Poole’s Other Town Cellars?

PM9 site today

PM9 site today

Pigs, cattle, sheep, ducks, geese, rabbits, deer, partridge, cod and haddock . . . recently our team of museum collections volunteers has been elbow deep in animal bones, the remains of meals consumed some 700 years ago. We have been re-bagging and recording finds from an excavation site known as PM9 amazingly rich in bones and medieval pottery. It was 40 years ago in 1974 that redevelopment in lower Thames Street gave archaeologists the rare opportunity to dig an area in the heart of the old town, only 10 metres north of the western section of the Town Cellars building (now part of the King Charles pub). What they found revealed new facts about Poole’s medieval development.

When Poole was growing from a tiny fishing hamlet, Thames Street was right on the foreshore and the natural ground surface was sand and gravel. Sometime from the 10th to the 12th centuries, a thin layer of oyster shells was spread over this beach surface, becoming crushed and compacted from the pressure of feet. Similar layers of oyster shells, varying in thickness, have been found right along the Poole foreshore and also at Hamworthy. Many of these show signs of having been harvested and seem to have been laid down deliberately to reclaim the beach area and provide a foundation for port buildings.

Town Cellars, rear wall

Town Cellars, rear wall

Around 1300 Poole’s prosperity justified the construction of a massive stone warehouse on the Quay, known today as the Town Cellars. The building was 36.5 metres long and about 7.5 metres wide with walls of carstone rubble over 1 metre thick. At around the same date another stone building was erected close by in Thames Street, part of which was revealed by the excavation. How long the building was we don’t know but it was 8 metres wide, the front wall of carstone blocks was at least 1.2 metres thick and the rear wall was 1.4 metres thick. The original floor of the Town cellars was limestone flags on a bedding of clay and mortar. The Thames Street building had a floor of thin yellow mortar and fine sand. Based on its known dimensions, the Thames Street building may have been as big as the Town Cellars and given the similarity of construction, was probably part of the same port development. If it was another warehouse as seems likely, the port must have been doing well and a high demand for storage was obviously anticipated by the merchants.

woolRecords do not show who built the Town Cellars and associated buildings but it may have been the contemporary lord of the manor of Canford, Henry De Lacy, Earl of Lincoln or one of his successors. (It was certainly owned by the lord of Canford in the 1460s when it was leased to the Corporation of Poole). In early references, the building is referred to as the Woolhouse or the King’s Hall, showing its connection with the important wool trade. In medieval times, the impressive stone building, full of valuable bundles of fleeces awaiting export, looked out on a sloping shingle beach where ships moored just off shore to load and discharge their goods. The Thames Street building was even closer to the sea, which lapped near its rear wall. Excavation revealed a series of post-holes across the beach, some still containing stumps of water-logged timbers, which were probably the remains of medieval jetties serving the building.

Ship sealA merchant ship of a kind familiar to the port in the early 14th century is shown on a Poole seal dating from around 1325. The ship is foreshortened to fit into the round shape, but still shows a lot of detail. It is a single-masted, clinker built vessel with a square sail and the latest refinements of a stern rudder and permanent upper decks consisting of a quarter deck and a smaller forecastle. These decks would act as fighting platforms if the ship came under attack. The small topcastle could be used for a lookout or to accommodate a couple of archers in the case of a fight at sea. It has been estimated that the seal ship could have been between 100 and 120 tons, around 22.5 metres long and 6.5 metres in the beam, the pride of Poole’s merchant fleet.


The old wall behind Thames Street

If the early decades of the 14th century were a time of commercial optimism for Poole, the rest of the century brought raids, war, plague and uncertainty. It was probably in this period that a castellated wall was built behind the properties on Thames Street for the protection of the Quay, although whether this extended behind the dig site is unclear. In changed times the Town Cellars survived but for reasons unknown to us, the Thames Street building seems to have fallen out of use quite soon after it was built. Pits were dug into the floor of the disused and possibly derelict building and a hearth was constructed in front of a former doorway to Thames Street. However the site was probably too central to remain unused for long. It was decided to level and reclaim the sloping foreshore further by in-filling the building and the beach behind it. For this purpose rubbish was brought in, probably by the cart load from a local waste dump. Two layers were laid down consisting of dark soil full of broken pottery, bones, smithy waste and other refuse dating to the late 13th or early 14th century.

butcherIronically this discarded material provided the archaeologists with lots of information on contemporary diet and butchery methods and contained the largest collection of medieval pottery from any site in the town. From the bones it was obvious that a wide range of species was eaten, including some game animals such as deer, rabbits and wildfowl. In the case of cattle and pigs, the remains of very young animals as well as mature ones were found. The sheep however seem to have been eaten as mutton not lamb. Some pig bones were probably from hams. The cuts of meat were quite small and the medieval butchers used both choppers and knives to joint them.

Most of the pottery owned by the Poole housewives 700 years ago was coarse local ware, cooking pots, bowls, skillets, pipkins and large Dorset ware jugs with a green glaze and applied red strip decoration (as on display in Poole Museum). However some kitchens could boast imported ware such as green glazed jugs from Saintonge in western France. Large quantities of Saintonge pottery was exported at this time in association with the development of the wine trade.

Thames Street c. 1885

Thames Street c. 1885

Some time in the 15th century, the Thames Street building was finally demolished and the stone no doubt put to use elsewhere in the town. Pottery which ended up on the site at this period included a curfew, a pottery lid used to cover and extinguish a fire while retaining the heat, (also on display in the Museum). In the late 15th or 16th century, a row of houses and cottages were built on all or part of the site of the building. Closest to the Town Cellars was a fine timber-framed house with a jetted upper storey and two gabled oriel windows. This became the New Inn and is now the King Charles public house. Next door were three small cottages, gable end to the street, the middle one being located on the excavation site. Each dwelling was only about 4 to 5 metres wide and 6 metres deep but even if they were pretty insubstantial, the cottages survived for about 400 years.

