Local Author appeal

I have had an enquiry about an author called Nora Laverock Lees who lived with her parents and sister Enid in Glencullen, Western Road, Branksome Park in the 1930s. Nora had been born in Ireland before moving to this area and in 1936, she published a book entitled Bogs and Blarney, describing travels through the west country of Ireland, particularly Aran and Connemara. It was illustrated with pen and ink sketches by M. Vesey.

In 1958, Nora is believed to have married Harold Horton and the couple continued to live in the area. After her husband’s death in 1969, Nora possibly lived with her sister in Park Court Western Road. Nora Laverock Horton died in 1987, and her address at that time was given as 26, Sandecotes Road, Parkstone. Does anyone know about Nora and her family, parents George Murray Lees and Mary Lees or her sister Enid Mary Lees? Did she write any other books? Any information would be welcome.

Jenny

Pitares of the Carribean – The Poole Connection

The infamous Blackbeard

The name Woodes Rogers was a familiar one in Poole in the later 17th century. A list of mariners in 1664 contained two men of that name, presumably father and son. One of them was mate on the ship Magdalen of Poole under Captain Sydrach Lester. Nearly 30 years later, another Woodes Rogers was listed in a Poole poll book of 1690. He and his wife Francis, son Woodes and an infant child were then living in Thames Street, quite a prestigious location.

Shortly afterwards, the family moved to Bristol where Woodes junior served an apprenticeship in seafaring. In 1708, with backing from local merchants, he set off on a privateering voyage which was to take him round the globe and make his name. On the way, the expedition faced desertion, mutiny and disease, took a rich Spanish prize ship and rescued Alexander Selkirk, the model for Robinson Crusoe, from the island of Juan Fernandez. On his return, Rogers wrote an account of his voyage which was a great success. Financially, however, he was struggling.

Rogers next turned his attention to the problem of the pirates who had found bases in various parts of the world to prey on merchant shipping. After failing to interest the East India Company in a colony in Madagascar, he managed to get a commission as Captain General and Governor in Chief of the Bahamas, then a notorious centre of piracy. Armed with the promise of a royal pardon for those who surrendered, Rogers’ task was to clear the islands of pirates. It would bring him into conflict with such colourful individuals as Jack Rackham, known as ‘Calico Jack’, ‘Blackbeard’ (Edward Teach), Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane and female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Woodes Rogers as Governor

Woodes Rogers’ struggle with the pirates is the subject of our first talk this autumn for the Museum Society when Don Nutt will be describing the next chapter in Rogers’ adventurous life. There will even be a little story-telling to set the scene.

The talk is on Wednesday 21st at 7.30pm in our new temporary venue, the Spire, Poole High Street. Don’t miss it! Non-members are welcome to come along for a charge of £3. The entrance is in the street to the left of the building.

The Face on the Jar

Within Poole Museum’s ceramics collection are several striking pots featuring the human face, in particular, a selection of 16th to 17th century bellarmine jars or jugs, and a recently acquired vase made 400 to 500 years later, designed by local potter, Guy Sydenham.

Bellarmine jugs on display

Bellarmine jugs have been found in various archaeological excavations in Poole such as the High Street / Old Orchard dig in the 1970s. Many were in fragments but some of the most complete are on display in the museum. Bellarmines are salt-glazed, stoneware jugs in brown or grey, rounded in shape on a narrow base with a tall narrow neck. They were made in Germany from the early 16th century onwards and later in the Low Countries and other parts of Europe. Tough and hard-wearing, they were used as drinking bottles and storage vessels and for the transport and trade of various commodities. In the 17th century they increasingly found their way out to the growing colonies in Asia and North America.  

The face on the jug and a 17th century ortrait of Cardinal Bellarmino

Characteristically they were decorated with the face of a bearded man on the neck, and sometimes with a medallion on the body of the pot showing a local coat of arms. The face was an ancient motif based on the European folklore figure of the wild man and gave the pots the name ‘bartmann’ or bearded man jugs. In the early 17th century, the face became associated with Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, a Cardinal Inquisitor and leading figure in the counter reformation against Protestantism. Naming these hearty, rotund jugs, associated with drinking, after the small, learned, and abstemious cardinal must have seemed like a good joke to Protestants at the time. So, the name ‘bellarmine’ is a religious and political satire which has lasted 400 years. The jugs depicted the square-cut beard used by clerics of the time, known as the ’cathedral beard’, and the face became increasingly grotesque as the century wore on. Perhaps because of the grim face, bellarmines were also used as ‘witch bottles’ to ward off evil spirits. They were filled with a variety of everyday items and substances as a spell or cure against witchcraft, stoppered up and then hidden under the floor, at the threshold or up the chimney of the house.

The 20th century vase featuring a human face was made in the 1970s for Poole Pottery’s ‘Atlantis’ range. It was designed and made by Guy Sydenham, a talented potter who lived and worked in Poole for many decades. He started as an apprentice at Poole Pottery in the 1930s and after service in the far east during the war, returned to the pottery and set up the craft studio with a trainee team. At that time, Sydenham was living with his family on a converted motor torpedo boat, first on a mooring, then on Long Island and then on Green Island in Poole Harbour. Using clays found on the islands, he set up his own pottery with a home-made kiln and experimented with making salt-glazed stoneware inspired by marine themes.

Guy Sydenham at work and the mask head vase

The pots in the Atlantis range were mainly thrown on the wheel by the artist potters giving them the sensuous appeal of forms worked from the wet clay by hand. They were decorated using different clays, glazes and techniques. At Sydenham’s insistence, each piece was marked with the monograms of the artists who had helped to create it. This vase with its enigmatic face was one of six thrown heads inspired by African masks. There may also be a stylistic echo of the other-worldly faces of the mermaids that Sydenham made in his island pottery.

As to the link between these pots from different eras, they all present intriguing images of the human face from the past. In his private work, Guy Sydenham was using very similar techniques to the old German and Dutch potters turning out their bellarmine jugs in the 17th century. In the 1960s, he was asked by another local potter if he could make reproduction bellarmine bottles and jugs for an American customer. As he later wrote in his autobiography, ‘By using a very similar clay and adopting the techniques used by the German craftsmen, I was able to reproduce these salt-glazed bottles, jugs and mugs to the point where few people, and even some experts, could tell which were which. . . . I enjoyed this work for many years.’

Jenny

Main sources: Horsey, Ian P. Excavations in Poole 1973-1983 Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society. 1992  /  Sydenham, Guy. A Potter’s Life. The Island Potters of Poole. Sansom & Co. 1999

Countdown-to-Christmas Quiz 2021

As an antidote to Christmas shopping and catering, here is a little quiz to test the brain cells. As usual, it is all about Dorset, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, (particularly Poole).

Seven Maritime Traders – Can you unscramble the letters of these nautical occupations? Some of the pictures may help.

  1. O ferry master (2 words)
  2. Shin frame (1 word)
  3. Mare poker (1 word)
  4. Ransom hitch (1 word)
  5. Daft men can hold new run (2 words)
  6. A liver cult (1 word)
  7. Rope Co. (1 word)

Six Dorset Castles – Can you name them?

