Local Author appeal

I have had an enquiry about an author called Nora Laverock Lees who lived with her parents and sister Enid in Glencullen, Western Road, Branksome Park in the 1930s. Nora had been born in Ireland before moving to this area and in 1936, she published a book entitled Bogs and Blarney, describing travels through the west country of Ireland, particularly Aran and Connemara. It was illustrated with pen and ink sketches by M. Vesey.

In 1958, Nora is believed to have married Harold Horton and the couple continued to live in the area. After her husband’s death in 1969, Nora possibly lived with her sister in Park Court Western Road. Nora Laverock Horton died in 1987, and her address at that time was given as 26, Sandecotes Road, Parkstone. Does anyone know about Nora and her family, parents George Murray Lees and Mary Lees or her sister Enid Mary Lees? Did she write any other books? Any information would be welcome.


Pitares of the Carribean – The Poole Connection

The infamous Blackbeard

The name Woodes Rogers was a familiar one in Poole in the later 17th century. A list of mariners in 1664 contained two men of that name, presumably father and son. One of them was mate on the ship Magdalen of Poole under Captain Sydrach Lester. Nearly 30 years later, another Woodes Rogers was listed in a Poole poll book of 1690. He and his wife Francis, son Woodes and an infant child were then living in Thames Street, quite a prestigious location.

Shortly afterwards, the family moved to Bristol where Woodes junior served an apprenticeship in seafaring. In 1708, with backing from local merchants, he set off on a privateering voyage which was to take him round the globe and make his name. On the way, the expedition faced desertion, mutiny and disease, took a rich Spanish prize ship and rescued Alexander Selkirk, the model for Robinson Crusoe, from the island of Juan Fernandez. On his return, Rogers wrote an account of his voyage which was a great success. Financially, however, he was struggling.

Rogers next turned his attention to the problem of the pirates who had found bases in various parts of the world to prey on merchant shipping. After failing to interest the East India Company in a colony in Madagascar, he managed to get a commission as Captain General and Governor in Chief of the Bahamas, then a notorious centre of piracy. Armed with the promise of a royal pardon for those who surrendered, Rogers’ task was to clear the islands of pirates. It would bring him into conflict with such colourful individuals as Jack Rackham, known as ‘Calico Jack’, ‘Blackbeard’ (Edward Teach), Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane and female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Woodes Rogers as Governor

Woodes Rogers’ struggle with the pirates is the subject of our first talk this autumn for the Museum Society when Don Nutt will be describing the next chapter in Rogers’ adventurous life. There will even be a little story-telling to set the scene.

The talk is on Wednesday 21st at 7.30pm in our new temporary venue, the Spire, Poole High Street. Don’t miss it! Non-members are welcome to come along for a charge of £3. The entrance is in the street to the left of the building.

The Delayed 200th Anniversary Celebrations of St. James’ Church, Poole

The delayed celebrations: In normal times, St. James’ Church, Poole would have celebrated its 200th anniversary on time, but Covid restrictions intervened. Belatedly, it is about to celebrate it on the weekend of 10th and 11th September 2022. This article outlines a few details about its rebuilding in 1820-21, noting some interesting aspects of the historical and cultural context that may have led to the choice of its architectural style. It also notes that opinions offered on the quality of its architecture in two hundred years have tended to the lukewarm (about the exterior) but have been uniformly appreciative of the interior. 

The earlier church: The first reference to a church in Poole is in 1142, when the chapel of St. James was endowed to a Wiltshire Priory by the Lord of the Manor, together with its ‘mother’ church in Canford Magna, the seat of the Lord of Canford Manor. 

The Rector: It was originally sole Church of England parish church of Poole. Its rector at this time was the renowned and long-serving Rev. Peter William Joliffe (Feb. 1767- Feb. 1861), who ministered for seventy years there. He was well respected in the town, in many ways conducting himself with an ecumenical spirit, according to local histories of the Dorset non-conformist churches. [1.]

Why was the church rebuilt?  Lehane (2006) writes that old St. James’ was “the worse for eighteenth century wear and tear.”  [2.] The website for British listed buildings notes that it was rebuilt near the end of the almost complete renewal of the town between 1700 and the early nineteenth century, coinciding with the town’s greatest period of prosperity. [3.]

Brocklebank notes that following the end of the Napoleonic Wars [4.], and civil, social and political shockwaves emanating from the French Revolution, there followed “a slow and very serious re-appraisal of the functions of the Church of England, partially but not wholly provoked by the success of non-conformity.” [5.] This was within the context of industrialisation and urbanisation, and the burgeoning urban working classes. In Poole, many non-conformist congregations were prospering, as evidenced by their wider influence and church building. Skinner Street Congregational Church, and its many local daughter churches, epitomises this locally. 

The decision to rebuild: A survey undertaken by the architects, John Kent of Southampton and Joseph Hannaford of Christchurch, showed how much a rebuild was needed. They discovered just below the floorboards, under some pews, “some coffins with no other covering than the loose [floor]boards, from which such an offensive smell arose that we were obliged to put the covering boards down again immediately…” [6.]

