The Romans are Coming

H. P. Smith and boys beside an ancient kiln

Working in the Museum stores bagging and recording archaeological finds, we have just been working on a particularly historic dig carried out in Hamworthy in the 1920s by headmaster Harry P. Smith and pupils from South Road Boys School. It started when a Roman coin and some pottery was found on land belonging to Carter’s tile works and H. P. Smith got permission to dig some trial holes in an adjoining field. The finds suggested the existence of an ancient settlement on the Hamworthy shore. Over the next six years, the boys carried out a series of excavations and hundreds of artefacts were unearthed, dating from the Iron Age into the Roman period. Since those exciting discoveries, several fresh excavations have increased our knowledge of ancient Hamworthy.


On the eve of the Roman invasion, several small settlements and enclosed farmsteads with their round houses dotted the shores of Poole Harbour at Fitzworth, Middlebere, Cleavel Point, Shipstall, Hamworthy and elsewhere. The inhabitants belonged to the loosely federated tribe which archaeologists call the Durotriges and were farmers, fishermen, craftsmen and traders. Unlike some other tribes they still maintained their hillforts, some of which were inhabited while others seem to have been used as regional meeting places. They had recently developed a distinctive coinage, used for trading. For the coastal communities salt-making was a major occupation as shown by finds of large quantities of coarse orange salt pan fragments known as briquetage. There is also evidence for working of Kimmeridge shale. Most important of all was pottery making, a local success story since the products of the Purbeck and Poole Harbour potters were found throughout the Durotriges region where they had begun to supersede local types.

Base worked out of shale

The main port in Poole Harbour was originally at Cleavel Point, where large jetties had been built 200-300 years before between the mainland and Green and Furzey Islands, probably originally joined together. Rising sea levels had since created separate islands and reduced the viability of the facilities at Cleavel Point while making the rest of the harbour more accessible to sea-going ships. It was Hamworthy, with its deep water channel and good access to the hinterland, which developed as an alternative port. Finds of Armorican pottery from Gaul, amporae from the Mediterranean and other exotic goods show that active trading with the continent was taking place there. Unlike Cleavel Point, Hamworthy had no large port structures but ships were probably beached in a bay on the eastern side of the peninsula.

During his excavations, H.P. Smith found abundant evidence of late Iron Age Hamworthy including the traces of eight circular houses and deep ditches running across the site, probably for drainage. The soil filling the house foundations was full of animal bone, charcoal, pottery, flint scrapers and the remnants of clay heaths. The presence of iron slag, nails and other objects suggested metal working on the site.

Ever since the days of Julius Caesar a century before, the Romans had contemplated invading prosperous Britain. In 43 AD the invasion finally came with the landing near Richborough of four legions, perhaps 40,000 to 50,000 men, under the veteran commander Aulus Plautius. His first task was to subdue the tribes of the south east and prepare for the arrival of the Emperor Claudius to participate in the crossing of the Thames and the capture of the local capital, Camulodumum (Colchester). The emperor’s presence at this critical point meant that he could claim a military victory to add lustre to his career. When the emperor had left, Plautius could turn his attention to capturing further territory.

The Durotriges and other coastal tribes were probably well aware of the progress of the invasion but could do little except wait for events to unfold as Plautius sent his legions north and west. It was probably the II Legion Augusta under the future emperor Vespasian which attacked along the south coast, fighting 30 battles, capturing the Isle of Wight and 20 towns and defeating 2 tribes according to his biographer. One of these tribes must have been the Durotriges who seem to have retreated to their hillforts armed with slings and shot in a doomed attempt to stop the Roman advance. One by one their strongholds were overrun, being no match for the organised might of the Romans with their ballistae, mechanised catapults firing iron bolts. How long it took the Romans to reach Poole Harbour we do not know but it may have been a couple of years after the invasion. The small settlements around the harbour would have been in no position to oppose the incomers and were probably easily taken.