  1. Built as a hunting lodge in the 17th century.
  2. Built on a prominent hill, the site of a royal assassination.
  3. ‘Built’ in the neolithic period and remodelled in the Iron Age.
  4. Built in the 1830s in a clifftop location.
  5. Built as a bishop’s palace and later home to a Tudor explorer.
  6. Built to guard a harbour entrance but hidden by later embellishments.

Five Towers – What and where?

Four Bridges – Brainteaser

  1. Wait a while and you won’t need to use it.
  2. Is it a ship? (Pre-steam era).
  3. Decorated by Carter, Stabler and Adams.
  4. Narrow and ‘unlocks’ the way into Poole Park.

Three local benefactors – who are they?

  1. A collector who gifted his art collection to Bournemouth.
  2. A poet’s son who created a theatre in Boscombe.
  3. A timber merchant who gave a library to Poole.

Two beaches – Can you identify from the description?

  1. Rather miry water crossing.
  2. Gritty slopes.

One and only

  1. Now united: a trio of beautiful boroughs by the sea!

If you get 20 or more of the 28 questions right, award yourself a mince pie and suitable beverage. Answers will be posted later next week along with a Countdown-to- New-Year quiz (if I can come up with it). In the meantime, I hope you enjoy Christmas and stay safe.

Jenny

Clay and Tobacco – Early Poole Cargos

This is the story of two commodities imported and exported through the port of Poole from the early 1600s. One was local, one was exotic but their development was closely linked from the beginning . . .

When Europeans first travelled to the Americas in the late 15th century, they found the local people smoking tobacco. It was used in pipe ceremonies and meetings, for trade and also for its medicinal properties. The early settlers called the custom ‘drinking smoke’. The habit of smoking spread via Spain to the rest of Europe and Sir Walter Raleigh was credited with introducing it into England. One of the critics of smoking was King James 1 who described it as ‘lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmfull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs.’  Nevertheless, the custom remained popular and when the colony of Virginia was established in the early 17th century, tobacco became its most profitable crop.

A Victorian depiction of smoking in the Americas and Europe

Clay pipes were introduced in England shortly after the arrival of tobacco, clay being cheap and widely available. The Poole Harbour area was lucky in having deposits of particularly fine-grained, white-firing clay, formed from the products of weathered Cornish and Devon granite. Carried eastward by the ancient Solent River over 40 million years ago, the clay was laid down in basins across the area and used for centuries in pottery production. It was found to be ideal for pipe-making. One local clay merchant was Swythin Bonham, a gentleman of Poole, who obtained a lease from Sir John Webb in 1618, allowing him to dig pipe clay in the waste of Canford. He became a major supplier to the pipe-makers in the early days of the trade. In 1625, William Cooper of Heckford was also given a grant to dig clay in Canford and transport it overseas.

At first, local pipe clay was sent to London which received most of the tobacco imports, and where the pipe-makers enjoyed a monopoly. A series of monopolies were also granted to individuals to handle the sale of pipe clay, seriously affecting the local trade.  In 1638 one Poole clay merchant, Thomas Cornell, ended up in court for allegedly saying that ‘he did not care a fart’ for the latest proclamation on clay monopolies. As the granting of the monopoly ultimately came from the king, this was in effect treason, but Cornell claimed that his words had been misrepresented. Fortunately, the monopoly was ended the next year, followed by the monopoly of the London pipe-makers. Cornell and his partner, Alexander Fellows of Wareham went on to dominate the local clay trade for the next three decades while clay shipped from Poole rose from 120 tons in 1626 to over 2,500 tons in 1672.

19th century Parkstone claypit

Claypits were opened in various locations, Parkstone, Heckford and Canford, but particularly in the Isle of Purbeck. Cornell and Fellows dealt mainly with Edward Hayter, who operated from East Creech and Thomas Brown, based at Furzebrook. The clay was cut with spades into cubes of about 10 ins., weighing 30-35 lbs. In handling and transport, the blocks became rounded, which may have given rise to the name ‘ball clay’. Fellows negotiated with the pit owners and arranged transport to Poole Quay or Russell Point by pack horse or by horse and cart over the difficult heathland terrain.  Cornell obtained customers from around the country and organised the onward shipping. The partners had an agreement to buy exclusively from each other which worked well for several decades.  

The tobacco plant and drying tobacco leaves

In Virginia increasing amounts of land were being brought under cultivation for tobacco. The tobacco crop needed much tending and was very labour intensive to produce. At first the plantation owners employed indentured servants who worked until they had repaid the cost of their passage. Later in the century they increasingly used African slaves. The quantity of tobacco shipped into the country, rose quickly, with Virginia supplying as much as 30,000,000 lbs (15,000 tons) a year by the end of the 17th century. In 1640, a ship came into the port of Poole carrying 80 thousand-weights (40 tons) of tobacco, showing that such cargos were now using provincial ports. Increasing supplies of tobacco meant that the price fell, and the demand for pipes increased.

Pipe-makers started setting up in towns across the country, including Poole. Some imperfect and unburnt 17th century pipes have been found in excavations near Barber’s Piles at the west end of the Quay, suggesting early pipe-making in the area. The earliest reference to the trade that I have found in the archives is to John Howse, tobacco pipe-maker, mentioned in a bond of 1663. A number of pipes found locally marked with an ‘H’ might be his work, but there are other candidates. Another pipe-maker was John Guy who had a business in West Street according to a deed of 1675.

Pipe fragments found in Poole

Pipes were originally shaped by hand. A long stem was rolled out with a lump at one end to form the bowl. The stem was pierced by pushing a wire through it and the bowl was hollowed out with a plug or stopper. Later, two-part moulds were used, and designs became more decorative. After trimming and drying, the pipes were fired, often in muffle kilns. The pipes were placed in a muffle chamber and the hot smoke and fumes directed around the chamber by a series of flues, to prevent the white pipes from darkening. Fragments of such a kiln was found in an excavation in West Street in 1974. With their long stems, pipes were easily broken and frequently discarded. They were sold in taverns and inns already filled with tobacco as a single use item, the Coke can or crisp packet of the 17th century.

Tobacco cargos continued to come in and out of the port of Poole through the 1600s and provided the Poole smugglers with opportunities for various profitable dodges. (See Contraband and Corruption on this blog.) The subsequent history of tobacco is well known. In the form of snuff and smoking tobacco, it went from strength to strength until the 20th century when its image was dimmed by adverse health effects and the connection with slavery.

The local clay trade continued to grow. After the death of Thomas Cornell in 1671, more merchants entered the business. The pipe trade continued into the 19th century, but other markets had already opened up as makers of stoneware and later fine tableware found that the local ball clay had the properties they needed. The extraction of clay altered the local landscape, leaving a legacy of often water-filled hollows like the Blue Pool near Wareham.     There was a close link with the development of transport systems. In the 19th century, clay merchants Benjamin Fayle and the Pike brothers built narrow gauge railways across the heath to bring the clay to wharves on the Purbeck shore. From there the clay was transported across the harbour to Poole Quay by sailing barges and later by steam tugs towing barges. Today, Dorset ball clay is still being worked and exported all over the world.

