Wartime Christmas 1917

Europe bitterly divided, war in Iraq, controversy over Jerusalem, suspicions over developments in Russia – is this 2017 or 100 years ago? Browsing the local newspaper in the run up to Christmas 1917, there are clear parallels with the situation today but also massive differences.

The year 1917 had been momentous, with the loss of over a million tons of shipping to U-boats, disasters for the French on the battlefield and terrible casualties at Passchendaele. One ray of hope for the allies was the U.S. declaration of war on Germany in April. The British were using new destructive tactics such as the detonation of huge mines at Messines Ridge and a mass tank attack at Cambrai. In Russia, the Tsar had abdicated and a Communist government was installed under Lenin. Jerusalem had been captured by the British, General Allenby entering the city on foot out of respect.

After three years of a terrible war, Poole people had become used to shortages, fear and loss. They were familiar with the names of distant places where their husbands, sons and brothers were serving and were eager for any scrap of war news. One grim feature of every edition of the Poole and Dorset Herald was the weekly Roll of Honour column, reporting injuries or deaths in action of local men. In contrast, up-beat letters from servicemen writing home were frequently printed. In early December, the newspaper contained a letter from the son of Mrs. Whitley of West Street serving with the Dorset Regiment in Mesopotamia who was having a rest after being in action. He had had ‘a warm time’ but he and another Poole man, Herb Rigler, had managed to get through without a wound although three or four Poole men had been killed or injured.

Not all the news was about the war. The Poole Sanitary Committee was debating the condition of houses in Old Orchard and Church Street in response to a report from the Medical Officer of Health. The owners had been served notices to give good reason why the defective premises should not be demolished. The Committee was also concerned about the White House Laundry which was emitting black smoke, and sceptical over the owner’s claim that he was having great difficulty obtaining smokeless coal. The laundry was not the only offender. Councillor Stevens complained that people were sometimes unable to see each other in East Street because of smoke from the gas works.

A community-wide effort to entertain the soldiers

A pleasant weekend had been spent by the soldiers at the Poole Soldiers’ Home. As one of them remarked when ‘taking a hot cup of coffee prior to starting out for a 16 mile cycle ride to camp’, “Whatever we fellows would do without this place, I can’t think.” The Sunday night social consisted of selections on the piano by Mr. Benboe of London and songs to the accompaniment of the auto-harp by Miss C. Reed and Miss Senior. The audience sang ‘O God our Help in Ages Past’ in memory of Lance Corporal Arthur Gritten of Maple Road, Poole. Donations to local hospitals for the benefit of wounded soldiers included socks, gloves, mittens, biscuits, apples and even bottles of pickles. Entertainment was also on offer at the Amity Palace of Variety with Miss Evelyn Brewster and Co. in a novelty all lady sketch entitled ‘The Real Lady Raffles’ and ‘star pictures’ including The Heart of Norah Flynn, a dramatic silent film starring Marie Doro and directed by Cecil B DeMille.

Scene from ‘The Heart of Norah Flynn’

Some Christmas spirit was appearing in Poole. The newspaper reported that ‘the purveyors of the good things of this life, in Poole as elsewhere, are beginning to exhibit their stores in great abundance and variety. The butchers as usual stocked to overflowing, make a most tempting display.’ (Although a 21 lb turkey sold in Wareham for £3 6s 0d provoked the paper into mutterings about ‘mugs’ and ‘excessive war profits’.) The International Stores was urging people to drink coffee for breakfast to help the Food Controller to cope with the shortage of tea, and the Borough Studio reminded customers not to forget the Boys’ Christmas: ‘have your photo taken now with Xmas Greetings, Special Price 4/- doz’.

Blake’s butchers

For most shops the theme of their Christmas advertisements was usefulness. S. M. Silverman of 60, High Street was offering ‘a fine selection of useful household requisites suitable for presents at prices within the reach of everyone’ while H.W. Jordan and Son, general drapers, proclaimed ‘Useful Xmas Presents’ and simply advised their readers to ‘see our windows’. Ladies’ outfitter, M. Prankard also felt that her coney and musquash coats, fur ties and muffs would be useful Christmas gifts.

Freddie Guest M.P.

On the political scene, the paper reported a speech made by Freddie Guest, the M.P. for East Dorset, to the House of Commons on behalf of the War Aims Committee. The third son of Lord Wimborne of Canford, Freddie Guest had been a regular soldier and returned to active service on the outbreak of war. In 1916 he received a D.S.O. for service in East Africa and then was invalided out with a serious illness. In his speech he defended the activities of the War Aims Committee which had been set up in industrial areas ‘where patriotic citizens asked the Government to take the platform from those who were holding it unpatriotically and against the interests of the nation’. Their work consisted of holding meetings and distributing literature, in fact acting as a propaganda organisation for the Government against disruptive elements. The committee was a cross-party body, not sectionalist and, he argued, did not cost very much considering its effectiveness, although it was not appropriate to disclose exactly how much.

