Great Grimsby


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer


1386John Newland
 William Elmsall
1388 (Feb.)Robert Burton
 William Paule
1388 (Sept.)Geoffrey Askeby
 Richard Barber
1390 (Jan.)Richard Misen
 Walter Slotheby
1390 (Nov.)
1391John Hesilden
 William Welle
1393Robert Burton
 John Kelby
1394Robert Burton
 Walter Slotheby
1395Robert Burton
 William Elmsall
1397 (Jan.)Robert Burton
 John Kelby
1397 (Sept.)
1399Walter Slotheby
 William Elmsall
1402Richard White II
 John Kelby
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)William Hosier
 John Miles
1406William Lele
 John Kelby
1407William Fosse
 Simon Grimsby II
1411William Fosse
 John Thoresby
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)Gilbert Keremond
 Richard Duffield
1414 (Apr.)
1414 (Nov.)Roger Dale
 Richard Duffield
1416 (Mar.)Roger Dale
 Gilbert Keremond
1416 (Oct.)
1420John Lufford
 Richard Duffield
1421 (May)Simon Elkyngton
 Roger Grainsby
1421 (Dec.)Roger Dale
 Richard Duffield

Main Article

Grimsby was first settled in about 866, when its natural advantages as a harbour were recognized by Scandinavian invaders.1 The 13th-century Lai d’Haveloc described the town’s mythical and aptly named founder, Grim, as a Dane who lived by fishing and selling salt. Indeed, these two closely connected means of livelihood were crucial to both the development and continued prosperity of the port. Its position at the mouth of the Humber made it possible for herring to be landed in good condition; and the proximity of so many local saltworks enabled the process of curing to be done quickly and cheaply. Although somewhat reduced by the later Middle Ages, the tolls levied on fish still yielded a substantial profit to the municipal authorities, who collected £12 5s. from this source in 1394-5, and almost £7 eight years later.

During the 12th century the soke of Grimsby (which covered a somewhat larger area than the borough) rendered an annual farm of £111 to the Crown; but by the date of their first royal charter, awarded in March 1201, the burgesses had achieved a strong and separate sense of community. This document confirmed them in possession of such liberties as were already enjoyed by the people of Northampton, and in a matter of days there followed a second charter allowing them to hold an annual fair of 15 days duration every spring. It was not, however, until 1227 that they obtained the right to account directly at the Exchequer for their own farm, which, in 1256, was fixed at £50 a year, the value of certain outlying lands having been deducted from the original sum. The farm was assigned as part of the dower of successive queens of England until, in 1319, it was granted to Edmund of Woodstock, earl of Kent, the youngest son of Edward I, and his heirs. The burgesses found it increasingly difficult to raise the money due each year, and by the 15th century they were blaming the farm as the chief cause of their economic problems. Yet, although the borough was certainly less prosperous than it had been two centuries before (when it ranked above Colchester, Yarmouth, Scarborough and 22 other English ports in terms of affluence), the main obstacle lay in the somewhat antiquated methods of assessment and collection employed by the municipal authorities rather than actual poverty.

Piracy and the obstruction of the haven by silting were also regarded as major causes of a decline which was further exacerbated by the transition from the longship to the roundship or cog (a vessel of deeper draught). The burgesses were certainly well aware of the need to maintain the haven in a navigable state, since their very survival was dependent upon Grimsby’s attraction as a port, not merely for coastal trade but also for merchants coming from as far afield as the Baltic, Flanders, Scandinavia and France. In 1255 and 1261, for example, Henry III made grants to the town for harbour works, paving and the erection of walls; and in 1341 a new dock was constructed on the northern edge of the town. Even so, ships began to find access increasingly difficult, with the result that in 1416 an assembly was held at which plans were agreed for extensive excavations and other improvements to the haven. Nothing was done, however, to put these schemes into effect, and a state of inertia (possibly compounded by lack of resources) seems to have continued throughout the century. Late medieval Grimsby has been described as ‘a small town growing poorer’, and although it is now impossible to gauge the extent of its decline there was certainly a noticeable falling off of population from about 2,000 in the late 13th century to less than half that figure 200 years later. By 1590 there were no more than 500 or so adults in the town.

