1. Port books, 1565-1799
The port books (in E 190) are locally-created records of customs duties paid on overseas trade between 1565 and 1799. For many ports they stop well before 1799.
For overseas trade, they record the issue of cockets (receipts) for payment of duty. For coastal trade, they record (at the port of unloading) the issue of the certificate that the cargo was not subject to duty, as not being overseas trade. Port books do not normally record the names of passengers, unless the ships were also shipping goods liable to duty - see below. A full account of the port books and how they were compiled is given in R W K Hinton, The Port Books of Boston 1601-1640, Lincoln Record Society, vol. L (1956).
Although some 20,000 port books have survived, many are in a poor state of preservation and there are many gaps. For example, there are no London port books for 1697-1799. For more details, see N J Williams, 'The London Port Books' in Transactions of the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, vol. XVIII (1956).
A number of port books have been published by local record societies. It is worth checking E L C Mullins's Texts and Calendars, 2 vols (Royal Historical Society, 1958, 1983, continued on www.hmc.gov.uk) to see what is in print before ordering original documents. Before 1600 many entries in the port books are in Latin - by 1660 most are in English. Lesser ports (in 16th-century terms), sometimes known as 'creeks' or 'havens', were grouped together under 'head ports', thus the returns for Liverpool, Beaumaris and Conway are found with those of the head port of Chester. An index of ports is available at The National Archives (pp. 564-566 of the E 190 paper series list).
Some certificates and related bonds pledging not to ship cargoes overseas are in E 209 (at present unlisted).
2. Different series of port books in E 190
Separate books were normally used to record overseas trade and coastal trade. Those listed as Overseas record both imports and exports. Those listed as Overseas Outwards record exports only.
There are also different series created by different types of local customs official -
- the Collector or Customer who had to make a return of all goods exported or imported and all moneys received, for which he issued a cocket (receipt);
- the Controller who had to make a similar return but did not receive the payments;
- and the Searcher, appointed to prevent fraud, who had to make an independent return based on his examination of the goods and also return a warrant that he had done so.
Exchequer officials could then check these returns (normally fair copies rather than the originals after 1700), warrants and cockets against each other. As a further check, Surveyors were appointed in the 17th century to check the work of the Searcher.
3. Entries in the port books
Entries normally include the date on which duty was paid (not the date of arrival or unloading); the name, tonnage and home port of the ship; the name of the ship's master; the ship's destination or port to which it was sailing next (false information was sometimes supplied, e.g. if a merchant was infringing the rights of a monopoly trading company); the names of the merchants (sometimes giving the merchant's mark) and whether they were aliens (aliens paid 25% higher duty); the cargoes they were shipping and the amount of duty paid, based on the official valuation as laid down in the Book of Rates, except for coastal trade books. Additional details are sometimes given, e.g. in the 18th century if the ship was British-built.
E 190/1323/10 - Chester port book - customer's account of inwards traffic.
PG [PG is the merchant's mark] xii  July 1566 Patrick Garratt of Dublin merchant by Robert Brerewood his factor [agent] doth enter in the bark called The Jesus of Hilbre Master Thomas Queyntrie of the burthen of xiiii  tonnes or thereabouts ix C  sheep fells [sheep skins] @ vii s vi d [7s 6d] xxvi C  brook fells [badger skins] @ iiii s 4d conteined in three packes and two fardells [bundles]. xi s x d [11s 10d duty paid ]. This same ship appears later in the outwards port book taking cloth, soap and coal back to Ireland
Many ships might bear the same name, so it is dangerous to assume that they necessarily refer to a particular vessel, even if the tonnage ('dolour'), often an approximation, and the name of the home port tally. The spelling of the names of foreign masters or merchants, given verbally, might be taken down wrongly or anglicised. Merchants and masters should be described as either a native ('indigenus', often abbreviated to 'Ind') or an alien ('alienigena' often abbreviated to 'Al').
There are a number of reference works that can be used to try and identify unfamiliar descriptions of goods and quantities occurring in these records - R E Zupko, A Dictionary of English Weights and Measures (1968); S W Beck's The Draper's Dictionary, for textiles; the 1507 Book of Rates, listing commodities and duties payable, published in N S B Gras, The Early English Customs System (1918) and A Millard's typescript 'Glossary of some unusual words in the London Port Books (imports) 1588-1640' and 'Some Useful Weights and Measures in the London Port Books', all of which are on open access. In the Office Library are T S Willan, ed., A Tudor Book of Rates (1962) for 1582, and H Crouch, A Complete View of the British Customs (1745) which lists rates of duty from 1660 on.
4. Passengers listed in the port books
Although the names of passengers are not normally given (before 1678 they may appear in the 'Licences to pass beyond the seas' in E 157), the names of those shipping goods on which duty had to be paid, some of whom were emigrants to America, may be recorded in the port books. There is an index of names of ships, merchants and passengers to the American colonies whose names are recorded in the port books (mainly those of London and Bristol) for 1618-1668 on open access. Some of those listed were clearly traders but one port book (E 190/875/8) specifically names 26 'planters', sailing to New England in 1633, with a note that they had been allowed to export 'diverse sorts of household stuff, apparell & other provisions' to the value of £960 6s 8d, free of duty.
5. Port books as evidence of trading activity
The Port books do not provide a full picture of trading activity because of smuggling, evasion and fraud. However, they are still a vital source of evidence about the development of trade, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries. They are particularly valuable for those periods when the customs were farmed out (1572-88 and 1585-90 for certain ports and generally after 1605). When the customs were farmed out, general accounts of the farm syndicates appear in the 'declared accounts' in E 351 and AO 1, but the summary totals for each port were not recorded on the 'enrolled accounts' in E 356.
6. Similar records before 1565
Earlier records of duties paid at particular ports are in E 122, which also includes some accounts after 1565 and some subsidiary accounting documents (including cockets) into the 19th century. Local accounts, sometimes also known as 'port books', may also survive in local record offices.
7. Similar records after 1750
After the Board of Customs introduced its registers of imports and exports in 1696 (CUST 2-17 CUST 22-37), the port books became effectively redundant and most ports had ceased sending them in by 1750. The Customs outport letter books in CUST 50-102 are also sometimes misleadingly referred to as 'port' books but contain correspondence relating to the daily work of those ports, not duties paid on individual shipments. They are more fully described in E Carson, 'Customs Records as a Source for Historical Research', Archives, vol. XIII (1977-78).
8. Further reading
T S Willan, The English Coasting Trade 1600-1750 (Manchester 1938)
R C Jarvis, 'Sources for the History of Ports', Journal of Transport History, vol. III (1957-58)
R C Jarvis, 'The Archival History of the Customs Records', Journal of the Society of Archivists, vol. I (1955-59)
N J Williams, The Maritime Trade of the East Anglian Ports 1550-1590 (Oxford, 1988)
D M Woodward, 'Port Books', Short Guides to Records No. 22 (Historical Association, reprinted 1994).