Map c.1597

Map c.1597

An image of the street on a map of c. 1597 shows the  gabled cottages, the Town Cellars and the King Charles in its previous existence as a private house and is not very different from a photograph of Thames Street taken about 1885 (see above).  The cottages were demolished around 1920 and replaced by an office building. Fifty years later, the demolition of this building allowed the excavation to take place.

The Thames Street dig raises lots of unanswered questions such as what the medieval building was for, what it looked like, how it related to the town wall and why it went out of use. It does however provide a fascinating glimpse of life and commerce in medieval Poole.


Sources included: Excavations in Poole 1973-1983 by Ian P. Horsey / The Poole Ship by John Armstrong / The History of the Borough and County of the town of Poole by H. P. Smith

Poole and the Swash Channel Wreck

It was probably in 1630 or 1631 that a large merchant ship, sailing between the Low Countries and the tropics, was wrecked on the edge of the Hook Sands at the entrance to Poole Harbour. How she came to be wrecked we don’t know but it seems that the vessel was intact enough to allow the salvagers to remove much of her cargo and some of her cannon. The ship sank on to the mud and was forgotten for four centuries. Then, in 1990 a dredger disturbed some of her timbers. After a brief excavation, the site was largely ignored until its rediscovery by a Wessex Archaeology survey in 2004 which led to the present Bournemouth University excavation. Now that parts of the wreck and some artefacts have been brought to the surface and put on display in Poole Museum, it is interesting to investigate what Poole was like 400 years ago when these objects last saw the light of day.

From Speed's Dorset Map 1610

From Speed’s Dorset Map 1610

The Harbour – Poole harbour is vast (around 8,650 acres or 3,500 hectares) but notoriously shallow with what John Sydenham in his History of Poole calls ‘immense banks of ooze, intersected by a great number of channels’. The men of Poole made a virtue out of this difficult waterway by trying to prevent anyone other than Poole seamen piloting ships in and out of the harbour. This was not only to preserve their trade but also to protect the secrets of harbour navigation from strangers and foreigners.

In the 1662, with the idea of draining and reclaiming all the mudlands of the harbour, a survey was carried out to find the extent of all the soft grounds which ‘are or lately have been usually overflown with the sea or salt waters and are for the most pt ozie, slubby or glibsey grounds’. The total area of such grounds was calculated to be 8,026 acres and a grant was made by Charles II to the Duke of Richmond and Lennox to enclose and reclaim them. However nothing came of this ambitious plan or another grant made in 1666 to Charles Gifford Esq.

Map harbour 1698At the end of the century, the war with France highlighted the need for improved harbours for the navy. In 1698, the Lords of the Admiralty ordered a survey of the south coast ports to find out whether they could be improved for naval use. Their conclusions about the local area were not very favourable. Of Poole harbour they reported that it was ‘Assisted by a Considerable Fresh from Dorchester, and is a Capacious Water when all its Shoale Grounds are covered with the Tyde Nevertheless not having above 8ft. Water for a great Space without the Mouth of it at Low water, and that the Rise of the Spring Tydes doe not exceed 8 ft. more, those very uncertain and remiss, The Shoales very large, and the Channells very Crooked; There are very few Vessells will venture into it when they can choose to doe otherwise, The entrance into this Haven is covered by Studland Point, The Town stands about 3 Miles within the Haven, wch: together with its Generall Scituation affords nothing in our Opinion proper or improveable for the Service of the Navy.’ The accompanying chart clearly shows the crooked channels and also the difficult entrance to the harbour with its sand shoals where the Swash Channel wreck had come to grief 70 years before. The key to the chart is as follows: a.a Sands under water / b. Shipps pass over sometimes [my italics] / c. Old Corbands / d. Brownsea Island & Castle / e. Parkson / f. Heakford / g. Ham / h. Passage / i. Owar River / k. Road to Christ Church / l. Road to Hampshier / m. Road to Wareham

Beacon shipThe Port – In spite of its apparent unsuitability for naval use, Poole was a thriving merchant port. An important part of the town’s trade was fishing voyages to Newfoundland, while other Poole ships traded with Europe or round the British coast. In the early years of the century, the Newfoundland trade was prosperous but the outbreak of war with Spain in 1625 meant the loss of a major market for fish and restrictions on trade. Pirates also took advantage of the war to prey on ships from the western ports. In 1628, the Mayor wrote to the Council, claiming that in four years, the town had lost twenty ships, totalling 1,465 tons and valued at £13,400. Where there had been twenty ships sailing to Newfoundland there were now only three.

In the same year, an inventory was produced of all the shipping, masters, mariners, sailors and fishermen of Poole. Twenty ships were listed, nine being in port and eleven at sea, although the inventory did not indicate their destinations. Ships ranged from 5 to 150 tons, the average size being 60 tons. There were also 24 ship’s masters, 50 sailors and 11 fishermen. The most prominent of the 15 ship-owners listed were John Bryard and Thomas Hill, joint owners of the 150 ton ships Garland and Dragon, Thomas Robarte, owner of the Concorde, Amity and Vintye, and George Skutt who owned the Desire, Seaflower, Primrose and Susanna and was joint owner of the Jeane.