Whatever the urgency, ‘the Vestry’ (responsible for overseeing church business, including maintenance) vacillated on how to proceed: simply structural and cosmetic repairs or a complete rebuild?  Disagreements over costs, in particular, became heated.  It took a year to agree to add the tower, the battle to rebuild having been won by then. [7.]  

Exterior of St. James Church, Lehane p.100

The architectural style chosen: Brocklebank (1979) notes that the former dominant classical style of English church architecture, associated with Hawksmoor, Wren and Gibbs, appeared old-fashioned in the early nineteenth century and was eclipsed by “a nostalgic longing for the romantic past” [8.], in the form of Georgian Gothic.  It had links in literature and was first expressed architecturally in grand houses.  Unease about some aspects of industrialisation and urbanisation (noted earlier) may have framed this new cultural style.  

Historical opinions of the new church’s architecture: Whilst many appraisals to the exterior have tended to be lukewarm, those of the interior, have consistently earned praise.  The authors of Hutchins’ third edition of his History and Antiquaries of Dorset seem to have set the tone, writing (in 1861) that the church is “a remarkably commodious edifice”, adding, “Taken as a whole, its architectural character, though not coming up to the standard of the present day, is far from being inelegant…” [9.

Rather more generously, the British Listed Buildings website, assesses it as “an exceptionally complete and virtually unaltered late Georgian church of high architectural quality” [10. ]  It particularly notes the Purbeck ashlar exterior.  Elsewhere it is described as a “plain late Gothic style typical of the early nineteenth century Gothic revival.” [11.]  The least complementary, if not dismissive, comes from Lehane (2006), who writes: ‘It is just fine, it is OK, St. James”, adding that its fine Purbeck stonework looks good on sunny days!  [12.]  

Interior of St. James Church from An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Dorset, Volume 2, Part 2, Plate 118

Fortunately, there is unanimity over its interior, the consistent element singled out for praise being the clustered pillars reputedly of Newfoundland pine (not all agree the timber came from there – although the British Listed Buildings website seems convinced).  Brocklebank (2006) applauds Poole for opting for timber, rather than cast iron – the new medium of the age – and agrees with so many others that their slender pillars echo the masts of sailing ships.  [13.]  They are a double echo of Poole’s commercial and familial links and (at the time) its prosperous maritime trade. 

© Kit Pearce, 2022

  1. The Story of the Congregational Churches of Dorset, Densham & Ogle, Mates & Co. Ltd, Poole (1899) p. 205
  2. Dorset’s Best Churches; Lehane, Brendan; Dovecote Press Ltd, Wimborne (2006);  p. 101
  3. British Listed Buildings: https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk (Poole St, James entry)
  4. The impact of the peace and trade treaties following the end of the Napoleonic Wars were not to be felt for another decade or two, leading to a steep decline in Poole’s prosperity, notoriously in the Hungry Forties (the 1840s)
  5. Victorian Stone Carvers in Dorset Churches 1856 – 1880; Brocklebank, Joan;           Dovecote Press Ltd, Wimborne; (1999); p. 11
  6. Mansions & Merchants of Poole & Dorset; Beamish, Derek; Hillier, John; Johnstone, HFV; Poole Historical Trust; (1976); p. 175
  7. Beamish, Hillier & Johnstone; op cit; p. 175
  8. Brocklebank (1999), op cit; p. 11
  9. The History & Antiquities of the County of Dorset – Vol 1 – 3rd Edition; Hutchins, John; E P Publishing Ltd, Wakefield; (1861); p. 50
  10. British Listed Buildings Website, op cit.
  11. An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Dorset, Vol 2/2; HMSO; (1972); p. 193
  12. Lehane (2006), op cit; p. 100
  13. Brocklebank (1999), op cit; p. 12

The Remarkable Story of the Ring in the Fish

On 27 July 1871, the Poole and Dorsetshire County Herald carried the story above, attributed to The Pall Mall Gazette, 19 July 1871. [1.] Ten years after his mother’s death by drowning, her Poole-based son heard of the recovery of her signet ring – from a recently caught Newfoundland cod.  When introduced to the fisherman, he paid him a handsome reward!

I traced it back to the New York Herald (2 July 1871).  Each newspaper had copied it from one to the other: the mother was Pauline Burnam, the signet ring carried her initials, she had been married in Huddersfield in 1846, had drowned when the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ had been wrecked off Chance Cove, Newfoundland in 1861, her son, Mr. Burnam, paid John Potter, the fisherman, £50 Stirling.  

Full details of the disaster were easily found online. The ‘Anglo-Saxon’, a Canadian-owned mail steamship, called at various British ports, including Poole, reflecting close commercial and family ties between it and Newfoundland. Shockingly, 237 of the 445 onboard died. [2.]  But the disaster was in 1863, not 1861 and at Cape Race, not Chance Cove, one on Newfoundland’s south-eastern coastline and the other on the island’s north-eastern tip, some distance apart. Further, Pauline Burnam was not on the passenger list and I could find no trace online of her 1846 marriage in Huddersfield, or of her son in Poole.

