Trinity and the Lester-Garland House

After our recent introduction to the rebuilding of the Lester-Garland house at Trinity, I thought that I would try to find out more about its history and the role of Trinity in the Poole/ Newfoundland trade.

Trinity harbour lies on the north east coast of Newfoundland, at the northern end of the so-called ‘English shore’ once favoured by ships from England coming to fish for the summer. The explorer and entrepreneur, Sir Richard Whitbourne described it in the early 17th century as ideal as a fishing area: ‘It hath three Armes or Rivers, long or large enough for many hundred sail of Ships to moare at Anchor neere a mile from the Harbours mouth; close adjoyning to the Rivers side, and within the Harbour is much open land, well stored with grasse sufficient, Winter and Summer, to maintaine a great store of ordinary catell, besides Hogs and Goats, if such beastes were carried thither.’ At first, the harbour was used only by migratory fishermen with settlers arriving later in the 17th century. During the 1696 – 1713 war with France, Poole fishing ships started coming regularly to Trinity Harbour and in the early 18th century, most new settlers in Trinity came from Poole and nearby.

Among these were the Taverners, an influential Poole / Newfoundland family, who had lived at Bay de Verde, but relocated to Trinity after losses at the hands of the French. Brothers William and Jacob Taverner settled on the west side of Trinity harbour while another brother, Abraham, returned to Poole where he set up as a merchant. Their sister Mary married the Poole Quaker Samuel White, who became a leading Newfoundland merchant. After only a few years, William Taverner also left for Poole and became a merchant, later carrying out surveys of the Newfoundland coast under a commission from the Government. His daughter Sarah married John Masters, son of another Poole / Newfoundland family who had worked his way up in the trade. Another of William’s daughters, Rachel, married Francis Lester, a prosperous Poole cooper who was also making the transition to merchant. Meanwhile Jacob Taverner raised his family in Trinity, many of his sons becoming planters and seamen.

A selective family tree

It was a time of great opportunity in Newfoundland. In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht ceded the whole island to England, although the French were allowed to fish around the northern part of the coast. Aided by William Taverner’s surveys, new fishing areas were being opened up and the trade was expanding. The merchants needed trusted agents to act for them across the Atlantic and in the European markets, and here family alliances could be invaluable. They were also useful for placing sons in good positions to learn the trade.

Benjamin Lester, a younger son of Francis and Rachel, went out to Newfoundland as a teenager to work for John Masters, his uncle by marriage. For the next 30 years he was based there, usually returning to Poole in the winter, sometimes over-wintering on the island. At first he acted as an agent for Masters and his partner, Michael Ballard, and then went into business with his elder brother Isaac, Benjamin handling the Newfoundland end and Isaac the Poole end of the trade. The fact that Benjamin’s great uncle, Jacob Taverner was probably the most important settler in Trinity must have helped him to establish himself. A closer tie was created when Benjamin married Jacob’s daughter (and his mother’s cousin), Susannah.

In 1748, Jacob transferred a property at Trinity to the young couple by deed of gift. Set on a rocky rise within a small bay, it overlooked the stores, stages and fish processing areas on the shore below. Over the next decade or so, Benjamin and Susannah had six children and the business prospered and expanded to include sealing, trapping for furs and ship and boat building as well as the supply of salt cod and cod liver oil. The Lester fleet of ships were busy crossing between Poole and Newfoundland, the West Indies and the Mediterranean. At Trinity, Benjamin Lester was at the heart of business empire, sending out cargos and receiving supplies from overseas and in constant touch with his agents and servants in the out-ports of Newfoundland.

Ships, stores, stages and fish drying, Trinity Harbour

The Seven Years War meant further conflict with the French and in 1762 they attacked Newfoundland, capturing St. John’s and other settlements including Trinity. The story goes that Benjamin Lester managed to reduce the destruction by inviting the French Admiral de Terney to dinner and securing a promise that his property would be spared. The following day when the French toured the settlement, it turned out that just about all the property belonged to Mr. Lester. The truth, as Benjamin’s diary shows, was slightly different. The fort at the harbour entrance and many of the fishing boats and stages were destroyed and provisions were seized from the settlers, but the losses were probably less because of his lead. He persuaded the French admiral to allow some of the stages to be dismantled rather than burnt to avoid the risk of a conflagration. In the peace treaty of 1763, the English rights in Newfoundland were confirmed.

