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.
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.
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.