Commerce, that is the buying and selling of things, is one of the oldest human social activities. Historically it covers a vast range of scale, from the open stalls in Halesworth’s medieval market place, selling homegrown produce and hand-made wares, to the shelves of the Rainbow supermarket brimming with choice, occupying several acres. Yet the same human qualities appear at all these levels; the choices to be made between two or more people vending the same objects, the different techniques of buyer and seller, the urge to make a keen profit, or snap up a bargain, and the bustle of the market place as a social milieu. The Bardwells and Scraggs also highlight the other activity of towns, namely making things. Both families were connected with the linen trade, Bardwell as seller and the Scraggs as dyers of locally made hempen cloth. The two groups, retailers and manufacturers, have been an integral part of Halesworth’s economy down to the present day. It is convenient to class them together as ‘traders’, who mediate between the taking of natural resources and the selling of goods made from them, to meet the needs and wants of their family customers.

In a national context, specialised traders had first emerged as townsfolk in the 13th century. Their aim was to satisfy an increasing and never ending demand for goods and service by people in the town’s immediate surroundings and within the town itself. These were needs that could not be met by the traditional intermittent retail outlets of fairs, markets and itinerant hawkers. In the last quarter of the 18th century, there was a massive expansion in the number of small shopkeepers listed in Halesworth’s trade directories, which from the early 1820s was associated with a widespread shift from the self-sufficiency of rural families towards a dependence on what has been called the ‘shopocracy’. This phenomenon, described as the ‘birth of plenty’, was driven by an ‘economic engine’ powered by the coming together during the 18th century of four basic factors;
  • secure property rights;
  • science applied to the mass manufacture of reliable goods;
  • local availability of bank capital;
  • improved transport and communication.

These were the necessary conditions for the 19th century revolutions in manufacturing and retailing, which forced Halesworth from a Suffolk backwater into the mainstream of East Anglian trade with the Metropolis.

Specialisation of labour was the transmission drive that increased the prosperity of artisans, and channelled power from manufacturers to the dynamics of the retail trade. The retail machine was fuelled by the rising purchasing power of families who were able to partake of the increased availability of cheap, mass-produced goods. Bankers emerged as individuals and partnerships from amongst those who had made good in trade, and lawyers appeared to address the legal matters associated with increased numbers of property owners, manufacturers and traders. Halesworth was a Mecca for these two new categories of middle class specialists, who established themselves in brick-built villas midst the timber-framed houses.

Evidence for the growing social diversity of market towns, and their underlying family dynamics, comes not only from the numerous trade directories that were published at this time, but is also quantified in census records, wills, newspapers and parish books. This information also illustrates the following important features of business development:
  • family businesses were relatively short-lived;
  • economic development was largely in the hands of people who were not natives;
  • dowries played an important part in financing and stabilising family businesses;
  • partnerships were a way of gathering a critical mass of capital and spreading the investment risk;
  • success was associated with innovations in production and marketing;
  • know-how was exported by emigration of individuals, who, in their turn, joined an expanding global quest for prosperity.