The Lester house, stores and stages at Trinity

It was shortly after the French invasion that Benjamin decided to rebuild his Trinity house in a more modern style. In England Isaac was building himself a country house, Post Green, at Lytchett Minster and the two houses on either side of the Atlantic had a passing resemblance to each other. The Trinity house was a two storey Georgian mansion with a central porch, built of bricks shipped across from England on stone foundations. In a country of wooden buildings it must have made a great impression. The house can be seen in the background of a painting of the Lester establishment at Trinity. Alongside the house, was a counting house which Benjamin extended as a shop and office, and which is now possibly the oldest wooden building in the province.

The Lester mansion house, Thames Street

In 1770, only a few years after completing his house, Benjamin decided to return to Poole on a permanent basis, leaving Thomas Stone as his agent in Trinity. It must have been a big change for the family. In 1776, Isaac had his old house in Thames Street demolished and employed John Swetland to build a grand mansion more in keeping with the family position. When he died in 1778 it was left to Benjamin to complete the project. Benjamin also took over the business and succeeded to a prominent position in the town, serving as Mayor and Poole’s M.P. and becoming a consultant to the Government of all matters to do with Newfoundland.

Benjamin Lester

Benjamin’s one surviving son, John, had poor health and no children to succeed him which cast a shadow over the future of the business. However Benjamin found an able successor in his son-in-law, George Garland, a corn factor and keen businessman who had married his daughter Amy in 1779. George and Amy had eleven children including eight sons who were sent out by their father to learn different elements of the Newfoundland trade. In his will, Benjamin arranged that if his son John died, most of his property in Poole should be inherited by his eldest Garland grandson, Benjamin Lester Garland on the understanding that he would take the Lester surname. Most of the Newfoundland business was to go to George Garland.

When Benjamin Lester died in 1802, the family firm was the largest trading company in Newfoundland and he owned more property there than any one else. In Trinity alone he owned 5 fishing rooms, 23 houses including the Trinity mansion house, a farm and shipyard plus land and property in numerous other settlements. The value of the Lester fleet of vessels was put at over £100.000. In Poole he owned the Thames Street Mansion House, a farm and cottage at Stanley Green, a mansion at Lytchett, the Antelope Inn, wharves, warehouses, coopers’ shops, a lumber yard, an iron yard and many houses throughout the town. Benjamin died just before his son John was knighted by George III for giving a loyal speech on the conclusion of a (short lived) peace with France. In 1805, John Lester died in Bath where he had gone for the sake of his health.

George and Amy Garland

The company was now in the hands of George Garland who ran it very profitably during the last decade of the Napoleonic Wars. He never visited Newfoundland but kept on top of developments, modernising the company fleet of ships. These were boom years with little competition and high fish prices, but George realised that the wartime conditions would not last and prepared for a strategic withdrawal. When the peace came in 1815, there was a slump in fish prices and in the trade as a whole. George began gradually disposing of ships and and reducing the company’s commitment on the island by selling off some premises and restricting credit to the planters. With sons to provide for, he invested in property, buying the Stone Cottage estate at Wimborne and Leeson House at Langton Matravers. He also followed his father-in-law in becoming Poole’s M.P.

George’s eldest son, Benjamin Lester Lester (as he was now called) had inherited sufficient wealth to make a profession unnecessary and was more convivial than commercial by nature. This served him well when he in turn entered Parliament as Poole’s representative. Many of the other sons worked in branches of the Newfoundland trade including John Bingley Garland and George Garland junior. After working in Lisbon for the company of Hart, Garland and Robinson, these two younger sons were sent out to Newfoundland by their father in 1819 to check on the business. They were to work in both Newfoundland and Poole until the 1830s.

The refurbished house

By 1819 it was 50 years since one of the company proprietors had lived in the Trinity house. During that time it had probably been used by Lester and Garland agents and as a business headquarters but it is likely that the building was rather run down. Over the next couple of years, John Bingley Garland refurbished the house by raising it to 3 storeys at the front and replacing the roof. The Garland brothers also built an Anglican church, St. Paul’s, on the site of the previous parish church built by their great grandfather, Jacob Taverner.

