Journey 6: Daniel Defoe
In the early years of the 18th century, Daniel Defoe travelled around the whole British Isles. As a spy, merchant and journalist, he knew the country better than most. He’d even travelled around it on the run from the law.
He wrote his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain to inspire his fellow countrymen and women. He saw this island as a land of opportunity, rather than the island of difficulties he created in Robinson Crusoe.
On leaving his beloved London, Defoe writes how the Thames had breached its banks at Dagenham. The resulting floods covered 5000 acres, took ten years to disappear and created a mudbank that almost blocked the river.
It could have been disastrous for London. But the government stepped in. Emergency measures mended the breach and kept the capital’s trade artery open – much to the relief of Defoe and others.
One way to make money in the early 18th century, according to Defoe and others, was to own land. It was also a sign that you were somebody.
Defoe himself owned a farmstead near Tilbury Fort. He must have been proud of his little corner of Essex as he never let it go, despite two bankruptcies and countless crises such as his factory going bust, and the tenants to whom he subletted fields suing him as a bad landlord.
Like much of Britain at the time, malaria was prevalent. Defoe calls it the ‘Essex ague’, and adds it to the list of reasons he gave against growing too fond of sport and idle pleasures.
Defoe was often full of such advice for those in business: don’t marry too young, play close attention to book-keeping, choose associates wisely…
Any tradesmen reading Defoe’s Tour would have been left in little doubt that a visit to this part of East Anglia would lead to malaria and death. Far better to stay in the shop.
Any source of wealth is of interest to Defoe. On reaching this stretch of coast, he mentions a lucrative material named ‘copperas’.Walton-on-the-Naze official website
In Defoe’s day, it was gathered by whole crowds of people and used in factories to make gunpowder, dyes, ink and sulphuric acid. It was a big industry, worth a lot of money, that’s now completely vanished – though the beach is still littered with iron pyrites to this day.
In his Tour, Defoe describes the road from London into East Anglia as being “most worn with wagons, carts and carriages. These roads were deep, in times of floods, dangerous and at other times in winter, scarce passable.”
He saw that improving them would boost trade. Heavy goods could be moved more easily, and wagons would get to market more quickly.
Stourbridge was the highlight of this part of Defoe’s travels. Indeed it was the reason he chose to start his nationwide journey in East Anglia.Stourbridge
This is because of its market. Stourbridge Fair, he felt, was the greatest market in the world. It was where Britain did business. The nation’s entire wool and hops trade was centred around this town. As Europe’s largest market, it put East Anglia on the map – and on the front page of Defoe’s tour.
Just 20 years before Defoe’s Tour, this part of Britain was battered by an infamous storm. 300 ships were sunk, and a staggering 8000 people killed.
Defoe wrote that the storm blew houses to the ground, flattened barns and windmills and toppled church spires.
Defoe claimed this coastline to be the most dangerous in Britain. He even had his fictional Robinson Crusoe being wrecked off East Anglia on his first voyage.
It was an important navigational point on a featureless coastline. Ships needed to come close enough to see it, but not so close as to be wrecked.
Even with today’s depth sounders and navigational aids, these are treacherous waters. In the 18th century, as hundreds of ships plied their trade up and down this coast, they would have been more so.
In Defoe’s day, Norwich was Britain’s second city.
The answer as to why it declined in importance is simple. East Anglia doesn’t have any coal. When the Industrial Revolution arrived, with its need for coal to fuel the mills, it took away all the jobs, factories and industries to the areas of Britain that did.
The aspects of East Anglia that Defoe most admired – productive land, high immigration and high employment – may have made it a logical choice for the first part of his grand tour, but they were to slip away in the years that followed.
Just as he was wrong in his choice of East Anglia as holding the key to future prosperity, Defoe was wrong in his belief that his travel writings would make him rich. After writing the Tour, more of his business schemes went badly wrong, and he was financially ruined all over again.
- Nicholas Crane