Walking through Poole in the 1780s and ‘90s, especially at night, was a perilous business. A series of man-made hazards lay in wait for the unwary pedestrian, while the authorities fought a losing battle against the casual dumping of rubbish and other items in the streets. Some of the more noxious of these obstacles would have made their presence known from some distance away; other dangers would only be revealed by coming into painful contact with them.
Poole’s success in the Newfoundland trade and increasing prosperity had brought people flocking to the town for employment and business opportunities. The Quay was lined with shipping. Reclamation of the shoreline, both legal and unofficial, was proceeding apace. Private quays, warehouses, boatyards and rope-walks were springing up and new houses appearing along the main streets. So many people packed into the old town produced a lot of rubbish and the scavengers employed to collect it struggled to cope, not helped by those who ignored the regulations and dumped their waste wherever was easiest. A list of presentments at the Court of Quarter Sessions between 1787 and 1791 gives an idea of the problem.
One of the most frequent charges was of making dung hills in the street. Mark Richards, for instance, was brought to court in 1788 for making a dunghill in Market Lane and Isaac Frampton and John Seally were accused of ‘throwing Dirt & Rubbish in the New Orchard’. In 1789, Mrs Elizabeth Strong was charged with ‘throwing her Slops and Cinders & Filth in Levets Lane & also suffering her Trucks & Dunghills to remain there’. Other places to be avoided were Hill Street, Fish Street (now Castle Street), Cinnamon Lane, Perry Garden and Leglane (Lagland Street). Even the High Street and the Quay were not immune. The offenders came from all levels of society and included the Collector of Customs, John Lander, the Rector of Poole, the Rev. William Davis and leading Newfoundland merchants George Kemp and William Spurrier. The chief offender and Prince of dung heaps, however, was corn factor Joseph Garland who found himself in court eight times over the four year period. His favourite place for waste disposal was Hill Street but he also dumped rubbish in Leglane, Perry Garden and New Quay.
We can only guess at the composition of these rubbish heaps but they probably contained the sweepings of stables, barns and byres as well as market, household and industrial waste. With regular coach services, private carriages, carts and wagons, the town was home to many horses and other animals. There were also industrial premises such as breweries, slaughter houses, tanneries and tallow chandlers adding to the mix of waste. The state of the streets must have encouraged rats and other vermin and helped to spread disease such as the ‘putrid fevers and sore throats’ mentioned in the press in 1788.
Dung hills were not the only obstructions left by Poole inhabitants in the streets and lanes. John Rowman’s offence was ’erecting a pigsty in Bell Lane’ which surely must have blocked this narrow alley off Fish Street completely. Carts and trucks were often left in the road, like Mary Frampton’s water cart found obstructing Perry Garden. Francis Perry, Isaac Frampton and cooper Adam Wadham were accused of leaving casks in Key Street, and John Hiscock, stone mason of ‘suffering Sand and Rubbish to remain opposite to his Stone Yard in Hill Street’. The landlord of the Antelope Inn, William Whittle left a ‘pavement’ opposite the gateway of the inn. An open space on the west shore known as West Butts Green seems to have been a popular dumping ground for timber which was also sometimes left at ‘Cutler’s Gallows’ at Baiter. Some particular items could only have be discovered on the streets of a seaport, like the ‘piece of a sloop at the corner of the Key’, abandoned by John Anderson and the anchor which William Barter left ‘in the road in the lower part of High Street’.
The authorities were also concerned about the state of some of the property in the town. In January 1788, Mr. Thomas Young Bird, draper and mercer (cloth merchant) was charged with ‘not providing a conveyance for the Water from the Lead Gutter of his House’. The house was probably in High Street near the present Orchard Plaza. Also in trouble for neglected guttering were the proprietors of the theatre in the lower High Street opposite the Antelope Inn. The charge was ‘that there is a Spout for conveying the rain from the top of the Theatre which descends upon the Heads of foot passengers passing thereby’. A few months later, the repairs had still not been made. Adam Wadham was accused of ‘suffering his shop to remain in a ruinous condition’ and Mary Pearce was summoned to court twice for letting her house in Strand Street become ’ruinous’.
The town at night seems to have been both lively and dangerous. As well as the hazards of dung heaps and other items in the unlighted streets, there was the risk of falling down uncovered cellar steps, according to charges against the Widow Smith and Mr. William Young. Pedestrians had to take care passing some houses (probably newly built) at the upper end of High Street, ‘for that the porches of the said Houses, stand out in the foot road to the great inconvenience and annoyance of passengers’. There was also the danger of falling into bad company. Mary, the wife of John Legg was presented in 1789 for ‘keeping a disorderly house in High Street and breeding riots’ and Mary Watson for ‘keeping a house of Ill fame at Bayter Green’. Another disorderly house was kept by Jane Weymouth in West Street. The nuisance these could present was made clear in the case of basket maker Benjamin Meade, accused of keeping a disorderly house and ‘rioting and Drinking to the Disturbance of the Neighbours and others particularly Saturday nights to Sunday mornings’.
Poole may have had fine mansions and houses, a Quay lined with warehouses and an elegant new Guildhall, but it also had a dark, dirty and disorderly side. As there was no upper class quarter as in larger towns, the wealthy found themselves close neighbours with workmen and tradesmen. Everyone, whatever their status, must have had to pick their way through the frequently squalid streets. In fact it would be 100 years and several outbreaks of infectious disease later before people became really concerned about the health dangers of poor waste disposal and at last cleaned up their act.