It was probably in 1630 or 1631 that a large merchant ship, sailing between the Low Countries and the tropics, was wrecked on the edge of the Hook Sands at the entrance to Poole Harbour. How she came to be wrecked we don’t know but it seems that the vessel was intact enough to allow the salvagers to remove much of her cargo and some of her cannon. The ship sank on to the mud and was forgotten for four centuries. Then, in 1990 a dredger disturbed some of her timbers. After a brief excavation, the site was largely ignored until its rediscovery by a Wessex Archaeology survey in 2004 which led to the present Bournemouth University excavation. Now that parts of the wreck and some artefacts have been brought to the surface and put on display in Poole Museum, it is interesting to investigate what Poole was like 400 years ago when these objects last saw the light of day.
The Harbour – Poole harbour is vast (around 8,650 acres or 3,500 hectares) but notoriously shallow with what John Sydenham in his History of Poole calls ‘immense banks of ooze, intersected by a great number of channels’. The men of Poole made a virtue out of this difficult waterway by trying to prevent anyone other than Poole seamen piloting ships in and out of the harbour. This was not only to preserve their trade but also to protect the secrets of harbour navigation from strangers and foreigners.
In the 1662, with the idea of draining and reclaiming all the mudlands of the harbour, a survey was carried out to find the extent of all the soft grounds which ‘are or lately have been usually overflown with the sea or salt waters and are for the most pt ozie, slubby or glibsey grounds’. The total area of such grounds was calculated to be 8,026 acres and a grant was made by Charles II to the Duke of Richmond and Lennox to enclose and reclaim them. However nothing came of this ambitious plan or another grant made in 1666 to Charles Gifford Esq.
At the end of the century, the war with France highlighted the need for improved harbours for the navy. In 1698, the Lords of the Admiralty ordered a survey of the south coast ports to find out whether they could be improved for naval use. Their conclusions about the local area were not very favourable. Of Poole harbour they reported that it was ‘Assisted by a Considerable Fresh from Dorchester, and is a Capacious Water when all its Shoale Grounds are covered with the Tyde Nevertheless not having above 8ft. Water for a great Space without the Mouth of it at Low water, and that the Rise of the Spring Tydes doe not exceed 8 ft. more, those very uncertain and remiss, The Shoales very large, and the Channells very Crooked; There are very few Vessells will venture into it when they can choose to doe otherwise, The entrance into this Haven is covered by Studland Point, The Town stands about 3 Miles within the Haven, wch: together with its Generall Scituation affords nothing in our Opinion proper or improveable for the Service of the Navy.’ The accompanying chart clearly shows the crooked channels and also the difficult entrance to the harbour with its sand shoals where the Swash Channel wreck had come to grief 70 years before. The key to the chart is as follows: a.a Sands under water / b. Shipps pass over sometimes [my italics] / c. Old Corbands / d. Brownsea Island & Castle / e. Parkson / f. Heakford / g. Ham / h. Passage / i. Owar River / k. Road to Christ Church / l. Road to Hampshier / m. Road to Wareham
The Port – In spite of its apparent unsuitability for naval use, Poole was a thriving merchant port. An important part of the town’s trade was fishing voyages to Newfoundland, while other Poole ships traded with Europe or round the British coast. In the early years of the century, the Newfoundland trade was prosperous but the outbreak of war with Spain in 1625 meant the loss of a major market for fish and restrictions on trade. Pirates also took advantage of the war to prey on ships from the western ports. In 1628, the Mayor wrote to the Council, claiming that in four years, the town had lost twenty ships, totalling 1,465 tons and valued at £13,400. Where there had been twenty ships sailing to Newfoundland there were now only three.
In the same year, an inventory was produced of all the shipping, masters, mariners, sailors and fishermen of Poole. Twenty ships were listed, nine being in port and eleven at sea, although the inventory did not indicate their destinations. Ships ranged from 5 to 150 tons, the average size being 60 tons. There were also 24 ship’s masters, 50 sailors and 11 fishermen. The most prominent of the 15 ship-owners listed were John Bryard and Thomas Hill, joint owners of the 150 ton ships Garland and Dragon, Thomas Robarte, owner of the Concorde, Amity and Vintye, and George Skutt who owned the Desire, Seaflower, Primrose and Susanna and was joint owner of the Jeane.