 

The Blue Pool

Jenny

Main sources:  Cousins, David R., The Poole Clay Trade 1626 – 1760 from Southern History 38 pp. 31-67 /  Davey, James (ed.), Tudor & Stuart Seafarers. The Emergence of a Maritime Nation 1485-1707. Adlard Coles 2018 /  Horsey, Ian P., Excavations in Poole 1973-1983 Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society 1992 /  Poole town accounts, title deeds and wills and court proceedings /  Demonstration of clay pipe making to be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vlnpvT2GYU

Two Victorian Grandfathers

Poole owed much of its prosperity in the second half of the 19th century to the enterprise of a number of men who saw the potential of the town and port for their businesses. Two of these entrepreneurs were the twine and net manufacturer, Alfred Balston and tile-maker Jesse Carter, widely different men in many respects but destined to be closely linked.

Alfred Balston was born in Poole in 1819, a younger son of William Balston and his wife Jane. William came from Bridport, where his family were in the net and twine industry, and set up in Poole with partner James Salter. By 1823, Salter, Balston and Co. were making lines, twine, shoe thread, sacking and fishing nets at West Butts with a windmill to power the works. Ten years later however, when Alfred was in his teens, the company was declared bankrupt, and Salter was temporarily imprisoned for debt.

Salisbury & Winchester Journal 15 Dec 1834

This financial disaster must have had profound effect on the Balston family. The firm’s many assets were advertised for sale, showing in detail what was involved in the business which, according to the press, had been running for around 50 years and 15 years under the present management. Besides the main premises at West Butts with works buildings, machinery, stock, dwelling house and garden, there was a twine walk, spinning shed and other buildings at Green Lane, Baiter, and meadow land and mills at Organford. The enquiry into the company’s financial affairs revealed that the creditors were likely to be paid in full, since the value of the assets exceeded the debts.

In 1836, William Balston’s house on West Quay Road was also advertised for sale, stressing its prime location on the road leading to the new Hamworthy bridge and its suitability as an inn ‘to be called the Bridge Road Inn and Hotel’. William meanwhile was re-establishing the business. In October, the press reported that during a violent gale ‘part of the new line of twine factory, near the entrance of the town in the occupation of Mr. Balstone was unroofed and blown down’ . The location was off High Street just outside the old town boundary at a place called Point Close, later known as the Ladies’ Walking Field.

Tithe map 1844 showing Longfleet extending north from the boundary with Poole town.
The twine works is the rectangular feature lower centre.

In 1838, William died, leaving a third of the business to George and the rest in the hands of trustees to manage for the benefit of the family. Now about 19, Alfred was probably already working in the business. Disaster was averted in 1842, when a police constable on night patrol spotted a fire in the Balston factory. It had started in the tan and net drying room and quickly spread. With the help of local helpers and two fire engines, the fire was brought under control ‘but not before the whole of the drying house, together with the stock it contained of cork, nets etc. was consumed.’ Fortunately, the building was insured and the loss was estimated at only about £50.

In 1847, after a short first marriage, Alfred married widow Elizabeth Green Pinney, née Stanworth, and their first child, William, was born in 1849. Two daughters, Eliza Ellen and Mary Jane and a son, George followed in the next few years. The family lived in High Street not far from the works. In 1852, George Balston senior died at the young age of 42. As George and his wife had no children and a younger brother, Henry Kenway Balston, was a merchant in Manchester and not directly involved in the business, Alfred was now in sole charge. Over the next couple of decades, the company gradually grew from 50 employees in 1851 to 114 in 1871. An additional works was established between West Street and West Quay Road with the help of investment from Henry Kenway. In 1861, Alfred’s wife, Elizabeth died, leaving four small children. Three years later, he married Annie Love Green, and they went on to have a daughter, Annie and three more sons, Harry, Stanworth and Alfred. With the business doing well, Alfred was also able to involve himself in local politics in support of the Liberals. He was elected Sheriff of Poole in 1861, and town councillor for the North West Ward in 1870.

Balston Terrace, West Street, named after the twine works which was located behind them (although the houses actually predate the works).

In January 1866 the local newspaper reported that ‘Mr. Alfred Balston twine manufacturer, whilst walking by the side of a tank on his premises, which contained a dye, accidentally slipped into the boiling liquid up to the knee, and was seriously injured thereby.’ Fortunately, he recovered well enough over the next few months, to conduct his business and take part in social gatherings. In November 1867, for instance, a ‘Soirée Musicale’ was held in aid of the town Library and Literary Institute. The gathering of smartly dressed gentlemen and ladies in their spreading crinolines (then gradually being replaced by the bustle), were entertained by readings and musical offerings which included ‘Come back to Erin’ sung by Mrs. Balston and Mr. Balston’s reading of ‘The Cottager’s Saturday Night’ by Robert Burns. Mrs. Balston was also one of the singers at another event in April 1868, to celebrate the laying of the foundation stone of the new Unitarian Chapel. This was to be built on the site of the old Presbyterian Meeting House in Hill Street, where Alfred had been baptised.

It was in 1873, the year Alfred Balston became a J.P. that Jesse Carter came to Poole. Born in 1830 in Abbots Worthy near Winchester, one of the sons of master bricklayer William Carter and his wife Charlotte, Jesse started his career as an apprentice to the bricklaying trade. In 1850 he married Elizabeth Mary Calloway and over the next decade they had five children, Alfred, William, Annie, Ernest and Charles. The 1861 census shows the family living in Winchester with Jesse listed as a builder, employing 49 men. A few years later he went into business with a partner in Weybridge, Surrey, as a builders’ merchant and ironmonger, and another son, Owen, was born.

An early view of the pottery

The move to Poole was prompted by the chance to buy a small run-down tile factory on the East Quay, rather a risky venture as Jesse knew little about making tiles. The early years in Poole were marked by a struggle to get the business up and running. The previous owner, James Walker, was employed for his expertise but he proved to be dishonest and soon left the company. In 1875, the pottery, like the twine works, experienced a fire which could have proved disastrous. The heat from a kiln, being used for burning lime, set fire to the rafters in a newly built part of the premises. The alarm was raised, two fire engines were sent to the scene and with the help of local fishermen, the flames were extinguished with relatively little damage done. Gradually Carter and Co. became established as a supplier of plain and ornamental wall and floor tiles.

An advertisement of 1875

On first arriving in Poole, the Carter family lived at 20, Market Street, and then moved into West End House close to the church, the former home of the Slades. The nearness of the church was of no advantage to Jesse who was a convert to the Plymouth Brethren and attended their meeting room in Old Orchard. He was also a lay preacher and often went to preach in surrounding districts. Religion was a very important part of the life of the family, but Jesse was far from being a dictatorial father. His two eldest sons did not follow him into the Brethren or the business. Albert was already working in London and did not accompany the family to Poole while William was rather a rebel, keen on many causes such as republicanism and vegetarianism. He took over a small brickyard in Foxholes, Parkstone where at first, he lived a rather hand-to-mouth existence. 

West End House

In May 1876, the Balston family received shocking news from the north. In a fit of anxiety and depression at losses on the Stock Exchange, Henry Kenway Balston had killed himself at his home at Woodlands Park, Timperley, Cheshire. An inquest found a verdict of suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed. In his will the Manchester business was to be carried on by two of his executors for 5 years, after which they would receive the goodwill. Other legacies included £5000 in trust for each of his two elder nieces, Eliza Ellen and Mary Jane. His brother Alfred was to receive the residue of his estate.