Operating in hostile territory, it was important to the Romans to secure their supply lines and it seems that they decided to use Hamworthy as a supply port for the next stage of their drive westward. Excavations in 2000 near the shore in Hamworthy revealed two sets of double ditches at right angles to each other, protecting the port on the landward side and enclosing a building which may have been a barracks. From here the Roman engineers laid out a road up the peninsular to a site at Lake Farm where a camp, later replaced by a fort, was constructed near a crossing of the River Stour. The line of the road was traced in the 1930s by H. P. Smith who also dug a cross section of it on Ham Common. It ran northwest up the peninsular before turning north to Corfe Mullen and Lake Farm, crossing the Stour and then running northwest to Badbury Rings. The flat top of the road was about 10 ft (3m) wide with a ditch on either side and it was constructed of layers of bracken and heather, clayey sand and then shingle topped with fine gravel. From here the Romans moved forward to mop up the Durotrigan strongholds including the largest of all at Maiden Castle, and continue their conquest of the west.

Road cross-section

Patterned Samian Ware including hare design

The coming of the Romans was a traumatic event for those who lived through it, but evidence suggests that Hamworthy had a prosperous existence after the invasion. The incomers provided a market for local produce of salt, pottery, stone and shale goods. Even after the military had moved on, the settlement, which was now connected to the wider Roman road network, may have continued as a port trading with the continent. In his excavations, H.P. Smith found imported pottery including Terra Nigra and Samian Ware from Gaul and many fragments of flagons and amphora, probably used for the import of wine or oil. The discovery of a kiln showed that pottery making continued and in fact locally produced Black Burnished Ware became popular all over Roman Britain. Other finds included Roman glass, loom weights, roof and flue tiles, pots of New Forest ware and a hoard of 3rd century Roman coins. A dig in 2003 discovered several burials from the Roman period.

New Forest Ware indented pot

Today, Hamworhty is still the location of the cross-channel port in Poole Harbour. The old Roman Road forms Poole’s western boundary for some miles. Since the time of H. P. Smith’s excavations there have been many finds in the Hamworthy, some chance discoveries and some the results of organised digs in advance of development. Although the area is now much more built up than in the 1920s, there may be still more to find there to tell us about its ancient past.


Photos taken by courtesy of Poole Museum




Poole’s Ghost Walls

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

Map of the defences c.1634

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

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

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

The old wall near the Quay

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

Map from the time of Elizabeth I

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

Map c. 1630s from the Bankes family archive

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

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

A half moon

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

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

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

Map of c. 1760

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

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

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


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




Poole in Flames

galleyIt was a September morning, just before daybreak in the year 1405, when five war galleys, three Spanish, two French, slid silently into Poole harbour and crept forward through the darkness towards the sleeping town. In the crowded space below decks, crossbowmen and men-at-arms nervously checked their weapons. All were practised fighters, masters of the lightning terror raid and quick retreat. Their captain, Don Pero Niño, Count of Buelno, was a kinsman and subject of the King of Castile, a charismatic, bold, if sometimes rash leader and an excellent fighter. Commanding the French galleys was Messire Charles de Savoisy, a knight formally in the service of Charles VI of France but currently out of favour at court and seeking his fortune at sea. He usually provided a note of caution in their councils. Meeting at La Rochelle, the two leaders had decided to join forces and raid along the south coast of England. From Cornwall to Purbeck they had already left a trail of dead men and burnt towns behind them.

old-church-towerWord had spread and every man on board the galleys that morning knew that the town they were about to attack was the home of ‘Arripay’, the English pirate whose raids on Spanish coastal towns and attacks on shipping were notorious. The knowledge added a spice of revenge to their aggression. As the light began to come up, Poole came into view and the raiders noted the absence of defensive walls. The only building of note was ‘a fair tower with a round leaden roof shaped like a cup’. It looked like an easy target but Messire Charles warned of the shoals and sandbanks that would make it difficult for the ships to get close to shore and the many men-at-arms and bowmen that lived in the town. He refused to involve the French galleys in the attack.

Don Pero Niño had no such doubts. He ordered the ships to anchor a little distance from the town and launched the longboats to ferry men ashore. Speed was now essential. As soon as enough men were landed, they ran towards the houses, swords drawn, torches flaring. One minute, all was silent, the next, pandemonium broke out. Smoke and flames rose as the thatch roofs were fired. Men were rudely awakened and staggered to their doors to find a full-scale, deadly raid in progress. Alerted by the clamour, a messenger rode desperately away across the heath to summon help.

