THE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL FRAMEWORK 1500-1600
This period in Dartfords history marks the gradual change from an underdeveloped agricultural market town economy to an economy where trade, commerce and industry became increasingly important.
Dartford was one of nearly 700 market towns in England. These towns traditionally depended on agriculture and trading for their prosperity. Dartford was more fortunate than many other similar towns because it was relatively close to London and was sufficiently far from other Kentish market towns not to have to compete for trade and marketing opportunities.
Dartfords population did not grow significantly between 1500 and 1600. Across England generally the population remained low for two centuries after the Black Death. The period 1500-1600 was one of instability and inflation causing poverty and sometimes homelessness for a large number of ordinary labourers and unskilled workers.
There were those in around Dartford who profited from inflation, especially those who owned land and had surplus produce to sell in the market. The wealth of Dartfords gentry and yeoman farmers rose rapidly. They were able to invest in properties, land and luxury goods, which gave them a strong position in community life and community affairs.
Inflation caused food prices and land rents to rise, resulting in a decline in the value of wages. By 1600 food cost an average five times as much as they had in 1500; the cost of living rose by over 350%. Ordinary townspeople who did not own land or property found expenses rising and income falling.
There was growing concern nationally and locally about the number of beggars and paupers roaming the streets of towns like Dartford. A series of Tudor Poor Laws were enacted between 1531 and 1601 in an attempt to deal with the problem. Plague, poverty, crime and religious intolerance caused tension in the life of the town.
FAME AND IDENTITY
Dartfords traditional role as a stopping-place for pilgrims ceased with the Reformation and the abolition of pilgrimages. This had a significant impact on the local economy. The dissolution of Dartford Priory also robbed Dartford of an important source of status and prestige. Fortunately, the decision by Henry VIII to build one of his royal manor houses at Dartford brought the town once again under the spotlight.
Dartfords geographical position and natural resources attracted a number of leading entrepreneur industrialists to establish pioneering new industries in the area. Sir Martin Frobishers smelting works, Sir John Spilmans paper mill, Godfrey Boxs iron-slitting mill, and other less prominent manufacturies created a mini industrial revolution at a time when many other similar towns were still relied on an agriculturally based economy.
The period 1600-1800 witnessed many social and economic changes in and around Dartford. Local identity was weakened by the greater geographical mobility of the local population as transport and communications improved. The growing dominance of London and the London market brought new ideas and expectations to the town, as well as new economic opportunities. The increasing dominance of central government and the growth of local government meant that local life was increasingly dominated by new laws and methods of administration.
The role of the church in Dartford diminished considerably during the period as secular-based bodies and institutions played an increasing role in the day-to-day running of the town. The local gentry established a strong position for themselves in local politics and in their role as philanthropists and benefactors. The quality of life for everyone except the poor improved considerably during this period. Society remained divided into three main groupings - the rich, the middle-classes and the poor.
Dartfords economy consolidated between 1600 and 1800. Transport improvements, including the construction of proper roads and the introduction of stage-coach services, opened up new markets for local traders and merchants, encouraging the development of a network of local and regional trade. This was the age of commerce and commercialisation. The prosperity and confidence of Dartfords gentry, merchants, and middle-classes fuelled changes in both living standards and cultural life.
Increased traffic through Dartford brought its own challenges and problems, not least the call for the introduction of improvements to facilitate the passage of carts, stage-coaches and pedestrians. Parts of the town were re-paved, the town bridge was strengthened, and structures like the old Market House were demolished to enlarge the public highway.
Urbanisation and an increasingly mobile population brought additional problems including a rise in the number of beggars, paupers and criminals. Responsibility for addressing and resolving these entrenched problems fell on the parish vestry and the ratepayers. The construction of a Bridewell (prison) and a workhouse in Dartford showed that the local authorities were prepared to tackle the problems head-on.
Opportunities for self-improvement were very limited. Little provision was made for the systematic education of local children. Surprisingly little effort was made to improve the health, hygiene and welfare of the local people. Large areas of 18th century Dartford were characterised by poor housing, lack of proper sanitation and a general air of squalor.
Dartford 1600-1800 was a strange web of contrasts, extremes and contradictions. Whilst some aspects of life changed beyond recognition, others remained almost the same as they had been in 1500. In 1801, the towns population had only reached 2,406. There was still a great deal of dependence on agriculture and the marketing of agricultural produce. These traditional bulwarks of the local economy co-existed alongside the seeds of industrialisation that would transform Dartfords economy in the nineteenth century.