Comparatively few of the residents of Grimsby were themselves fishermen, although most were involved in some way in the buying, selling or curing of catches brought into the port by others. Stringent rules regarding these transactions were enforced on the waterfront by quartermen whose task was to prevent forestalling and other commercial malpractices. Abuses of this kind by certain residents led to the issue in 1258 of a charter for the general regulation of trade in the borough, although leading merchants still tried to evade the rules where possible.2 In our period William Elmsall, William Paule and John Newland were each found guilty of forestalling large cargoes of herring before they had been put on the open market. By the late 14th century the regulations of 1258 tended, in fact, to be used by the richer members of the community as a weapon against those who refused to be enrolled as burgesses but who, none the less, encroached upon the latter’s commercial privileges. Many householders, anxious to escape the burden of official responsibilities which fell upon the burgesses, elected rather to pay a fine so that they might carry on their respective trades and occupations without interruption. At least 92 such individuals were living in the borough in the early 1390s, much to the annoyance of the authorities, who felt that some of them, at least, should take a fuller part in municipal affairs. It was at this time that the charter of 1258 was confirmed, presumably with the intention of preventing the non-burgesses from exploiting their position.

The first reference to the mayor of Grimsby occurs in 1218, but the office was probably much older. Mayoral elections involving all the burgesses were held annually in September, when two new bailiffs were chosen in the same relatively democratic fashion. The chamberlains then drew up a list of the 24 leading members of the community (who probably constituted a kind of town council), and they alone appointed the chamberlains, coroners, constables, auditors and common serjeant for the forthcoming year. The most important of the bailiffs’ duties was that of collecting the fee farm, which had to be made up out of their own pockets if necessary. Understandably enough, these two posts were filled with great difficulty, and considerable pressure had to be put on some individuals before they agreed to serve. The bailiffs had also to receive and account for escheats and the goods of felons, deal with visiting justices and preside over the borough court. The fact that litigants who failed to recover damages awarded to them by the court were free to sue the bailiffs for redress likewise contributed to the general unpopularity of the office. Matters of any significance in the borough, whether legal or administrative, were transacted at the court, which all the burgesses were obliged to attend twice a year. It was here too that the parliamentary elections were held by the mayor and bailiffs.

Grimsby first sent Members to the House of Commons in 1295, and did so regularly from then onwards. We know who sat for the borough in just 21 of the 32 Parliaments summoned over the years 1386 to 1421, the returns having been lost for the rest. Under these circumstances it is impossible to speak with any degree of certainty about the relative experience of the 24 men named in the surviving returns; but it appears that, on the whole, the electors of Grimsby preferred at least one of their two representatives to have some knowledge of the parliamentary scene. Although both men were apparent novices in 1390 (Jan.), 1404 (Oct.), 1407, 1413 (May) and 1421 (May), there is a strong possibility that some of them had already served in Parliaments for which we have no information. One newcomer evidently sat with a more experienced colleague on a further ten occasions, but lack of evidence again casts some doubt on these figures. We are on surer ground in stating that in six Parliaments, if not more, neither of the two Members was attending for the first time. On the whole, however, there seems to have been some reluctance on the part of the burgesses of Grimsby to shoulder the burden of parliamentary service, and only three instances of representative continuity occur during our period. Interestingly enough, Robert Burton, who was returned to all four of the Parliaments which met between 1393 and January 1397, had strong commercial connexions with London and may have been prepared to forgo the customary expenses for this reason. With a total of seven returns to his credit, Burton was by local standards a particularly experienced parliamentarian. His record was exceeded only by Richard Duffield, a lawyer who also had interests in the south, and who represented Grimsby at least 12 times over a period of 22 years. These two men are exceptional, for none of their colleagues were prepared to devote so much time or energy to affairs at Westminster. Disregarding the gaps in the returns, by far the largest group (12) appears to have sat only once, while a mere three were returned twice. Five men sat three times, and two (William Welle and John Kelby) four times. So far as we know, none of the Grimsby MPs ever represented another constituency: so each man sat in the rather low average of just over two Parliaments during his career.

Only one of the 24 Members (William Lele) remains unidentified, and, although some of the others now appear rather obscure figures, all had definite connexions with the borough. None were outsiders or placemen of the type returned under baronial pressure later in the century: indeed, many enjoyed considerable local influence.3 At least 13 of their number became mayors of Grimsby; and of these five discharged more than one term in office. William Fosse was the most outstanding, for he occupied the post no less than five times, being returned to Parliament in 1411 during his second mayoralty. Geoffrey Askeby likewise sat when mayor of Grimsby in 1383 (Oct.), William Welle in 1391, and Robert Burton in 1393. Not all the men who served as mayor had first been bailiffs of Grimsby, but most (nine) gained their initial experience of local government in this way. Only one individual (Richard Misen) was actually returned to Parliament while bailiff, however, and just two (William Elmsall and William Welle) served more than a single term. It is worth noting that of the 16 Members who held either or both of these appointments just over half did so before first entering the House of Commons. Clearly, a working knowledge of local affairs was expected of parliamentary candidates, even though some were still comparatively young men. At least two MPs discharged the duties of coroner of the liberty of Grimsby, and both represented the borough while in office—John Newland in 1386, and Walter Slotheby in 1390 (Jan.) and 1394, and perhaps also in 1399.

