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.


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.


Only Connect Quiz Answers

I hope you managed to solve the clues and they weren’t too obscure.


  1. Red squirrels / Blue Lagoon / Yellow buses / Greenslades ( the connection is, of course, colours)
  2. These are all the names of past or present harbour vessels; the Herbert Ballam and the Kingston Lacy are or were Harbour Commissioners’ tugboats, the Maid of Poole is a pleasure boat and Bramble Bush Bay is the name of the Sandbanks chain ferry.
  3. These were different themes for the day at Baden-Powell’s first scout camp on Brownsea Island in 1907.
  4. Hosiery (sorry – a bit obscure!) / ball / bull / castle. These represent lanes off Poole Quay: Hosiers Lane, Ball Lane, Bull Lane and Castle Street.



  1. Answer: ‘1837 Swing’. These are the dates in reverse chronological order of the four Poole/Hamworthy bridges with their method of opening.
  2. Answer: ‘Late Medieval Poole’ (or something similar). These are the different locations of the principal port in Poole Harbour at different times in history.
  3. Answer: ‘Poole Quay’. These are the places visited during the Beating of the Sea Bounds ceremony.
  4. Answer: Any picture of a local stretch of water. The clues represent the Globe (ie. earth), air and fire.

Connecting wallWall2

  1. Coat of armsFirst row: local worthies who have had schools named after them.
  2. Second row: symbols from the Poole coat of arms.
  3. Third row: bodies of water from local place names eg. Westbourne, Longfleet, Lake (Hamworthy), Creekmoor.
  4. Fourth row: Islands in Poole Harbour.

Missing vowels

  1. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUpton House / Canford School / Clouds Hill / Mansion House
  2. Custom House raiders / Isaac Gulliver / Tichborne claimant / Harry Paye
  3. Amity Cinema / Poole Stadium / Tower Park / Branksome Solarium
  4. Longespee charter / Swash Channel wreck / Log boat / Poole Pottery collection.

All the best


Only Connect Poole & Dorset Christmas Quiz

If you are a fan of the fiendish TV quiz, you might like to have a go at this local version over Christmas. I hope it is not as difficult to solve as it was to compile! Drop me an e-mail with your answers.

Connections – Can you decipher these local clues and identify the link between them?

  1. Rare island dwellers / Tropical-sounding sailing club site / Sunny road transport / Fish merchant or pleasure boat operator.
  2. Kingston Lacy / Bramble Bush Bay / Maid of Poole / Herbert Ballam
  3. Woodcraft / Chivalry / Life-saving / Patriotism

Sequences – Three clues: what should come next and why?

  1. 2012 Lift / 1927 Lift / 1885 Swing / ?
  2. Iron Age Green Island / Roman Hamworthy / Early medieval Wareham / ?
  3. Broomhill, Hamworthy / Redcliff Atwell, Arne / North Haven Point / ?

Connecting wall – Can you sort these words into 4 groups? What connects the words in each group?


Missing vowels – replace the missing vowels to identify the words or phrases.

  1. Local houses or former houses: PT NHS / CNF RDS CHL / CLD SHLL /         MN SNHS
  2. Beyond the law: CST MHSR DRS / SCGL LVR / TC HBR NCL MNT / HR RYPY
  3. Places of entertainment, past and present:       MTYC NM / PLST DM /          TW RPRK / BRN KSMS LRM
  4. Historic artefacts: LN GSPC HRTR / SWS HCH NNLW RCK / LGBT /         PLPT TRYCL LCTN

Good luck!




Friends and Enemies

A Poole brig, the David

A Poole brig, the David

On the 15th December 1812, as the Napoleonic war was raging, the 48-gun frigate HMS Briton captured the French privateer Sans Souci from St. Malo. As a consequence of this action, the following letter dated 8th February 1813 was sent to Poole and is now in the Poole archives:

To Joseph Tucker, late master of the Brig Douro of Poole from Pierre Mainville, Bridgnorth.

