The turn of 16th century in England started out with the expansion of exports and cities, the formidable rise of Martin Luther’s dissent, Leonardo da Vinci’s prolific sketches of the helicopter, and with the discovery of Pacific Ocean by Magellan. Although the world around them was by no means static, it seemed for the people of Burton that they were perched on the brink of new beginnings, where so much appeared and was attainable.
Besides the popularity of markets and fairs among the townspeople, the production of woollen cloth, primarily kersey, spiked their greatest interest. Since most of the inhabitants of Burton became clothiers by the second half of 16th century, the textile trade expanded immeasurably with the construction of two new fulling mills, built in the 1550s and 1574, supplementing the existing medieval one over River Trent.
The trade industry in Burton was principally dominated by large-scale investing families, notably the Lowes, Caldwalls, and Clerks (or Clarks), who had claimed to bring weavers and spinners into their large workshops and factories: in the 1580s, John Clerk insisted that his dye-house hired 300 people.
However, the success in the textile industry panned out to be a temporary one, and even the most industrialized cities in the mid 17th century could only watch out as the control of trade took a dramatic plunge in the global market. The fulling mills were jilted by the owners as all three halted the productions, and shortly thereafter small merchandising companies in the town set-off by diversifying their productions to felt hats and other lighter woollen textiles to match the growing demands of national industry.
When the antiquities legend, John Leland, visited the Burton town, presumably in the 1540s, he commented on the famous ornate works in alabaster. Although there is no complete historical evidence available, there is good reason to believe that Burton on Trent was an important centre, at least in the Staffordshire, for the production of intricately carved monuments throughout much of the Middle Ages, Tudor, and Stuart periods. In the early 1500s in Burton, Henry Harpur and William Moorecock were commissioned to receive £10 for the alabaster tombs of Henry Foljamb at Chesterfield (Derbyshire) and of Sir William Mathew at Llandaff (Glamorgan).
Other alabasters in Burton included Margery Walker and her son-in-law, Richard Parker, who had set up shop in Horninglow street in the early 1530s and had a far-reaching business: their most notified works include the tombs of the 1st earl of Rutland at Bottesford (Leicestershire), Sir Thomas Bromley at Wroxeter (Shropshire), and Sir John Vernon at Clifton Campville. The Royleys soon took over Parker’s workshop after his death and produced substandard quality tombs for George and John Shirley at Breedon-on-the-Hill (Leicestershire) in 1585, and that of Sir Humphrey Bradbourne’s at Ashbourne (Derbyshire) in 1581. The deteriorating industry was temporarily rescued by the arrival of a Dutch carver, Garrett Hollemans, and his son, Joseph (or Jasper) in the late 16th century. However, by 1675, Burton was obscured by Nottingham as the chief centre for alabaster works.
One of the most prominent events to occur in Burton’s history was the opening of Trent Navigation as far as Burton in 1712, as directed by the Act of Parliament in 1698. This not only provided the town with an indispensable link to Midlands and East coast ports but also broadcasted the long-awaited surge in the town’s economic growth. Burton’s wharf became a major port as it began to receive large quantities of Baltic timber and iron bars, as well as London goods such as cheese, butter, and hardware. This connection imparted an excellent opportunity for Burton brewers to develop a high-profit generating system of trade, whereby Burton merchants exported their pale ale and beer upstream to London and Hull, and to as far as Russia.
Improved communications prompted a new metalworking industry in the parish town with the conversion of previously abandoned fulling mills into water-powered forges at Burton in 1720 by an ironmonger, Thomas Seal. Thomas Thornewill of Thornewill & Warham Ltd. founded a spade manufacturing factory in New Street in 1751. By 1755, he had leased out a struggling corn mill over at Dove in Stretton and converted it into a forge to manufacture iron for Burton’s industry. After his death, Thornewill’s descendants converted the forge at New Street into a foundry and also expanded the property to open engine shops. Later in 1849, the company concentrated the business to manufacturing engines and locomotives for collieries and brewers.
Seeing the environmental conditions of late 16th century Burton, historians have reflected on the destitute state of its residents, and the crumbling, shabby buildings that were in desperate need of repairs. Even though there were no significant new buildings till the late 17th century, there were still at least two notable inn houses in High street: the George on the east side (mentioned in 1573) and the Crown on the west side (1619). By 1660s, as the country was run down by the economic depression, there was an increase in the impoverishment of the townsfolk of Burton, but no more than that recorded in any other town of Staffordshire.
In 1779, a territorial organization of local municipal commissioners was founded under which came the responsibilities of planning, repairing, and monitoring the streets, lighting, and drains. This body became the basis of what was to become a municipal borough in 1878 after the physical expansion of Burton in the early 19th century.
Since the time of 1255, when the Crown had acknowledged the jurisdiction of abbot at Burton, Branston, Horninglow, and Stretton, his powers kept extending to the point that in 1468, the King granted him the authority to act as the justice of the peace and the coroner as the bailiff. Later, these powers were passed down to the Paget family when they acquired the Burton manor in 1546. Throughout the years of Reformation, Burton lacked a crucial group of deep pocketed merchants and gentry who could invest in the local skills. Overall, the reduction in cloth-work industry, coupled with the decline in iron manufacturing and the lack of self-government, did little to boost the economy of the thriving borough.