In the December 20th edition of the paper, a Christian message was published under the headline ‘What shall Christmas be?’ The writer acknowledged the burden of celebrating a fourth wartime Christmas but maintained that the country had much to be thankful for. Britain had not lost the war and its shores had not been invaded ‘by the foot of a foul and murderous foe’. There was cause to celebrate because the country was fighting, sacrificing and dying for the very cause that ‘the Babe of Bethlehem was born to work out and fulfill’. (Would we see things in quite that way today?) The occupation of Jerusalem had made the story of Christ’s birth closer to us than ever before. Merriment might be inappropriate but quiet celebration was not and the paper concluded by wishing its readers all that Christmas means to ‘a Christian nation in the grip of war.’

Reading about the preoccupations of Poole people 100 years ago, it is impossible to ignore the shadow that the war cast over every aspect of everyday life. In contrast, squabbles between politicians over Brexit seem very minor problems!

Jenny

Main source: Poole and Dorset Herald November and December 1917.

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From Pickaxe to Paver

Recently I came across an estimate from 1843 for repairing and ‘Macadamizing’ parts of the High Street and it made me think of the difference between the process of road surfacing today and in early Victorian times. Everyone who has been into Poole in the last few months must have noticed that there have been a few road works in progress. Drivers into the town centre found themselves waiting in queues or undertaking unexpected little tours, directed by lines of red barriers and bollards. At first the pattern changed every week but once the resurfacing started, it was every half day or even every couple of hours. Bus stops were in and out of use like yo-yos and pedestrians learned to watch out for traffic on the wrong side of the road, smoking tarmac beneath their feet and rapidly approaching rollers.

At one stage, the resurfacing vehicles were parked at the end of our road in all their colourful splendour. The most intriguing one was a strange hybrid beast with two sets of tracks, an extended body and a long conveyor belt stretching out in front. Each morning, the kitchen cabinets would start to vibrate as this machine trundled past, like some pre-historic creature from a dead-end branch of the evolutionary tree. Some minutes later it would trundle back in reverse, but the precise purpose of this excursion, I never discovered. However, I would get to see the beast in action a couple of days later.

Workmen in upper High Street

Back in 1843, the stone paving of the High Street was in a poor condition and the Borough Surveyor had requested a specification for resurfacing, using the relatively new technique of macadamizing. John Loudon McAdam was an experienced road engineer who had learnt his trade on the turnpike roads of Scotland and the West Country. Adapting the techniques of road builders like Thomas Telford, he believed that massive foundations were unnecessary as long as the road surface was strong and waterproof. An underlying 20cm layer of stones 7.5cm or less in diameter was covered by a 5cm thick layer of stones only 2cm in size, much narrower than the iron wheels of the carts and carriages that travelled over it. This top layer was spread very carefully and evenly with only a slight rise to the centre of the road. No binding material was applied and it was found that the passage of the traffic alone would create a strong weatherproof surface.

The corn market fountain later in the century

Twenty years or so after the first macadamized roads were laid down, Frederick Easton of Oakley wrote out his specification and estimate for the High Street job. The stretch to be resurfaced was from Weston’s Lane to the Quay and Easton proposed that the present paving should be broken up ‘and the stones cracked on the spot to a size not exceeding one Inch & a half in Diameter’. The road as far as the corn market was to slope at least six inches from the centre to the sides with new border stones for the gutters where necessary. The top layer of stones was to be carefully laid ‘at the rate of Eight yards in every perch and to have at least one yard of clean sand mixed with it’. From the corner of the corn market to the Quay, the road (being narrower) would slope not more than 3 inches from the centre to the sides. The corn market was ‘to be curved and formed to the pleasure of the Surveyor’ and there were some adjustments such as lowering the road near Morcom’s house about 6 inches and eliminating a dip near Fish Street (now Castle Street). The cost for the whole job, ‘to be performed in a workman like manner and to the satisfaction of the Surveyor’ was £140.

If the present road works have caused some inconvenience, imagine the situation of the High Street residents and shop-owners in the 1840s. The road in front of their premises was to be torn up, presumably by a team of men with pickaxes and then the area would become a stone breaking yard with men hammering away all day long to reduce the stones to the size of small pebbles. How long they and their customers would have to put up with the disruption, dust, mud and noise is anyone’s guess.

Today the process of breaking up the road surface is much more streamlined as I discovered the day I saw the beast at its work. Hitching itself up on its tracks it manoeuvred into place and then with an unseen claw, started carving away the surface of the road with amazing speed, sending the broken fragments of tarmac up its conveyor belt neck into a truck moving slowly in front. No pickaxes, shovels or wheelbarrows needed. As I understand, this creature is called a road planer or as I like to call it, planersaurus.

Roller and paver on Longfleet Road

To resurface to road, the paver is brought into action. These square tarry machines move forward at a snail’s pace, emitting steam and leaving a trail of sticky black tarmac behind them. The amazing thing is how such cumbersome vehicles manage to avoid grids and manhole covers so skilfully. Then the rollers are deployed to compress and smooth the final surface. The truth is of course that the machines are operated by men as skilled at their different jobs as the workmen of the 1840s. Nevertheless it was somehow reassuring to see a few awkward sections that the vehicles could not reach being tended by men with wheelbarrows, long-handled shovels and hand rollers.

