Throughout a turbulent century, the Skutt family was at the heart of events in Poole. The family was a large one with the habit of using certain common Christian names, George, William, Thomas, Joseph and Benjamin, so it is sometimes difficult to tell which individual is being referred to in the records. To add to the problems, the parish registers are damaged, making it hard or impossible to find vital entries. This article therefore needs to be regarded as work in progress and far from definitive.
George, son of William Skutt, was baptised in Poole in 1582. There were other branches of the family living in the town. William and Morgan Skutt were listed among those required to attend to fight at Brownsea castle in the Poole census of 1574 while George Skutt and his wife and Mar (Morgan?) Skutt and his wife appeared in the main list of residents.
In 1608, George Skutt was admitted as a burgess of the town for a consideration of 20s and in 1614 he served as Sheriff. His name also appeared in the town accounts paying the quarterly tax imposed upon brewers. Brewing was an important trade in Poole, not only supplying the needs of the town and ships sailing from the port but also supporting a healthy export trade, particularly to the Channel Islands. Many of the leading citizens included brewing among their business interests.
Sometime before 1613, George married Jane Roberts, daughter of the merchant, M.P. and several times Mayor of Poole, Thomas Roberts. He also bought an old house known as the Priory in the corn market area of High Street. Over the next two decades, the couple raised at least twelve children, eleven of whom survived their father. In 1621/2, George served as Mayor for the first time, the beginning of a long connection with public affairs.
In the 1620s and 1630s, local shipping was under attack from pirates, including Barbary pirates from North Africa, operating in the Channel. The fleet sailing out to Newfoundland to fish for cod in the summer season was drastically reduced by their attacks. One expedient was to issue Letters of Marque and Commissions to Fight Pirates for many privately owned ships, among them the Desire owned by George Skutt and Thomas Roberts’ ship the Concord, which received their licences in 1626. The following year, the two ships were successful in capturing a pirate vessel and bringing her back into Poole.
In 1628 a list of Poole ships and seamen showed George Skutt as the leading ship-owner of the town. Besides the Desire (80 tons), he also owned the Seaflower (60 tons), the Primrose (50 tons), the Susanna (20 tons) and was joint owner with his father-in-law of the Jeane (50 tons). The record did not show where the ships were employed but George’s largest vessels were certainly of a size to take part in Newfoundland trade in normal times. The fact that the times were far from normal was emphasised in a report from Poole that same year. The port had lost twenty ships worth £13,400 in the previous four years. Where once twenty ships had been employed in the Newfoundland fishery, there were now only three. In 1632, as George Skutt served again as Mayor, he was involved with Trinity House in efforts to ransom 22 Poole sailors taken captive by Barbary pirates and likely to be sold into slavery.
To fund ships to combat the pirate threat, the King levied a Ship Money tax on coastal towns. In 1634 and again in 1635, Poole was asked for £60, nearly equal to the town’s entire annual revenue. People paid up slowly and with resentment and the town’s complaints of poverty resulted in the sum being reduced to £30 in 1636 and £24 in 1637. The committee which had the hard task of raising the money included George Skutt, mayor for the third time, and his eldest son William who had been admitted as a burgess in 1632 and was to serve as Sheriff in 1639.
By 1642, relations between the King and Parliament had broken down and Charles left London with his family. In August, he raised his standard at Nottingham. Poole declared for Parliament and set about organising its defences under Governor, Col. John Bingham. In March 1643, William Skutt, now Captain of Volunteers for the town, ‘took and apprehended’ the Mayor of Poole, Henry Harbin and Johnson Melledge, inn-keeper and Collector of Customs, as delinquents. What they had done or why their loyalty was suspect, we do not know. They were sent up to London to be questioned and William was given indemnity for arresting them. Johnson Melledge lost his post and was probably detained in custody but Henry Harbin was apparently back in Poole by August when he was named as a member of the committee for raising money for the armed forces. As George Skutt was also a member of the committee, it’s likely that proceedings were rather strained.