John Bingley Garland

The Garlands shared dominance of the trade in Trinity with William Kelson, agent for the Poole merchant, Robert Slade. Most of the leading planters and professionals were allied with one or other of the two companies and most of the workers and tradesmen were employed by them, receiving their supplies on credit and paying in fish. When George Garland senior died in 1825 as the result of a road accident, this part of the business came to John Bingley and George junior. Times were changing and the Garlands saw the advantage of Newfoundland deciding its own affairs. In England their brother Benjamin Lester Lester and their business partner G.R. Robinson (both of them M.P.s) lobbied the British Government for a representative body for the island. When Newfoundland’s first general election was held in 1832, John Bingley Garland was back on the island and stood for election in Trinity. The following year he became the first Speaker of the Newfoundland House of Assembly.

The reconstructed house

Later in the decade, the Garlands returned to Poole, cutting the direct link with Trinity although they retained an interest in the trade through the company of Robinson, Brooking and Garland. Trinity continued as a centre for the fish trade with several merchants operating there. In 1905, the Garland premises were bought by the Ryan brothers who ran a successful general merchandise business until 1947 when the decline of the salt cod trade caused them to shut down. The Trinity house fell into disrepair and was taken down in the 1960s leaving only the ruins of the two gable walls. However, as we know, the story had a happy ending when the house was reconstructed in 1996-7. It is now a museum and education centre promoting the historic links between Newfoundland and the West of England.

A brief video of the interior can be seen here:


Main sources: Beamish, Derek et al, Mansions and Merchants of Poole and Dorset. Poole Historical Trust 1976 / Handcock, Gordon, The Story of Trinity. Trinity Historical Society. / Handcock, Gordon, Soe Longe as there comes noe Woman. Breakwater 1989







The Pirates are Back

Here is an event that might be worth visiting if you are near the Quay. Tomorrow, Sunday 30th June, Pirates, Castaways and Codfish are back at Scaplen’s Court when Poole Bay Rotary stages the final event of this year’s Poole Maritime Festival. Aimed at individuals and families, there will be a host of events throughout the day including crafts, an exhibition and presentation, storytelling, street theatre, sea shanties and 17th century refreshments! See the time table below.

Storytelling: 11.15am and 2.30pm – ‘Jane’ tells stories of the hardships of family life in Poole in the early 1600s. 20 mins approx – Upstairs in the small playroom

‘Mayhem at the Inn’: 12pm, 1.15pm and 3.15pm with the Scaplen’s Court Players – In May 1623 a pirate’s warning causes mayhem in the inn at Scaplen’s Court as seamen try to escape the king’s press. Who will be caught? 30 mins approx. – Ground floor in the kitchen

Build and decorate a pirate ship: 11.30am-1pm and 1.30pm-3pm – Craft workshops for parents and children. 2 sessions – Upstairs in the school room

Exhibition: Discover more about Poole’s history between 1580 and 1730    All day – Upstairs in the rear gallery

Sea Shanties: 12.30pm and 2pm – The Wareham Whalers will be conjuring up memories of life at sea with a medley of sea shanties. 30 mins approx – Upstairs in the Main Hall

Pirates, Castaways & Codfish: 11.15am and 2.30pm – Presentation on Poole’s maritime heritage 1580 -1730. 30 mins – Upstairs in Main Hall

Refreshments: 11.30am-3.30pm – Old Harry rock cakes, Jumbals (C17th biscuits), Honey Cake (C17th recipe); Tea/coffee/fruit juices. All day – Upstairs in Main Hall

Today’s event has been organised by Poole Bay Rotary Club. While entry is free,  any donations would be welcome.  (Suggested donation – £2 per adult)



Skinner Street URC’s Archive Preserved for Posterity

The 25th April 2019 was the culmination of 3 months of cataloguing the Skinner Street United Reformed Church’s precious archives, covering over 350 years of history. It was the date set for depositing the core of it with the Dorset History Centre, Dorchester for safekeeping. The Centre has about 8 miles of shelving in its vaults – plenty of room for the new collection – and just the right conditions to protect and preserve the records.

Tricia and Alan Knapp from the church, and Len Wigg and myself (the volunteer cataloguers), were greeted by the one of the archivists, Mark Forest, who guided Tricia and Alan through the process. Then we all had a tour of the impressive vaults and the technology in use.