Artist’s impression of the wreck of the Anglo Saxon

However, I had been forewarned the story was bogus. [3.] (Maybe you suspected as much from the outset.)  But I had a plan B. Would folklorists and others have anything interesting to say about such tales? Why did nineteenth century newspapers publish bogus stories amidst local, national and international news, as in these cases? Was ‘fake news’ nothing new? Changing tack, things became more interesting than I had expected.

For Wendy Doniger, a cultural historian and mythologist of repute, writes of this tale: “The ring in the fish is one of the all-time top-ten narrative hits, topping the charts since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. Fish are the ultimate lost-and-found of the folklore world.” [4.] Thus Herodotus penned its earliest surviving telling around 425BC: Polycrates, ‘the tyrant of Samos’ (ruler of a 6th century BC, early Iron Age prosperous island in the Aegean Sea), wants to make an alliance with King Amasis of Egypt, who is wary of Polycrates’ long run of good fortune; it must surely soon end in his downfall – why take the risk, he reasons.  In one telling, he advises Polycrates to placate the gods by casting a valuable into the sea.  A highly prized ring is chosen. King Amasis signs up.  Shortly after, the ring is found inside a fish being prepared for a feast. On hearing of it, King Amasis immediately severs their alliance. [5.]

Many iterations have been catalogued in the last 150 years or so. Here are two religious retellings: Medieval images of St. Mungo of Glasgow show him with a fish, ring-in-mouth (below left) [6.], echoing a variation of the fish-ring tale, in which Christ instructs St. Peter to pay his tax with a coin that will be found in the mouth of the first fish landed. (below right) [7.

My personal favourite: The newly wed Mrs. Lennox loses her expensive engagement ring whilst crossing the St. Lawrence river by train. Fifteen years later (1887), an honest fishmonger of Toledo, Chicago passes the ring to the Chief of Police, leading to its reunion with the owner’s wealthy husband, who generously proffers a $100 finder’s fee. In an extraordinary twist, it was surmised that the ring had passed to a second fish, it having eaten the first, ring and all! (I will spare you the rationale.) The newspaper headline was: ‘A Little Too Fishy’ [8.]

The story arc and its core motifs are always unchanging, (with modest variations – as seen above). The owner of the ring is powerful and/or wealthy (or related to wealth); the finder is in the right place at the right time, the virtuous servant of good fortune; the fish is the holder of lost treasure (similar to dragons); the ring is symbolic of treasure, be it of power, wealth, love, or of good fortune itself. The sea is… you get the picture. Supporting details change to fit the context of each retelling, adding authenticity and polish, explains Carolyn Brown [9.].  Simon Young devotes a whole chapter to this tale and its many variants – including the Poole/Newfoundland retelling.  [10.]

You might be wondering about the function of such tales? Here, it will suffice to note the human capacity for, and delight in, a good story, fantastical tall tales and myths/tales of faith included. As to why (as I discovered) nineteenth century newspapers published so many bogus stories amidst daily news, it highlights an echo and a contrast with today’s print media. Kembrew McLead notes both, and writes that  “the line between fact and fiction has been blurry since the early days of journalism.” [11.] (We have been exposed to more than enough ‘fake news’ lately to know this all too well!) He adds that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was commonplace to print hoaxes, tall tales, sketches (etc) alongside straight news. The practice died out in the early twentieth century as modern standards of journalism took over, along with a new format in which sections and supplements separated news from various other topics. 

The New York Herald, which published the earliest report of Newfoundland-Poole story I could trace, illustrates the foregoing points well. It was the exemplar of such stories, bar none. Its original owner (James Gordon Bennett), defined its function as “not to instruct but to startle and amuse.” Further, in 1874, now owned by ‘Junior’, the Herald published the infamous New York Zoo Hoax, wholly fabricated week-long bulletins about wild animals that had escaped from Central Park Zoo, running loose and attacking people. The Herald was reputed to have been the most profitable, intrusive and sensationalist of all the leading New York newspapers of its era. [12.

In closing, consider this: the expression of incredulity, Gordon Bennett!, was modelled on James Gordon Bennett, Junior [13.], thereby linking humble Poole with (a) one of the oldest of tales of folklore, (fittingly related to our maritime roots) and (b) this famous well-used expression of amazement. You decide whether this is rather marvellous – or something less. 