Alfred Balston

Meanwhile in Poole, William Carter and Eliza Ellen Balston had met, fallen in love, and proposed to marry, which came as a shock to both families. The Carters and the Balstons did not move in the same social circles. Alfred Balson was now an established business man, councillor and public figure. In the words of Herbert Carter in his book ‘I Call to Mind’, ‘there were good saddle horses in his stables and some good wines in his cellar. He was a manufacturer and shipowner and not a mere tradesman and his new rope factory on the West Shore was going to make the family fortunes.’ The Carters had not reached this level of prosperity, and William’s prospects at this stage of his career did not look very promising. There was also a difference in religious beliefs. Jesse Carter’s religion prohibited political activity and taking public office. Alfred Balston was not only deeply involved in local politics, but his opinions seemed alarmingly radical.

Jesse Carter

In spite of opposition, however, the young couple were married in November 1877 at the Unitarian Chapel in Poole, as the bride’s father was serving his second year as Mayor of Poole. No other members of the Carter family attended the ceremony but in due course, the families were reconciled to the match and became friendly. The social graces of the Balston girls won over the Carter household, dominated by business and religion, although they also loved sports, particularly the new craze of cycling.

Jesse had taken his three younger sons, Ernest, Charles and Owen into the business, but in October 1883, Ernest died of rheumatic fever at the age of 27. The future of the company now lay in the hands of the remaining two, with Charles Carter concentrating on management and Owen on the artistic and technical side. In 1888, against opposition from Alfred Balston, Charles married Alfred’s youngest daughter, Annie Elizabeth. The couple settled in ‘St Aubyns’ in the Market Place and their first child, Charles, was born the following year. Following his father-in-law rather than his father, Charles was elected to the Poole Council and would later become a magistrate and Mayor of Poole.

With William and Eliza’s three sons, Emerson, Herbert and Charles, the Balstons and the Carters now had four mutual grandchildren; eventually, they would have eight. Two years later, Owen Carter married the remaining Balston daughter, Mary Jane, and they went to live in West End House. Owen carried out a many experiments with clay and glazes and was largely responsible for the artistic direction of the company and the introduction of tableware and decorative pieces to the pottery’s range. He also built the Carter’s Almshouses in Hamworthy for former workers of the company.

Alfred had been spending some of his time in Manchester and Timperley and moved to live there permanently from about 1887 with his younger children. They were listed there in the 1891 census which described Alfred as a velvet manufacturer.  He died at Woodlands Park in 1895 at the age of 76. His son Harry emigrated to New Zealand, fought in the first world war and was killed in 1915 in Gallipoli. Stanworth Balston went to Oxford University and became a schoolmaster, while Alfred junior followed his father into the family textile company.  Balstone, Cooke and Co. Ltd., makers of velveteen, traded until they were taken over in 1959.

In 1889, Elizabeth Carter died after a marriage of nearly 40 years. The pottery was doing well and in 1895 was able to buy out a local rival, the Patent Architectural Pottery of Hamworthy. Jesse Carter retired to live in West Cliff, Bournemouth about 1901, leaving the company in the hands of his sons who helped to make it a world-famous brand. It finally merged with Pilkington Tiles Ltd. in the 1960s. Jesse died aged 96 in 1927, the year his (and Alfred’s) grandson Herbert Carter served as Mayor of Poole.

Jenny

Main sources: Census returns and birth, marriage and death records on Ancestry – https://www.ancestry.co.uk/ / Poole and Dorset Herald articles / Carter, H.S. I Call to Mind J.Looker Ltd. 1949 / Hillier, John, Victorian Poole Poole Historical Trust 1990

In and Around Poole Quiz 2

Just to keep us all sharp, here is the second quiz from Colin Jones. Answers will be posted in a week’s time in the Answers section above.

  1. Who owned a famous yacht anchored near Brownsea Island called Elettra?
  2. On Studland Heath there are all six kinds of British reptiles. Name them.
  3. My wife “left” me in 1896 – why?
  4. What were the names of the two Purbeck clay mining companies that ran tramways down to Poole Harbour?
  5. What are the four surnames of the Drax family?
  6. What is unusual about the stag on the wall at the Drax Estate?
  7. Who made a false claim for the inheritance of which local estate?
  8. I have a famous local surname and lived for many years on a converted MTB moored off Long Island then Green Island. Can you name me?
  9. Explosions here in 1927, 1929 and 1931 killed a total of 14 people.
  10.  I owned 126 Panorama Road but never lived there. Who was I?
  11.  What was the year of the BDH fire?
  12.  1946 – 1994. What was I?
  13.  What is the surname of the Sunseeker founder?
  14.  Carter Stabler and ?? were the partnership that owned Poole Pottery.
  15.  What is surname of the father and son who rode for Poole Pirates?
  16.  What is the title of the book about the High Street hardware store?
  17.  Which leading local historian and ex Poole Town Clerk sadly died in January 2021?
  18.  One-time Poole based outboard motor manufacturer helping you to ‘fly’ across the harbour.
  19.  Which Roman Legion came ashore at Hamworthy?
  20.  What was the name of the group of Dorset men during the Civil War who threatened rebellion against both Royalist and Parliamentary forces?

Brownsea – A Special Address

This article was inspired by Joe Branson who supplied some of the information, pictures and family memorabilia. Sadly, Joe passed away a few weeks ago. I am indebted to him for his enthusiasm for local history, and to his son for kindly allowing me to post the article.

Brownsea Castle

In 1901, Charles Van Raalte and his wife Florence bought Brownsea Island, ushering in a happy period in the island’s history. Charles was a wealthy financier of Dutch ancestry with the resources to turn the estate into a luxurious home. The castle was in the final stages of rebuilding after being gutted in a fire five years before. The Van Raaltes were able to complete the process to their own tastes which included installing electricity, a telephone, central heating, and an electric lift linking the basement to the top floor. The castle contained 35 bedrooms, a dining room 50 ft. long, a billiard room and a music room to hold Charles’ collection of antique instruments. Outside were terraces and gardens, including an Italian garden, grass tennis courts, a croquet lawn and a 9-hole golf course. The Van Raaltes took up residence with their three children, Noel, who was twelve, Margherita and Gwen.

The Pool family also came to Brownsea in 1901 when Tom Pool was employed to fill the responsible post of head gardener, in charge of a team of ten. He and his wife Rose Emma came to live in one of the farm cottages near the castle, with their children, twelve-year old Amy, Lilian, Leonard, Albert and the baby, Dorothy. Tom’s job was to look after the grounds and pleasure gardens for the family and their distinguished guests (including European royalty) and provide flowers for the house and fruit and vegetables for the kitchen.

Charles Van Raalte

Most people of the period took it for granted that there would be a great gulf between the lives of ordinary working people and those of the wealthy. The Van Raaltes had a luxurious lifestyle, but they were also good employers, paying above average wages and interested in the welfare of their employees. They soon got involved in the life of the local community, and Charles became Mayor of Poole in 1902-3, even though he had never been elected to the council. He was also a magistrate and twice contested the East Dorset seat for the Conservatives but was unsuccessful. As a freemason, he joined the local Lodge of Amity as well as supporting local sports and sailing clubs and becoming Commodore of the Poole Yacht Club.

