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The Saltpetre-Man

In a book said to be an address by Lord Coke at Norwich Assizes in 1607, there is printed a "Discoverie of the Abuses and Corruptions of Officers". Part of this was reprinted in the Victorian journal 'Notes And Queries,' in 1853. One of the officers referred to is the "Salt-peter-man", which generated some correspondence as to this officers role. The following is extracted:


16 April 1853
Turning over some old books recently, my attention was strongly drawn to the following:

"The Lord Coke, his Speech and Charge, with a Discoverie of the Abuses and Corruptions of Officers. 8vo. Lond. N.Butter, 1607."
The following officer is unknown in the present day, I give his character in extenso:
"There is also a Salt-peter-man, whose commission is not to break up any man's house or ground without leave. And not to deale with any house, but such as is unused for any necessarie imployment by the owner. And not to digge in any place without leaving it smooth and levell: in such case as he found it. This Salt-peter-man under shew of his authoritie, though being no more than is specified, will make plaine and simple people beleeve, that hee will without their leave breake up the floore of their dwelling house, unlesse they will compound with him to the contrary. Any such fellow, if you can meete with all, let his misdemenor be presented, that he may be taught better to understand his office: For by their abuse the country is oftentimes troubled."
I ask for a further reference to "The Salt-peter-man."


30 April 1853
Saltpetre-man. - An explanation of this title may be found in a proclamation of King Charles I (1625):

"For the Maintaining and Increasing of the Salt-petre Mines of England, for the Necessary and Important Manufacture of Gunpowder."
This proclamation states:
"That our realm naturally yields sufficient mines of saltpetre without depending on foreign parts; wherefore, for the future, no dovehouse shall be paved with stones, bricks, nor boards, lime, sand, nor gravel, nor any other thing whereby the growth and increase of the mine and saltpetre may be hindered or impaired; but the proprietors shall suffer the ground floors thereof, as also all stables where horses stand, to lie open with good and mellow earth, apt to breed increase of the said mine. And that none deny or hinder any saltpetre-man, lawfully deputed thereto, from digging, taking, or working any ground which by commission may be taken and wrought for saltpetre. Neither shall any constable, or other officer, neglect to furnish any such saltpetre-man with convenient carriages, that the King's service suffer not. Non shall bribe any saltpetre-man for the sparing or forbearing of any ground fit to be wrought for saltpetre," &c.;
It would appear that the saltpetre-man abused his authority, and that the people suffered a good deal of annoyance from the manner in which this absurd system was carried out; for two years afterwards we find that another proclamation was published by the King, notifying, "that the practice of making saltpetre in England by digging up the floors of dwelling-houses, &c.; &c.;, tended too much to the grievance of his loving subjects . . . that not withstanding all the trouble, not one third part of the saltpetre required could be furnished." It proceeds to state that Sir John Brooke and Thomas Russell, Esq., had proposed a new method of manufacturing the article, and that an exclusive patent had been granted to them. The King then commands his subjects in London and Westminster, that after notice given, they "carefully keep in proper vessels all human urine throughout the year, and as much of that of beasts as can be saved." This appeared to fail; for at the end of the same year, the "stable" monarch proclaimed a return to the old method, giving a commission to the Duke of Buckingham, and some others, to ". . . . break open . . . . and work for saltpetre," as might be found requisite; and in 1634 a further proclamation was issued renewing the old ones, but excepting the houses, stables, &c.; of persons of quality.
During the Commonwealth the nuisance was finally got rid of; for an act was passed in 1656, directing that "none shall dig within the houses, &c.; of any person without their leave first obtained.

BROCTUNA. Bury,Lancashire.