Rear wall of Town Cellars c. 1300

Rear wall of Town Cellars c. 1300

In the first surprise of the attack, the raiders had everything their own way. They were able to force entry to the houses, loot and burn and kill anyone who opposed them. Then the Poole men rallied and came rushing out to fight the raiders as they retired towards the boats, loaded with whatever plunder they had managed to seize. Messire Charles had been right to say that many Poole men were trained to arms. In fact some of them had probably taken part in such raids themselves. Seeing his men retreat, Pero Niño ordered more to land, led by his cousin, Fernando Niño. They took a stand just beyond the buildings and then, under orders to leave their plunder and destroy the town by fire, began to force the defenders slowly backwards. Overwhelmed, the Poole men took refuge in a large store building, which they defended fiercely until the Castilians forced an entrance and they had to escape by the back. Inside, the raiders found ‘all manner of arms, bolts, rigging, sails and all furnishings of ships-of-war’ and helped themselves to as much as they could carry, before setting the building ablaze.

As the raiders were boarding the galleys with their booty, reinforcements for the defenders arrived in the form of men-at-arms and longbowmen on foot and horseback. Setting up house doors as protection against the Castilian crossbow bolts, they quickly took a stand on higher ground near the boats and began to attack the raiders with volleys of arrows. Many were hit and some of the leather jerkins of the Castilians were ‘all stuck with arrows’. Seeing that the fight was in the balance, Pero Niño came ashore and managed to reach his standard bearer who was in some danger, as the raiders had retreated under the strong English attack.

Longbow versus crossbow (Froissart)

Longbow versus crossbow (Froissart)

It was now that Pero Niño’s leadership skills proved vital. Ordering the trumpets to be sounded, he rallied his men and advanced against the English with the shout of ‘Santiago! Santiago!’ (St. James) while the defenders also shouted for St. James, the patron saint of their church. The battle was fierce and many were killed or taken prisoner. As it raged, Messire Charles came shore with ‘many knights and gentlemen in armour’ to support the Castilians if needed. At last the English retreated a little distance, leaving the battleground so thickly strewn with arrows that it was impossible to walk without treading on them and men could pick them up in handfuls. The two sides had reached a stand off whereby the raiders broke off the fight and the defenders watched them board the boats without further attack.

Many men must have died that day but we only know the names of two of them, a Castilian of Messire Charles’ galley called Juan de Murcia, and on the English side, a brother of ‘ArriPay’ (Harry Paye), the Poole pirate. The raiders rested, treated their wounded and toasted a victory over the English before sailing on eastwards. The aftermath for the people of Poole was much more traumatic. They could say that they had acquitted themselves well but there were wounded to treat, dead men and women to mourn. The damage inflicted on their town was terrible and it would be many years before Poole would fully recover.

Plaque Civic Centre, Poole

Plaque Civic Centre, Poole

There is no record in the town archives about the raid of 1405. The above account is taken mainly from a Spanish chronicle on the life of Don Pero Niño by his standard bearer, Gutierre Diaz de Gamez (published in English as ‘The Unconquered Knight’). The chronicle leaves many questions unanswered, such as where the battle was fought, where the reinforcements came from, how many people were killed or captured and how serious was the damage to the town. The chronicle says that the town was ‘altogether burnt’ but this is unlikely to be true. The large store building mentioned is almost certainly the Town Cellars on the Quay, the back wall of which pre-dates the time of the raid and must have survived it. The fact that the defenders were able to escape from the back of the building suggests that the raiders did not necessarily penetrate very far into the streets of the town and the worst damage was probably concentrated near the shore. The reinforcements probably came from Canford, the manorial centre and one of the few places nearby where knights and fighting men might be found.

The front wall of the Town Cellars, rebuilt after the raid

The front wall of the Town Cellars, rebuilt after the raid

During the following century Poole did recover, rebuilt its damaged and burnt out buildings, constructed town defences, was created the Port of the Staple (customs port) for Dorset and went on to more prosperous times. Harry Paye, who was not at home at the time of the raid, lived to carry out several more raids of his own.



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.


The 1745 Rebellion and the Mysterious Poole Letter

 It was October 1745 and the country was facing a national emergency. In July, the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of King James II, had landed in Scotland vowing to regain the throne for the Stuart dynasty. Britain was at war with France and most of its forces were engaged on the Continent leaving the country vulnerable. At first Prince Charles did not seem to pose much of a threat. Some Tory Jacobite conspirators had been arrested the previous year causing the French to withdraw their planned support of the rebellion and the Prince arrived in Scotland with little back-up.