The Pool family settled into the small Brownsea community consisting of about 60 estate workers and their families. Some worked in the castle, the laundry, on the home farm or in the gardens, and there were gamekeepers, carpenters, builders, boatmen and even a golf professional. Brownsea had its own church, and a school was provided for the island children and a few of the coastguards’ children who came across each day from Sandbanks. Church services were usually conducted by the Rector of Studland but when the sea crossing was too rough, Tom Pool, a devout man, would sometimes officiate. Sunday in the Pool household was a day for family hymn singing and bible reading.

Rose Emma Pool

Charles Van Raalte was keen to employ people with musical skills and this included the Pools. Tom was a bell-ringer and Rose played the piano, a skill which Amy also later acquired. Shortly after acquiring the estate, Charles set up the Brownsea Island Estate Brass and Reed Band, formed entirely of estate workers, under the leadership of Alfred Campbell, the estate head carpenter. They were supplied with smart blue and red uniforms and performed for castle guests and at events on the Dorset mainland. Having his own band was also an asset to Charles during his political campaigning.  

Festive events were frequent on Brownsea during the summer. As the Bournemouth Graphic noted in 1904, ‘school treats, at-homes, garden parties, fancy dress balls, regattas, entertainments and banquets followed each other in . . . bewildering rapidity’. The hospitality of the Van Raaltes in inviting people to the island was famous, whether it was corporation employees, the Primrose League or members of the Dorset Field Club. When 3.000 to 4,000 members of the Primrose League visited over 4 days in 1906, they were brought over by steamers, chartered from Cosens and Co. and by Charles’s own steam yacht, Blunderbuss. The Van Raaltes also treated their tenants to entertainments as the Graphic describes in 1904.

Brownsea was a perfect playground for children. Noel, Margherita and Gwen Van Raalte were given freedom to play and explore, ride their ponies and learn how to sail. In August 1906, when Tom Pool accidentally fell into the sea from one of the piers, he was rescued by 15-year-old Noel, who was given a Royal Humane Society’s testimonial on vellum for bravery. The Van Raalte children, particularly ‘Miss Gwen’, often played with the estate children. Daisy Toms, daughter of the island bricklayer, was a friend of Miss Gwen and the two frequently got up to mischief together. Dorothy Pool sometimes rode Miss Gwen’s Shetland pony, started off by a ‘whack’ from its owner.

Brownsea Church

The Pools and other estate children also enjoyed hide and seek in the woods, climbing trees and skating on the lakes in winter. Dorothy Pool recalled her brothers, Leonard and Albert, once climbing up the outside of the church tower. Mounting more conventionally by the stairs, some of the children scratched their names and footprints in the soft lead of the tower roof. Boats were available for the tenants to use and the children learned to row and sail. Swimming, fishing and cockling were other favourite activities, and school concerts and pantomimes were a highlight of the year.

Living on an island could have its problems for those who, like Amy and Leonard Pool, attended secondary school on the mainland. Having won a bursary to attend the Poole Technical School, Amy had to cross every morning on the 8 am boat. Sometimes there was a boat returning from the Quay in the afternoon but if not, she would walk the 5 or so miles to Sandbanks and go across with the coastguard boat fetching the children from school. Attending music lessons in Bournemouth meant a rough walk for Amy from County Gates to Sandbanks and in the winter, Rose would worry about the children crossing the harbour in the dark.

In 1907, dispirited by his second failure at the polls, Charles Van Raalte set off for a trip to the far east with Florence and Margherita. Early in 1908, the shocking news came that Charles had fallen ill and died in India at the age of only 50. His body was brought back to Dorset and he was buried on Brownsea on 11th February 1908. A memorial chapel was built on to the church to hold an effigy of Charles in marble commissioned by his widow. It was a dark time on Brownsea, but gradually the sadness lifted, and life continued under the benevolent direction of Florence Van Raalte.

The Pool family finally moved on after seven years on the island and Tom set up in Parkstone as a grocer. Amy became a school teacher and Lilian a dress-maker while Leonard got a job as a clerk to an accountant. The family would experience tragedy over the next few years, first when Albert died in 1911 at the age of 14. When the First World War broke out, Leonard joined up and became a rifleman with the London Regiment. He was killed on 1st July 1916 and buried in Hebuterne Cemetery in France.

Dorothy Carr formerly Pool, Joe Branson’s mother-in-law.

Sisters Amy, Lilian and Dorothy all married and set up households of their own, but they never forgot their happy childhood time on Brownsea. One memento kept by the family reminded them of their first year on the island. When Queen Victoria died in January 1901, Rose wrote to the royal family like thousands of others to express her sympathy. A few months later a letter arrived from Buckingham Palace from the secretary to Queen Alexandra, thanking her for her condolences. The address on the envelope was a unique and fitting memory of a very special place.

Jenny

Main sources: Battrick, Jack Brownsea Islander Poole Historical Trust 1978 /

Bugler, J and Drew, G A History of Brownsea Island Dorset County Library 1995 /

Moore, Peter, A Winsome Place Poole Historical Trust 2009.

Information supplied by Joe Branson

Theft in the Family

On 30th June 1815, less than two weeks after news of the great victory of Waterloo, members of the Dalley family from Broadwinsor in west Dorset were gathered together for a solemn ceremony. John Dalley, just turned sixteen, was to be bound apprentice to John Pretty of Poole, who was a woolcomber and hosier and also young John’s uncle (although I have not been able to discover the precise link between them). The indentures binding Dalley ‘for seven years to learn the art of a woolcomber’ were duly signed by apprentice and master and by Dalley’s brother Richard as witness. John’s father, James Dalley, a lime burner by trade, set his mark to the document and it was time for congratulations all round.

Woolcomber

John Pretty was a prosperous trader, probably based in Fish Street (now Castle Street) off Poole Quay. Woolcombing was the process of combing fleece to remove tangles and align the fibres before spinning, but Pretty also made stockings and other garments.  How Dalley adjusted to his new life in the woolcombing trade we do not know. Two years into his seven-year term, the sad news came from home that his mother Sarah had died. She was buried at Broadwinsor church on 7th August 1817. In December that year, John Pretty gave information before the mayor of Poole, James Seager, that money had gone missing several times out of the desk in his sitting room and three bundles of ‘knit guernsey frocks’ (i.e. woollen jumpers as worn by fishermen) had vanished from the storehouse. He suspected his servant Thomas Churchill and apprentice John Dalley as being responsible. There is no record of official action being taken against the pair, but it seems that Dally’s apprenticeship was over, and he found himself back in Broadwinsor.

A couple of months later in February 1818, John planned a burglary of his uncle’s home with a friend, 20-year-old William Hallson, a sail-cloth weaver from Broadwinsor. According to later testimony, Dalley had often asked Hallson to go with him on this expedition. Several of John’s brothers and sisters also knew about the scheme. His older sister Hannah said that she would tell their father, but John threatened to kill her and their brother William if they spoke a word about it. Another sister, Charlotte, gave John a shilling to help with the journey to Poole and threw an old shoe after them for luck as they left. The two set out on Sunday 1st February and arrived in Poole on Monday evening. That night they put a ladder against a chamber window of Pretty’s house and Dalley got inside while Hallson removed the ladder. Soon after, Dalley came out of the cellar window with a bundle of goods and they left the area. However, this was not enough for Dalley who said he wanted more. Returning to the house they successfully abstracted more articles before leaving for good.