Revenue came in to the Poole coffers from merchants using the Quay and its facilities. Charges included keyage (loading and unloading ships at the Quay), beamage (weighing goods on the town beam), cellarage (storing items in the Town Cellars) and cartage (use of the town carts). These were paid to the Water Bailiff and a ratal or charges list dating from 1579 exists in the archives, including such items as ‘Appelles the barrell’, ‘Copperas the tonne’, ‘Fyshe of Newfoundlande drye the C’ [100], ‘Leamonds and oranges the mound’, ‘Sugar the cheste’ etc.

Details of the port income frequently appear in the 17th century town accounts such as these from 1605/6:

‘Receved of the two flemons for ballasting of the 2 ships                       £3   0     0

‘For sellereg keg and pete custom for vinegar and plaister of parres     £0  12   00

‘Laden by Mr. William Hill viii packes of cloth mor 130 hh of wheat in the myrmaid of pooll John Fox Mr the xvi day of August 1606                                    £1   1    8

The Quay c.1597

The Quay c. 1597

The Quay – At the beginning of the century, the Quay was only 240 feet (73m) long, stretching from the Quay head, (just beyond Thames Street) to Measurer’s gap (an inlet in the shoreline near the present junction with High Street). The forward projecting area where the Custom House now stands did not exist and the limited space available for loading and unloading meant that congestion was a problem. In 1616, some leading merchants of the town signed ‘A benevolence for the building of a new key at Messurer’s Gap & a fish market this next year if god permits,’ listing the sums that they were willing to contribute to the project. In 1618 the building began and it was decided ‘that the key shall be set forthe 8 or 9 foot without Mr. Dackhams furthest wall and without his wall to make a slype to land horses and lad horses which slyp ther shalbe made of gods will . . .’ The accounts give details of chalk, gravel, paving stones, timber to make piles and iron shoes for the piles. This new quay set the precedent for later extension eastwards.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Admiralty CourtThe Admiralty Court of Poole was held once a year in the open air, either on the Quay or by the Broomhill Stone in lower Hamworthy. It was presided over by the mayor as Admiral of the Port, with the assistance of the Water Bailiff. All ‘masters of shippes, mariners and ffisher men’ were asked to attend by an announcement in St. James’ Church and on the day, a jury of around 24 men were sworn in. The jurisdiction of the court included such matters as the maintenance of the channels, buoys and moorings, pilotage, fishing regulations, the activities of pirates, felonies at sea and shipwrecks. The occasional perambulations of the sea bounds were also carried out as part of the Admiralty Court proceedings.

In practice the court gave ordinary users of the port and harbour a chance to voice their complaints and hold the town officials to account but it does not seem to have been very effective in inducing change. Some issues, such as the need to dredge the channel or provide more moorings, came up year after year. The proceedings of the court contain lots of interesting detail:

1607 – (Admiral and Mayor, Mr. John Bramble) – ‘Item wee finde and present nicholas Gibbins William Bramble and John Bramble of Poole for suffering their ship the Orang Tree to lie against measurers wall neare the channell most danngerous for shipps barckes and boats that usuallie come into and outto the kaie of Poole . . .’‘Item wee finde and present Nicholas Reekes for that he hath not placed sufficient posts at bulworcke, Maiden Waie and at the north west end of the kaye for moaring of shipps.’

1617 – (Admiral and Mayor, Mr. Thomas Francis) – ‘Wee present Nicholas Gibbons that his people have throwne out 5 or 6 loads of ashes from his water gate into the sea.’

1631 – (Admiral and Mayor, Thomas Smedmore) – ‘Mr Hill’s wracke doth lye in the fayre way for boats and barks to come to the keyes.’

The Trading Companies – The merchants of Poole were not just focussed on local matters. With their involvement in international trade, they must have been well aware of the global expansion of trade, exploration and settlement taking place in the early 17th century. European countries vied to set up trading companies which were given licences to settle in the new territories, to farm, trade and exploit the local resources. For forward-looking gentry and merchants, investment in trading companies was a fashionable business venture. Settlers were inspired to embark on the dangerous enterprise by a range of motives, religious idealism and commercial ambition among them.

Two major trading companies were the English East India Company, set up in 1600 and the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC), formed two years later in 1602. By 1630, the English company was well established with a trading post in Surat in India and ports in China and was engaged in fierce competition with the Portguguese and Dutch.The VOC had posts in Java and Kakarta and was developing a system of trade between Asian countries whose profits would be used to finance the European spice trade. It was to become an outstandingly successful multinational company.

arriving-jamestownThe European powers were also in competition to exploit the American continent. The Virginia Company was chartered by James I in 1606 to establish settlements on the North American coast. Some settlers chose the area around the James River and founded Jamestown but suffered near extinction from disease, starvation, Indian attack and other causes. Not all of the settlers were well prepared for the task which faced them. In 1622, a list was produced of the supplies which each settler family should carry across the Atlantic ‘for their better support at their first landing in Virginia’. This included clothing, tools, weapons, household goods and food including such items as ‘five Ells course Canvase, to make a bed at Sea for two men, to be filled with straw 4s’ and ‘two broad Axes at 3s. 8d. a piece’. The total cost of the listed items was £20, a sum probably beyond many families’ means. One success of the colony was the export of tobacco which earned the company good revenue. In 1624, the King dissolved the Company and made Virginia a royal colony.

In 1620, other colonists seeking freedom from religious oppression had landed from the Mayflower at Plymouth, Massachusetts in what became New England. The landing of the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ was to become part of the story of the founding of America but of more significance locally were a series of voyages from 1623 onwards under the sponsorship of the Rev. John White, the puritan rector of St. Peter’s and Holy Trinity, Dorchester. He helped to raise capital, involve local men of influence and obtain the necessary licence to settle in America. These colonising voyages laid the foundations of the cities of Boston, Dorchester and Charlestown.

