It was October 1745 and the country was facing a national emergency. In July, the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of King James II, had landed in Scotland vowing to regain the throne for the Stuart dynasty. Britain was at war with France and most of its forces were engaged on the Continent leaving the country vulnerable. At first Prince Charles did not seem to pose much of a threat. Some Tory Jacobite conspirators had been arrested the previous year causing the French to withdraw their planned support of the rebellion and the Prince arrived in Scotland with little back-up.
However the rebellion rapidly gained momentum. By mid September, Charles was in Edinburgh, holding court at Holyrood Palace and declaring the Act of Union between England and Scotland null and void. On 21st September, the Jacobites won a decisive victory at Prestonpans against British forces under Sir John Cope. When the news reached London there was a shock reaction and outbreaks of anti-Catholic sentiment and violence all over the country.
In this charged atmosphere, a dairyman presented himself to the Mayor of Poole carrying a letter which he swore to have found, together with a piece of paper and a handkerchief lying on the ground near Poole ‘in a Wheel-Rut full of Water’. All that could be deciphered on the paper which was very wet, were the words ‘call on the way at Portsmouth, Canford, Lulworth, Weymouth, Exeter and Plymouth.’ The letter was addressed to Francis Weld Esq. of Lulworth and read as follows:
‘Sir Sept 22, 1745
Having the Opportunity by a trusty Friend who is going to Plymouth, to advise our Catholick Friends how to act with Relation to the Prisoners, the which also is to stop near Weymouth: I thought proper to wish you joy of the Success of our Friends in the North. When our Neighbours arrive in the West I hope you will be ready to assist them as promised in your last, but I fear the Winds have prevented them as yet; my humble respects to S. J. W. and all Friends at Canford and Lulworth. Our Friend being in Expedition, I conclude, Your Humble Servant, I. W.’
The Mayor immediately sent the letter to Lord Shaftesbury, the Lord Lieutenant of Dorset who sent an express to London and another to Plymouth. The local sheriff was sent to Lulworth Castle to search for arms or any other evidence but found nothing incriminating. Shortly after, a party consisting of a Colonel and Captain of the Guards, a King’s Messenger, a deputy from the Duke of Newcastle and three others arrived at Lulworth to arrest Francis Weld and take him to London for examination.
The S. J. W. referred to in the letter was almost certainly Sir John Webb, the Lord of the Manor of Canford and Poole but he was in France and approaching 80 years of age at the time of the letter. In fact he died at Aix-La-Chapelle that same month. The Welds and the Webbs were both rich land-owning Catholic families with a history of recusancy, natural targets for suspicion by the authorities at such a time.
Francis Weld was held in custody for a while but discharged after several interrogations. The true origin of the letter was never discovered, but even the most paranoid authorities must have had their doubts of its authenticity. The thinly veiled references to ‘our Friends in the North’ and ‘our Neighbours’ arriving in the West and ‘humble respects to S. J. W. and all Friends at Canford’ were too blatant, and the idea that such an incriminating document would be carelessly dropped in the countryside was rather too much to swallow.