Charles Edward Stuart

Charles Edward Stuart

However the rebellion rapidly gained momentum. By mid September, Charles was in Edinburgh, holding court at Holyrood Palace and declaring the Act of Union between England and Scotland null and void. On 21st September, the Jacobites won a decisive victory at Prestonpans against British forces under Sir John Cope. When the news reached London there was a shock reaction and outbreaks of anti-Catholic sentiment and violence all over the country.

In this charged atmosphere, a dairyman presented himself to the Mayor of Poole carrying a letter which he swore to have found, together with a piece of paper and a handkerchief lying on the ground near Poole ‘in a Wheel-Rut full of Water’. All that could be deciphered on the paper which was very wet, were the words ‘call on the way at Portsmouth, Canford, Lulworth, Weymouth, Exeter and Plymouth.’ The letter was addressed to Francis Weld Esq. of Lulworth and read as follows:  

‘Sir      Sept 22, 1745

Having the Opportunity by a trusty Friend who is going to Plymouth, to advise our Catholick Friends how to act with Relation to the Prisoners, the which also is to stop near Weymouth: I thought proper to wish you joy of the Success of our Friends in the North. When our Neighbours arrive in the West I hope you will be ready to assist them as promised in your last, but I fear the Winds have prevented them as yet; my humble respects to S. J. W. and all Friends at Canford and Lulworth. Our Friend being in Expedition, I conclude, Your Humble Servant, I. W.’

Lulworth Castle

Lulworth Castle

The Mayor immediately sent the letter to Lord Shaftesbury, the Lord Lieutenant of Dorset who sent an express to London and another to Plymouth. The local sheriff was sent to Lulworth Castle to search for arms or any other evidence but found nothing incriminating. Shortly after, a party consisting of a Colonel and Captain of the Guards, a King’s Messenger, a deputy from the Duke of Newcastle and three others arrived at Lulworth to arrest Francis Weld and take him to London for examination.

The S. J. W. referred to in the letter was almost certainly Sir John Webb, the Lord of the Manor of Canford and Poole but he was in France and approaching 80 years of age at the time of the letter. In fact he died at Aix-La-Chapelle that same month. The Welds and the Webbs were both rich land-owning Catholic families with a history of recusancy, natural targets for suspicion by the authorities at such a time.

Francis Weld was held in custody for a while but discharged after several interrogations. The true origin of the letter was never discovered, but even the most paranoid authorities must have had their doubts of its authenticity. The thinly veiled references to ‘our Friends in the North’ and ‘our Neighbours’ arriving in the West and ‘humble respects to S. J. W. and all Friends at Canford’ were too blatant, and the idea that such an incriminating document would be carelessly dropped in the countryside was rather too much to swallow.


Dorset and Mesopotamia

With Iraq very much in the news, it is surprising to realise that place names like Abadan, Basra and the Shat-el-Arab were familiar to Dorset people a century ago as they are to us today – and for the same grim reason. As part of the First World War offensive, local men found themselves fighting in this distant region so far from home. At the time the region was known as Mesopotamia and was part of the Ottoman Empire which was allied to Germany.

One aim of the campaign was to protect oil supplies to the Royal Navy. Another purpose was to maintain Britain’s power and influence in the Middle East by a show of strength. Among the first troops to arrive in November 1914 was the 16th Brigade of the Indian Army under Major-General Sir Charles Townshend. The brigade included three divisions of Indian troops, two battery divisions, a division of engineers and around 900 men of the 2nd Battalion of the Dorset Regiment. More local troops were to follow as reinforcements.

mesomapDuring November the Brigade established a camp near the oil refineries at Abadan and then fought its way up the Shat-el-Arab in hot muddy conditions against heavy opposition from the Turks. Only two weeks after disembarking, the Dorsets had already been involved in fierce battles at Saihan and Sahil near Basra and had lost 25% of their numbers either killed or injured. One of those killed was Private Charles Eaton aged 27, who had served for several years previously in India, son of Mrs. William Eaton of Bell Lane, Poole. On 21st November, the British occupied Basra which had been evacuated by the Turks. While the main force pressed on to Qurna, the role of the Dorsets was now to hold Basra against local ‘unrest’. With unsanitary conditions and the lack of clean water, many men fell ill, four died and several had to be invalided out.