The Dutch were also active in the Americas, forming the Dutch West India Company in 1621, modelled on the VOC. It was granted a charter for a monopoly of trade and navigation, conquest and commerce in the Western hemisphere, particularly West Africa and the Americas. The company hoped to eliminate trade competition in the West Indies, particularly from the Spanish and Portuguese and gain a share of the African slave trade. By 1630, the company had set up the colony of New Netherland between New England and Virginia. They also had trading posts in the Caribbean, Brazil and on the gold Coast of Africa.

The seasonal fishery in Newfoundland from a map by Herman Moll

The seasonal fishery in Newfoundland from a map by Herman Moll

Another of the companies affecting Poole very directly was the London and Bristol Company for the Plantation of Newfoundland. Merchants from western ports such as Poole had been operating a seasonal fishery on the island for around 100 years. Although the charter of the new company promised to protect the fishermen’s rights, the merchants feared that the settlers would squeeze them out of the best fishing harbours and establish a monopoly of the trade. The first settlement founded at Cupids Cove in 1610 was practical and well organised and high hopes were entertained by settlers and investors. A few years later, disillusionment began to set in. The fishermen were hostile to the colonists, hopes of finding minerals came to nothing, the climate was harsh and the cost of maintaining the settlements swallowed the profits. By the 1630s, the enterprise of the Newfoundland Company was more or less over but small intermittent settlements did gradually grow up around the island.

17th century pinnace similar to the Vliegende Draecke

17th century pinnace similar to the Vliegende Draecke

The Ships – The seamen of Poole would have witnessed some of this intense activity of the trading companies during their voyages across the Atlantic and to Europe. The town may have played a part in servicing the trade. Just beyond the harbour entrance, the English Channel was a great highway for the company ships, large and small as they headed out with supplies and settlers or homeward with the produce of distant lands. Some inevitably came to grief on their long journeys. 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. The 320-ton Vliegende Draecke, was holed and abandoned in Alum Bay after the crew had transferred most of the cargo to other ships. Another ship, the Campen sank just south of the Needles. Robert Newland, merchant and ship-builder of the Isle of Wight joined forces with a Dutch salvager, Jacob the Diver, to recover five cannon, 6,660kg of lead, and 2,635 coins. In 1630 as a result of a petition from the Dutch West India Company to Charles I, the King granted the company ‘right to all wreck of their vessels cast away in his Majesty’s dominions’.

Rudder carving

Rudder carving

This was the world in which the Swash Channel vessel embarked upon her last voyage. A large merchant ship of 300 – 500 tons, around 40m long, and armed with at least 26 guns, she must have been an impressive vessel. The rudder alone was over 8m high and topped with the exuberantly carved face of a moustachioed man. Other baroque carvings of cherubs and mermen decorated the rails and gunports. Tests have shown that the ships timbers were felled around 1628 on the Dutch / German border and the vessel was almost certainly Dutch, maybe belonging to one of the trading companies. The hull was covered with pinewood sheathing with a layer of tar and hair between, as was the custom with Dutch ships bound for the tropics. However this protective outer layer showed no sign of damage by shipworm and it could be that the vessel was on her maiden voyage when she found her last resting place at the entrance to Poole Harbour.

Jenny Oliver



The Mystery of the Mountaineer

Twenty two years before the 282 ton brigantine Mary Celeste was found intact but abandoned in the Atlantic Ocean, a similar mysterious occurrence befell a Poole ship, the two-masted schooner, Mountaineer.

Mountaineer 2The heyday of the transatlantic salt cod trade with Newfoundland was already in the past when the Mountaineer was built in Hamworthy in 1836 for the firm of John Slade and Company. In fact the Slades were one of the few Poole families who continued in the trade after the slump of the 1820s and 1830s. The Mountaineer belonged to the branch of the family based at Fogo and Twillingate in Newfoundland and Battle Harbour off the coast of Labrador. At around 87 tons, the ship was of average size for the Slade fleet, but by modern standards very small to be making the hazardous voyage across the Atlantic. She was 76.4 feet long, 19.8 feet in beam and 11.3 feet in depth with the full length figurehead of a man. Her name may have originated with the ‘Mountaineer’ or Montagnais’ Indians of Labrador.

Diary extract 1836

1836 extract from the diary of William Kelson, Slade manager in Trinity.

For the next fourteen years, the Mountaineer made the Atlantic crossing many times, sailing from Poole to Newfoundland and back via Cadiz, Hamburg, Gibraltar and other European ports. On the outward journey she would carry salt and provisions for the fishermen. On the return journey, her cargo would be fish, oil, salmon, seal skins and other products to sell in Europe.

Battle H

Battle Harbour today

In 1848, the Bishop of Newfoundland, Edward Field, visited Labrador and described the remote settlement of Battle Harbour, ‘probably the oldest, as well as the largest, settlement on the Labrador coast’.  At the time of the bishop’s visit, there were 92 fishing vessels in the harbour each with a crew of 7 or 8 men, swelling the winter population of 200 to over 800 in the summer. The visitors were engaged in fishing but the locals also caught seals. The bishop noted that Messrs. Slade of Poole had an establishment there and was introduced to the Slade’s agent, Mr Rush Bendle, ‘who appears a sensible modest young man, and anxious to promote the interests of the place and people’. The Slades employed around 10 men at their establishment, mainly Newfoundlanders. The previous winter, he was told, they had killed ‘upwards of 1,100 seals, which, being all full-grown, and of a large size, average £1 each in value.’ The fishery had also been very successful for the previous 3 years with catches for the whole harbour sometimes reaching 2,000 quintals a day (a quintal being about a hundredweight).