©  Kit Pearce, 26.07.2022


[1.]  My thanks, again, to Mr. Gambier for bringing an interesting source to my attention. / [2.]  See https://www.theshipslist.com/ships/Wrecks/anglosaxon.shtml and https://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/41466 for the engraving, (originally from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 16 May 1863, p. 216) / [3.]  Jenny Oliver this blog’s editor, made the same discovery on checking online. / [4.]  The Ring of Truth & Other Myths of Sex & Jewellery, Wendy Doniger, Oxford University Press, (2017), p. 25 / [5.]  Op cit and see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polycrates  / [6.]  See https://flickr.com/photos/60006733@N05/10062429595 / [7.]  The Fish as Treasure Keeper; P. Carus, The Open Court (2014) p. 314; (Mtthw. 17:24-27) See opensiuc.lib.siu.edu / [8.]  The Nail in the Skull & Other Victorian Urban Legends, Simon Young, (Mississippi University Press), 2022, p. 63 / [9.]  The Tall Tale in US Folklore, Carolyn. S. Brown, (University of Tennessee), 1987 / [10.] Op cit; Ch. 20 – ‘Fish Ring’ / [11.A Pre-History of Fake New in the United States, in Fake News, Understanding Media and Misinformation in the Digital Age, Ed. M Zimdars & K McLeod, MIT Press, (2020), p. 263 [12.] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_Herald / [13.] See: https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/gordon-bennett.html

Ill Portents in Poole’s first Balloon Flight

Poole’s first balloon flight, on 7 September 1848, went wrong from the outset. Only the owner’s swift actions averted disaster.  [1.]  But within a year the balloon would vanish after take-off and the pilot drown. 

Unfortunately, on take-off in Poole, it hit the gas works’ chimney, holing the balloon and tearing its netting.  The owner prevented worse damage by man-handling it away from further danger.  It landed near present-day Poole Park’s East Gate, then open fields, only two miles away.  The crowd must have been underwhelmed.

William Wadman of Bristol was the balloon’s maker and owner (a showman-entrepreneur, dubbed ‘the western aeronaut’).  He was a gas fitter – a retailer of gas light fittings (possibly a manufacturer too).  Richard Green, was the young pilot, an employee.  The brightly coloured balloon was called ‘The Rainbow’. 

Figure 1 is a facsimile of Mr. Wadman’s newspaper advertisement, A Grand Balloon Ascent and Gala, in Worcester, scheduled four days after the Poole debacle. [2.] This and other Wadman advertisements indicate Poole’s had been an untypically minor event.

Figure 1

The Cardiff ascent of Monday 9 July 1849 was sadly eclipsed by the misfortune that ensued.  Online newspaper reports, outline what happened: Richard Green made a rare solo balloon flight, taking off at 6 p.m. in calm weather and good visibility, heading east to Bristol.  Mr. Wadman had been ill, but travelled west to Swansea (ahead of the next ascent, scheduled two days later).  Fatefully, this deprived Mr. Green of his greater experience. Neither the balloon nor the pilot made it to Bristol.  

Four days later the newspapers picked up the story.  The coverage focused upon early eye witness accounts and from the outset played upon suspense: why had Mr. Green got into difficulties and where was he?  As to his supposed fate, there was no mystery, the consistent narrative was ‘pilot error’. 

The first report was dated Friday 13 July, headlined: ‘Fatal Balloon Ascent’. [3.]  In the early hours of the next day, Tuesday 10 July, the partially inflated balloon (largely undamaged) had been recovered at Wedmore.  [See Figure 2.]  Mr. Green’s wet shoes, coat and scarf were in the balloon’s wicker car, along with ballast (in the form of its anchor, some rope, a long guide-line, and sandbags).  Of him there was no trace.  Further, an account from Clevedon, indicated The Rainbow had already been off course shortly after take-off, heading down the channel. 

Figure 2

On 16 July a further report, headlined Supposed Death of Mr. R. Green, The Aeronaut [4.], revealed that in good visibility the balloon had been viewed for over an hour after ascent, partially explaining the assumption of ‘pilot error’.

The next report (19 July), Melancholy Fate of an Aeronaut in Attempting to Cross the Bristol Channel, [5.]featured eye-witness accounts.  Mr. Clevenson, “a coastguard”, reported the balloon had been “close to the sea… crossing the Severn” later in the evening of 9 July.  An unnamed witness saw it “dragging through the sea, and then suddenly ascend to a greater altitude,” (fitting deductions that Mr. Green had jumped overboard).

Further coverage, spanning sixteen days are online, most importantly  Mr. Wadman’s long, detailed letter to the Bristol Times and Mirror (20 July).  After starting sympathetically by writing of “the unfortunate aeronaut, Mr. R. Green,”  it falls into three parts.  First, he details his actions in Swansea, awaiting news and taking care of business (postponing, then cancelling the scheduled flight there).  Second, he describes his return home, with detours to speak to the coastguard witness and to recover the balloon.  Lastly, he expresses astonishment that Mr. Green had not avoided the accident, expressing no misgivings that might indicate he had any responsibility for the accident.

When Mr Wadman boarded a light-ship to question the coastguard, the captain and crew denied they were the above source, but showed him a log entry, detailing their sighting of the balloon, including its course.  Frustratingly, the name of the light-ship and its captain are omitted from the letter, as are any details from the log.