Mark Forest (centre) and the Skinner Street archive volunteers

Len had been researching Longham Chapel for some time, having attended there in his childhood, when it was still a Congregational chapel. In fact, it was originally a daughter chapel of the Skinner Street Congregational Chapel. So he was delighted to discover new pieces of Longham Chapel’s history.

Some interesting items of expenditure on the new Meeting House

During the last 18 months, I have been transcribing existing digital images of Skinner Street Congregational Chapel records as a Poole Local History Centre volunteer. Cataloguing was new to me, but not to Len, fortunately. (He is one of the Christchurch Priory volunteer archivists.) Through assisting Len, I found more historically important documents to photograph and transcribe on behalf of the Local History Centre. The 1681 ‘Presentment [Complaint] against Samuel Hardy’ is an example, and was mentioned in an earlier article on this blog in March. There have been many others too. Some will feature in new blog articles and a new public presentation on the church in 2020.

So now the Dorset History Centre is the custodian of the most important of the church’s historical records. In addition, the digital cache of the church archive created by the Local History Centre in the 1990s has been enlarged. Some has been saved on its computer servers. The most historically important records are also available on the Poole History Online website.

The altruism of the Skinner Street church has ensured that the heritage of the Skinner Street URC is available to a wider audience than ever before as a result. I think it’s something of which the membership can be justly proud, alongside its continued support of many communities in Poole.

Len and I feel fortunate to have happened along at just the right moment to assist the church in this enterprise.

Kit Pearce

Tapping into Local Knowledge

One of the effects of having the blog out in the online sphere is that enquiries occasionally find their way to me, most of which turn out to be very interesting. Recently I have heard from an enquirer who has a photograph possibly taken in the Poole area. The name R. Pawle is written on the back and on the frame of the photograph which is quite big – about 14in X 11in. It might have been taken between the wars. The question is, does anyone recognise where it could have been taken and when? The little steamers are interesting and also the area at the foot of the cliffs which seems to have been levelled as a boatyard. The owner and / or photographer could have been Roger W D Pawle who died in Poole in 1979 after a career in the colonial service. Any answers?


Poole Illustrated Guide – 70 Years On

It was 1949 and Britain was near bankruptcy and still in the grip of rationing, food shortages, fuel shortages and a housing crisis but beginning to look forward to a more hopeful future. In Poole, the High Street firm of J. Looker Ltd. published the second edition of H.P. Smith’s Illustrated Guide to the Antiquities of Poole with special reference to the Old Town House (Scaplen’s Court) and the Historic Buildings on Poole Quay, price: 1/-. Seventy years on, I have received a copy of this publication for the Museum Society through the generosity of a lady in Essex who found it among her father’s papers. Looking through the guide it’s interesting to see what has changed, vanished or been forgotten in the course of the decades.

Damage 1923

The first part of the guide is devoted to Scaplen’s Court which H.P. Smith remembered as ‘a warren of squalid tenements, condemned as unfit for habitation by the Poole Medical Officer of Health’. In the early 1920s it was home to seven families. The High Street frontage had been faced with 9 inch thick brickwork and fitted with Georgian style windows, but a passage way from the front led through to a ‘quaint old-world courtyard’ hinting at a building of considerable age. Most of the internal features of the original building were hidden by 19th and 20th century alterations and partitions. In October 1923, a chimney stack crashed through the roof of the front block in a storm making it partly uninhabitable. On 1st and 2nd May 1924, H.P. Smith went over the building with the owner and made some amazing discoveries of ancient doorways, fireplaces and windows preserved behind brick, wood and plaster. The story of how he and others campaigned to save the building is well known. After more damage by the weather, it was finally acquired and opened as a museum in 1929.

Twenty years later in 1949, the High Street frontage of Scaplen’s Court was still a ruin and the lower hall resembled a courtyard open to the sky, giving a rather forlorn and very different appearance from today. Inside, however, there was plenty to see. The two rooms in the south west wing which are not currently on display were then part of the tour. The first one, called the solar, was notable for its fine open fireplace with carved jambs and its 15th century beamed ceiling. This room had once been a single–room tenement housing four adults. Beyond were ‘domestic quarters’ with a wattle and daub partition, a blocked door to the garden and steps down to the cellar, still in existence in 1949. H. P. Smith described it as an original feature of the house lined with brick in more recent times.

