XXXX wars of the roses, “4 bow staves are

XXXX said that, “Britain was probably
self-sufficient in timber before 1600″1. However, concerns caused
an impetus for planting trees in the 16th century. The earliest
example being Lord Burghley’s Windsor park in 1580. Despite this, early records
of legal action to bring in safe supplies from elsewhere began in the reign on
King Edward IV in 1483, who ordered that as a result of the wars of the roses,
“4 bow staves are to be imported with every tun of merchandise”2. This was followed again
by Queen Elizabeth I in 1593, who enacted a policy of having two hundred
clapboards imported with every six tuns of beer exported3. Britain is therefore a
nation of historic importers. The argument however, that Britain could have
been reliant on its own timber is weak. Although planting of timber became
prevalent in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was
condemned by a government survey of 1791 which stated that timber in Wales was
“Not fit for the Navy”4. This was mostly because of
the choice to plant conifers rather than oak, however when a ship was built
with the timbers of the Duke of Atholl’s estate in 1820, “It was reckoned a
triumph”.5 This experiment was not
repeated, and increasing urbanisation placed a premium on agriculture rather
than silviculture. Initial government and naval reliance on Royal Forests as a
supply of timber in the early 17th century was a result of
reluctance to pay market price for timber, instead of a lack of timber being
imported. Whilst the Royal Navy complained of English shortage, “Britain’s
merchant marine almost trebled in size”6.  This illustrates a lack of money, not safely
available wood.

Historian H. Kent states that: “Greater suitability
of foreign wood for specific purposes, played their part in the demand for
foreign timber”7
and that “It may well have been found more advantageous to transport such a
bulky commodity by water.”8 In the 17th
century, the American colonies sent only small quantities of timber, and thus,
the “largest source of timber for the British market was Norway”.9 ‘Timber’10 accounted for one third
of real value imports from Norway,11. In London in 1795, 30%
of all vessels in port were owned by Norwegian timber merchants,12 and timber accounted for
the 2nd highest concentration of ships coming into the country. The
English trade deficit with Baltics was so severe, that in 1758 Norway had to
legalize the payment of taxes and duties in English coin.13

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British reliance on Baltic timber can
further be illustrated by the quantity imported for civilian purposes.
“Norwegian and Baltic timber was, so to speak, physically supporting British
XXX argues that, “The Great Rebuilding” after The Great Fire of London in 1688
was “Largely enabled by timber from Norway and the Baltics”.15 Studies also suggest a
strong correlation between fluctuating timber prices and variable building
cycles. In the case of the building of the National Gallery, £15,000 of the
total £60,000 costs were spent on timber, with 80% of it imported.16 Had the Baltic supply not
been available, it is arguable that London would have never been rebuilt after
the fire without substantial extra time and cost. The sheer mass of timber
required could never be procured from English shores, and colonial imports
would have multiplied the cost considerably. 

In 1648, the Thirty Years War17 ended, and consequently
allowed Dutch merchants to continue trading heavily in the Baltic region. So
much so, that between 1649 and 1651, English ships trading in the region halved18. Due to England importing
most naval and nautical supplies from the Baltics, this risked the country
becoming dependant on the Dutch, and could impede the English shipbuilding
industry. The Navigation Acts were passed by parliament in October 1651. These,
which were officially known as the First Navigation Ordnance19, were a direct result of
feelings of over reliance on imports from the Baltic which were subject to interference
by the Dutch. The laws dictated that goods could only be imported from their
original place of growth, and that they could only travel in English ships, or
those of the producing nation. The consequence of these protectionist laws, was
the First Anglo-Dutch War of 1652-1654. Another two wars followed in 1665-67
and 1672-74, which after much struggle England emerged as victor. In the words
of XXX, this demonstrated that “Britain’s naval power was such that any real
threats could be swiftly dealt with”20. This therefore shows
that although reliant, Britain could deal with weaknesses within the system.