Revenue came in to the Poole coffers from merchants using the Quay and its facilities. Charges included keyage (loading and unloading ships at the Quay), beamage (weighing goods on the town beam), cellarage (storing items in the Town Cellars) and cartage (use of the town carts). These were paid to the Water Bailiff and a ratal or charges list dating from 1579 exists in the archives, including such items as ‘Appelles the barrell’, ‘Copperas the tonne’, ‘Fyshe of Newfoundlande drye the C’ , ‘Leamonds and oranges the mound’, ‘Sugar the cheste’ etc.
Details of the port income frequently appear in the 17th century town accounts such as these from 1605/6:
‘Receved of the two flemons for ballasting of the 2 ships £3 0 0
‘For sellereg keg and pete custom for vinegar and plaister of parres £0 12 00
‘Laden by Mr. William Hill viii packes of cloth mor 130 hh of wheat in the myrmaid of pooll John Fox Mr the xvi day of August 1606 £1 1 8
The Quay – At the beginning of the century, the Quay was only 240 feet (73m) long, stretching from the Quay head, (just beyond Thames Street) to Measurer’s gap (an inlet in the shoreline near the present junction with High Street). The forward projecting area where the Custom House now stands did not exist and the limited space available for loading and unloading meant that congestion was a problem. In 1616, some leading merchants of the town signed ‘A benevolence for the building of a new key at Messurer’s Gap & a fish market this next year if god permits,’ listing the sums that they were willing to contribute to the project. In 1618 the building began and it was decided ‘that the key shall be set forthe 8 or 9 foot without Mr. Dackhams furthest wall and without his wall to make a slype to land horses and lad horses which slyp ther shalbe made of gods will . . .’ The accounts give details of chalk, gravel, paving stones, timber to make piles and iron shoes for the piles. This new quay set the precedent for later extension eastwards.
The Admiralty Court – The Admiralty Court of Poole was held once a year in the open air, either on the Quay or by the Broomhill Stone in lower Hamworthy. It was presided over by the mayor as Admiral of the Port, with the assistance of the Water Bailiff. All ‘masters of shippes, mariners and ffisher men’ were asked to attend by an announcement in St. James’ Church and on the day, a jury of around 24 men were sworn in. The jurisdiction of the court included such matters as the maintenance of the channels, buoys and moorings, pilotage, fishing regulations, the activities of pirates, felonies at sea and shipwrecks. The occasional perambulations of the sea bounds were also carried out as part of the Admiralty Court proceedings.
In practice the court gave ordinary users of the port and harbour a chance to voice their complaints and hold the town officials to account but it does not seem to have been very effective in inducing change. Some issues, such as the need to dredge the channel or provide more moorings, came up year after year. The proceedings of the court contain lots of interesting detail:
1607 – (Admiral and Mayor, Mr. John Bramble) – ‘Item wee finde and present nicholas Gibbins William Bramble and John Bramble of Poole for suffering their ship the Orang Tree to lie against measurers wall neare the channell most danngerous for shipps barckes and boats that usuallie come into and outto the kaie of Poole . . .’‘Item wee finde and present Nicholas Reekes for that he hath not placed sufficient posts at bulworcke, Maiden Waie and at the north west end of the kaye for moaring of shipps.’
1617 – (Admiral and Mayor, Mr. Thomas Francis) – ‘Wee present Nicholas Gibbons that his people have throwne out 5 or 6 loads of ashes from his water gate into the sea.’
1631 – (Admiral and Mayor, Thomas Smedmore) – ‘Mr Hill’s wracke doth lye in the fayre way for boats and barks to come to the keyes.’
The Trading Companies – The merchants of Poole were not just focussed on local matters. With their involvement in international trade, they must have been well aware of the global expansion of trade, exploration and settlement taking place in the early 17th century. European countries vied to set up trading companies which were given licences to settle in the new territories, to farm, trade and exploit the local resources. For forward-looking gentry and merchants, investment in trading companies was a fashionable business venture. Settlers were inspired to embark on the dangerous enterprise by a range of motives, religious idealism and commercial ambition among them.
Two major trading companies were the English East India Company, set up in 1600 and the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC), formed two years later in 1602. By 1630, the English company was well established with a trading post in Surat in India and ports in China and was engaged in fierce competition with the Portguguese and Dutch.The VOC had posts in Java and Kakarta and was developing a system of trade between Asian countries whose profits would be used to finance the European spice trade. It was to become an outstandingly successful multinational company.