Salt codIn June 1849, the Mountaineer sailed to Newfoundland with provisions, returning to Poole in December with fish and oil on board. In March 1850, she went out to Gibraltar with fish, returning from Figuera in April carrying salt and wine. From lists it appears that her crew for this voyage consisted of seven men, the captain, John Tilsed (33), the mate, John Mappingham (32), Robert Warburton, Jonathan Brown, William Hiscroft, James Sibley, (cook) and an apprentice, Charles John Cooper (16). Tilsed was a Poole man but Warburton was a Newfoundlander and Cooper came from Nova Scotia.

On 26th June 1850, probably with largely the same crew, she set sail again for Newfoundland with her cargo of salt. Weeks, then months passed but the ship did not arrive. Eventually she was given up for lost. Then on 19th October, 1850, she was discovered by a Jersey ship, Canopus, undamaged apart from torn sails, about 16 miles off the coast of northern Newfoundland. The cargo of salt and provisions was intact but her boats and anchors were gone and of the crew and their personal possessions there was no sign.

Captain Duheaume of the Canopus put a crew of six on board the Moutaineer under the command of Captain Le Mesurier and the two ships sailed back across the Atlantic, arriving at St Helier on 7th November as reported in the Poole and Dorset Herald. One explanation of what could have happened to the ship and its crew was suggested by the paper. ‘It was presumed that the Moutaineer must have run aground in a fog, that her crew took to the boats (with their personal effects) to ascertain their whereabouts, and that their ship then broke from her anchors and left them in the lurch’. In those coastal waters, prone to icebergs, dense fogs and violent storms, such a scenario was very feasible. No member of the crew was ever heard of again to explain what really happened on that fateful voyage.



After the tragedy, the Mountaineer continued to serve in the Newfoundland trade. The Slades paid salvage fees to the owners of the Canopus and in 1851 the Mountaineer was re-registered in the name of Robert Slade (John Slade & Co.). For the next 12 years she crossed and recrossed the Atlantic, from Poole to Newfoundland to Cadiz, Lisbon and Leghorn. In 1858, the Poole and Dorset Herald reported her arrival in Poole with loss of sails, leaky and low on provisions. She had been at sea for 82 days, bound for Cadiz (presumably from Newfoundland) and now limped back into her home port.

From 1863 the Mountaineer, now 30 years old, was employed on coastal voyages carrying potatoes, wheat, barley, clay and iron to the ports of Bristol, Southampton and Middlesborough. She met her end on the 26th January 1873 when she was wrecked off Ramsey, Isle of Man. The mystery of the Mountaineer was never solved, one a tragic incident in the history of a hard and dangerous trade.

Jenny – (with thanks to the Poole History Centre for use of the picture of the Mountaineer and other sources).

The Fate of the Mistletoe 3 – Conclusion

By the end of August 1875, public opinion was sharply divided on who was to blame for the collision between the Alberta and the Mistletoe. In a letter to Queen Victoria, Prince Ernest of Leiningen, captain of the royal yacht, complained bitterly about public attitudes revealed during the recent inquest. He thought that the people of Gosport had shown ‘hatred & animosity towards the Navy & the Yacht’ and the Gosport jury had been ‘prejudiced and unjust’, a sentiment echoed to a certain extent by the Times.



Meanwhile, the Admiralty had started a court of inquiry into the incident. After hearing the evidence from the witnesses, they concluded that Prince Ernest, being in attendance on the Queen, could not be held responsible and that responsibility rested with Staff Captain Welch. The Court felt that ‘the speed had nothing to do with the collision’ but that there was ‘no necessity for the Alberta to have steered a course which brought her so close to the Mistletoe’. They also felt that the backing of the Alberta was correct, for fear of the schooner mast falling on her. Captain Welch was to be reprimanded. The results of the inquiry were reported to Queen Victoria in Balmoral and produced a rather indignant entry in her diary. ‘To my surprise it does not entirely exonerate Capt: Welch, though it completely does Ernest.’

As the naval report was not made public at the time and the inquest on the first two victims of the tragedy had been adjoined to the assizes, it seemed that public interest would die down for a while. This was not destined to be the case. On 1st September, a crew member of the yacht Florinda spotted a man’s body floating in the sea off Ryde. The body was brought ashore at Portsea and although much decayed, was identified by its clothes, a knife and a pipe as that of the Mistletoe’s mate, Nathaniel Turner.

Guildhall, Portsmouth

Guildhall, Portsmouth

The following day, a second inquest opened at the Guildhall, Portsmouth under the Borough Coroner, Mr. W.H. Garrington. The jury was composed of ‘some of the principal tradesmen of Portsea’. The Coroner made it clear that he would not tolerate any outcries of feeling and that ‘any person manifesting anything like approval or disapproval of anything the witnesses said should be immediately ejected’. After evidence was heard on the identification of the deceased, the inquest was adjoined until Monday when an assessor from the Board of Trade, Captain Harris, would attend. Meanwhile, Nathaniel Turner’s body had been transported back to Poole where he had lived with his wife at Baiter. His funeral was held at Poole cemetery on Friday 3rd September, the service being conducted by the Wesleyan minister, the Rev. G. Savery.

On Monday, the wreck of the Mistletoe which had been lying on the shore at Gosport, was auctioned by Messrs. King and King. It was eventually sold for £130. Meanwhile the inquest resumed and over the next few days, evidence familiar from the first inquest was heard again. On Wednesday, the relevant entry from the log of the Alberta (written by Captain Welch) was read out. It seemed to suggest that the Mistletoe had sailed parallel to the Alberta for a while, a suggestion denied by other witnesses. One fact to emerge on Friday was that at the speed she was making, the Alberta would have taken 100 to 150 yards to stop. The question of whether those at the helm of either vessel should have made different decisions was never and probably could never have been resolved.

