Sciant presentes et futuri quod ego Willemus Lungespee dedi et concessi et hac presenti carta mei confirmavi pro me et heredibus meis burgensibus meis de Pola et heredibus suis omnimodas libertates et liberas consuetudines. . . So begins one of Poole’s oldest documents, the charter granted to the borough by William Longspee, Lord of the Manor of Canford, around the year 1248. Translated into English this reads: Be it known to those present and those to come that I, William Longspee, for me and my heirs, have given and granted and have confirmed by this my present charter all manner of liberties and free customs to my burgesses of Poole and their heirs.
The charter, which marked the start of local government in Poole and cost the new borough 70 marks (£47), is a very modest document to look at, only about 11 inches by 7 and very clear to read in spite of being over 750 years old. Its timing probably had something to do with Longspee’s need for cash to equip himself to join the seventh crusade. He was killed in battle in Egypt in1250, fighting bravely against the Saracens.
There are many thousands of documents in the Poole archives, some plain, some highly decorative like the later charters granted by Queen Elizabeth I and Charles II. They include court proceedings, personal letters and diaries, town accounts penned by long-dead clerks, colourful maps, property documents, estate papers, business letter books and much more. Some are amazingly well preserved while others are faded, fragile or incomplete, but there is always a thrill unfolding these crackling relics of the past because you never know what you are going to find. Once past all the difficulties of archaic language, highly individual spelling and antique handwriting, these documents are priceless because they provide us with direct voices from the past.
Here for instance are some of the arguments used by Poole merchants in a petition to King Henry VI that Poole rather than Melcombe should be made a Port of the Staple: Havynge consideration to the feblenesse and nonsufficeaute of your porte of Melcombe, nought inhabited ne of strengthe to considere the goodes and marchandizes of youre marchantz . . to withstande and resiste the malice of youre enemies . . and on the tother side . . howe youre towne and havyn of Pole is wele enhabited and manned, where your mair and burgeys bee fully purposed, your gracious license therto hadde to walle, enkennell and fortefie youre said towne and havyn sufficiently by Goddes grace, for the saufgarde of alle marchaundises and other goodes there comynge . . whereupon it like to youre seid mageste to . . anulle the seide porte of Melcombe and make youre seid towne and havyn of Pole a porte. (Parliamentary Rolls 1433)
Sometimes there is the echo of a Dorset accent in the written words as in this confession by Elinor Spencer that her husband Gowin had been involved in the brutal double murder of Mistress Alice Green and her servant Agnes Beard in 1598: On a wednesdaie about eleven years past my husband was abroad in the Town until it was eight of the clocke. I had made a Ruggen buttered for his supper, and when he came in I asked him where he had bene so late . . . to which he answered that I shold goe to supper for he could eate nothinge. With that I looked on him and found behinde in one of his stockings a greate blacke spott, and thought it had bene a stewed prune. But I putt my hand to it and found it did clinge to my fingers and proved it to be a Clotte of thicke bloode. . . . . . Roberte Hill was with my husband on the wednesdaie and it was hee who committed the murther, but Gowin brought home with him a bodkin made of a gimlet which he had made round and sharpe. As yet I still have him and doe use him in the garden. I will fetche him unto Mr Maior. (Testimony of Elinor Spencer to Mayor Roger Mawdley 6th June 1610)
Coming across the following case, my first reaction was to wonder what the 12 men listed had done to each earn a fine of 5 shillings (a week’s wages). In fact they had simply yielded to a very human temptation, as quickly became clear: Joseph Skinington / Christopher Rowland / Richard Williams / Henry Stone / William Hopkins / William Bremble / John Mager / Richard Vine / Abraham Toms / William Derham / Richard Newland and Mordekay Whatley. Fine Vs each. Tot. £3 – For that they and either of them beeing Jurors Sworne to try the Issue betweene our Sovaigne Lord the King and Dennes Smith Senr. of the said Towne and County Did Contrary to the ord of the Court Absent themselves from the Jury Chamber in the said Hall and went Downe to the Key and from thence to a Tipling house to Consider of their Verdict to the great delay and abuse of the Court. (Poole Quarter Sessions 1st Sept 1682)
Some documents evoke a particular picture, like this candle-lit scene in the small hours of an October morning 300 years ago: Memorandum that on the Two and Twentieth day of October Anno Dom. 1703 about two of the Clock in the Morning, Wee, Daniel Hide of the Towne and County of Poole, Clerke, William Skutt of the Same, Merchant, Nicholas Perce of the Same, Baker and John Skutt of the Same, Labourer being in Presence of Miles Bownes of the Same Towne and County, victualler at his Chamber in the George Inn in Poole aforesaid, where he laye sicke in his bed and more likely to dye than to live but yett of sound minde and memory Being desired to settle his wordly Affayres before his Death and to Declare his will how his estate should be disposed of after his decease, Did declare in our Presence and hearing that he did give unto his brother Humfrey Bownes one Shilling to Cutt him of from being troublesome to his wife after his Death. And all the Rest of his Estate whatsoever he did give and bequeath unto his loveing wife Mary Bownes And that this was his last will & Testament In witnesse whereof wee have hereunto sett our hands the said Two and Twentieth day of October about Twelve of the Clock at noone Anno Dm. 1703 Daniel Hide Mnr Ibid: / Wm Skutt / Nicholas Perce / John Skutt his mk. (Will of Miles Bownes 1703)
The following account of a notorious 18th century smuggling incident gives the custom officers’ point of view of what happened on the fateful night: On the 24th instant about Eleven o’clock at Night, Lieutenant Down Commander of the Folkestone cutter then lying in Brownsea Road landed on the North Shore with Fourteen of his Hands & found a large Quantity of Tea on the shore, & about Twenty Men with it loading it on their Horses. Mr. Robert Wilson, Midshipman of the Cutter got on one of the Smugglers’ Horses that had no Goods on him & rode in amongst the Smugglers & the Goods (which he declar’d he seiz’d) when they immediately knock’d him off the Horse & beat him in a most cruel manner with the great End of their horse Whips about the Head and other Parts for a considerable time.