Advancing through floods near Basra

Advancing through floods near Basra

Drummer R. Peaty described events around this time in a letter to his brother and sister in Branksome: ‘We drove the Turks miles away, and captured their supply of food and ammunition. We also took twelve camels. We then advanced on Basra and took that. It is a big place. About nine days afterwards the Turks surrendered to us about forty miles away from Basra, and my chum got killed when we were advancing on the Turks. A shell burst by the side of me, and I looked round to speak to my chum, and found that the shell had caught him and two more chaps and had killed the three of them. Just afterwards my drum-major came alongside of me and said, ‘It isn’t half raining is it?’ He meant the bullets. He never spoke any more, a bullet had gone straight in the centre of his head. I was sorry for him, because he was married and had two children, and he was a good man at his work. We have had a lot of men die of their wounds since.’

In January 1915, Turkish forces were massing to attack Basra and the British oil pumping station at Ahwaz. The Dorsets were involved in a successful engagement at Shaiba, nine miles south west of Basra when the Turkish cavalry were decisively beaten. With more attacks expected, the British troops were kept in a high state of alert. Conditions were tough and the Poole and Dorset Herald reported one soldier writing home to complain ‘of being kept very short of food, and of being unable for weeks at a time, to get a change of underclothing.’ The newspaper was reassuring: ‘These are hardships, but the general testimony of those ‘at the Front’ was that the troops were never better cared for than in the present war.’

On 11th April, the Turks began their offensive by bombarding Shaiba and Qurna and heavy fighting followed in the fierce heat. Eventually on 15th, the Turks were forced to retreat. The British, exhausted, thirsty and nearly out of ammunition were unable to pursue. Seven Distinguished Service Medals were awarded as a result of this action. Back at Basra, the soldiers were engaged in training in the use of river barges but the heat took its toll. By the end of May, 170 of the Dorsets were in hospital suffering from disease or sunstroke. Over 150 men were invalided to India or sent on short leave. The brigade was slowly fighting their way north and on 3rd June, Sergeant Charles Fendley of Newtown, Poole was awarded the DSM for gallantry in action. According to the local newspaper ‘with only 30 men he held off a large number of Turks and succeeded in rallying some Indian troops who were wavering. Victory was for the British and about 2,000 of the enemy were captured.’

By mid September the brigade reached Kut-el-Amara with some men falling out on the way through heat and exhaustion. On 28th September, the battalion attacked the Turkish defences at Kut. Fighting continued into the night but the Turks eventually retreated and the British were able to occupy the town. The Dorsets alone lost 17 killed or missing and 152 wounded.

The Dorsets storm Kut

The Dorsets storm Kut

One of the wounded that day was was Private L. S. Knapton, in civilian life a keen footballer who had worked for Gifford’s the grocers in Poole High Street. He died of his wounds on 10th October. Another casualty from the action on 28th, Lance-Corporal Walter Randle, was more fortunate. He wrote home to his father, Mr Levi Randle of Market Street, Poole from the base hospital at Basra. ‘My regiment [the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment] was in the thick of it and we lost rather heavily, but we made the Turks pay dearly for it. I got hit just after we had captured the third line of trenches. It was a fine charge and we took three lines of trenches in one. We went at them like a lot of bulldogs let loose, and the Turks found that we bite very hard. Their losses were very heavy indeed. Our guns played hell with them, and we took 2,000 or 3,000 prisoners, and ten or eleven guns and occupied another town. . . . I was really a very lucky chap the way I got hit, for I had a bullet go straight through my helmet and another through my coat sleeve without doing any damage, but the third one turned me over.’

Feeling that the Turks could be beaten, the British leadership now decided to press on towards Baghdad in spite of the lack of proper transport and the difficulty of maintaining supplies. On the 20th November, they reached Ctesiphon, 25 miles south of Baghdad where Turkish forces perhaps 18,000 strong were well established behind formidable defences. The Battle of Ctesiphon took place over two days with intense fighting and considerable losses on both sides. More than half the 8,500 British and Indian troops that fought in the battle were killed or wounded. Both sides retired from the battlefield and the British realised that with the losses they had suffered and lack of supplies there was no alternative other than to retreat to Kut.

Ancient ruins at Ctesiphon

Ancient ruins at Ctesiphon

The trek back was a nightmare with inadequate transport and poor medical provision for the wounded. The Turks were in pursuit and Townshend ordered the Indian divisions and the 2nd Dorsets to fight a rear guard action to allow the main body to reach Kut. The British arrived at the town on 3rd December and the Turks on 7th.  There seemed to be good reasons to hold Kut to maintain control of the river and British presence in the area, but in the event the town became a trap. After several unsuccessful attempts to overcome the British defences, the Turks decided to besiege the town and prevent any attempts to relieve it. For families at home, news from their soldier sons and husbands, always slow to arrive, now dried up completely.