On Saturday 11th September, the court was crowded for the Coroner’s summing up. The jury retired to consider their verdict and this time there was no deadlock. The verdict was death by drowning caused by an accidental collision. However the jury did add a rider. They felt that there had been an error of judgement on the part of the navigating officer of the Alberta, that a slower rate of speed, during the summer months especially, would be more conducive to public safety and that there should be a more efficient look-out kept. It was a public rap over the knuckles for the Alberta’s distinguished crew, but it could all have been much worse.

QVOn leaving the court, Captain Welch and Prince Ernest were hooted at by the crowd in the High Street. Queen Victoria noted in her diary that ‘the bad spirit & inimical feeling shown towards my Officers & the Yacht are dreadful, & I am most indignant.’ However it was ‘as well as could be expected & Ernest L. also telegraphed all had ended well & satisfactorily.’ The case faded from the news for a while although a request made by Col. Ponsonby on behalf of the Queen at the end of September that sailing yachts should not get too close to the Royal Yacht, was considered to be insensitive and badly timed.

Back in Poole, Mr. Robert Belben and other local men had taken up the case of the widows and orphans of Thomas Stokes and Nathaniel Turner and had appealed via the press for donations to help them. The Mistletoe’s owner, Mr. Heywood had already contributed generously and Colonel Ponsonby had written to indicate that the Queen had ordered a sum of money to be sent to the widows. Mrs. Stokes was eventually given £500 and Mrs. Turner £400 with the condition ‘that in accepting these sums they will undertake not to bring forward hereafter any claim upon Her Majesty’s Government.’

Prince Ernest

Prince Ernest

When the adjoined inquest reopened at the Winchester assizes in December, it was rather an anti-climax. The judge reviewed all the evidence and the jury retired but they were unable to reach a verdict and were discharged. In April, Mr. Heywood was offered £3000 in compensation for his yacht and George Hiscock, whose arm had been broken, received £75. The case faded from public interest. It was not until April 1876 that the results of the naval enquiry were made public. The same year, Prince Ernest was made a Rear Admiral and later went on to become Admiral.

One interesting aspect of the tragedy was light it cast upon Victorian society with its underlying divisions and tensions. The case revealed both the unpopularity of the monarchy and aristocracy in some quarters and the resistance of the establishment to questions on their conduct. There was also an element of anti-German feeling. A scurrilous rhyme published in the Weekly Hampshire Independent sets the tone. Under the title ‘A Dummy Captain’ it begins:

‘In distant climes there lived a king who often took a trip  /  Across the waters of his realm and kept a private ship.  /  He’d captains three to keep a watch, and twenty men to steer,  /  He’d brave commanders gaily laced to help the engineer.  /  But over them there reigned supreme a boss of all the crew –  /  His cousin-German, all-Serene, the Prince of Cariboo.’

and ends:

‘An accident one day occurred – they ran a schooner down.  /  Some folks in sight of Royalty were rude enough to drown.  /  The prince was in a dreadful state until a captain said  /  “We’ll have to let the public know the blame is on my head.  /  Although you hold supreme command, with this you’ve nought to do,  /  Your dolce-far-nientiness, my Prince of Cariboo”.

The captain kept his word, and swore the Prince was never known  /  To interfere on board the ship supposed to be his own:  /  He merely held the highest rank and drew the highest pay,  /  And hid behind a funnel when a boat got in the way.  /  The natives heard the captain’s tale and cried “If this be true,  /  A real and royal officer is Captain Cariboo.”


The Fate of the Mistletoe 2 – Aftermath

On the night of 18th August 1875, en route to Balmoral, Queen Victoria wrote in her journal about a day of ‘terrible and undying recollections’. A few hours before, the royal steam yacht Alberta had struck and sunk the schooner yacht Mistletoe while crossing the Solent, with the loss of three lives. The Mistletoe’s owner, Mr Edward Heywood spent the night of the 18th at Admiralty House, recovering from exposure and exhaustion. The body of Poole mariner, Thomas Stokes, master of the Mistletoe, rested at Haslar Hospital where another crew member, George Hiscock, was being treated for a broken arm. The bodies of Mr Heywood’s sister-in-law, Annie Peel, and the mate, Nathaniel Turner, still lay under the waters of the Solent.

On the following day, divers located the wreck of the Mistletoe and found the body of Annie Peel trapped under the mainsail. Nat Turner’s body was not recovered. That afternoon, the coroner’s inquest on the bodies of Thomas Stokes and Annie Peel opened at the India Arms, Gosport. The tragedy had attracted much publicity and rumours and counter rumours were rife. Some of the Alberta’s crew were saying that Thomas Stokes had been incompetent or drunk, that the Mistletoe had got too close in order to catch sight of the Queen or that the yacht had fatally changed her course at the last minute. In Gosport most public opinion seemed to be with the Mistletoe and there was indignation at the speed of Alberta’s crossing of the crowded waterway.

Prince Ernest (on the right) some years before the incident

Prince Ernest (on the right) some years before the incident

Those attending the inquest presented an amazing cross-section of Victorian society. They included His Serene Highness Prince Ernest of Leiningen, who was the Queen’s cousin and captain of the royal yacht, several high-ranking naval officers, a rich, middle class banker (Mr. Heywood), members of the Gosport jury and ordinary working class sailors. Members of the highest rank found themselves in the rare and uncomfortable position of answering for their actions before those they considered their social inferiors.