Jenny

 

Poole and the Press

In 1759 it was reported in the Annual Register that Captain Nickleson of Poole, master of the Thomas and Elizabeth had been awarded the sum of £1,000 with costs in a court case against Captain Fortescue of the Prince Edward man of war. Acting for the impress service, Fortescue had taken so many men from Nickleson’s ship, as she sailed back to Poole that she foundered and was lost. This was just one of the more extreme incidents involving the infamous press gang and the port of Poole.

Legalised by a series of Acts from 1664 onwards, the press had been set up to help supply the Royal Navy with the large numbers of seamen it needed in time of war. Service in the navy was unpopular with many sailors because conditions were poor, discipline harsh and pay usually less than in the merchant service. There was also a policy of paying the men six months in arrears to discourage desertion. The answer of the authorities was a system of forced recruitment, targeting seafaring men between the ages of 18 and 55, (although non-seamen were sometimes taken). It was an offence in law to resist the press, which was therefore both hated and feared. For the merchants and ship-owners who stood to lose their best seamen it was a cause of great resentment.

St James old church

Poole merchants were known to allow their men to disembark before the ships reached port or to hide them on their country estates to escape the press. Local magistrates sometimes delayed signing the Impressment Certificates authorising the press men to operate in the town, so as to give seamen a chance to make themselves scarce. They also issued men with ‘Protections’ or certificates of exemption on various pretexts. In the case of a ‘hot press’ however, these might count for little especially as the press gang members were recruited more for their brawn than for their finer scruples. In February 1762, it is reported that one unfortunate young man was carried off from the door of St. James’ church where he was about to be married.

The press also took men from merchant ships at sea, encircling the coast with their tenders and particularly targeting the main trade routes including those taken by the Newfoundland ships. Sometimes a ship might be dangerously depleted of crewmen. In 1741 the Joseph and Mary was so late in returning to Poole that she was given up for lost. When she finally limped into port it was discovered that she had lost 15 crew members to the press. It was in this context that the disastrous loss of the Thomas and Elizabeth occurred.

The actions of the press also affected the work of the Customs Service. In 1770 local customs officers reported to their superiors that, hearing there was ‘a very hot press’ in Poole, four men took a boat from the Elizabeth and went ashore to avoid being pressed before the ship entered quarantine. Later the same month, five men went on shore from the Nancy to escape the press and could not be traced. The ‘terror of falling into the hands of the impress officers’ seemed likely to undermine the quarantine system to the danger of the public. Customs men themselves were not exempt from being pressed. After one such incident in 1779, local customs men wrote to their headquarters: ‘We waited on Captain Scott to know whether he would release these men which he refused & said he would impress even Extra Tidesmen who was fit to serve in His Majesty’s Navy, that was not on actual duty, which if he persists in doing we are certain the Service must suffer greatly & therefore humbly pray Your Honours’ Speedy Directions what is to be done.’ In 1780 they reported that customs officers could not go into the country to search for run goods without an escort from the military.

Benjamin Lester

Believing that the press was essential to the navy, the national authorities continued to support the system in spite of the antagonism raised in the country. It was this resentment that led to the worst incident of all involving Poole and the press. In 1794, the brig Maria belonging to leading merchant Benjamin Lester was returning to Poole from Newfoundland, having on board a number of passengers, mainly fishermen returning to their homes in Dorset. On the night of Saturday 29th November the brig’s master George Randall anchored in Studland Bay, where the pilot Thomas Allen came aboard around midnight. A tender of the impress service was in the area, commanded by Lieutenants John Glover and Nathaniel Phillips with Midshipman Arthur Oliver. Glover sent a boat loaded with men to board the brig but the passengers and crew of the Maria refused to allow the press on board and continued to resist when the tender also came alongside. The tender anchored near to the brig for the night.

The following day the Maria with Thomas Allen at the helm entered Poole Harbour, closely shadowed by the tender which had on board 20 soldiers besides the impress men. It was ‘between ‘Brownsea and Jack-in-the-Basket’ according to later testimony that Lieut. Phillips told the pilot to come to and anchor, but Thomas Allen replied that the passengers would not allow him to do so. Shortly after, the impress men and soldiers succeeded in getting on board. Captain Randall and some of the passengers including Captain Stephen Pack were confined below decks while the Lieutenants and their men impressed all they could find and took them on board the tender. Hearing shots, Captain Pack ‘broke out of the cabin where he had been confined and went on Deck & cry’d for Quarters & desir’d them to bring the boat for that many people were killed or wounded’. When Captain Randall reached the deck he found that Thomas Allen and two others, Peter Rake and John Housley had been shot dead and several others badly injured, two of whom later died.

The Antelope Inn

That night Benjamin Lester noted in his diary that when the brig was brought to the Quay there was such an outcry that it was only through the presence of soldiers garrisoned in the town that the magistrates managed to save the Lieutenants from harm. Two inquests were held in the following week, the first at the Poole Arms on Thomas Allen and the other at the Antelope Inn on Rake and Housley. With feelings running high, verdicts of murder was found against Glover, Phillips and the Midshipman Oliver, who was alleged to have shot Housley through the head. Believing that the three could not receive a fair trial in Poole, the Admiralty intervened and they were tried instead at the Old Bailey. In June 1795 they were acquitted of the charges.