The siege lasted for 147 days of increasing deprivation and hardship for the troops in Kut. Three relief expeditions were mounted between January and April but all failed to break through the Turkish lines. The supplies in the besieged town dwindled. Men were living on horsemeat and bread, even starlings, and became weak and emaciated. The Indian troops were in an even worse case because of their refusal to eat horse flesh. Cases of scurvy, dysentery and frost-bite were common and the number of deaths increased. On 27th April, General Townshend asked for terms, hoping to buy a parole which would allow the Brigade to retreat. However the Turkish leadership refused and on 29th, the British surrendered. Over 13,000 men became prisoners of war including 272 British and 204 Indian officers and 40 artillery pieces, three airplanes, two river steamers and 40 automobiles were handed over. It was one of the worst humiliations ever suffered by the British army.

General Townshend at the surrender

General Townshend at the surrender

News slowly reached England. On June 29th, a list of local men who were prisoners of war was published in the newspaper, including 22 from Poole and 19 from Bournemouth. The same edition contained a letter received by the family of Lieutenant F.J. Patmore of Lymington: ‘Kut, as you know, has fallen at last, and I am a prisoner of war with the Turks. I cannot now tell you all my experiences during the long siege. We had a good deal to put up with – continuous bombardment and sniping, cold, wet, floods, sandstorms and then heat and hunger. I think hunger was the worst of our sufferings. But thank God I came through it all quite safely. Do not worry about me. The Turks are a kind and chivalrous enemy, and I feel sure we shall be treated kindly.’

An Indian soldier after the seige

An Indian soldier after the seige

Unfortunately, Lieut. Patmore’s estimation of his Turkish captors did not prove accurate. The luckiest were the sick and injured who were released in exchange for Turkish prisoners of war. The officers were sent to Asia Minor and interned for the rest of the war but the ordinary soldiers suffered a much worse fate. They were marched to Anatolia in the intense heat on rations even less than they had been receiving during the siege. Those that could not keep up were beaten or shot. Men with raging thirst were even prevented by their captors from drinking at streams they passed. No medical care was provided and around 1,000 men are believed to have died on the march. Of 350 members of the 2nd Dorsets taken prisoner, only about 140 were alive by the end of June when Lieut. Patmore’s letter was published. Once in Turkey, the prisoners were put in various camps and made to work. Insanitary conditions, inadequate rations and brutal treatment took their toll and it is estimated that 3,000 of those who surrendered died before the end of the war. Those who survived were walking skeletons.

Back home the Dorset Guild of Workers prepared to send mosquito nets and other comforts to the prisoners of war in Mesopotamia. The Guild reported that ‘great difficulty is being experienced in ascertaining the addresses of Dorset men who were prisoners of war in Kut but the Guild are in communication with two.’ Money was raised in Dorchester and other local towns to send parcels to the POWs but because of lack of co-operation from the Turks it was not until May 1917 (over a year after the fall of Kut) that the authorities managed to discover the whereabouts of 134 men. Meanwhile British forces were conducting a better prepared and more successful campaign against the Turks in Mesopotamia which contributed to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

A US Marine restoring Kut War Cemetery 2003

A US Marine restoring Kut War Cemetery 2003

At the end of the war, the survivors returned home, marked by their ordeal. A dinner and reception for 51 of them was held in Dorchester on 25th February 1919. ‘There was a deeply impressive moment when, at the call of the Chairman, the company rose and drank in silence to ‘Our fallen heroes – officers, N.C.O.s and men of the 2nd Battalion, Dorset Regiment’. The Last Post was sounded with solemn effect’. As for the graves of those who died in Kut, Basra and elsewhere in the region, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission regrets that ‘while the current climate of instability exists it is not possible for the Commission to manage or maintain its cemeteries and memorials located in Iraq’.


Sources: Much of the information was taken from the Poole and Dorset Herald (extracted by Bryan Gambier) and from the excellent website of the Keep Military Museum (see Dorsets in Mesopotamia ). For a more detailed account of the Mesopotamian campaign and the siege of Kut see Kut 1916 Courage and Failure in Iraq by Patrick Crowley 2009 and History of the Dorsetshire Regiment 1914-1919, both available in the Poole History Centre.