In the summer of 1643, members of the Poole garrison were besieging the Royalist stronghold of Corfe Castle under the command of Sir Walter Erle when news came of the advance of Royalist forces and the fall of a series of Parliamentary towns in Dorset. The siege was lifted in confusion and the troops withdrawn to Poole. The town’s Recorder and M.P. William Constantine wrote to the Poole authorities asking them to surrender to avoid the devastation of a siege. However the Poole men rejected the notion. In a letter to Portsmouth signed by John Bingham, Robert Butler (the Governor of Wareham), George Skutt and William Skutt, the garrison was described as ‘valiente and full resolved to fighte’. The letter concluded by asking God to ‘give us hartes never to feare them that are runninge headlong into hell’. Later that year, William Constantine was disabled as Poole’s M.P. and recorder.
In the event Poole avoided a siege and survived a plot to betray the town. The garrison also scored some military successes against the Royalists but in the next couple of years Poole, along with other communities, suffered shortages of food and other necessities. In June 1644, Parliament supplied £500 ‘for the Service of Poole, now in great Distress’. That summer, the local Standing Committees across the country were given greatly expanded powers. They could, for instance, assess wealth and raise money, assemble forces and appoint officers, imprison anyone disturbing the peace or considered to be a malignant or delinquent, dismiss ill-affected ministers and school-masters and sequester their estates and distrain goods in lieu of payments due. The members of the Poole committee, John Bingham, George Skutt, Aron Durell, Haviland Hiley, William Skutt and John Mellmoth had thus acquired immense power and influence in the community.
Among many important families and individuals, the Skutt family’s position in local affairs was prominent. In the autumn, George Skutt began his fourth term as Mayor of Poole. Meanwhile William continued in his military role as well as serving on the Committee. In September, for instance, eight guns were sent from the Isle of Wight to be delivered to Captain Skutt and Captain Harding for the use of the Poole garrison and the Brownsea blockhouse. (Henry Harding, captain of Brownsea Castle, was probably the husband of Jane Skutt and William’s brother-in-law.)
In the late summer of 1645, as George’s year of mayoralty was coming to an end, the town was terrified by the appearance of the dreaded symptoms of plague among the population. The authorities had to respond urgently to the situation. The sick were first isolated in the windmill at Baiter and then four pest houses were built to contain the increasing numbers. In September as Aron Durell took over as Mayor, the town was in crisis with normal life on hold. To secure food for the town, Poole’s leading men made contact with other local towns to beg for money or supplies. George Skutt and Henry Harbin managed to obtain £50 6s 7d from Southampton while other sums came from Shaftesbury, Dorchester, Christchurch and Blandford by the efforts of Haviland Hiley, John Mellmoth and others. At around 63 years of age, George Skutt was possibly too old to ride around the countryside at war as others did. ‘Major George Skutt’, however, did perhaps travel to obtain the £23 he secured from Portsmouth and the 10 bushels of meal for the town’s use. The major was almost certainly George’s second son, George junior, but I have not discovered how he acquired his military title.
In December the outbreak was showing signs of abating. In London, Parliament had detained William Constantine for questioning and now appointed George Skutt to be M.P. for Poole in his place. How much time he spent in Parliament, given his local duties, is not clear. The Skutts were now even more prominent than before. In 1646-7, William served as Mayor of Poole while George junior was admitted as a burgess in 1647 and appointed Sheriff in the same year. In March 1647, according to the Journal of the House of Commons, William Skutt was approved as Governor of Poole and Brownsea Castle.
In November 1647, Lt. Col. John Rede was apparently appointed to the Governor’s position by commission from General Fairfax. Perhaps he did not take up his post immediately or he and William Skutt worked together over the next few months. Certainly in August 1648, Parliament was in correspondence with William Skutt who had reported on the condition of the garrison and the urgent need for supplies. The authorities replied to him as Governor of Poole and also wrote to the Dorset Committee: ‘we therefore recommend these garrisons [including Poole] to your especial care and desire their speedy supply lest they should be seized by the enemy’. In October 1648, however, Sir Walter Erle was asked to deliver supplies to Lt. Col. John Rede, Governor of Poole and Brownsea Castle and this seems to mark the transition to the new governorship.
This was far from the end of the story of the Skutts of Poole. In fact a battle for the leadership of Poole was about to take place, the subject of our special talk on Saturday 26th September. During the second half of the century, as we shall see, the family story expanded to include London, Barbados, Jamaica, the coasts of Africa and contacts with kings.
(To be continued . . )