Following this tragedy, feelings must hardened even more against the press in Poole but there were times when even service in the navy was better than the alternatives on offer. In 1800, with famine in the countryside, young men flocked into Poole and were pressed in large numbers. Washed, cheaply clothed and given a knife, spoon, comb and a piece of soap each, they found themselves on board where they could at least be sure of avoiding starvation. Four years later in 1804, Captain Walbeoff and Lieutenant Osmer, with a midshipman and eight press gang men broke into the house of mariner William Trim to press him. Trim tried to escape, hitting the midshipman with a red hot poker, but was overpowered and disarmed. His sister going to his aid was also assaulted and when his father, a man of around 70, came rushing in, he was stabbed in the back and beaten. Following this incident an Admiralty inquiry was held into the conduct of the impress officers.

With no signs of an end to the long war with France, the demand for men to supply the navy was unrelenting. In 1805, the local impress men complained that the customs officers showed an ‘unjustifiable’ inclination to obstruct them in their duty. The customs officers were refusing to inform the press when a ship was released from quarantine and stood on their dignity when asked to explain: ‘We beg leave to observe that we are not aware of its being customary at any of the out-ports for the Office of Customs to give such information to the Office of the Impress Service’.

A couple of incidents involving Robert Gillet, landlord of the Lion and Lamb in Salisbury Street, were more farce than tragedy. On one occasion Lieutenant John Marshall of the impress service had pressed a seaman in the taproom of the inn. Gillet’s wife and daughter assaulted Marshall and then followed him out into the street shouting abuse. A crowd quickly gathered and Marshall escaped with difficulty. Another time an impress midshipman, Michael Ryan, was passing the inn when Gillet grabbed hold of a gig which was standing in the yard and tried to run Ryan down. According to the court report: ‘on being asked why he did it, defendant said “If you don’t like it you may kiss my arse” which he frequently repeated and used many other opprobrious and insulting expressions.’

For a long time the impressment system had been justified by the authorities on the grounds that it was supporting Britain’s freedom by helping to maintain naval supremacy. By the end of the Napoleonic wars the system was seen as clearly unjust and oppressive and was at last discontinued.

Jenny

Main sources: Poole Custom House Letter Book / Hutchinson The Press Gang Afloat and Ashore / Beamish and others The Pride of Poole 1688-1851. /  Poole archives – Coroner’s Inquests

 

Poole’s Ghost Walls

Pause in the middle of Falkland Square, level with the turning into Kingland Crescent, and you are probably standing on the line of Poole’s long-vanished medieval defences. Cutting across this area four hundred years ago was a ditch stretching from Holes Bay in the west to Parkstone Bay in the east, backed by the town walls. To the west near the site of the present railway station was the only landward entrance to the town, the ‘embattled gate of stone’ known as the towngate, reached by a drawbridge.

Map of the defences c.1634

The defences were constructed in the 15th century following a grant from Henry VI in 1433 making Poole a Port of the Staple or customs port for Dorset. Permission for the Poole inhabitants to build defences was included in the grant: ‘The mayor and Burgesses of the said town of Pole propose (as we conceive) sufficiently to wall, embattle and fortify (through our succour and licence) the said town and port for the more safe keeping of merchandizes and other goods coming thither, and also for the fortifying of the places adjacent.’

There is no record of the process of constructing the defences but it must have been a major operation. The chosen line of the wall and ditch took advantage of the geography of the town, cutting across the narrow neck of land joining the Poole peninsular to the main land. Elsewhere the town was protected by the sea and mudflats. Why the towngate was built to the west rather than near the middle of the defences is not clear. Perhaps it was a case of choosing the highest and most solid piece of ground, but its location required the building of an access road from High Street known as Towngate Lane (later Towngate Street). There are several images of the towngate on old maps, showing it as a square castellated gate house flanked by two round towers. There are also many references to it in the archives, as for instance in the town accounts of 1524 when the two new posts and nearly 2 cwt of iron were needed to repair the gate or in 1645 when workmen were paid for mending the chain of the drawbridge. In contrast, the walls are only sketchily depicted and seldom mentioned in the records.

The earliest image comes from a map or bird’s eye view of the Dorset coast dating from 1539 when Henry VIII was planning a series of forts and beacons against attack from the continent (one of which was the blockhouse on Brownsea Island). Confusingly to our eyes, south is shown at the top of the map and an added complication is that some of the depicted fortifications were never actually built. The Poole section shows the towngate with what might be a stretch of wall to the west and a cluster of buildings behind to represent the town. Two circular gun platforms are also shown, one on the Quay and one at the end of the Hamworthy peninsular. We know from the records that a gun platform was built on the quay in 1524, decorated with carved and painted heraldic animals from the royal coat of arms. This platform or its successor may be the one shown on the map, but as space was tight on the Quay it would have probably been removed as soon as the invasion threat was over. The Hamworthy fortification was known as the bulwark and is mentioned in the archives into the 1600s.