The privateer Sans Soucy of St. Maloes having been captured, I, Pierre Mainville the late first lieutenant on board of her, and the same officer with which you were used to sleep by, in the same cabin am now a prisoner of war in your country as I remember the assurance which you had the goodness to give me that you would make your best to be useful to me if ever I want you: I take the liberty to apply myself to you, begging your kindness to write to the honourable members of the Transport Board at London and to let them know how much you were well used during your stay on board the privateer Sans Soucy pleas to say to them, that, some days previous to your departure you return into your country; you had the misfortune to fall overboard and you should have almost certainly been drowned if Mr. Pierre Mainville first lieutenant on board Sans Soucy (and then officer of the watch) taking advice only of his feelings for one of his fellow creatures and of his intrepidity, had not threw himself, immediately overboard and succeeded to save you, ask them (as a reward for my behaviour towards one of their country-men) that I may be permitted to return in France on parole of not serving against Angland. A certificate attesting that I have saved you from death will be very useful to me, it is the reason for which I dare pray you to inclose one in your answer to me.

As I make no doubts you will employ either yourself or your friends in my favour and that you will succeed too: do depend upon me, that as soon as I am in my country I will recommend you and your friends (if you are pleased to send me their names) to the Captains and officers of privateers I am acquainted with I do promise you, that if you have either a relation of a friend prisoner in France, I will at my arrivel procure him his liberty.

I depend, dear Sir, upon your promises and your goodness to oblige a man who is a victim of wars; having spent the third part of my life (although 45 years old) in the prisons of Angland, during these two wars.

Signed: Pierre Mainville, on parole at Bridgnorth, Salop.

Captain Rosse compliments Captain Tucker and hope he will do everything in his power for my officer would be greatly obliged.

Whether Captain Tucker received the letter and acted upon it, we do not know. The war, of course ended with the battle of Waterloo 3 years later.


Stories of Tudor Brownsea

Blockhouse plan view

Blockhouse plan view

One day in the early decades of the 16th century, the peace of Brownsea Island at the mouth of Poole Harbour was shattered by the arrival of boats carrying men and tools from nearby Poole. They had come to lay the foundations for a fort or blockhouse, part of a string of coastal defences ordered by King Henry VIII. Boat-loads of stone and chalk followed and the blockhouse soon took shape near the landing place overlooking the harbour entrance. It was built on a solid platform and consisted of a single storey square tower around 13m by 13m with walls 2m thick. The guns were to be mounted on the flat roof of the tower. On the eastern side was a barbican or walled courtyard with a perimeter of 18.7m. The tower was surrounded by a ditch with a drawbridge to give access. Inside the building were a large hall and two smaller rooms, lit by small, barred windows. Although the block-house was a royal project, it was the town of Poole which had to organise its construction and provide a gunner, an assistant and three men to operate it.

For over 350 years, the island had belonged to Cerne Abbey which maintained a hermit and chapel there and held the right to any ‘wreck of the sea’ washed up on its shores. It was a quiet backwater, mainly heathland with few trees and little cultivation. Local men occasionally visited to fish, dig ballast and catch rabbits or for more nefarious purposes, but otherwise its peace was rarely disturbed. Now a new, noisier and more contentious era had opened for Brownsea.

Culverin and port piece

Culverin and port piece

Over the next few years guns arrived and were transported over to the island under the direction of the Mayor of Poole. A culverin, demi-culverin and port piece and two sakers with the appropriate iron shot, barrels of gunpowder and other equipment were installed in the blockhouse. The problem was to maintain the fort and guns in good condition and by 1551, the Mayor and burgesses of Poole were petitioning the Privy Council for new cannon and repairs to the blockhouse. Alterations including increasing the height of the tower and the barbican wall cost Poole £133. Again in 1562 Poole petitioned the Privy Council that Brownsea Castle was in disrepair and the cannon unserviceable. This time the maintenance was transferred to central government.