The Dutch threat however, was by no means
the last time Britain would be under threat from lacking timber supplies. The
outbreak of the Great Northern War of 1720-21 where Russia and ally Sweden
reached into the eastern Baltic caused Queen Anne to pass laws in 1704 and 171321, with the intention of
encouraging timber imports from New England instead of the Baltic. This
directly demonstrates an impetus for change from the English statesmen, and
illustrated that although reliant on Baltic timber, Britain could turn to other
safe resources. In 1721, this initiative was compounded by the Naval Stores
Act, which abolished costly timber duties on all timber imported from the
American colonies. Although it is said this legislation had little significant
effect, the Atlantic trade kept shipping and seamen employed and thereby
strengthened British infrastructure. Following in 1765 was the American Timber
Act. This paid substantial bounties on imports of colonial timber, and aimed to
boost economic activity after the draining Seven Years War (1756-63). When other
trades were lacking, timber was a reliable standby for the colonies.22 Ralph Davies referred to
timber as “the salvation of shipowners” in the West-India trade.23 Although on the surface
this suggests that England was able to source its own resources, and that they
were not strongly reliant on the Baltics, the country still received an annual
1,700 middle-masts alone from Norway compared to less than 200 from the
transatlantic trade. By the end of 1783, Britain had lost its American colonies,
and even with over 100 new sawmills in Canada, imports remained less than 1% of
those from Europe.

Historians argue that it was not until
the early 19th century that safe and English controlled colonial imports
of timber were seen as a viable source of supply to replace the reliance on
Baltic trade. XXX states that in 1792, Canadian loads totalled only 2,660. Only
1% of the quantity from the Baltic. This is superseded by XXX, saying that “An
Act of 1810 doubled existing duties on foreign timber, and made the import of
Norwegian produce unprofitable”24 Thus, it was “largely
superseded by trade with the colonies”.25 Between 1816-1819, Canadian
timber loads increased from 10,500-188,300,26 largely as a result of a
275% levy raised on Baltic imports, and the removal of duties on colonial
imports. For the first time, Canadian imports overtook Norwegian27. Thus, it can be
generally said that before 1819 Britain was over reliant on Baltic timber.

However, it is possible to argue that
the benefits of colonial timber imports were identified over 100 years earlier.
XXX contrasts the argument of XXX, arguing that during the second Anglo Dutch Wars
in 1665, “The admiralty was quick to grasp the potential of New England’s great
white pines”.28
This is supported by a first-hand account of Samuel Pepys, undersecretary of
the British Admiralty, writing on December 3rd, 1666:

 “With everybody prophesying destruction of the
nation” – “There is also the very good news come of four New England ships come
home safe to Falmouth with masts for the King; which is a blessing mighty
unexpected, and without which, if for nothing else, we must have failed next
year. But god be praised for this good fortune, and send us a continuance of
his favour in other things.”29

account demonstrates that Britain was heavily importing timber from America during
the early years. The tone of his writing illustrates the importance of naval
masts in fighting a war with the Dutch that was started as a result of the Navigation
Acts and the pursuit of commercial dominance.  

The Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) posed a
threat to British reliance on Baltic timber imports in more way than one. Not
only did Britain have a dangerous neighbour in France, which was able to harass
shipping and endanger vital supplies, but Tsar Paul of Russia (a previously important
source of masts) created an armed league of nations against Britain in 1801. To
resolve the issue, Britain “Destroyed the joint Danish-Norwegian fleet”30. This proved dangerous
not only militarily, but also politically because Britain still relied on Norwegian
imports. Threat came again in 1807, when French and Russian vessels blockaded the
Baltic ports to English shipping, causing an immediate rise in cost of timber. The
Royal Navy destroyed the Danish fleet and bombarded Copenhagen into submission.31 Had the Royal Navy failed,
the supply chain would have not been able to sustain the needs of Britain’s
shipyards. The ferocity with which the government responded to these threats only
further demonstrates the severe state of reliance Britain had on the entire Baltic