The old wall near the Quay

Shortly after the map was drawn up, the antiquary John Leland visited Poole and observed its layout. He described the town being connected to the main land ‘by the space almost of a flite shot’ and mentioned the towngate and the ditch, but not the walls at the north end of town. Instead he claimed that ‘King Richard III began a pece of a Toun Waulle at one end of the Kay; and promised large thinges to the Town of Pole.’ This may refer to a section of wall behind the buildings on Thames Street which still exists. Dating from the late 15th century or the 16th century (depending on which authority you consult) this wall of coursed limestone rubble is about 3m high, 30m long and in places nearly 1m thick. It contains an arched doorway and for part of its length, a projecting castellated top supported by corbels. On the inside are stone steps leading up to a parapet. Whether this was a town wall or a rather over-sized property boundary and whether it was originally longer and was ever finished are among the many questions surrounding the structure. What is clear is that at one time the shingle came up to foot of the wall but over time the shore was reclaimed, leaving the wall high and (literally) dry. By 1609, an inventory of a house on Thames Street describes its two gardens, one within and one outside ‘the battled wall’. In other words, by this date the wall had lost its function as a property boundary, let alone anything as grand as a town wall.

Map from the time of Elizabeth I

In 1582, a legal settlement with the town’s brewers over taxes made a rare reference to the town walls, describing how Poole’s revenues ‘must of necessity be from time to time employed used and bestowed upon the necessary provision and maintenance of the said town the church the haven the quay the walls and other necessary offices . . .’ Around the same time another map of the harbour seems to show the town completely walled around, with a structure, presumably the towngate, at the northern end of town. The details cannot be taken literally, but the map-maker clearly wanted to show a fortified town. It is not until the early 17th century that maps begin to show the layout of the town with some accuracy for the first time and it is from these that we get most information about the defences and their location.

Map c. 1630s from the Bankes family archive

By the time of the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Poole’s defences like those of many towns must have seemed like a relic from the past. In changed times, however, they were about to come into their own. Poole had declared its support for Parliament and one of the first actions of the authorities was to make an order that ‘that a constant watch shalbe from henceforth kept for the preservation and the Defence of this towne, by the number of one watch man, one Rounder, and a gunner for the daye tyme att the towne gate, and six ordinary watchmen of the Comonalty, and two rounders for the night watch’. The inclusion of ‘rounders’ or roundsmen suggests a boundary which could be patrolled.

The following year, there was an attempt by the Royalists to take the town by treachery which casts more light on the war time defences. A Royalist Captain Thomas Phillips had been having secret meetings with Captain Francis Sydenham of the Poole garrison to persuade him to betray the town into Royalist hands. Sydenham pretended to accept but revealed the plot to Col. John Bingham, the Governor of Poole. Sydenham as officer of the watch was to blow a horn as a signal and then rush into the town, leaving the gates open for the Royalist troops to enter. On the chosen night the Royalists about 500 strong under the command of the Earl of Crawford approached the town in the darkness and hearing the signal, charged forward only to find the gate closed against them. Worse ‘before the gate was a halfe-moon, at the entrance of which there were chaines to be drawne up at pleasure; the earle with his horse filling the halfe-moon, the chaines were then drawn up, and the muskets and ordnance . . . gave fire upon those that came on, which caused all that were not slaine to throwe downe their armes and runne away.’ The earl barely escaped with his life and the Royalists lost valuable arms and about 50 horses, beside those killed, injured or taken prisoner.

A half moon

Half moons were outworks, usually with two sides coming to a point and short flanks, used as a refuge for defenders outside the main fortifications or to protect a vulnerable spot such as a road or the entrance to a town. Where exactly the Poole half moon was and how it operated, we don’t know but it certainly served its purpose on this occasion. The following year, the town was again under attack when the Royalist Sir Thomas Aston defeated a detachment of Poole horse and chased them to the edge of town ‘where the Rebels’ cannon and small shot played thick upon him from the walls’, according to the Royalist newspaper, Mercurius Aulicus.

There is evidence from the archives for other fortifications used during the Civil War. One was a fort at Hamworthy said to be built from stone taken from the Hamworthy church. It was probably designed to prevent attackers coming down the peninsular and getting too close to the town. In 1645-6 the town accounts mention payments to 4 workmen ‘to unrig the fort at Ham for lading it, bringinge it out & pillinge it & for the cartinge of it all’. It was not entirely demolished because in November 1646, Thomas Smedmore of Hamworthy was awarded compensation of £12 a year for his ‘great losses by fortifications which were made upon his ground’, making it clear that these were still standing. Other defensive structures mentioned in the same accounts about which very little is known are ‘seaman’s battery’ and the ‘western works’, although the latter may be the same as the ‘western fort’ shown on a map of 100 years later near the western end of the ditch.

After the Civil War some of the defences like the half moon were probably removed fairly quickly while other structures gradually fell into disuse. In August 1653, the Council of State ordered towns to demolish their fortifications and ‘the town of Poole, Ham and all the works adjoining, to be immediately dismantled’. So the walls and the towngate were taken down after 200 years’ existence and the ditch was filled in or gradually silted up. In 1745, at the time of the second Jacobite rebellion, an attempt was made to re-excavate the ditch but this was discontinued after the town had spent around £300, according to the traveller Dr. Pococke.

Map of c. 1760

The defences had gone but their ghostly imprint on the streets of Poole remained. Towngate Street continued as the main road leading out of town and 100 years after the wall and ditch had gone, High Street still came to a stop at the northern end with a ropeworks built across it. When the turnpike trust was set up, the Poole tollgate was built on the site of the old towngate where it remained for another 40 years. It was not until the 1830’s that High Street was extended into Longfleet and the toll gate was relocated there. The coming of the railway in 1874 reinstated a barrier more or less along the same line as the old defences, which remains today.