Mr. Wadman’s letter concludes, “How Mr. Green came by his death (if dead) is to me a mystery, as I not only found the balloon and car, but all the various, and in this case, disposable appendages.  There was a large grappling-iron, with its rope; another rope, used as a guide line; and all the damask trimmings, sand bags. … What the poor fellow could have been thinking of, to have left the machine with all these articles at his disposal – in the whole, about three-quarters of a hundred weight – I cannot imagine: I can account for his so doing in no other way but that he apprehended danger and lost all presence of mind, and so overlooked the means of saving his life.”

He is inferring that if more ballast had been ejected at the start of the flight, and again when the balloon was losing altitude, a safe crossing would have been assured.  (Today’s hot air balloons have burners that can be reignited to regain altitude.  Balloons of this era could only eject ballast to do so.)   Jarringly, one report states clearly that all of the sandbags “were nearly empty”. [6.]

In addition, the letter shows, firstly, that Mr. Wadman understood that flying to Bristol entailed Mr. Green single-handedly packing up the balloon, arranging haulage to the port, then catching a packet ship back to Swansea, with barely 36 hours (at most) to do so.  Logistically, no mean feat.  A short flight, then hauling the balloon across country to Swansea was low risk in comparison.  Secondly, it shows it had been Mr. Wadman’s decision, and he had instructed Mr. Green accordingly. 

However, even short sea-crossings can be hazardous for balloons, due to unpredictable changes in atmospheric pressure and wind direction (etc), affecting a balloon’s buoyancy.  Mr. Wadman would have known this, not least because he had been taught by one of the foremost balloonists of the time – Charles Green. 

The last report online (24 July) headlined, Sad Fate of an Aeronaut,[7.]  confirmed that Richard Green’s body had been recovered (he had drowned, as predicted).   The reporter was at pains to inform readers, the deceased was “no relation of Mr. Charles Green of London” [8.], rather, he was “but a young man, an amateur.”  This jars, as it highlights the consistent binary tone of coverage, portraying Richard Green as ‘unfortunate’, ‘young’ ‘an amateur’ and ‘inexperienced’ (the last by inference), whilst Wadman and Charles Green were explicitly or implicitly characterised by all the opposites. 

Yet the 24 July article explicitly shows sea crossings were dangerous even for the most experienced balloonists, for only a sentence after unfavourably distinguishing between the victim and Charles Green, it reveals that the latter had his own perilous ballooning incident, only being saved by a ship that was fortuitously nearby.  The reporter overlooked the obvious implication of Messrs Greens’ hapless encounters with sea crossings – they were fraught with danger.

Mr. Wadman’s mantle of ballooning skill and experience, attributed to him by the newspapers, seems to have shrouded any questions about his decisions.  Yet his letter shows he had been too ill to board the fated balloon, but well enough to travel to Swansea (and to take care of business the next day).  It seems likely he had opted for a crowd-pleasing spectacular sea-crossing, with all the attendant risks, over the safer option of accompanying the balloon and his pilot to Swansea after a short flight in Cardiff. 

In the understandable tension between showmanship and caution, his choice is unsurprising.  However, another 1848 newspaper report, featuring one of Mr. Wadman’s earliest flights [9.], shows he was no veteran balloonist.  True, he had made almost seventy flights by July 1849, but he had barely two years ballooning experience.  For context, Charles Green amassed over 500 flights, although his career was much longer.  The last article featuring The Rainbow (11 July 1850) [10.] was a fund-raiser for Mr. Wadman’s widow – he had died on 13 September 1849, aged 29 years.  Thus, he survived Richard Green only by a few weeks.  There is no suggestion it was another ballooning accident.  His cause of death is unknown. 

© Kit Pearce    18.06.22

  1. Poole and Dorsetshire Herald, Thursday 14 September 1848 (Mr. Gambier brought this interesting article to my attention.)
  2. Advertised in the Worcestershire Chronicle, Wednesday 6 September 1848
  3. Reported in The Sun, London Saturday 14 July, the Bristol Mercury Friday 13 July, was the original source.
  4. Cheltenham Journal and Gloucestershire Fashionable Weekly Gazette, Monday 16 July 1849 (The Cardiff Guardian is given as the original source of the article)
  5. The Nottinghamshire Guardian, Thursday 19 July 1849. (The Kendall Mercury reprinted the article on Saturday 28 July, indicating how widely the story was covered.)
  6. The Bristol Times and Mirror, Saturday 14 July 1849
  7. The Hereford Journal, Monday 24 July
  8. Charles Green was in the first rank of balloonists, the pioneer of coal gas as a propellant, rather than hydrogen, held a number of distance and other prestigious records, and was the inventor of the guide-line, used to slow balloons and as ballast (it is still used today).
  9. The Western Times, Saturday 23 September 1848 reveals that Mr. Wadman built The Rainbow the previous winter (and that he was taught by Charles Green).
  10. Trewmans Exeter Post, 11 July 1850.

When is a healing stone not a healing stone?

Figure 1

In Spring 2019, I was transcribing a 1760 account book from the Skinner Street URC archive.  It listed the costs of building materials, their carriage, labour costs and also donations from the congregation (in cash and kind), pew subscriptions and wider fund-raising to defray the building costs (which totalled £374 7s. 7½d.). 