On the first day crew members of the Mistletoe gave evidence of the collision and its aftermath. They all denied that any actual order had been given to get close to the Alberta. When they realised that collision was likely, the coxswain, Henry Brown had helped the captain to ‘port’ the helm to try to avoid or at least reduce the impact. However, the yacht’s sails had apparently no time to shake before she was struck. All the men stressed that Thomas Stokes was an experienced and reliable captain. In the words of William Rowthorne, the boatswain, ‘There was not a more careful man than Captain Stokes. I have been with him for years, and I know he was not the man to get near a steamer or a racing yacht.’  It became clear that the backing of the Alberta to separate the two vessels had caused the Mistletoe to sink and knocked several people into the sea when they were close to being rescued, resulting in the three fatalities.

The following day, Mr. Heywood was called to give evidence. He positively denied trying to get near to the Queen’s yacht, saying that ‘I should think doing it a great impertinence.’ He said that the Alberta had altered course when the vessels were very close and he felt that she had turned the wrong way to avoid the Mistletoe. When the Mistletoe sank, he had been taken down with her and on coming to the surface, managed to cling on to a rope until he was rescued. Heywood described Captain Stokes as ‘a very able, steady and sober man and a good sailor’. George Hiscock, the steward of the Mistletoe, appeared with his arm in a sling and gave evidence of his unsuccessful attempt to rescue Annie Peel during which his arm had been broken.

The first Alberta crew member to take the stand was the ship’s master, Staff Captain David Welch R.N. He described how several yachts had come close to the Alberta, changing course at the last minute to run alongside. When he first caught sight of the Mistletoe, he expected her to do the same. Having judged that the Alberta would pass astern of the Mistletoe, he crossed the bridge to look out for vessels on the starboard side, from where the funnel hid the Mistletoe from his view. About half a minute later, the Mistletoe’s jib appeared in front of them. Captain Welch immediately ordered the helm to be put ‘hard a starboard’ and with Prince Leiningen rushed to telegraph the engine room to slow or stop the engines. When questioned about the Alberta’s speed, the captain replied ‘We always go at high speed when running for a train . . . I do not consider there is any more, if as much danger in my running at that speed than if I were going at half that speed’. He also explained that out at sea, there would be a look-out forward on the Alberta but no look-out was kept between Osbourne and Portsmouth. After hearing from the chief engineer, Mr. Richard Sleeman, the inquest was adjoined until Monday 23rd August.

Mistletoe ILNOn Saturday, Thomas Stokes’ funeral took place at Hamworthy Church, attended by many leading mariners of the town. Annie Peel’s funeral was held on Tuesday 24th at St. Augustine’s Church, Pendlebury, Manchester. The same day, the wreck of the Mistletoe was raised with difficulty, being almost in two pieces. It was towed to shallow water and later beached at Gosport.

Meanwhile the inquest had resumed with evidence from Prince Ernest. Members of the jury were not backward in pressing their aristocratic witness about the speed of the Alberta and the cause of the collision. He stressed that Captain Welch was in command of the Alberta and when on board, he never interfered with the captain in any way, but that he himself carried the ultimate responsibility for the Queen’s safety. After the collision, the Alberta’s engines were slowly reversed. ‘My object in doing this was to prevent if possible any of the yacht’s spars from falling on the yacht’s forecastle’, thereby endangering lives. Another witness, Commander J. Fullerton, said that he thought the backing of the Alberta had made the Mistletoe sink more rapidly and contributed to the loss of life, but could not give a reason for why she had been reversed. He agreed with Captain Welch in thinking that the Alberta’s speed was perfectly safe. ‘In fact, I said to Captain Welch “Quite right, old chap.”’ All the witnesses from the Alberta felt that it was the Mistletoe altering course that had caused the collision. The Coroner then said that he had asked for an assessor from the Board of Trade, and adjoined the inquiry until Thursday.

Victoria jnlThroughout the hearing there had been what the press called ‘ebullitions’, noisy expressions of feeling from partisan members of the public, who were largely anti-Alberta. In Balmoral, Queen Victoria was kept informed by letter and telegram and her sympathy for the Mistletoe’s owner and crew was giving way to indignation. ‘I was greatly shocked to see that Mr. Heywood threw blame on the Alberta!! There seems throughout to have been great unseemliness & bad behaviour in Court. Much worried.’ There was good reason for her concern. Most of the press was decidedly hostile. The Penny Illustrated Paper, for instance, commented that ‘for our part we think it a miracle that nothing worse has happened before, her Majesty’s transit from Osbourne to Portsmouth being always made at a rate of speed that cannot be too highly reprehended.’ It even seemed possible that the officers of the Alberta might face a charge of manslaughter.

When the inquiry resumed on Thursday 26th, more evidence was given by Alberta crew members. Charles Rodgers, first class signalman, reported John Stokes from the Mistletoe as saying ‘It was all that old fool’s fault at the helm.’ a statement which Stokes denied saying about his own uncle. On Friday, the Coroner read over the extensive evidence and the jury retired to consider their verdict. Finally, after eleven hours and two interviews with the Coroner, they returned to court to announce that they had failed to reach a verdict. The Coroner then took the unusual step of referring the case and binding over the jurors to the next Winchester assizes. In Balmoral, the Queen was informed. ‘Jury after being locked up without food or light for 11 hours, could not agree on their verdict. 11 were for manslaughter (!!), 2 for accidental death. They are discharged & bound over to appear before the Judge at the Assizes at Winchester. This is too monstrous. Mr. Hardy said he had never before heard of such a proceeding.’

The case was not going to be quickly or easily settled.

To be concluded . . .