Old shop, Poole High Street

That evening, before going to bed at 9.30, John Pretty had fastened all the windows and doors. In the morning he found the front upstairs window, the doors between the house and the shop and his bureau all open. He quickly realised that items were missing, including silver spoons, silver coins to the value of £7 or £8, several foreign coins, a watch, a Newfoundland bill of exchange for £10 and a promissory note for £8 7s 0d. Articles taken from the shop included knit frocks, stockings, handkerchiefs, shawls, shirts and lengths of fabric. The burglars had known where to find the goods and crucially, where the keys were kept. Given his recent experiences, Pretty’s suspicions were probably soon fixed on his nephew. This suspicion was strengthened to near certainty when a neighbour, tailor Thomas Galton, reported that he had seen Dalley and another youth in the tap room of the nearby Swan Alehouse the previous evening between 9 and 10 pm and had even had a brief conversation with them.

Wareham

Pretty went to the authorities and laid information that ‘sometime last night his dwelling house was feloniously and burlarously broken open’ and goods stolen. He named Dalley as a suspect. With two local constables, Robert Saunders and Francis Frampton, he set off on a chase across Dorset enquiring on the way for traces of the thieves and the stolen goods. The first stop was Wareham where they found out that someone had tried to change a Newfoundland Bill at the Christchurch Bank, but had been refused. Frampton who had ridden ahead of the others enquired at the Red Lion and found that two young men had hired a gig from the landlord, the Dorchester coach being full. They offered him a Spanish coin, but he refused it. The pursuers discovered that suspected pair had stopped at Winfrith, and hot on the trail, they pressed on to Dorchester. Here enquiries revealed that the couple had split up, both heading for Bridport, one by mail and the other in the ‘Coburg’ coach. At Beaminster they found no trace of the pair but obtained reinforcements in the shape of two local constables, and then set off on foot to Broadwinsor.

When they reached the village, a man in the street pointed out Dalley’s home. Mr. Morey or Mooney, one of the Beaminster constables, called Dalley out of the house and Saunders seized him by the collar and took him into custody. The missing watch was found in the street, probably dropped by Dalley when he was arrested. He was taken to a nearby weaver’s shop to be searched, and the Newfoundland bill was found in his possession. John Pretty and the others still did not know the name of Dalley’s accomplice but according to Saunders’ testimony, they managed to extract it by threatening ‘the brother and sister’ (presumably William and Hannah or Charlotte) with arrest. Hallson was found hiding in a hayloft at another house with the stolen promissory note, various bank notes and other stolen articles in his possession. Two bundles of the missing goods were found, one under a loom in his workplace.

Dorchester Prison Admission record

John and Charlotte Dalley and William Hallson found themselves in Dorchester gaol awaiting trial, Charlotte as an accomplice or accessory because she had wished the others luck and received a pair of stockings. The prison admission record describes John as 5 ft 6ins tall with a fair complexion, brown hair and grey eyes. William Hallson had dark hair and hazel eyes and was only 5 ft 11/2 ins tall. Both had cuts and bruises, probably from rough handling during their arrest.  Meanwhile enquiries in Bridport revealed that the pair had sold various stolen items to local traders, such as a guernsey knit frock sold to Matthew Knight, pawnbroker, and some foreign coins and silver spoons bought by silversmith James Kenway. William, Charlotte and Hannah Dalley were questioned, and William admitted that ‘some time before his mother died, and several times since her death his brother John Dalley, then living with his uncle Mr. Pretty sent down bundles to Richard Dalley another brother of his who lived in Broadwinsor’. These bundles contained stockings, gloves, handkerchiefs and frocks which William believed to be his uncle’s property. It seems John Pretty’s earlier suspicions were justified.

Courtroom, Shire Hall, Dorchester

The case was tried at the Dorchester assizes on Saturday 14th March 1818. Given the overwhelming evidence, it is not surprising that John Dalley and William Hallson were found guilty, but mercy seems to have prevailed in Charlotte’s case and she was acquitted. On 23rd March, Dalley and Hallson were sentenced to death. However, they were reprieved and the sentence changed. Each was to be ‘transported for and during the term of his natural life’. On 20th May they were taken to Portsmouth and put on board the Laurel prison hulk in Gosport Harbour where they spent five no doubt miserable weeks awaiting their passage. They sailed on board the General Stuart on 30th June, bound for Australia. As a consequence of their actions, their lives had changed utterly, and their homes and families were now lost to them. Dalley later said that the voyage was ‘something like a dream’ to him. On 31st December 1818, they arrived Sydney to start their new lives of servitude.

In Poole, John Pretty’s business seems to have prospered. In 1841, the census recorded him and his family still living in Fish Street. Ten years later, John had retired and at the age of 83, he was living with his wife Mary at ‘Loscomb’ in Parkstone (presumably Luscombe Valley near Sandbanks). He died in 1856 and in his will left a number of properties including two houses in Hill Street, Poole to his surviving two sons and three daughters.

Luscombe Valley view

On the other side of the world, John Dalley and William Hallson survived the first grim decade of their punishment. After ten years of hard work, tough living conditions and severe punishment for any rule breaking, they were granted their tickets of leave, allowing them to live and work in a designated district of the colony. Dalley was then living in Bathurst in the interior, about 125 miles from Sydney and working as a footman in the house of John Street, one of the free settlers who were now coming out to the colony in increasing numbers. He married a fellow servant and convict Catherine Spillane and they moved to Sydney in 1831 where he became a shopkeeper and raised a family. He received an absolute pardon in 1838.

The Dalley house from Sydney in 1848 by Joseph Fowles
Statue of William Bede Dalley in Sydney.

Australia was a place of punishment but it also proved a place of opportunity. John Dalley died in 1871 at the age of 72, at his house in Macquarie Street, a prosperous and respected trader. Like his uncle John back in Poole, he owned several properties to bequeath to his children. His eldest surviving son, William Bede Dalley went on to become a barrister, politician, writer, member of the legislative council, Attorney-General for New South Wales and the first Australian to be made a member of the British Privy Council – strange and unforeseen consequences of one night’s illegal adventure in Poole in February 1818.

Jenny

Main sources:

DC-PL/C/B/13/4/4 Apprenticeship Indenture John Dalley to John Pretty of Poole June 1815

DC-PL/C/B/7/68 Case against John Dalley and William Hallson Feb-Mar. 1818

OPC Dorset Broadwinsor Parish Records at https://www.opcsdorset.org/BroadwinsorFiles/Broadwinsor.htm

Dorchester Prison Admissions and Discharge Registers 1782-1901 on Ancestry Poole Census 1841 and 1851 also on Ancestry at https://www.ancestry.co.uk/

Tales of Brusher Mills

I am indebted to Michael Stead of Bournemouth Library for this entertaining portrait of a unique local character.