Most of the building materials were recognisable, but some were less familiar – laths, bundles of spire, hair, glue and ‘oil & colours’.  These were associated with the construction and plastering of inner walls (‘spire’: reeds or thin strips of wood, the latter also called lath(s)).  The oil and colours were probably the C18th equivalent of today’s emulsion paint. A pair of intriguing entries stood out, some form of stone.  First: ‘Octr. 5 [1761]: freight Healing Stones from Key – 1s. 2d.’  Second: ‘Novr. 2: [1761] Mr. James Burgiss Healing Stone – 15s.  0d.’ 

Whimsically, I imagined a link with charismatic theology – think, reliquaries or Pentecostal healing services.  There was nothing in the context to suggest such fancy, of course.  (You can imagine all the New Age ephemera an online search threw up.) So I enlisted the help of other Poole History Centre volunteers: Brian Gambier and Jenny Oliver were both to hand.  Had they ever heard of healing stones, I asked.  No, they hadn’t.  But they were keen to look into it.  Both came up trumps.

The account book detailed the construction of the Lag Lane Congregational Church.  Part of its footprint lies beneath the car park of today’s Skinner Street Church (built in 1777 – the new church so quickly outgrown).  The forebear of both churches was the Great Presbyterian Meeting House, Hill Street, Poole, founded in 1704 (on or near the site of today’s Salvation Army citadel).  Old photographs of this earlier church show its modest brick-built construction, which was probably originally thatched.

Figure 2: Hill Street Meeting House

Contentious theological differences had been simmering within the Hill Street congregation for generations.  At dispute was the doctrine of the Trinity, in particular, the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit and acceptable sacramental invocations.  Church unity broke down irreparably in October 1759, when their minister, Rev. Samuel Phillipps [sic] preached against Unitarianism.  He and at least 48 members (some of whom were wealthy merchants and traders) were ejected.  He was locked out of the church (and, for good measure, its pulpit!).  The Unitarians had won the day. Generations later, Unitarianism segued into the United Reformed Church, the denomination of today’s Skinner Street congregation. The ejected congregation wasted no time, commencing building the Lag Lane church in February 1760 on land leased from John Skinner, long since memorialised in ‘Skinner Street’ (and in the existing church’s name).

What exactly were healing stones, then?  Checking the OED, Brian Gambier quickly identified a variant of ‘heal’, namely, ‘hele’: ‘to cover or roof’ (Middle English).  It also detailed two associated words, ‘hellier’ and ‘hillier’ – a roofer.  Jenny Oliver provided conclusive historical evidence for this, in an extract from the 1609/10 Poole Town accounts: “Paid hellier and his boye… for healinge and poynting the Church…[&] for healing stones…

Figure 3 is an C18th engraving of ‘the Town Cellar, Poole’, showing healing stones in the last courses of tiles at the bottom of the roof.  There are a few other surviving roofs like this in Poole Old Town, and elsewhere in Dorset.  However, it proved difficult to explain the position of the healing stones.  Was it a local vernacular, might structural and/or cost issues be at play, I wondered?

Figure 3: Town Cellar

As I was finalising this article, an explanation was provided by two new collaborators, Michael Stead of Bournemouth Library’s Heritage Team (who consulted an ex-colleague, Carolyn Anand, a qualified in Heritage Conservation).  ‘Healing stones’ appears to have been a regional building term, whether just within Dorset or more widely is unclear.   In today’s terminology, ‘flagstone roofs’ or simply ‘stone-tiled roofs’ are the equivalent descriptors, healing stones being a forgotten archaism. 

Stone tiles last much longer than traditional clay tiles, but are much heavier.  Stone roofs were (and remain) most common in areas associated with the limestone belt, in a rough line from South-West to North-West England (which includes the Purbecks and the Cotswolds).  In those areas, stone roofs (albeit requiring stronger, more expensive roof structures and substantial stone walls) were often the best overall roofing solution.  In the Poole area, clay, limestone tiles and good quality building stone were all readily available.

Healing stones only on the lower courses of a roof, were probably the remnants of former stone-tile roof, in which most of the heavy tiles had been replaced with lighter clay tiles, as a more practical and less costly alternative to replacing an old roof where the roof structure was weakening.  The Town Cellars roof was already at least two hundred and fifty years old by when the engraving in Figure 2 was drawn. 

Aware of implications arising from these new insights, I reviewed the account book and discovered that my assumptions about that roof had been wrong all along.  The first two entries (both dated February 1760) indicate a traditional tiled roof and a brick-built structure, (over 20,000 tiles and 18,000 bricks are listed), not a substantial stone-built, stone-tiled church. Further, four pages later, near the end of the building project, a sub-heading appears: ‘Vestry began Septr. 1761’.  In the entries following are further bricks (just 500), figured tiles, a hearth, carpentry work – and the healing stones, which may simply have tiled the vestry roof.  Therefore, they were not the remains of former stone-tiled roof. 