Because so many local records have been lost, we know the names of only a few of the borough chamberlains active during our period. Of these, John Kelby appears to have been the only parliamentary burgess, and he held office at the time of his return to the Winchester Parliament of 1393. The election of both the mayor and chamberlain to this seemingly unimportant Parliament was due not to local interest in any particular item of Commons’ business, but to the fact that the burgesses were then involved in a lawsuit with Sir Edmund Pierrepont and wanted to have two trustworthy representatives on hand who could be relied upon to raise influential support and expedite matters in the courts. How much these two Members allowed their attention to parliamentary business to waver may be gauged by the payment to them of expenses for two separate visits to Westminster during the course of the session.4 Although he did not hold any municipal office (besides being retained at 13s.4d. p.a. by the corporation of Grimsby), the lawyer, Richard Duffield, enjoyed the distinction of 38 years’ continuous service as clerk of the peace for Lindsey, a post which overlapped his parliamentary career. He also served on a royal commission for the collection of pavage, being one of the six Grimsby MPs who were called upon to act as crown commissioners or tax collectors at some point in their careers. Even here, however, such appointments were purely local in character, and Duffield was the only man whose official duties extended beyond the confines of the borough.

Most of the men here under review appear to have been general merchants trading along the east coast, although some, such as Robert Burton and William Elmsall, had interests overseas and were correspondingly richer. Both came under sentence of outlawry as a result of their defying the process of law, and we thus have some idea of their relative affluence. The goods of Burton were valued at £20 in 1380, and those of Elmsall at £66 13s.4d. six years later, so each had clearly done well for himself out of commerce. Elmsall owned at least two ships, and is known to have pursued ventures in Scotland and the south of England. His cargoes ranged from malt and coal to herring; and, like Burton, he made extensive grain shipments from Grimsby. Towards the end of his career Burton joined with Richard Barber in importing wine from Bordeaux, although their partnership failed because of mutual distrust. Trade with France and Flanders was important to merchants such as William Welle, who, like Simon Elkyngton and John Newland, dealt in a wide range of commodities. Both Roger Grainsby and Richard Misen were also shipowners, but their activities are not otherwise well documented. Only William Hosier appears to have specialized at all seriously in wool, but he too diversified his activities when the occasion arose and is known to have dealt in various kinds of fuel and fish as well. Men with sufficient capital to invest heavily in such an expensive commodity as wool were quite rare in Grimsby at this time; and most spread their resources widely. The local wool trade was, in fact, very modest indeed, and in 1402-3 the chamberlains received only 1s. for tolls on three carts used for transporting fleeces. Other trades and occupations include those of skinner (Walter Slotheby), goldsmith (John Kelby), and master mariner (William Paule). Both Richard White II and William Fosse appear to have been lawyers, albeit with considerably less influence than Richard Duffield. The latter, whose landed income exceeded £10 a year, would appear to have been the richest property owner to represent the borough during the period under review; and he alone lived outside Grimsby, on estates at Barton-on-Humber. At least five of his parliamentary colleagues also owned farmland in the surrounding area, but the majority confined their investments in property to Grimsby itself.

It is now impossible to tell who took part in the parliamentary elections held at Grimsby during our period, since even after 1406 (when the law required returns to be made in the form of an indenture attested by several of those present), the names of the two MPs and their mainpernors alone were recorded on the dorse of the writ of summons. Although we thus have no idea of the identity or size of the electorate, it seems unlikely that procedure differed very much from the later 15th century, when between 26 and 30 of the town’s leading burgesses were regularly involved in the elections. Contests between four or even seven candidates were then by no means unusual, but there may well have been rather less competition for seats during the early part of the century, especially as baronial interests were not then involved.5

Author: C.R.


  • 1. For a more detailed account of medieval Grimsby see E. Gillett, Grimsby, chaps. 1-4.
  • 2. CChR, 14-16.
  • 3. From the late 1440s onwards first John, Viscount Beaumont, and then Ralph, earl of Westmorland, exerted considerable pressure upon the townspeople for the return of their candidates. Westmorland, for example, instructed the mayor that ‘as well for the welle of youre seid towne as other speciale causys, I advise and hartely requyre you to send unto my hondes your wrytte directed for the electionne of the seid Burgessis, wheche I shall cause to be substauncially retoorned, and appoynt ij of my counsale to be Burgessis’ (HMC 14th Rep. VIII, 252).
  • 4. South Humberside RO, 1/600.
  • 5. Bull. IHR, xlii. 212-20.