The Fate of the Mistletoe

On 21st August 1875, the funeral of 74 year old Captain Thomas Stokes took place at Hamworthy Church, conducted by the Rev. Macnamara Patey. According to the Poole and South Western Herald, the ceremony was attended by ‘a large number of the master mariners, pilots, shipwrights and other inhabitants of the town’. Captain Stokes was a well-respected local man but the level of public interest had been aroused by the circumstances of his death which had been sudden, tragic and controversial, involving the highest in the land.

Thomas Stokes was an experienced yacht-master and for the last three seasons had been captain of the 120 ton schooner yacht, Mistletoe, owned by Mr. Edward Stanley Heywood, member of a well-to-do family of Manchester bankers. All of the Mistletoe’s crew came from Poole and the yacht was well known in the town. That summer, Mr. Heywood, his wife and sisters-in-law had been staying in Ryde on the Isle of Wight and cruising in the Solent and nearby waters. In the early evening of Wednesday 18th August, the Mistletoe was returning from a trip out to the Nab Lightship with Mr. Heywood and his sisters-in-law, Eleanor and Annie Peel on board. It was a calm, bright day with light winds and the yacht was making only 3 to 4 knots as she tacked towards Ryde.

victoriaMeanwhile, Queen Victoria, accompanied by Prince Leopold, Princess Beatrice and several ladies in waiting, was embarking at Cowes on her steam yacht Alberta (the tender of the royal yacht, Victoria and Albert) to cross to Gosport where she would catch the train for Balmoral. The Alberta, a paddle steamer of 393 tons, was under the command of Captain David Welch R.N. Also on board was the captain of the Victoria and Albert, His Serene Highness Prince Ernest of Leiningen and several other high-ranking naval officers.

What happened next was to be the subject of two inquests, a case at the assizes and an Admiralty inquiry. The two vessels were approaching each other more or less at right angles, one tacking slowly and the other travelling at 15 knots (about 17 m.p.h.). By the time those on board realised that they were dangerously close, it was too late. The Alberta struck the Mistletoe by the main mast, riding over her and almost cutting her in two. One of the most vivid descriptions of the collision came from the Queen herself who was on the deck and later described the moment in her diary. ‘I saw the tall masts and large sails of a schooner looming over us. In an instant came an awful, most terrifying crash, accompanied by a very severe shake and a reel. . . Then only a frightful alarm seized me, lest some of our people, who always stand in the bows of the vessel, might get hurt.’

For several minutes confusion reigned. Some of the Mistletoe’s crew managed to scramble up the tangle of rigging on to the deck of the Alberta, aided by the crewmen from the Alberta. Captain Stokes was being helped up by his nephew, able seaman John Stokes, William Rowthorne, boatswain, and crewman Henry Brown from the Mistletoe. Then the order was given to reverse the Alberta to free the wreckage. As the vessels tore apart, Thomas Stokes was hit by part of the falling mast and knocked into the sea. John Stokes was also thrown into the sea and pulled down to the bottom by the Mistletoe which filled with water and sank almost immediately. Fortunately he managed to free himself and reach the surface again.

The separation of the vessels interrupted another rescue. George Hiscock, the steward of the Mistletoe, had got up to the deck of the Alberta and with the assistance of some Alberta crew members, helped Miss Eleanor Peel on board. He then got hold of Miss Annie Peel’s hand and according to his later testimony ‘got her part over the rails, her feet only being outside, when the rigging slipped away . . . The mate, Nathaniel Turner was down in the rigging assisting to get Miss Peel up . . when the rigging slipped it pulled Miss Peel and my arm over the bow. I held on till my arm was bent over the rail by the strain of the drag of the rope and her weight and I said “I must let you go”. I then had no strength in my arm. Miss Peel and the mate then disappeared, entangled in the rigging. I think they went straight down under the bow of the Alberta’. Hiscock was left with a broken arm.

The Alberta

The Alberta

One of the officers of the Alberta, Commander Fullerton who had also held on to Annie Peel’s hand as long as possible was pulled down by the sinking ship but managed to get back to the surface and was picked up by one of the boats. Mr. Heywood was rescued clinging to a rope, exhausted and nearly unconscious. Thomas Stokes was also picked up from the sea but never regained consciousness and died on the deck of the Alberta. Of Annie Peel and the mate, Nathaniel Turner, there was no sign.

Everyone was in shock. In the Queen’s words: ‘shock & the complete disappearance of the yacht will never be forgotten by any of us who were present! In vain they searched, no sign or trace of the poor missing one was to be seen & so we had to go on finally, having first cut off part of the rigging of the unfortunate Mistletoe’. She had no doubt where the blame lay. ‘None on board thought anyone was to blame, excepting the Mistletoe, who changed her course at the last moment, when we were already quite close to her. These yachts are really most imprudent.’ This was also the line taken in the official court circular which was rapidly transmitted around the empire. ‘Considerable difficulty has been experienced in obtaining trustworthy particulars of the accident, but from what can be gathered there seems good reason for believing that the ill-fated yacht alone was to blame.’

Reports from Portsmouth however, took a rather different view of the incident. ‘People could scarcely believe their eyesight when they read that on a calm, bright summer’s evening, a yacht, specially devoted to the service of the Queen, and therefore presumably officered and manned by the very pink of the service, and having at the time the sovereign of these realms on board, had run into and sunk one of the numerous pleasure craft that at this season of the year are skimming about the Solent thick as flies in sunshine.’ Among these vessels came the Alberta,’ crossing the Solent at the splendid speed for which the royal yachts are specially designed. . . Without prejudicing the case, it must be stated that a strong feeling prevails that, considering the Mistletoe was going very slowly, the Alberta ought to have been kept clear of her.’

The stage was set for the controversial courtroom dramas that were to follow. . .

(To be continued)  

 Jenny Oliver


Poole and South Western Herald / The Times / The Journal of Queen Victoria