The European powers were also in competition to exploit the American continent. The Virginia Company was chartered by James I in 1606 to establish settlements on the North American coast. Some settlers chose the area around the James River and founded Jamestown but suffered near extinction from disease, starvation, Indian attack and other causes. Not all of the settlers were well prepared for the task which faced them. In 1622, a list was produced of the supplies which each settler family should carry across the Atlantic ‘for their better support at their first landing in Virginia’. This included clothing, tools, weapons, household goods and food including such items as ‘five Ells course Canvase, to make a bed at Sea for two men, to be filled with straw 4s’ and ‘two broad Axes at 3s. 8d. a piece’. The total cost of the listed items was £20, a sum probably beyond many families’ means. One success of the colony was the export of tobacco which earned the company good revenue. In 1624, the King dissolved the Company and made Virginia a royal colony.
In 1620, other colonists seeking freedom from religious oppression had landed from the Mayflower at Plymouth, Massachusetts in what became New England. The landing of the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ was to become part of the story of the founding of America but of more significance locally were a series of voyages from 1623 onwards under the sponsorship of the Rev. John White, the puritan rector of St. Peter’s and Holy Trinity, Dorchester. He helped to raise capital, involve local men of influence and obtain the necessary licence to settle in America. These colonising voyages laid the foundations of the cities of Boston, Dorchester and Charlestown.
The Dutch were also active in the Americas, forming the Dutch West India Company in 1621, modelled on the VOC. It was granted a charter for a monopoly of trade and navigation, conquest and commerce in the Western hemisphere, particularly West Africa and the Americas. The company hoped to eliminate trade competition in the West Indies, particularly from the Spanish and Portuguese and gain a share of the African slave trade. By 1630, the company had set up the colony of New Netherland between New England and Virginia. They also had trading posts in the Caribbean, Brazil and on the gold Coast of Africa.
Another of the companies affecting Poole very directly was the London and Bristol Company for the Plantation of Newfoundland. Merchants from western ports such as Poole had been operating a seasonal fishery on the island for around 100 years. Although the charter of the new company promised to protect the fishermen’s rights, the merchants feared that the settlers would squeeze them out of the best fishing harbours and establish a monopoly of the trade. The first settlement founded at Cupids Cove in 1610 was practical and well organised and high hopes were entertained by settlers and investors. A few years later, disillusionment began to set in. The fishermen were hostile to the colonists, hopes of finding minerals came to nothing, the climate was harsh and the cost of maintaining the settlements swallowed the profits. By the 1630s, the enterprise of the Newfoundland Company was more or less over but small intermittent settlements did gradually grow up around the island.
The Ships – The seamen of Poole would have witnessed some of this intense activity of the trading companies during their voyages across the Atlantic and to Europe. The town may have played a part in servicing the trade. Just beyond the harbour entrance, the English Channel was a great highway for the company ships, large and small as they headed out with supplies and settlers or homeward with the produce of distant lands. Some inevitably came to grief on their long journeys. In October 1627 seven ships of the Dutch East India Company loaded with Dutch silver daalders and Spanish ‘pieces of eight’ were caught in a gale, near the Needles. The 320-ton Vliegende Draecke, was holed and abandoned in Alum Bay after the crew had transferred most of the cargo to other ships. Another ship, the Campen sank just south of the Needles. Robert Newland, merchant and ship-builder of the Isle of Wight joined forces with a Dutch salvager, Jacob the Diver, to recover five cannon, 6,660kg of lead, and 2,635 coins. In 1630 as a result of a petition from the Dutch West India Company to Charles I, the King granted the company ‘right to all wreck of their vessels cast away in his Majesty’s dominions’.
This was the world in which the Swash Channel vessel embarked upon her last voyage. A large merchant ship of 300 – 500 tons, around 40m long, and armed with at least 26 guns, she must have been an impressive vessel. The rudder alone was over 8m high and topped with the exuberantly carved face of a moustachioed man. Other baroque carvings of cherubs and mermen decorated the rails and gunports. Tests have shown that the ships timbers were felled around 1628 on the Dutch / German border and the vessel was almost certainly Dutch, maybe belonging to one of the trading companies. The hull was covered with pinewood sheathing with a layer of tar and hair between, as was the custom with Dutch ships bound for the tropics. However this protective outer layer showed no sign of damage by shipworm and it could be that the vessel was on her maiden voyage when she found her last resting place at the entrance to Poole Harbour.