A Fifteenth-Century Merchant in London and Kent: Thomas Walsingham (d.1457)
By Janet Clayton
Masters thesis, University of London, 2014
Introduction: In 1424 the London citizen and vintner Thomas Walsingham acquired the manor of Scadbury, then in the parish of Chislehurst in north-west Kent. The manor-house site and much of the associated estate still survives in Scadbury Park, now owned by the London Borough of Bromley. Thomas’ acquisition of Scadbury was important to the neighbourhood. The Walsinghams became the leading local family, living at Scadbury until the estate was sold in 1660; they were credited with turning Chislehurst into a desirable London suburb.
The Orpington and District Archaeological Society (ODAS) have excavated at Scadbury since 1986; in 2013 the moated site was designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It is therefore a good time to assess the estate’s first Walsingham owner. Why did he acquire a property in Kent – and what kind of career did he pursue in London?
The mercantile context in which Thomas Walsingham operated is relatively well understood. Sylvia Thrupp’s analysis of London merchants has shown how they lived and worked, and what they aspired to for their families. The way in which London merchants traded across Europe has been explored, and the trading activities of leading companies such as the Grocers and Mercers have been studied in depth. Where documentary evidence survives, it has proved possible to explore the careers of individual merchants such as Gilbert Maghfield and Richard Whittington, and to examine in depth the trade in specific commodities such as wool and wine.
London merchants traditionally went into business after apprenticeship in a craft and acceptance into that craft’s company or ‘mistery’. By the 15th century many merchants had moved beyond their initial company focus; they dealt in a wide range of products and were operating internationally. They might travel abroad or use factors to negotiate on their behalf; they might sell their goods directly to their customers, or to dealers who would handle onward distribution in London or further afield. Some were entrepreneurs, working with alien merchants and managing the import of raw materials such as iron, leather or dyes. Their outward trade was frequently the export to Europe of English wool, highly-valued for its quality, and – by the 15th century – of fine woollen cloth produced in England.