The ‘How to build a golf course’ check list:

  1.  Find a large open space and make sure the cottagers of Throop can no longer graze their goats or cut turves out of the ground to fuel their winter fires. Tick (Poors Common, now Queens Park).
  2.  Bring in a golf professional to advise on the design of a course. Tick (golf Champion J. H. Taylor: thank you http://www.qpips.org.uk/history/history.pdf. I think we can forgive the Queens Park author the oft repeated myth – we’ve all done it – of Bertie, Prince of Wales visiting Lily Langtry in Bournemouth. The PoW didn’t, and in any case it was Emily Caroline Langton Massingberd that he never visited).
  3. Make sure no one breaks the rules governing the land by building a whopping great road across it. Whoops! (Well Wessex Way hardly counts does it? Or Queens Park Avenue, or Queens Park We- look, there’s nothing to see here, move along please. And who’s ever heard of the Bournemouth Corporation Act 1904 anyway?)
  4. Get rid of the snakes. Tick. Wait . . . the what????

Yes, in 1900, the heathland south of Strouden was covered in adders and they were a sufficient problem that many gateposts had a small hollow where snake oil was kept to treat wounds. In the absence of a Saint Patrick to help with step four, the most obvious solution to ensure Queens Park golfers wouldn’t suffer a nasty nip in the rough was to call in Harry ‘Brusher’ Mills, the renowned New Forest snake-catcher.

When Bournemouth Council sought the aid of Brusher, he was famous for clearing snakes, with a tally of several thousand vipers caught. His main tool was a forked stick. Recalling his employment in 1972, the Bournemouth Echo reported ‘He did the job effectively, working weeks in difficult conditions for parts of the area were a swampy morass’. The Echo said he ‘although bitten many times, went on to live to a ripe old age’. He was 65 when he died. You know, the older I get, the farther ahead ‘old’ seems.

On 19th June 1943, the Echo published a painting of Brusher Mills, which had spent 30 years at the Knyveton Road home of Mr Kerrison Preston. The painting was the work of Bournemouth artist Frank Richards.

For 20 years, claimed the Echo, Brusher lived in a hut he had made for himself, far into the forest at Lyndhurst. Some accounts have it that he retreated to the hut following a family row, in 1885. Writing in ‘Hampshire’ magazine in September 1961, Cerita Stanley-Little (née Brown) said that the hut was about a quarter of a mile from the high road between Lyndhurst and Brockenhurst, near Queen’s Bower; it was ‘a cone shaped charcoal burner’s hut furnished with a bed of dry bracken, biscuit tins of fire wood and empty jam jars . . . although poor, he earned enough to rent himself a cottage had he wished. But even when growing old he preferred his lonely independent life in his rough quarters, in the silent forest’.

George Perry, writing about Brusher for the Sunday Times in August 1976, managed to track down (in the possession of Mr A. W. Coysh, of Hurstbourne Tarrant, Hampshire) a picture taken by Lyndhurst photographer ‘Harvey’, in the 1880s, which showed a more sophisticated version of the hut, clad in pads of turf. All the classic elements of Brusher’s attire are there, the gaiters just under his knees, to prevent unwanted incursion by snakes, the tongs hanging from his waistcoat, the stick used to hold down the snakes. And, in his right hand, one of his snakes.

Cerita Stanley-Little observed ‘His strange way of life appeared to suit him, for he always expressed himself content with his lot’. Speaking in 1903 he said ‘I can’t get about as I did. I took influenza 13 years ago and it made me weak. Still I can’t complain. I’m 63 and only bad weather takes me in the chest’.

The Echo described him as short, stocky, bent by old age, with bushy eyebrows, wrinkled mahogany skin, and a thick white beard. He wore several waistcoats, a ratcatcher coat and a battered hat, all suitable forest camouflage. Cerita Stanley-Little said Brusher was ‘an upright figure of a man, old with a grey forked beard and bright keen eyes. He always wore a shovel hat, gaiters and two coats, over two waistcoats. He was hung about with tins for the reception of his snakes and across his waistcoats was slung a pair of scissors bent at the top to pick them up with’ (Echo writer T. P. Hattersley describes these more as angled steriliser forceps). Brusher was said to be a clean man, despite his rough exterior, with great self-respect. He was said to regularly visit a Lyndhurst relation for baths and a change of clothing.

He caught over 5,000 snakes. Most were sent to the London Zoological Gardens (‘where they formed the sole diet of certain fastidious larger snakes’) some specimens went for laboratory research. Cerita Stanley-Little said Brusher claimed to have caught 4,086 adders and 29,396 other snakes, over 21 years. That sounds a lot, but it is just over 4 snakes a day. Some of his snakes were sold for their skins. Brusher’s primary patron was Lord Londesborough, tenant of Northerwood House, Lyndhurst, who paid a shilling for every live ringed snake or adder. Whilst Londesborough presented some snake specimens to the London zoos, it was unlikely that he had benign intentions toward the remainder, for he retreated to Northerwood to train his falcons.

The most widely accepted explanation for ‘Brusher’ Mills’ nickname, credited to Mr R. C. De Crespigny ‘who is one of the first authorities on all matters pertaining to the Forest’ was that in his youth Brusher would enthusiastically sweep the cricket pitch at Bolton’s Bench. Writing for the Echo in July 1973, T. P. Hattersley delicately explained that the cricket pitch ‘suffered from the perambulations of the New Forest ponies’: hence the need for them to be swept clean from time to time, and Harry Mills earned the fond nickname ‘Brusher’ from the locals, in appreciation of his efforts.

‘He was the son of a forester, and the Forest was in his blood’. T. P. Hattersley reported that Brusher was a witness to a debated element of forest lore, saying that he had witnessed on many occasions in July and August, that adders certainly did swallow their young to protect them in times of danger. Doubting the veracity of this phenomenon, the ‘Field’ newspaper (somewhat cruelly) offered a reward of £5 to the first person who could send them an adder with its young sheltering inside.

There was a popular postcard of Brusher ‘decked with tins, carrying a forked stick and scowling at some children’.

He never took to poaching to support his squatter lifestyle in the forest. Cerita Stanley-Little wrote that Brusher ‘would never touch the game of the forest, not even an egg or a bough’ Brusher did carry a green bough in one hand to keep off the flies. And also perhaps to offset the inevitable aroma of one who dwelt free of the usual lavatorial arrangements.

On 19th June 1972, The Echo described Brusher as a self-made legend, hermit and enigma. He used to be seen at Lyndhurst carrying a tin of writhing snakes. He was supposed to have a great knowledge of reptiles, but seldom spoke to people. The following day (20th June) the BBC’s ‘Country Calendar’ told a different story, that Brusher was often found with his snakes near a forest hotel, and in return for the payment of a 2d tot of rum, he would tell stories of his forest adventures. In this way it is calculated that he drank a bottle of rum a day. Cerita Stanley-Little said in 1961 that Brusher was kindly and talkative ‘though it was hard to understand his speech as he had a cleft palate’.