J.O. treats The Lord Coke, his Speech and Charge, with a Discoverie of the Abuses and Corruptions of Officers, 8vo. London: N.Butter, 1607, as a genuine document; but it is not so; and lest the error should gain ground, the following account of the book, from the Preface, by Lord Coke, to the seventh part of his Reports, is subjoined:

"And little do I esteem an uncharitable and malicious practice in publishing of an erroneous and illspelled pamphlet under the name Pricket(*), and dedicating it to my singular good lord and father-in-law, The Earl of Exeter, as a charge given to the assizes holden at the city of Norwich, 4th August, 1606, which I protest was not only published without my privity, but (besides the omissions of divers principal matters) that there is no one period therein expressed in that sort and sense that I delivered: wherein it is worthy of observation, how their expectation (of scandalizing me) was wholy deceived; for behold the catastrophe! Such of the readers as were learned in the laws, finding not only gross errors and absurdities on laws, but palpable mistakings in the very words of art, and the whole context of that rude and ragged style wholly disonant (the subject being legal) from a lawyers dialect, concluded that inimiens et iniquus homo superseminavit zizania in medin tritici, the other discreet and indifferent readers, out of sense and reason, found out the same conclusion, both in respect of the vanity of the phrase, and for that I, publishing about the same time one of my commentaries, would, if I had intended the publication of any such matter, have done it myself, and not to have suffered any of my works pass under the name of Pricket; and so tinu vece conclamaverunt omnes, that it was a shameful and shameless practice, and the author thereof to be a wicked and malicious falsary."

J.G. Exon.

(*) No doubt the author of an ultra-Protestant poem entitled Times Anatomie, made by Robert Prickett, a Souldier. Imprinted, 1606.

7 May 1853
Your correspondent J.O. asks for information of his notes respecting the "salt-peter-man," so quaintly described by Lord Coke as a troublesome person. Before the discovery and importation of rough nitre from the East Indies, the supply of that very important ingredient in the manufactury of gunpowder was vey inadequate to the quantity required; and this country having in the early part of the seventeenth century to depend almost entirely upon its own resources. Charles I issued a proclamation in 1627, which set forth that the saltpetre makers were never able to furnish the realm with a third part of the saltpetre required, especially in time of war. The proclamation had reference to a patent that had been granted in 1625 to Sir John Brooke and Thomas Russel, for making saltpetre by a new invention, which gave them power to collect the animal fluids (ordered by the same proclamation to be preserved by families for this purpose), once in twenty-four hours in summer, and in forty-eight hours in winter. This royal proclamation was very obnoxious and inconvenient to the good people of England, increased as it was by the power granted to the saltpetre makers to dig up the floors of all dove-houses, stables, cellars, &c.;, for the purpose of carrying away the earth, the proprietors being at the same time prohibited from laying such floors with anything but "mellow earth," that greater facility might be given them. This power, in the hands of men likely to be appointed to fulfil such duties, was no doubt subject to much abuse for the purpose of extortion, making, as Lord Coke states, "simple people believe that hee (the salt-peter-man) will, without their leave, breake up the floore of their dwelling-house, unless they will compound with him to the contrary." The new and uncertain process for obtaining the constituents of nitre having failed to answer the purpose for which the patent was granted, an act was passed in 1656, forbidding the saltpetre makers to dig in house or lands without leave of the owner: and this is the point to which the learned commentator of the law, in his Discoverie of the Abuses and Corruption of Officers, alluded, when "any such fellowe if you can meete with all, let his misdemenor be presented, that he may be taught better to understand his office." In england, up to about the period when these curious acts of parliament were passed, the right of all soil impregnated with animal matter was claimed by the crown for this peculiar purpose; and in France the rubbish of old houses, earth from stables, slaughter-houses, and all refuse places, was considered to belong to the Government, till 1778, when a similar edict, to relieve the people from the annoyances of the saltpetre makers, was made.

I.DECK. Cambridge.

28 May 1853
The Statute against monopolies (21 Jac.I.c.3.) contains a clause (sec. 10.) That its provisions should not extend to any commission grant or letters patent theretofore made, or thereafter to be made, of, for, or concerning the digging, making or compounding of saltpetre or gunpowder, which were to be of the like force and effect, and no other, as if that act had never been made.
In the famous "Remonstrance of the State of the Kingdom" agreed upon by the House of Commons in November, 1641, there is special allusion to the vexation and oppression of the subject by purveyors, clerks of the market, and saltpetre men. (Parliamentary History, x. 67.)
Shortly afterwards was passed an act (which obtained the royal assent) giving liberty for importing gunpowder and saltpetre, and for making of gunpowder. The preamble asserts that the importation of gunpowder from foreign parts had of late times been against law prohibited, and the making thereof within this realm ingrossed; whereby the price of gunpowder had been excessively raised, many powder works decayed, this kingdom very much weakened and endangered, the merchants thereof much damnified, many mariners and others taken prisoners and brought into miserable captivity and slavery, many ships taken by Turkish and other pirates, and many other inconveniences had from thence ensued, and more were likely to ensue, if not timely prevented. (17 Car.I.c.21.)
Lord Clarendon, in reviewing the various "important laws" of the Long Parliament to which the king assented, makes the following observations with reference to this particular act:

" 'An Act for the free making Saltpetre and Gunpowder within the Kingdom:' which was a part of the prerogative; but not only considerable, as it restrained that precious and dangerous commodity from vulgar hands; but, as in truth it brought a considerable revenue to the crown, and more to those whom the crown gratified and obliged by that license. The pretence for this exemption was 'the unjustifiable proceeding of those (or of inferior persons qualified by them) who had been trusted in that employment,' by whom it cannot be denied, many men suffered: but the true reason was, that thereby they might be sure to have in readiness a good stock in that commodity, against the time their occasions should call upon them." - History of Rebellion, book iii.
On the 3rd April, 1644, the Lords and Commons passed an ordinance for the making of saltpetre, &c.; This was grounded in the following allegations:
"1. The great expence of gunpowder, occasioned by the then war within his Majesty's dominions, had well near consumed the old store, and did exhaust the magazines so fast, that without a larger supply, the navy forts and the land armies could not be furnished.
"2. Foreign saltpetre was not in equal goodness with that of our country, and the foreign gunpowder far worse conditioned and less forcible than that which is made in England.
"3. Divers foreign estates had of late prohibited the exportation of salt-peter and gunpowder out of their own dominions and countries, so that there could be but little hope or future expectation of any peter or powder to be brought into this kingdom, as in former times, which would enforce us to make use of our own materials."
From these circumstances, it was held most necessary that the digging of saltpetre and making of gunpowder should by all fit means be encouraged, at that time when it so much concerned the public safety; nevertheless, to prevent the reviving of thoses oppressions and exactions exercised upon the people, under the colourable authority of commissions granted to salt-peter-man; which burden had been eased since the sitting of that Parliament. To the end there might not be any pretence to interrupt the work, it was ordained that the committee of safety, their factors, workmen, and servants, should have power and authority (within prescribed hours) to search and dig for saltpetre in all pigeon-houses, stables cellars, vaults, empty warehouses, and other outhouses, yards, and places likely to afford that earth.
The salt-peter-men were to level the ground and repair damage done by them; or might be compelled to do so by the deputy-lieutenants, justices of the peace, or committees of parliament.
The salt-peter-men were also empowered to take carts, by the known officers, for carriage of the liquor, vessels, and other utensils, from place to place, at specified prices, and under limitations as to weight and distance; and they were freed from taxes and tolls for carriages used about their works, and empowered to take outhouses, &c.;, for their workhouses, making satisfaction to the owners.
This ordinance was to continue for two years, from 25th March, 1644.
An ordinance of a similar character was passed 9th February, 1652, to be in force till 25th March, 1656 (Scobell, 231.).
By an act of the Lord Protector and Parliament, made in 1656, it was enacted that no person or persons should dig within the houses or lands of any person or persons of the commonwealth for the finding of saltpetre, nor take the carriages of any person or persons for the carrying of their materials or vessels, without leave first obtained or had. (Scobell, 377.) This is the act referred to by BROCTUNA ("N&Q;," 30 April 1853), and by my friend MR. ISAIAH DECK ("N&Q;," 7 May 1853), though I am not certain that MR. DECK'S inference be correct, that this act was passed in consequence of the new and uncertain process for obtaining the constituents of nitre having failed; and it is quite clear that Lord Coke could not have referred to this act. The enactment referred to is introduced by way of proviso in an act allowing exportation of goods of English manufacture (inter alia, of gunpowder, when the price did not exceed 5l. per cwt.).
Allow me, in connexion with this subject, to refer to Cullum's History of Hawsted, 1st edition pp.150. and 151., also to the statute 1 Jac.II.c.8.s.3., by which persons obtaining any letters patent for the sole making or importing gunpowder are subjected to the pains and penalties of praemunire.

C.H.COOPER. Cambridge.