Many interesting items were on display throughout the house such as an old fireplace from the Ship Inn with quatre-foil decoration and several carved wooden heads from its hammer beam roof. Pieces of stonework, probably from the medieval church of St. James, included an alter stone with a cross, a decorated capital, the base of a stone stoup and a sandstone font base. These had been found around the town or dug up in the garden. In the upstairs ‘winter parlour’ with its fine beamed ceiling, a metal chest with painted panels, believed to be an Armada chest, was on display along with relics of the Newfoundland trade. These included a seaman’s chest, a seal hunting harpoon and paintings of old Poole ships. Other exhibits were Admiral W. H. Moore’s sea chest and figureheads of the brig Queen Charlotte, built in 1790 and the 1,000 ton timber ship Henry Duncan, which used to sail between Poole and Canada.

In the kitchen visitors could see the stone plaque of the old school in Thames Street, dating from June 1628 and the foundation stone of the corporation cellars at Hamworthy built in 1724. There was also ‘a valuable collection of early 19th century pamphlets’. Elsewhere was the base of the 18th century town beam, two lead pumps from the courtyards of old Poole houses and a notice board brought back from Cherbourg after D-Day with the legend ANKERN VERBOTEN (anchorage forbidden). There were also two old canon formerly used as gate-posts at the entrance to a yard on Poole Quay. A series of small objects found during restoration of the house were displayed in the solar including tobacco pipes, canon balls, wig-curlers, a medieval jug, coins and 18th century matches. No doubt many of these intriguing items are still in the Museum’s collections if no longer on display.

H.P. Smith believed that Scaplen’s Court was the ‘fair Toun House of stone by the Kay’, mentioned by John Leland in his description of Poole, the forerunner of the 1572 town hall in Castle Street. He may be right but as far as I know there is no specific evidence apart from the antiquity of the building.

St Pauls Church. The site was later occupied by Macdonalds.

The guide continues with a brief tour of historic sites on the Quay and through the old town which shows how many interesting buildings have vanished in 70 years. These include Robert Rogers’ almshouses in West Street dating from 1604 and George Garland’s almshouses at Hunger Hill, built in 1812. The house of William Skutt in High Street where Charles II dined in 1665, later the premises of Bacon and Curtis, has been replaced with a modern block. Number 1 Skinner Street, the home of the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, is long gone as is the old Hamworthy church, dedicated in 1826 and the classically-styled St. Paul’s church in High Street, built in 1833. The Quay pump, restored by the Society of Poole Men in 1929, with the inscription John Strong, Mayor 1810 is no longer on display. Another lost structure is the old powder house at Baiter, now reduced to its foundations. According to H.P. Smith this was built in 1756 with stone from ‘the ruins of the old Quay Porch which adjoined the Town Cellars’. It would be fascinating to know where this information comes from.

The most recent casualty is the town beam which blew down in storm Freya in March this year. H. P. Smith describes it in 1949 as dating from the 18th century and having been recently repaired by Mr. Alfred Burt of the local firm, Burt and Vick. The inscription on the plaque said that it was repaired in 1947 and if this was the last major repair, it stood on the Quay in all weathers for 72 years: a pretty good record. When at last the massive wood structure failed after nearly three quarters of a century, the event was caught on CCTV and broadcast on television the same evening. Hopefully the beam will soon be back in position.

What is more encouraging is the number of buildings mentioned in the guide which do survive, such as the cluster of buildings round the medieval Quay, Tudor properties around the town, the 17th century manor house at Hamworthy and examples of Georgian architecture including the Guildhall and six or seven fine mansions. In spite of post war clearance and massive change and development, H. P. Smith would probably still recognise his adoptive town.

The Illustrated Guide can be seen in the Poole History Centre.


Skinner Street Archives Update

In January, Kit Pearce introduced the work that is being done on the archives relating to Skinner Street United Reformed Church. His post brings us up to date with what has happened since, including the opening of a safe believed to have been locked for 50 years. It’s also a taster for Kit’s talk for the April meeting . . . .

