived to be as gradual as that by the sun, he did not see that the salt made by the fire, might not be as serviceable as the foreign bay salt.’ At this time, he was also an Alderman of the city of London.

Disaster Strikes

Another reason for believing that William Hill and William Jacob may have been connected in trade is that both seem to have suffered a severe reversal of fortune in 1807.  In that year, William despatched three ships laden with cloth to South America.  In the ocean off Lima, Peru they were captured by the enemy.  The loss proved catastrophic to Jacob: in the aftermath he was accused though not apparently convicted of insurance fraud.  In the next few years, he travelled to Spain, where the British forces were gradually driving out the French, but he did not succeed in recouping his losses.  In 1811, he was declared bankrupt and retired from his positions as Alderman and MP.  He retreated to his country property on the Surrey/Kent border, to farm and pursue his other interests.

In 1807, William Hill mortgaged all of the property listed earlier in this article to Joseph Pitt for £7000. Until 1810, Hill continued to trade on the Stroudwater, carrying coal, copper and very modest amounts of salt.  In 1810, all of William Hill’s property in Cirencester, Cricklade, Lechlade and Gloucester was sold to William Cripps for five shillings and his name disappears from the tonnage records.  Thus ended the glory days of the London salt trade on the Stroudwater navigation.  


William Hill (junior) is listed as a Coal Merchant, The Wharf, Cirencester in 1822.  This may be our man, as his father was named William and his own son William was buried in Cirencester in 1808.  William died in 1823.  Much more could be written of William Jacob who lived on another forty very productive years, but none of this relates to the Stroudwater navigation.