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.
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.
Records 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.
A 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.
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.
Ironically 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.
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.
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