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Bolton Company letters

Call Number: MS 84


Letters from an English merchant and his company, William Bolton and Company (sometimes also Bolton, Darell and Morgan or Bolton, Morgan, & Co.) to his London associates (the merchants Robert, William, or Gyles Heysham). Regards imports and exports between Great Britain; Madeira, an island off the coast of Africa; and Portugal.


  • Creation: 1695 - 1711


Conditions Governing Access

No access restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

Spencer Library staff may determine use restrictions dependent on the physical condition of manuscript materials.

History of Madeira in the Early Modern Era

Madeira, 400 miles west of Africa, was colonized in the 15th century by the Portu­guese; thenceforth it was regarded as part of Portugal. Wine-grapes were introduced, including the Malmsey (Malvasia, Monembasia) vine from Crete. Henry IV Part I (1597) mentions Madeira wine; but it was little imported into England until the 1670s, when England pursued an intermittent tariff war on France by prohibiting French wines.

Trade between Portugal and England had been good--Portugal sending sugar from Brazil and fish from Newfoundland to England, in exchange for cloth and salt fish--and English merchants had settled in Portugal, where they were given special favors. But the English colonists in Barbados began to send sugar directly to England in the 1650s, and Portugal needed a substitute export. Cheap wines from Portugal were tried, and in the 1670s port began to be developed by the English merchants in Portugal. In 1703, during the War of the Spanish Succession, the Methuen Treaty gave Portuguese wines a tariff preference over French wines in return for a perpetual market for English cloth.

English merchants in Madeira had been allowed to export wine directly to England and her colonies since 1663; Madeira wines (not yet developed into the modern smoked and fortified Madeira) became moderately successful in England and--improved by long sea voyages--very successful in the American Colonies. The best Madeira was considered Malmsey.

At this time Madeira was a port-of-call: ships not trading with her stopped regularly for supplies and repairs, including the Barbados Fleet and the Plate Fleet from Brazil.

[Information for this history based on "The Wines of Portugal" by H. Warner Allen in Wines of the World, edited by A. Simon, 5th pr, 1972.]


.5 Linear Feet (1 document case) : 88 items containing 175 letters. Usually an item contains the original of the current letter, and copies of the last two letters sent. Since many letters are missing, only 20 copies are duplicates. Often a letter is written "as a diurnall" from day to day, perhaps covering a week or two; dates in the description reflect this. Items 3 and 80 contain 2 pieces each; the rest are only 1 sheet (1-4 pages). Items 32, 36, 72, and 77 are each incomplete in one sheet. Occasionally a small piece of text has been torn off; items 30-39 and 41 have been water-rotted, and large pieces of text are missing from most of the letters that they contain.

Language of Materials


Scope and Contents

According to the letters, Bolton imports cloth and grain from England; and furniture, clothes, leather, glass, and small manufactures. He exports to England and America wine and brandy and sugar-preserved fruit. He passes on to other markets goods Heysham has sent him that do not sell in Madeira; and he deals in Barbados sugar.

Bolton reports the merchant and military ships that call at or pass Madeira: their origin, destination, cargo, name, type, and captain; and news from the West Indies of shipping lost and battles. He orders specific quantities and types of cloth and specific items, and complains when shipments are rotten or will not sell.

Bolton additionally reports the state of the vintage, the quality and quantity of the wines, the market and probable price, the state of the weather and of the harvest, and the market for grain (undercut in later years by shipments from America). He lists bills forwarded and names the bankers they are drawn on and discusses insurance. He says little about the native Madeiran population or politics, although he is exiled temporarily in 1696 and must plead his case in Lisbon, Portugal. He makes provision for his relatives in England.

These seem to be letters received by Heysham and not retained copies; a few still have address and seal. Many hands appear, presumably those of clerks. Bolton signs himself "William Bolton" when he is writing on his "own account"; sometimes the letters refer to "our W.B." The first letter is written from Plymouth in 1695, giving plans for his Company; the rest are from Madeira or Lisbon. Bolton himself seems to return permanently to England in 1703.

There are additionally four items in the collection that are not letters from Bolton to a Heysham brother; these items are at the end of the collection.

Physical Location

MS 84

Custodial History

In 1926 Halliday, the Leicester booksellers, bought the papers of a country library among which were discovered these letters (then containing approximately 225 letters). They were bought and transcribed by Andre Simon, the oenologist, and then sold back to Halliday. [See Simon's autobiography By Request, pages 67, 162.]

The collection was bought by the University of Kansas from Hofmann-Freeman in 1969 with material that had been part of Halliday's stock, had passed to Dillon's, and thence to Hofmann-­Freeman.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Purchase, Hofmann-Freeman "Consignment I," June 1969.


Andre Simon, who transcribed many of the letters in the collection, published the first of two volumes on these letters: The Bolton Letters: The Letters of an English Merchant in Madeira, 1695-1714 volume 1: 1695-1700, London: T. Werner Laurie, 1928 (available at Spencer Research Library at B15303). The second volume, covering the later letters, was never published by Simons due to lack of demand. He gave the typescript to Graham Blandy, who produced The Bolton Letters: The Letters of an English Merchant in Madeira, 1695-1714 volume 2 in mimeographed form as a benefit for the Holy Trinity Church in Funchal, Madeira (available at Spencer Research Library at E2708).

The first volume contains 98 letters and introductory material regarding Bolton, the Heyshams, and wine. The second volume contains 127 letters, which have been numbered in pencil in Spencer Research Library's copy as 99-225. Throughout this finding aid, items described as "AS items" are noted with their numbers from these two volumes. The two publications include letters not in Spencer's collection and contain more complete information for some letters than is currently available in the Spencer letters, due to their deterioration. However, most published versions of the letters omit portions of the letters (sometimes extensive portions, including commercial and financial information or reports on shipping and wheat harvests). Additionally, some words or names appear to have been mis-transcribed. Some items in Spencer's holdings were not included in Simon's publications. This information is also noted throughout the finding aid.
Guide to the Bolton Company Collection
Bolton Company letters
Finding aid prepared by alh, February 20, 1973. Finding aid encoded by mwh, 2019.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Finding aid written in English.
Finding aid permalink
Preferred citation
Bolton Company letters, MS 84, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas

Repository Details

Part of the University of Kansas. Kenneth Spencer Research Library Repository

1450 Poplar Lane
Lawrence KS 66045-7616 United States