Kit Pearce and Church Elder Tricia Knapp at work on some of the documents

After just over ten weeks Len Wigg and I have finished the sifting and sorting the Skinner Street United Reformed Church’s (SSURC) archive. Here are some highlights:

1681 Presentment against Rev. Samuel Hardy

Presentment against Samuel Hardy 1681

This contemporaneous copy of a legal ‘presentment’ (i.e. a complaint) is nearly 340 years old, and has been quoted in full by eminent local historians, such as Hutchens and Sydenham. It called for the non-conformist minister of St. James’ Parish Church to be removed, citing “the [seditious] preaching of one Samuell Hardy, an hired non-conformist preacher, who, for att least twelve yeares last past, hath made use of the church of ye said towne, as a conventicle, readeing little or none of ye litturgie of ye church of England.” (Following a further complaint, from Allen Skutt, he was ejected in 1682.)


Brief Abstract of Poole Case (1760) & Letter from Rev. Samuel Philipps to Martin Kemp (1765)

These are related documents, explaining the circumstances of Rev. Samuel Philipps’ ejection from the Great Presbyterian Meeting House, Hill Street, Poole and later his dismissal from the new Lagland Street Congregational Chapel. He insisted neither was justified on Scriptural grounds but did not prevail either time.

The Poole case and the Rev. Philipp’s letter

A Wide Range of Documents:

The diverse range of historical records cover many aspects of Church life over many generations, including church registers, newsletters and magazines, various orders of service (ordinations, funerals, VE Day etc), various church activities (Sunday school, youth clubs etc), annual reports and much more.

Images of historically important documents have been saved on the Local History Centre’s (LHC) server, some of which have been transcribed and uploaded to the Poole History Online website (including the three documents above), adding to those long since curated by the LHC.

Mark of Ashley Security drills the safe. Len Wigg looks on.

Opening a locked safe unopened for over 50 years!

Only one half of the safe has been opened so far, from which numerous bills of sale from the 1890s were recovered. The documents in the other half might contain the original constitution of the church, which would be over 250 years old.

Next steps

The contents of the locked safe

Documents to be donated to the Dorset History Centre have already been listed. Another list of everything that will remain in the Church’s archive will soon be complete. Our final article will feature finds in the unopened half of the safe and the donation of the Church’s documents to the Dorset History Centre.


Thank you to: Alan & Tricia Knapp of the Skinner Street URC Church, Len Wigg, Volunteer Archivist and Mark, Ashley Security Ltd, Poole

Kit Pearce, 4 March 2019


Contraband and Corruption

Late one night in March 1682 shipwright Charles Daw was awakened by strange noises in Poole High Street. Putting his head out of the window, he saw men manoeuvring bundles and barrels into the next door George Inn, now known as Scaplen’s Court. Clearly this was no legitimate operation. When the men spotted Daw watching they told him to shut the window and mind his own business. The bundles were tobacco, illicitly landed from the Robert of Poole whose captain, Robert Bennett was also keeper of the George. What is more, even while the contraband was being brought in, Bennett was in the George drinking with merchant William Orchard (co-owner of the cargo), Thomas Barney, Surveyor, Thomas Miller, Collector and John Emerson, Deputy Controller of Customs.

Scaplen’s Court, once the George Inn. The former Plume of Feathers is to the right.

This was one of many cases which came to light later that year in a survey by William Culliford into the conduct and integrity of the customs service. Culliford came from Encombe near Corfe Castle and knew the local ports well. In fact his father was a burgess of Poole and he himself a Poole Justice of the Peace. In his career with the customs service, he had become something of a specialist in rooting out corruption. He was therefore a natural choice by the Board of Commissioners of Customs for their investigation into the ports of the South West and Wales. By the time he arrived in Poole in July 1682, he had already carried out a survey of Bristol and ports in South Wales and Somerset, leaving a trail of dismissed officers behind him. The Poole merchants and customs men must have viewed his arrival with trepidation since, as soon became clear, they had plenty to hide.

Culliford was knowledgeable, energetic and not afraid of confrontation. He was also probably primed by the Commissioners about which officers were suspect. At Poole he found inefficiency, the reappointing of dismissed officers and connivance in fraud on a vast scale by merchants, ship-owners, masters and customs officers of all ranks. His main method of investigation was to use informants, many of them lower ranking customs officers. On arrival in Poole, he quickly identified William Vincent and Thomas Keeping as key witnesses. The two were employed as tidesmen whose job was to inspect the cargos of incoming and outgoing ships, search for concealed goods and make sure that nothing was unloaded illegally.