In the meantime, the ownership of the main island also changed. The Abbey of Cerne was dissolved in 1539 as part of Henry VIII’s reformation, and all its properties, including Brownsea, became the possession of the Crown. In 1545, Henry granted the island (excluding the blockhouse) to John Vere, Earl of Oxford who transferred it with Henry’s consent to lawyer, Richard Duke. As clerk to the Court of Augmentations which managed the properties reverting to the crown following the dissolution of the monasteries, Duke was in a good position to acquire many former monastery properties in the West Country.

Refined copperas

Refined copperas

The new owners saw a way to make money on their acquisition by entering a partnership to work the deposits of ferrous sulphate or copperas found on the island. This mineral was a valuable product used in the dyeing of textiles, tanning and ink-making. A later description of the works by the traveller Celia Fiennes gives an idea of what they looked like to an interested visitor. The nodules of the mineral were laid out on slightly raised sloping beds to dissolve in the rain and the resulting liquor was fed through pipes into the boiling house where large square pans were kept boiling by furnaces. ‘They place iron spikes in the panns full of branches, and so as the Liquar boyles to a candy it hangs on those branches. I saw some taken up, it look’d like a vast bunch of grapes, the coulour of the Copperace not being much differing.’

Sir Christopher Hatton

Sir Christopher Hatton

In 1576, to the consternation of Poole’s leading citizens, Queen Elizabeth awarded the castle at Brownsea to her favourite, Christopher Hatton. He had first come to her notice through his skills as a courtier and was a rising man, rapidly acquiring lands and titles including that of Vice Admiral of Purbeck and Constable of Corfe Castle. The following year he was to be knighted and made Vice Chamberlain and ten years later he became Chancellor, proving to be an impressive statesman with a fine grasp of public affairs. The demands of Hatton’s public duties and almost daily attendance on the Queen, meant that he left his duties in Purbeck in the hands of a deputy, Francis Hawley, based at Corfe Castle. Under Hatton’s sponsorship, Hawley was three times returned as M.P. for Corfe Castle. He was also able to indulge in lucrative sidelines such as doing deals with the pirates who haunted the Purbeck coast. Richly attired pirate captains would come ashore at Studland to sell their stolen goods without fear of the law while Hawley pocketed sweeteners or had his pick of the choicest goods.

Poole Harbour in 1500s

Poole Harbour in 1500s

Many local people also traded with the pirates including Mr Phillips, the captain or gunner of Brownsea castle. According to a testimony of 1582, Phillips ‘had a monkey, a parrot and sold beer to Captain Heynes’ and stored three tons of Brazil wood for him in Brownsea Chapel and 112 hogsheads of herrings in the castle. Stephen Heynes was a notorious pirate, known to use torture on his captives to force them to reveal the hiding place of any valuables. Four years later, the next gunner, Walter Partridge, was said to have bought 40 pieces of raisins and two bags of almonds from pirates ‘which the said Partridge with others did carry in a boat to Brownsea castle aforesaid in the night season’.

Brownsea was something of a law unto itself and was regarded with suspicion by the people of Poole. In 1586, a man called James Mounsey was sent to Poole by Francis Hawley for some official purpose and the Mayor and Burgesses complained about him in a letter to Hawley. They described Mounsey as a man ‘whose religion we doubt, for that we have not seen him at any time at the Church at the time of his being here. He hath a brother a very bad fellow, and of an odious religion, who serveth in Brownsea mines under him. He persuadeth the workmen there to labour on the Sabbath day and to rest Saturday, which he saith is the Sabbath day. We understand this Mounsey to be indebted to the victuallers of this town and the workmen of Brownsea mines.’

Relations with the gunners of Brownsea had also long been tense. As far back as 1578, John Gobey had complained at the Poole Admiralty Court that a ‘callyber’ [hand gun] which he had found at the bottom of the sea near Brownsea had been taken from him by force by the gunner, Richard Skovell. In 1681, the minutes of the Court reported that ‘the gunner of Brownsea castle doth molest the inhabitants of the town and will not suffer them to pass any persons from Northaven to Southaven Point but doth threaten them to shoot at them and violently doth take their money from them, which is not only a great hindrance to poor men that were wont to gain money that way, but also an infringing of our liberties.’