Figure 4

But where only a remnant of healing stones remained, why were even these retained?  A plausible answer is that the robust outer stone walls required by stone roofs could be expected to easily bear the weight of the remaining edging stones tiles.  Even in their vestigial form, the owners were evidently not ready to forgo a traditional, vernacular style, quite likely preserving associations of status too. This conjecture, if correct, the healing stones on the vestry roof could themselves have been a nod to a vernacular style and status, and thereby a modest aspirational architectural element – to which church builders of all denominations have always been prone. 

© Kit Pearce

Figure 2: Derek Beamish, John Dockerill, John Hillier, Graham Smith – An Album of Old Poole (1975), Poole Historical Trust

Figure 3: John Hutchins, The History & Antiquities of the County of Dorset – Vol. 1 (1774), EP Publishing Ltd, in collaboration with Dorset County Library

A Poole Potpourri – 40 Years Ago

The Borough of Poole Report for 1980 to 1986, depicts a time of rapid developments and changes, forty years ago. The report covers a miscellany, or in the words of the introduction, a potpourri of topics, the development of Canford Heath, civic heraldry, the electronic revolution, rebuilding Scaplen’s Court, the Roman invasion, and the design of the new crematorium among them. At the time, Poole had a population of 128,000 compared with nearly 160,000 today. Two local government reorganisations were still in the future, the change to a unitary authority in 1997 and then to BCP in 2019. Local services were delivered partly by the borough and partly by Dorset County Council. Poole’s Town Clerk and Chief Executive Officer was the late Ian Andrews, (a long-term enthusiast of Poole’s heritage and member of the Museum Society). Computers were about to change the world, and telephones had already gone mobile and shrunk to the size of a mere brick. This article is a quick trip through some of the highlights and byways of the report.

Longespee tomb, Salisbury Cathedral and the Poole Coat of Arms

Poole Supporters

The leaping dolphin and three scallop shells are familiar from the Poole coat of arms at various locations across the town but I must admit that I have never paid much attention to the supporters on either side of the shield. The report explains that these were granted to the town by the College of Arms in 1976 as a gift from the Rt. Hon. Oscar Murton, Poole’s M.P. from 1964 to 1979. On the right of the shield (or left as we look at it) is a golden lion holding an upright sword and standing on a grassy mound. On the other side is a golden dragon bearing a silver oar resting on blue and silver wavy lines representing water. The lion and sword are a link with William Longespee (Long-sword) who gave Poole its first charter and whose shield displayed rearing lions. The dragon is taken from the royal coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth whose charter of 1568 made Poole a county corporate. The same charter also gave the Mayor of Poole the position of Admiral of the Port, hence the oar. A silver oar is actually part of the civic regalia. The theme of land and sea is appropriately conveyed in the ‘compartment’ or base of the arms.

Dignity and Serenity

In 1984, work began on the building of Poole Crematorium on a 10 acre site off Gravel Hill in Broadstone, screened with mature trees. The building was designed by the borough’s Department of Architecture and Town Planning and aimed to express a feeling of dignity and serenity with strong, simple lines, a steeply pitched roof, and the use of natural materials, timber, clay tiles and brick. It provided a main chapel, waiting area, wreath display area and a chapel of remembrance. Work was completed in October 1985 and the building was dedicated in November by the Bishop of Sherborne at a multi-denominational ceremony. The following year, the council was delighted to hear that they had won a Civic Trust Award for the Crematorium. The judges commented that the building ‘achieves a most appropriate calm, reflective result throughout, enhanced by a naturally beautiful and isolated setting, amidst natural heath and woodland. The building is characterised by sweeping, generous roofs, warm coloured, natural materials and detailing which is bold, economical, well-conceived, and well made.’

Poole Crematorium

Museum of Domestic Life

A rather different construction project described in the report was the partial rebuilding of Scaplen’s Court, medieval merchant’s house, inn, tenement house and, since 1929, museum. The building had been partially ruined by the collapse of a chimney through the roof in the 1920s and although tidied up, the front range was still open to the sky and presented a rather forlorn view to the High Street. In 1985, the Curator Graham Smith proposed a complete renovation of the building including reconstruction of the front range. The Area Museum Council South West would supply 45% of the funding. The project would provide better facilities and a better flow of visitors round the building, besides creating a large upper hall which could be used for events. Rebuilding took place in 1986, using appropriate materials and styles. The roof of the new hall, for instance, was designed to a medieval pattern. The restored frontage was probably closer in appearance to the original building than at any time since the 18th century. Inside were displays illustrating domestic life at different periods, including children’s toys and a Victorian kitchen, a hit with school parties.

