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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXb8aYYDXmE
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