Worse was to come. On 11th February 1589, Walter Meryet, owner and master of the Bountiful Gifte was sailing out of Poole with a cargo of copperas bound for London. Because of the international situation, the authorities had put a stay on shipping in case vessels might be needed for naval purposes. Any ship wanting to leave port needed a special pass from the correct authorities. Meryet had a pass from the port authorities at Poole and went ashore at Brownsea to present this to the gunner, Walter Partridge. However Partridge told him that this was not good enough and that he needed a proper pass from Francis Hawley at Corfe Castle. Meryet replied that he had sent someone to fetch this pass and pressed Partridge to let him pass. Apparently a similar situation had arisen before between the two men because Partridge again refused, saying that Meryet had caused him trouble before with his master, Mr. Hawley.

Brownsea blockhouse

Brownsea blockhouse

Meryet went back on board his ship, but instead of sailing back to Poole, he defiantly set sail for the harbour entrance. Partridge’s response was to open fire. His first shot passed over the ship but the second, according to one witness, fell short, grazed the water and then hit the vessel. Other witnesses reported that Partridge deliberately aimed ‘between wind and water’, in other words, at the vulnerable part of the ship just below the waterline. The shot hit Walter Meryet behind his right knee, shattering his thigh bone ‘fower ynches long on the owt side of his legg’. It also hit crew member William Drake in his right thigh, giving him a six inch wound. After firing, Partidge got up on the wall to try to see through the smoke and asked witness Peter Peers if he had seen the shot. Peers said that it had struck the barque and done some harm to which Partridge replied ‘I cannot help it nowe.’ The two terribly injured men were put on board the Primrose to be taken back to Poole but William Drake died as they came up the channel. Walter Meryet was landed alive at Poole Quay and taken to his house where he died the following day.

Electrified first by the sound of shots across the harbour and then by the news of the deaths, the people of Poole were incensed. An inquest was convened and evidence heard, resulting in a verdict of wilful murder against Walter Partridge. At his trial at the Admiralty Court at Corfe Castle, Partridge was found guilty of manslaughter and condemned to death, being unable to plead benefit of clergy because his offence had been committed at sea. However this was not the end of his story because in December 1590 he received a grant of pardon for the killing of William Drake and Walter Meryet ‘by the glancing of a bullet, which he shot at a ship wherein they were, intending to stay the said ship.’ Obviously his masters Francis Hawley and Christopher Hatton looked after their own.

Brownsea - 18th century view

Brownsea – 18th century view

Around 1597, a map of Brownsea was drawn up with a description giving an idea of what the island was like at the close of the century: ‘Brownesea is a little island lyinge by the channell or going forth betwene Poole and the Isle of Purbeck; the length thereof by his extreames is 411 pertches and at the brodest place is over 206 perches. Yt conteyneth of undrowned lande wheron somthinge greweth 354 acres and 4 rods. The nature of the grownd is drie, sandie and bringeth forth only heath and in some few plases furses. But that there is at the east end of the land about a howse theare about six acres that is greene ground and naturale to bringe forth corne. The lande lyeth very high for the most parte, and into the east parte thereof betwene two hills a creek of the sea doth ebb and flow, and at the hed therof is a percell of marris or moore ground. Upon the southwest parte therof also have ben coperis mynes now decayed. The land doth yeald cunnies [rabbits] and will feede rother cattell, horses and sheep, and the better by the woore [seaweed] cast ashore by the sea.’ From this description it seems that Brownsea was scarcely more developed at the end than at the beginning of the Tudor age.


Sources included: A History of Brownsea Island by John Bugler and Gregory Drew / Brownsea Island by Charles Van Raalte / Treasures of the Golden Grape by Selwyn Williams / CI 1 Coroner’s Inquest on Walter Meryet and William Drake (Poole Archives) / Plan of Brunksey (Brownsea) Castle, island, Poole and harbour, and district from Cecil Papers: Miscellaneous 1597 (copy at Dorset History Centre).