Scaplen’s Court before and during the rebuilding

Greater yet smaller

The borough’s involvement with office automation started in the days when a computer occupied a whole room rather than a pocket. As the report relates, Poole originally had an arrangement to use the Dorset County Council computer but by 1981, communication difficulties persuaded the borough to buy its own small computer, an ICL model ME29, and three visual display units (VDUs). It was at this time that the information technology explosion really began, and by 1985, the council had about 50 VDUs, and a number of personal computers were working in specialist areas. In the accountancy section, for instance, four IBM PCs were networked together to allow financial spreadsheets to be used. In 1986, the ME29 was replaced by a state of the art ICL series 39 computer bringing ‘the latest in computer technology with much greater and sophisticated power, yet much smaller in physical size.’ By now the computer was handling data processing in a many areas of the council’s work and the new system was felt to be ‘capable of expanding to meet all of Poole’s conceivable future requirements.’

Doing a Wheelie

Another form of rather lower-tech technology was on trial in 1986 – the use of wheeled bins for refuse collection. It’s hard to remember that before they were introduced, men physically carried the bins to the dustcart for emptying or the rubbish was carried across in bin bags. This heavy work caused a high rate of industrial injuries, and there was also the problem of waste being spilled or blowing about in windy weather. The new bins could be wheeled across to the cart and were lifted by hydraulic means. Their close fitting lids also meant less spillage. The trial of the new bins involved 10,200 households and was an overwhelming success, resulting in a decision to adopt the wheelie method throughout the borough. Elsewhere, however, wheels were out. After a series of traffic bans and one-way orders, the High Street was finally pedestrianised in 1986 with new paving, seating and tree planting.

Paving work on High Street

Village on the Heath

By the time of the report, the development of the Canford Heath estate had been in progress for about 20 years. The area being developed had expanded from 200 to 733 acres and 3,500 homes were planned or completed. All types of housing were included, blocks of flats, starter homes, elderly persons’ dwellings, council housing, Housing Association and private sector development. The borough also needed to provide facilities for the community, in effect creating a new village on the heath from scratch. At the centre of the development was the Neighbourhood Centre, the International Stores, a supermarket of about 20,000 sq ft., 10 other shops and a pub. There was also a car park for 400 cars, a petrol station, public toilets, a health clinic, doctor’s surgery, St. Paul’s church, and 4 squash courts. A first school was built opposite the Neighbourhood Centre with another in the plan, depending on demand and a secondary school was under construction by Dorset County Council. A sports facility and youth centre, open space and recreation areas were also planned. The streets of Canford Heath were named after pilots of the Royal Flying Corps and Air Force, and the pub was christened the Fighter Pilot.

Canford Heath shops and Fighter Pilot pub

Discerning Holiday Makers

One growth industry during the period covered by the report was tourism. Ten years before, it had brought about £10m into the town’s coffers but now the sum was approaching £50m. Poole prided itself on attracting ‘a new generation of discerning holiday makers seeking a combination of activity, comfort, culture, entertainment, history and scenery’. The new tourist information centre on the quay had proved very successful, dealing with about 300,000 enquiries, twice the expected number. New or improved attractions included Upton House, open to the public from 1981, Sandbanks beachfront with upgraded facilities and a refurbished pavilion, and the rebuilt Scaplen’s Court. The Arts Centre was well established and a new maritime museum was in the planning stage. Tourism was creating jobs when traditional industries were declining, encouraging the growth of small businesses, and helping to sustain amenities for the local population. In fact, the tourist sector was likely to be a very important part of Poole’s economy in the future.

The Romans are here

It might be a surprise to find the Roman invasion of 43-4 AD featuring in this 1980’s Poole report. The link is an excavation carried out at Lake Gates near the Stour in the early 1980s by the Poole Museums Archaeological Unit. The area was first investigated by Norman Field in the 1960s to try to determine why the Roman road from Hamworthy to Badbury Rings abruptly changed course at this point. His excavations revealed the presence of a Roman fort, commanding the river crossing, but its extent was not clear. The Poole dig was carried out in advance of the building of the Wimborne by-pass across the part of the site. It revealed a section across the western defences of the fort, which consisted of a small outer ditch and larger v-shaped inner ditch backed by an earth and timber rampart. Behind this was an inner perimeter road or via sagularis. Timber slots revealed a partial outline of two barrack blocks, while demolition pits in the area of the officers’ quarters yielded pottery, including samian ware, bronzes and other artefacts. Outside the fort was evidence of industrial activity. A magnetometer survey of the south east corner of the fort enabled its size to be estimated at about 30 acres, suitable for half a legion (about 3,000 men).Hamworthy is believed to have been a supply port for Roman troops during the invasion of the south and west, and the fort at Lake Gates probably served as headquarters for invading troops or during a later consolidation phase. It seems to have been abandoned and demolished around 65 AD.

Samian ware bowl

This is just a sample of what was occupying the time and attention of the borough council 40 years ago. There is a lot more in this 177 page report which I have omitted, (including many pages of serious civic statistics) but I hope this gives a flavour of the times. 


Main sources: Borough of Poole Report 1980-1986. Poole Borough Council ed. M.A. Thomas Assistant Town Clerk. / Reeves, D.  The Muse and Poole Museums. Memoirs of Graham Milton Smith Poole Historical Trust 2014.