Vincent’s evidence revealed several examples of fraud involving tobacco from Virginia. Cargos from the colonies intended for re-export had first to be landed in an English port and the customs dues paid. If such goods were re-exported within a certain time, the merchants could apply for certificates known as debentures allowing them to reclaim most of the import dues. Vincent related how on 24th July he had witnessed 12 hogsheads of tobacco being secretly relanded from the David about to sail for St. Malo, and rolled into a cellar belonging to William Orchard, ‘which this informant offering to seize was beaten off by persons disguised and unknown’. William Orchard was a leading merchant, three times mayor of Poole. While pretending to export the tobacco, he had in effect imported it without paying customs duties.

In June, Thomas Keeping told Vincent that he had seen several hogsheads landed from the Claire, due to sail for Rotterdam with a cargo of Virginia tobacco. The next night, about midnight, Vincent also saw about 5 hogsheads landed from the Claire at William Orchard’s quay. Attempting to seize the goods he was driven off by men wearing ‘Vizard Maskes’. He said that he did not try to inform his superior, Thomas Barney because he had refused to search for run goods before and when making a seizure based on information supplied by Vincent ‘would never give this Informt one farthing for his pains, but have put the whole profitts in his own Pockett’. As a result of this testimony, Culliford went to the Custom House and put a stop to the payment of debentures for the Claire and the David.

Alley alongside the George

The case of the Robert was one of Culliford’s most telling pieces of evidence. The main witnesses were again William Vincent and Thomas Keeping, appointed tidesmen on board the ship. They related how they had been induced to leave the ship ‘upon the importunity of John Penny, the King’s Searcher, & the Master of the shipp who earnestly solicited this Informant to consent to the running some Tobacco, by giving this Informant severall hints, that Mr Barney was willing thereto . . & there was that night run out of her 17 hhds of Tobacco & severall Baggs and Bundles.’ Vincent and Keeping each received £2 for keeping silent. The next day more tobacco was brought round by boat, landed near the church and carried through the alleys to the back door of the George in broad daylight. With the inducement of backhanders and all-night drinking sessions, William Orchard and Robert Bennet were able to reland a large part of the cargo. They also claimed that some of the tobacco was damaged and not eligible for customs duties, even though it had not been inspected or certified.

Thomas Keeping and tidesman Robert Checkford described another corrupt device apparently used by Barney. At the end of each day on board a vessel unloading at the Quay Barney would demand the tidesmen’s books and then alter the figures and accounts ‘as he pleased himselfe’. He also often removed tidesmen from a ship and gave their books to others ‘that no perfect acc’t might be kept of the said shipp’s delivery’. Checkford described one occasion when the John was at the Quay, laden with linen and Barney ordered the hatches to be opened in the absence of Samuel Wetwang, the landwaiter appointed to the ship. He then called for 8 rolls of ‘broad Hanovers’ to be put in the Town Cellar and 15 more rolls to be loaded on to the Winchester Waggon ‘that drove away immediately’. None of the rolls was opened or examined.

Another with a tale to tell was mariner John Tombs. He described how the Vine ketch of Poole came into Studland Bay in September 1681 with a cargo of salt, wine and brandy. The Vine was owned by George Lewen, a partner of William Orchard. During the two days that the ketch was anchored in the bay, the customs smack was at Brownsea but did not approach the ship. Meanwhile, several tons of wine and brandy ‘upon Mr. Lewen’s acco’t’ were taken off by ‘Dragger boats’ belonging to John Thompson, Thomas Bennett and others and carried to Poole. As a seaman employed on the Vine, Tombs had helped to load some of the boats himself. The dragger boats were fishing boats built to operate drag nets and in Poole used extensively to run contraband. On other occasions the William of Poole and the Mary hoy came into the bay and unloaded their cargos into dragger boats ‘without any notice taken of it by the officers, who this inform’t cannot but believe must be privy thereto’.

Private jetties or ‘piles’ extending from Strand St. from a map c.1634

Unloading vessels before they reached the Quay seems to have been common practice, sometimes even in daylight. Goods were then brought to be unloaded at private quays or ‘the Piles in the Strand’. In February 1682, according to William Vincent’s account, Thomas Barney and Dudley Hopper, master of the customs smack, were sailing to Brownsea and passed within a stone’s throw of three boats deep laden with wine without seizing them although they must have seen them as it was bright moonlit night. Later that year, Vincent saw the John at anchor against Brownsea Quay. Between 10 and 11 pm., more than 20 packets of cloth were unloaded into 2 boats and brought to Poole. Vincent informed Thomas Barney of the incident and also that he believed the goods belonged to Mr. John Carter, one of the magistrates of Poole, but Barney never searched for the goods.