            Many argue that the rise in
protectionist laws during the Napoleonic wars were the turning point with which
Britain moved to seriously considering alternative colonial imports of timber. In
1807 a 275% levy was placed on all Baltic imports, as well as the 1810 doubling
of duties on Baltic timber further.32 Although for the first
time colonial timber became more competitive to import, it can be argued that Britain’s
decision to protect her colonial trade “Was costly, and the gradual liberalization
of the 19th century shows that she did not have economic power to keep
it up.”33 Here, Hutchinson is referring
to the loosening of regulation and protectionism with regards to timber duties
and import laws. Arguably, this began even whilst protectionism was being strengthened,
as in 1808 Portugal was excluded from the restrictions of the navigation acts. This
meant that Britain was not fully committed to the laws that were originally
intended to protect its supply lines. Later, the 1820s brought a free trade
theory which began to be applied as the now victorious nation felt confident in
Europe34. In 1821, the Navigation
Acts were restrained so as to make Baltic imports again competitive. “In 1849,
the Navigation Acts were repealed”35. This lead to the
eventual removal of all timber duties in 1851 to form the first truly ‘Free Trade’
market. Kent refers to free trade as “the catchphrase of later time, but the
practice of the timber trade throughout the 18th century”.36 This illustrates that, in
a post-Napoleonic Europe, Britain could decide its own competitive sources of
materials. Although the country had ensured secure colonial imports at the turn
of the century, it no longer had need of them by 1850.

to the argument of British reliance, historian XXX illustrates that after a British
shift to American timber supplies, “The situation was dire for the Norwegian
and Baltic countries”37 and “many traders went
This suggests a foreign reliance on the British market, as much as the British
relied upon their imports and therefore shows that the Baltics could never risk
losing English trade and that fears of over reliance were evidently unnecessary
in the later years of the timeframe.

Ultimately, for most of the time between
1650 and 1850, Britain was embroiled in a politically and militarily complicated
worldwide timber trade which relied upon a small group of often belligerent
nations. It cannot be ignored that in 1652, Britain went to war over its decision
to protect the trade of Baltic timber. However, throughout the period, Canadian
and American imports continued to rise and develop a safe and sustainable trade
in vital supplies. Although Norwegian timber remained mostly cheaper, other
sources were available in times of need. The protectionist measures such as the
navigation acts, bounties under Queen Anne, and 275% duties on timber all developed
a safer and less reliant trading nation. As time went on, Britain adopted a
more laissez faire39 approach which, by
contemporary standards, was remarkably enlightened. As threats subsided, Britain
was at ease taking cheaper Baltic imports, in the safe knowledge that her
military prowess and colonial possessions would offer a safety net. The British
approach concentrated on volume and affordability, and put to rest to the many silvicultural
prophets, who repeatedly foretold the imminent ruin of a nation so lacking in

1 Ibid

2 12 Edward IV
cap. 2; 1 Richerd III cap. 11.

3 35 Elizabeth,
cap. 11

4 Linnard,
2000, p.153

5 Bowett A.,

6 Ibid.

7 Kent H.S.K., The Anglo-Norwegian Timber Trade in the
Eighteenth Century, The Economic History Review 8, 1955, p.62

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.


11 Kent
H.S.K., p. 63

12 House
of Commons Report from the Committee appointed to enquire into the best mode of
providing sufficient accommodation for the increased trade and shipping in the
port of London, 1796.

13 A.
Olsen, Danmark-Norge i det 18. Aarhundrede (Copenhagen, 1936), p.56, citing

14 Hutchinson R., The Norwegian and Baltic timber trade to
Britain 1780 – 1835 and its interconnections, Scandinavian Journal of History,
Vol. 37, Iss. 5, 2012, p.16


Hutchinson R., p.17

17 The Thirty Years’ War was a war fought primarily in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. The deadliest European religious war in history.

18 Davis, 1972, p.12

19 Bowett
A., Woods in British Furniture Making 1400-1900, An Illustrated Historical
Dictionary, Wetherby: Oblong Creative Ltd. In association with Royal Botanical
Gardens, Kew, 2012, p.12

20 Ibid.

21 3&4 Anne
cap. 10; 12 Anne Stat. 1 cap 9; 8 George 1 cap. 11.

22 Bowett A.,

23 Ibid.

24 Kent H.S.K.,
p. 73

25 Kent H.S.K.,
p. 74

26 Bowett A., p.13

27 Hutchinson R., p.21

28 The
New England Historical Society, Maine Timbers Shore Up the British Navy in 1666,

29 Pepys, Samuel, 1633-1703. The
Diary of Samuel Pepys. London: George Bell & Sons, 189399. Print., Dec.
3rd , 1666