Over the years, reminders of the lost defences have unexpectedly surfaced. In 1835, workmen digging a well near the site of the wall found a skeleton with long hair still attached. Whether this was a victim of the Civil War or some other unfortunate individual, we don’t know. In the 20th century, shaped blocks were found in a garden in Rigler Road, Hamworthy, perhaps the foundations of the fort.

In the early 1970s it was still possible to race the old boundary line from Holes Bay in the west via the site of the gate at Towngate Street to the reclaimed area north of Pitwines. Later developments would sweep away most landmarks in the area. When the Towngate Bridge was being built in 1971, traces of the old town wall were discovered and some of the stonework was taken to Scaplen’s Court for display. An old boundary stone was also found nearby and mounted on one of the bridge supports with a modern explanatory plaque. At least the name of the bridge preserves the memory of the old towngate and as we sweep over the bridge today we can imagine the deadly fight in the darkness nearly four centuries ago when the townsmen fought off the Royalist ambush.

Jenny

Main sources: ‘An Old Town Boundary’ Poole Corporation Report 1970 pp. 97-9 / ‘The History of the Borough and County of the Town of Poole’ H. P. Smith / ‘History of the Town and County of Poole’ John Sydenham.

 

 

 

Fame and Disaster: Swash Channel wreck update

Back in July 2014, we posted an article on this blog about Poole at the time of the Swash Channel wreck. Now with the release of the likely identification of the vessel by the wreck team (see News and video), more details can emerge.

Lying in 7-9 metres of water at the entrance to Poole harbour for nearly 400 years, the wreck has been excavated by a team from Bournemouth University. The investigation revealed a large carvel-built merchant ship of around 300-500 tons lying on her port side and broken in 2 pieces. The harbour mud had preserved the port side right up to the forecastle and stern castle rails as well as parts of the rigging. Below what would have been the waterline, the hull was covered with a layer of hair and tar sheathed with thin planking, a device used by Dutch ship builders to protect the hull from tropical ship worm. The main timbers are of Dutch or German origin and are thought to have been felled around 1628.

The number of gun ports on the ship indicates that she may have carried at least 26 guns although only 7 cast iron cannon and 1 gun carriage have been found, suggesting that many more were salvaged. There were also no signs of a cargo or of the possessions or remains of passengers, suggesting that the ship could have been operating as a warship or sailing in ballast. The many high quality carvings on the wreck around the rails and gun ports and on the rudder now on display in Poole Museum indicate an important, high status ship.

Many ships were wrecked off the Dorset coast in the early decades of the 17th century as merchants vied for the profits of long distance trade, but the most likely candidate for this wreck, based on date, location and nationality, is a vessel mentioned in the records of the Poole Admiralty Court in 1631. The court met, in theory, every year, to regulate all matters to do with the port and harbour including moorings, the channel, buoys, fishing, pilotage, pirates, felonies and shipwrecks. At the meeting on 24th June 1631 under Thomas Smedmore as Mayor and Admiral of the port the following item occurs: ‘Item: wee present that Mr Newland doth undertake for the ffleming to cleere the harbour of the wracke of the ffame of Horne castawaye before Studland, we do therefore enioyne him to place a coupple of boyes on that wracke by the first of August next on payne of forfeiting of two hundred pounds.’

 This suggests that the wreck was partially submerged and dangerous to shipping entering the port. A year later it appears that this massive fine had not been effective (if in fact it had been extracted) because at the meeting of 21st May 1632 before Mayor George Skutt there was a further mention of the wreck: ‘Item we present that Mr Robert Newland the younger of the Isle of Wight hath not cleered the channel of the fflemish wracke and not placed the two boyes thereon and therefore he is enioyed to doe it viz to cleere the channel thereof and to place two boyes thereon by the xxxth of Julye next on payne of forfeiteing CCli.’

Either Newland then complied with the ruling or the ship sank into the harbour mud out of harm’s way, but no more is heard of the wreck in the records of the court.

The ship’s home port, Hoorn in North Holland on the Martermeer is about 35 km north of Amsterdam. During the 1600s, it was a major trading port, an important base for both the Dutch East India Company and the West India Company and a prosperous centre of trade. On a voyage of 1616, an explorer from Hoorn, Willem Corneliszoon Schouten, rounded the stormy tip of South America and named it Kaap Hoorn after his home town. Hoorn is also credited with developing the Dutch fluyt, a very successful type of broad beamed merchant ship with a large cargo carrying capacity.

According to High Court of Admiralty records, the Fame was not owned by a trading company but by merchants Hercules Garretson, Cornelius Vene and their associates. She set sail from Hoorn in early 1631 bound for the West Indies. Anchoring off Poole in February, perhaps to take shelter in Studland Bay, the ship was overtaken by a storm, dragged her anchor and was driven on to the sands where she began to break up. The captain Jacob Johnson Botemaker and the crew of about 45 had to abandon their splendid new vessel to the sea, but at least they managed to get ashore safely. Their survival meant that the ship was not a wreck in the legal sense and still belonged to its owners. However, the presence of such a large vessel so close to the shore was too strong a temptation for the locals. As soon as the seas subsided, small boats started to go out from Poole and other places nearby, plundering victuals, tackle, munition and whatever they could find from the ship.