Culliford ordered that any dragger boats found to contain smuggled goods should be seized and condemned and ‘openly & publickly to be burnt upon the Key . . . this being in my Judgement the most Effectuall way to affright them from persisting in their accustomed trade of delivering (with these Dragger boats) a whole shipp’s loading in a night’.

Two members of the customs smack crew, mate Edward Cummings and seaman William Jordan had more information to disclose about Dudley Hopper. One incident ocurred in June 1681 when a ketch came into Swanage Bay and Hooper sent some men on board where they found many anchors of wine and bales of goods without proper documentation. Hooper threatened to take the vessel in to Brownsea but the master offered him £5 instead. The men were sent to search an incoming collier and when then got back, they found Hooper and his wife in the cabin with the captain of the ketch and heard ‘some money Gingle upon the Table’. Hooper said that the master had now satisfied him and so left the ship. The informants described Dudley Hopper as ‘a very carelesse, negligent man & is seldome sober, when he is any where that he can come at drink.’ He was also believed to have pilfered various items from the smack including rope, tallow, a musket, tongs, a boat hook and a water bucket.

The old cottage on the corner of Carter’s Lane probably belonged to John Carter

Another local man believed to be involved in smuggling was John Carter, merchant,shipowner, former mayor and magistrate. He owned several properties in the High Street, near the corner of what is still called Carter’s Lane, and some of his premises were said to contain secret stores where run goods could be hidden. He was also believed to use the Baiter windmill and its stables to hide contraband before it was moved inland. To deter curiosity and intimidate the customs men, he employed ‘men armed with Clubbs and Swords, Vizards on their faces’ when moving goods through the streets of Poole. It is likely that Carter had inside information about the progress of the enquiry. When Culliford carried out a raid on Carter’s property many hiding places were discovered but no illicit goods.

Replica of the king’s beam or scales

As a result of Culliford’s findings procedures were tightened up. For instance he ordered that both landwaiters and the King’s searcher should ‘attend the king’s beam & take an exact acct of all tobacco weighed for export, with the particular marks and numbers thereof’. The custom house was relocated to a better position with a view of the Quay. Culliford also protested against the re-employment of John Willie, a former Collector of Customs dismissed for fraud. Willie was acting as Deputy Customer although as a magistrate he could not officially serve as a customs officer.

Thomas Barney, John Emerson and Dudley Hopper were dismissed from the service. Others were rewarded for the information they had provided. Thomas Keeping and William Vincent were judged basically honest and allowed to keep their posts but were dismissed a couple of years later. Robert Daw was appointed as a tidesman and later became the landlord of the Plume of Feathers, next door to the George Inn. John Tombs was made assistant boatman to Robert Corbin, the Waiter and Searcher at Studland. One dragger boat was publicly burnt as threatened but three other condemned boats mysteriously disappeared before they could be destroyed.

In 1691, George Lewen’s Vine fell prey to Barbary pirates and the crew of six were taken to Sallé in North Africa and sold into slavery. Appeals for their ransom reached Poole but what happened next is unknown. In 1697, another ransom appeal showed that at least one of the crew, Henry Hart, was still held in ‘the most horrid and crewell bondage and slavery’, and it is doubtful that any of them saw their old smuggling ground of Poole Harbour again.

Over the long term, it is unlikely that smuggling was greatly reduced in Poole. Culliford had no powers to act against the merchants involved in the frauds he uncovered which must have reduced the effectiveness of his investigation. There is another chapter in his relationship with the leading men of Poole. On November 14th 1683, he attended the Poole Town House for a formal ceremony, his election and swearing in as a free burgess of the Corporation of the Town and County of Poole. Among the members signing (probably with gritted teeth) the record of his election in the Corporation Record Book were John Willie and William Orchard.


Sources: The Report of Wm Culliforde Gent of his Survey of the Port of Pool. 1682 TNA Ref T 65/139 pp.43-52 / Guttridge, Roger. Dorset Smugglers. Dorset Publishing Company 1984 / Stephens, W. B. The Seventeenth Century Customs Service Surveyed: William Culliford’s Investigation of the Western Ports, 1682-84. Routledge 2017