Writer Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald reported seeing Brusher at the Crown and Stirrup, and he was reputed to visit various inns. T. P. Hattersley states that on one occasion, finding his favourite inn so crowded with day trippers that he couldn’t reach the bar ‘he threw a couple of snakes on to the floor and the room cleared in a very short time’. Brusher was said to use similar tactics when charabancs of visitors arrived: he would mingle with the party, drop a harmless snake and when the shrieks started he would step forward, capture the snake and pass his hat round to take a collection from the grateful company.

According to the Echo, Brusher invented an ointment made from adders which served as a ‘vaccine’ for snake bites. T. P. Hattersley wrote that when Brusher sold the skins of certain snakes, he would boil the skinned snakes to render their fat, from which he would concoct his ointment. Cerita Stanley-Little informed her readers that Brusher’s cure for a snake bite was to cut out the area of the bite with a penknife, let the wound bleed freely for a while and then rub it with an ointment compounded from adders’ fat. If you didn’t fancy that, another common remedy was to take a dose of ammonia or hartshorn, before rubbing the bite with oil. Hattersley claimed that Brusher’s ointment was ‘sought after on the Continent where it was reputed to be particularly effective in relieving rheumatic pains’.

The Echo and BBC stories about Brusher Mills prompted Mrs Annie Cherrett, of Columbia Cottages, Ensbury Park, to contact the Echo and tell that she had once lived in a lodge on an estate near Brusher’s hut, which was hidden under a holly tree. She said that despite an unfriendly reputation, Brusher was a good neighbour and was kind to children, making friends with her three year old daughter Louie. Brusher, she testified, treasured a memory of being visited by King Edward VII, who invited him to lunch.

Cerita Stanley-Little related that officials pulled down his hut and forced him into more conventional accommodation where he could be cared for, but he ‘hated this new way of life and died soon afterwards . . . in the open air he loved so well, beneath the summer trees’. This last fond farewell was such an egregious misrepresentation, that it moved John P. Garrad, of Park Lane, Fareham, to write to Hampshire magazine, offering an account of Brusher Mills’ demise, taken from the ‘Hampshire Telegraph and Post’ of 1905, which reported on the inquest into Brusher’s death. There it was written that when the Crown authorities burnt down his hut, Brusher moved into another on the New Park estate, with the permission of the owner Mr Webley, of ‘Webley & Scott’ the revolver firm. Opinion was divided as to whether his hut was burnt down to facilitate his removal to healthier lodgings, or to prevent him from establishing squatters’ rights over the site of his hut.

Rather than poetically dying beneath the summer trees, Brusher had a heart attack on the privy at the back of the Railway Inn, Brockenhurst. He had gone there for a meal of beer, bread, cheese and pickles. Brusher finished his meal, went out the back and didn’t reappear; the landlord going to look for him twenty minutes later, found him dead. At the inquest a doctor related that he had seen Brusher Mills about his heart some months earlier.

As the result of a public subscription, an impressive monument was erected to mark his grave at Brockenhurst’s Saint Nicholas’ Church.

Some of Brusher’s equipment was put on display at the Railway Inn for a while after his death. His forceps were left to a forester Benny Bessant, who continued Brusher’s snake catching, the work being taken over in turn by his son Douglas Bessant, who supplied snakes to all parts of the world. When Douglas emigrated to South Africa, no one took over the New Forest snake catching work.

Brusher came from a large family. His parents were agricultural labourer Thomas Mills (1800-1871) and Ann Stote (1802-1878) who married at Lyndhurst in 1833. Brusher’s siblings were Emma, 1826; Fanny, 1830; Maria, 1832; Ann, 1834; Sarah, 1837, Lucy 1842 and (Joseph) George, 1847.

In 1866, a Henry Mills was acquitted at the Midsummer Quarter Sessions held at Winchester, of uttering counterfeit coin. If this were he, his trial can’t have been the proudest moment for his parents: his father Thomas Mills had improved his lot to become a gardener, living on the Street at Lyndhurst, but the family already had the stigma of one illegitimate grandchild, Edward Mills. By 1871, Thomas had slipped back to being a general labourer and his wife Ann was taking in laundry to add to the family income.

By 1881, with both his parents dead, Henry was lodging with Fanny and Maria Whiteham, at Clay Hill, Lyndhurst.

In 1886, a Henry Mills was convicted of larceny (theft) at the Michaelmas Quarter Sessions at Winchester; with a note that he had a previous conviction for felony, he was sentenced to 6 months’ imprisonment. There is not sufficient information to establish beyond doubt that the imprisoned Henry Mills is the same as our Brusher Mills. What can be said is that before this date he can be found in the records as Henry Mills, the unremarkable Lyndhurst labourer; afterwards as Harry ‘Brusher’ Mills, the New Forest snake catcher.

It was around 1886, that he went off into the woods to live alone in his hut. Later stories of Brusher said that his independent spirit sometimes got him into trouble before he ‘mellowed’. Cerita Stanley-Little suggested that Brusher was ‘difficult in his youth’ and would not talk about whatever troubled events led to his hermit lifestyle, beyond remarking ‘I was born a gardener’. Brusher was said to be antipathetic only toward gipsies for ‘their thieving propensities’. Perhaps he felt he had some reason to blame a gipsy for encouraging his criminal behaviour? It is a calumny often repeated by settled folk against the Romany people.

If we are looking for any single incident to explain the dramatic change in his lifestyle, the shame to a generally honest man, of becoming a convicted criminal, seems quite sufficient. Add to this the harsh economic circumstances of those too poor when the hard times hit, to sell stocks, or raise rents on their tenants, so that their frequent recourse is crime. This, compounded with the misfortune to get caught, makes it reasonable to suppose that the imprisoned Henry, is our Brusher Mills. What made him remarkable was the decision and wherewithal to reinvent himself from a run-of-the-mill labourer, to the most famous and unique New Forest character of his time.

Having been counted in every census since his birth, Henry/Harry/Brusher disappears for the 1891 census – presumably living too deep and too obscurely in the Forest to be found. However by 1901, he was sufficiently celebrated that Lyndhurst enumerator George Charles White sought him out at his hut at Withy Wood, Lyndhurst, to record his details. Harry informed Mr White that he was a single man aged 61, and that his occupation was ‘New Forest Snake Catcher’. He gave his birthplace as Emery Down, Lyndhurst. It was said that he was a tolerably genial old soul in his veteran years.

Brusher’s younger brother George had several children, with his wife Elizabeth Drodge; one of whom Marie Adelaide Mills – Brusher’s niece – married Joseph Jones, who worked as a Crown labourer for the Woods and Forest Department. Marie and Joseph settled at Elsham Cottage, Queen’s Road, Lyndhurst and had six children. One of their daughters Sylvia Nancy Jones, married Arthur J. Puckett, and lived at Gardener’s Cottage, Rushington Lane, Totton. In 1964, Sylvia composed a ballad about her great uncle, Brusher. In 1978, having moved to Exeter, Devon, Sylvia found a local folk singer to record the song; but its release didn’t trouble John Travolta and Olivia Newton John at the top of the pop charts. A copy of ‘The Ballad of Brusher Mills’ is listed amongst the holdings of the New Forest Heritage Centre.

In an earlier age, Brusher might have accrued myths, and shed facts, to fade into legend. As a son of the 19th Century, there are sufficient reliable records of his life that he remains a genuine New Forest character, with a meaningful Bournemouth connection.