Mr. Edward Morrice, Mr. Down’s Clerk was the next that came up who they beat in the same manner & fir’d a Pistol at him, & the Ball graz’d his Breast. They then dragg’d him into the Sea, & left him there almost dead, & as he imagines with a design for the Breakers to drown him but with great difficulty he crawl’d out . . . At this Juncture Mr. Down with his other Hands came up & got in amongst them, & he declar’d that if any one offer’d to carry away any of the Tea he would fire at them on which some that had their horses loaded endeavour’d to get off when he gave orders to his men to hamstring their Horses & cutt the Bags of Tea from them, which was done to several, but in their doing this several of the Folkestone’s Men were beat by the Smugglers with their Whips, had Two Pistols snap’d at them by the Smugglers & Eneas Atkins able Seaman shot by them thro’ the Leg. They then made use of the means in their Power to defend themselves & secure the Goods: And one Robert Trotman of, or near the Devizes, the Head of a desperate Gang of Smugglers was kill’d: but as it was very dark, Mr. Down nor any of his Men could be certain who shot him, whether they or the smugglers & Nine of their Horses died on or near the Shore of their Wounds. (Poole Custom House Letter Book 27th March 1765)
The town was also at times a disorderly place as this indictment shows: Lydia Wills, late of Parish of St. James, Poole, widow is indicted with keeping an ill-governed and disorderly house with men and women of ill repute, drinking, whoring and misbehaving to the common nuisance of the other inhabitants. Plea: Guilty. Sentence: To be imprisoned in the workhouse for six months. (Quarter Sessions Indictments 12th January 1781)
Some fifty years later, the coming of gas lighting must have transformed the streets, a fitting occasion for celebration: Gas and Coke Company: George Ledgard Esq., in the Chair. The contractor having intimated to the Directors that the works are in such a state of forwardness that gas maybe supplied to the public by 10th instant, it was resolved that the town be lighted with gas on the evening of the above day and the Directors, in order to celebrate the event, will assemble at the gas works, at half-past seven o’clock and proceed from thence in procession through the town, terminating their perambulation at the Antelope Inn at 9 o’clock where the Directors will sup together. Resolved – that the above resolution be printed and a copy sent to each of the shareholders and others promoters of the undertaking and to the several public functionaries in the town, inviting them to accompany the directors in the procession and to join them at the supper to be provided on the occasion. Tickets to be had at the bar of the Antelope Hotel or at Sydenhams Library on or before Saturday 8th instant.
The following burials were among those recorded during the cholera epidemic of 1849: 30th June: Fanny Weeks, child of John Weeks, aged 41/2 from cholera. 30th June: Amy Weeks, child of John Weeks, aged 21/2, from cholera. 2nd July: Harriet Weeks, child of John Weeks, aged 6, from cholera. 3rd July: George Weeks, son of John Weeks, aged 15 from cholera. 3rd July: child of John Weeks, aged 10 from cholera. 5th July: Louisa Weeks wife of John Weeks, aged 40, from cholera (or grief?) [clerk’s note]. (Skinner Street Congregational Church Register 1849)
An controversial planning decision in Victorian days produced this earnest petition: To the Mayor and Councillors of Poole: We the undersigned inhabitants of the Borough of Poole request you most respectfully but yet most urgently to re-consider a resolution of the Town Council made 27th November adopting the report of the land committee recommending the offer of a portion of the Gas Quay to Messieurs. Carter and Company for a term of 75 years – for £15 a year. We respectfully urge upon you to consider and give due weight to the fact that since its first formation when it was called Pinney’s Park that it has been used by us as a Recreation Ground it is almost the only easily accessible piece of ground now by water side, where the sea breezes can be obtained by us and the children of the town. It is also in the summer time, a favourite and frequent resort of invalids much valued since two seats have been placed there by the kindness of Mr. Henry Farmer we most earnestly and respectfully entreat you to preserve this ground as a healthful recreation resort for all classes of the town and improve it by planting a double row of trees and making a gravel path along its northern edge apposite the Gas Works put seats underneath the trees, level the ground and lay down grass for the children of the town to scamper over. We ask you not to let even one square foot more of this people’s recreation ground to be built upon or enclosed. (Petition on the Gas Quay 1882/3)
The above examples are just the result of a quick lucky dip into the archives which contain 700 years of business, tragedy, comedy, celebration and everyday transactions. The Poole Borough Archive documents are kept at the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester. At the moment they are in the process of being catalogued and more and more are appearing on the catalogue at: https://www.dorsetforyou.com/dorsethistorycentre . If you have a particular interest to pursue, it’s worth checking on the catalogue under a family name, place name or topic to see what comes up. There is nothing quite like seeing the origin documents for yourself but as a preliminary, try checking in the Poole History Centre where you will find copies of quite a few documents as well as transcripts and summaries of others. There also some transcripts available via Poole History Online at: http://www.poolehistory.org.uk . Other records including parish records and census returns can be found on the commercial websites such as Ancestry. The internet of course has become a fabulous tool for local and family history research, but it can never quite replace the thrill of reading real documents from the past.