Newport from Speed’s map of 1610

The owners of the Fame were quick to petition the High Court of Admiralty for the recovery of their goods and the arrest of those responsible for plunder, but it is notable that they made no mention of a cargo. The Poole court records indicate that they also appointed Robert Newland to salvage the ship. The Newlands were an important merchant and shipbuilding family on the Isle of Wight with warehouses, yards and wharves at Newport and East Cowes, well placed to serve ships travelling out to the new settlements in the Americas. In the early seventeenth century, investment in Virginia was a fashionable business venture and Robert Newland senior was a member of a consortium to set up a plantation in the area of the James Rive under Captain Christopher Lawne. Newland was not one of the settlers but opened a new shipyard at Cowes and built a ship, the Bonnie Bess of 90 tons, to support the colonisation efforts, winning praise for his practical support of the venture: ‘This man (Mr Newland) an honest sufficient & a moste indevoring man for Virginia is he that cann & will searve you for victualling or maning or any other imployment to further ye plantacon, he is so well reported of, & his late indevors for Capt: Lawne (who had ells sunck) hath approoved him a ventrous charitable marchant…’ He was also given five shares in the Virginia Company in gratitude for his services and Robert junior acquired ‘lands and estate in Virginia’ as his will, of 1642 shows.

Besides having important contacts, the Newlands were also experienced in salvage operations. 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. One of them, the Campen, sank just south of the Needles and Robert Newland joined forces with a Dutch salvor, John Jacop Jansen, known as ‘Jacob the Diver’ to recover five cannon, 6,660kg of lead, and 2,635 coins from the ship. In 1631, Robert junior and William Newland were involved in the salvage of a wreck at Chale Bay in the south of the Isle of Wight and in 1635 William Newland would help to salvage the Bird Phoenix, wrecked in Compton Bay. Given their background and expertise, it was therefore natural for the Newlands to be called in to salvage the Fame.

It is possible that Robert Newland again joined forces with Jansen to work on the Swash Channel vessel. The Dutchman’s special skill was ‘a playne and manifest way of diving deepe under water’ to bring up ‘sunck ordinance, wrackt goods and moneys upon His Majesty’s Coastes of England and Ireland’. The precise details of salvage operations at the time are a mystery but they probably involved weakening the structure of the ship so that the hull could be forced apart to give access to the gundecks and hold. In deep water, primitive diving bells may have been used, as they were later in the century to salvage guns from the Swedish warship, Vasa. It was a difficult and potentially dangerous process. In the case of the Fame the salvors had the advantage of relatively shallow water and the fact that the vessel was already damaged by being battered on the sands.

In the absence of cargo, the most salvageable items were probably the guns, particularly bronze guns, sails and tackle, tools, instruments, victuals for the voyage and the clothing and belongings of the crew. The relatively small number of items found on the wreck suggests that the salvage process was quite thorough. Objects found in the excavation include a ceramic drug jar, leather shoes, pewter spoons, a skillet, cattle bones, barrels, the remains of a galley, ballast, a lead for sounding, a small bell and different kinds of shot, beside the 7 iron guns. Presumably these items were either of small account or inaccessible to the 17th century salvors.

Assuming that the identification of the Swash Channel wreck as the Fame of Hoorn is correct, there are still many unanswered questions about the vessel. What was the purpose of her voyage to the West Indies and what if anything was she carrying? What can she tell us about ship-building, maritime equipment and daily lives on board ship in the early 17th century? Whose image is carved on the head of the rudder? More information will emerge in the next months and years, but some questions will probably never be answered.

Jenny

Main sources: Minutes of the Poole Admiralty Court  DC-PL/C/F/1/1/1 (Poole and Dorset History Centres) / Will of Robert Newland 1637 PROB11/174/100 (National Archives) / Will of Robert Newland (junior) 1642  PROB/11/192/104 (National Archives) / Friel, Ian: The Mercy of the Sea: Identifying the Swash Channel Wreck 2013 Unpublished (Poole History Centre)

Atlantic Rescue

In the winter of 1822, storms and heavy gales out at sea took their toll of shipping and many losses were reported in the press. The brig Lester of Poole had set sail for Newfoundland on 11th October and had reached longitude 38.00 (well over half way in her voyage) when she encountered heavy gales and tremendous seas. For several days she continued beating to windward until 17th November when she sprung her bowsprit and split the sails. The master John Lander decided that there was no alternative but to turn back to Poole.

Another ship embarking on a north Atlantic voyage was the brig Mary Ann of Aberdeen which set sail from Quebec on 4th November bound for London. On Saturday 23rd November, the vessel met a severe gale and struggled on under reefed sails. Around 5 o’clock in the evening, the wildly veering ship was hit by a tremendous wave which carried away the main mast and swept her decks of ‘boats, bulwarks and every thing standing’. Captain Moore who had been at the helm was also swept overboard and drowned. Desperately clearing away the wreckage of the mast, the crew discovered that the decks were damaged and the ship was half full of water. Pumping made no impression and within an hour the vessel was totally water-logged.

The following day the situation worsened as the decks broke up and the cargo, which was mainly staves, began to wash out of the hold. By now the decks were below the surface and the mate, eleven seamen and a boy called Davidson made for the foretop, their only possible refuge. In the process, the boy was swept away and lost but the others succeeded in reaching temporary safety. Their situation however was dire. They had no water and only a few biscuits, enough for half a biscuit each for a couple of days. By Wednesday 27th November, after three days and nights, they had run out of food and just about any hope of rescue. It was then that they were spotted by the Lester on its homeward course.

The hull of the Mary Ann was totally submerged and it was something of a miracle that the crew of the Lester chanced to see her remaining mast sticking out of the water. As they sailed closer they could see the survivors still clinging on. Captain Lander resolved to save them if he could, and set about what must have been a most perilous rescue mission, given the hazardous motion of the water-logged vessel in the heavy seas and the damage already suffered by the Lester. Somehow, all twelve men were helped from the mast and transferred to the Poole ship where ‘every assistance and comfort was given them’.

The Lester reached Poole on 1st December bringing the news of the wreck and recovery. Their arrival happened to coincide with the launch in Poole of the Sailors’ Union Bethel Society, an organisation founded by the Rev. George Charles Smith, known as Bo’sun Smith. Its aim was to provide religious services and spiritual support for seamen in port. Locally the Society had the support of the Independent and Baptist churches and it was in the Baptist Chapel that the first service was held on Wednesday 4th December before a gratifyingly large congregation which included the surviving crew of the Mary Ann. During the service the Aberdeen men send a written paper to the minister asking for a public thanksgiving for their deliverance ‘in a period of the most desperate peril’.

Later, the Poole Bethel Society gave an award of humanity to Captain Lander and his crew and the owners of the Mary Ann, John Catto, Son and Co. of Aberdeen, sent 20 guineas to be divided amongst them for their exertions ‘to snatch these poor fellows from the billows which threatened every moment to overwhelm them’. A silver cup was also sent to Captain Lander from the owners, engraved with the following inscription: ‘A Tribute from the OWNERS of the BRIG MARY ANN of Aberdeen TO CAPTN JOHN LANDER of the LESTER of POOLE as a testimony of their regard for his Humane & Meritorious exertions in saving from the foretop of the wreck of the Mary Ann in the Atlantic TWELVE OF HER UNFORTUNATE CREW on the 27th November 1822’.

John Lander continued sailing from Poole as a master mariner and eventually became Harbour Master. His death in 1854 at the age of 68 was reported in the Poole and Dorset Herald for 15th June of that year. The same issue also contained an account of the wreck of the Aldebaran of Poole on a voyage to Quebec with the loss of seven men, another reminder of the perilous lives of seamen in the age of sailing ships.

Jenny        Main sources – Salisbury and Winchester Journal 9th Dec 1822, 27th Jan 1823, Bell’s Weekly Messenger 8th Dec 1822, Sunday Times 15th Dec 1822, Poole and Dorset Herald 15th June 1854.

Gold, Oak and Adventure – News from the Museum

News of a few current happenings at Poole Museum might cheer the gloomy days of winter. The first is a free talk at the Museum on 25th February at 2.00pm by David Dawson of the Wiltshire Museum, Devizes. Gold from the Time of Stonehenge will outline the story of the World Heritage Site and its ritual landscape and feature the remarkable craftsmanship of objects found in the burials of chieftains, important women and priests who used the area for their ceremonies. Many of the objects discussed are on display at the Wiltshire Museum, home of the best Bronze Age collections in Britain. Booking is essential. To secure your place, please contact: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk and search under Poole.

Books for Boys: Heroism, Empire and Adventure at the Dawn of the First World War is a new exhibition running at the Museum until Sunday 23rd April which celebrates a golden age of books for children in the decades leading up to the war. In particular, it considers the influence of the stories of the time on the young men who so readily volunteered in 1914. There is also a special event for World Book Day on 3rd March. For more details see: http://www.poolemuseum.co.uk/whats-on/exhibitions .

mermanLastly – it’s back! The rudder of the Swash Channel wreck has returned to Poole from its conservation process in York and is now installed in the Museum. I would like to say it’s impossible to miss but actually that’s exactly what I did, wandering past it with my mind on something else. The massive piece of oak stands on the ground floor near the entrance, opposite the log boat. With a cross section of about 48cm x 34cm and a height of 4m to 5m, its top is above first floor level. Also on display nearby is a carving of a merman from above one of the gun ports of the vessel. This is a strangely androgynous figure with the body of a mermaid and the head of a man with beard, moustache and helmet, just one of a number of carvings retrieved from the wreck site.

rudder-head-1Looking down at the rudder from the first floor you get a better impression of the sheer size of the vessel, and yet this is only a section of the piece. The whole rudder is nearly twice as tall at over 8m. The most striking feature, however, is the larger than life-sized carved head on the top. The face is of a man of middle years, bold and tough, with the flamboyant moustache and long curls of the period and his eyes rolled upwards as if scanning the sails and the sky. It’s tempting to think that it might be the portrait of a real person, perhaps the Dutch owner of the ship, revealed once more after lying on the bottom of the sea, staring blindly out for nearly 400 years.

For more about the ship, see ‘Poole and the Swash Channel Wreck’ on this blog.

Jenny