In the latest guest post from a member of the #historygirls community, Sophie from the History Chatter blog shares some of her latest historical adventures with us. Regular readers of the Hisdoryan blog know I love a good bit of historical travel, so I’m pleased to offer a virtual guided tour of the history of Poole in Dorset from the comfort of your armchair!
Poole, Dorset. A beautiful spot on the south coast, great for water sports, arguably the second largest natural harbour in the world, a great place for chips – and absolutely chock full of history.
Poole has a long history. In the 1960’s an Iron Age logboat dated to c. 295 BC was found just off the coast. The Romans also used it as an invasion port when conquering southern England. From the Norman conquest to the early 1400s, it remained a small fishing village, but during the medieval period links were developed with countries from Italy to the Baltics, and soon it grew.
From the 17th century Poole began to trade with North America, especially Newfoundland. In the 18th century, Poole was the main trading British trading port with North America. This made the town, and several of its occupants, very rich indeed.
I only discovered the reams of history there when I was literally on my way, and was having a little search for something to do. I stumbled across a free self-guided walking tour, called the Poole Cockle trail, which you can download from https://www.pooletourism.com/things-to-do/poole-cockle-trail-self-guided-walk-p2407243.
The tour began along the front of the harbour, in a space that was originally the old Fish Shambles, or fish market. It’s a beautiful old street, with several old pubs and buildings leaning against each other. One of the pubs, The Jolly Sailor, is well known for one of its former landlords, Harry Davies, who got himself quite the reputation for diving off the quay to save people from drowning!
The oldest, and most beautiful, building along the front is the Poole Arms, which is decorated with gorgeous green tiles and has features that date from the 17th century. It also features the Poole Coat of Arms, which consists of a dolphin and three scallop shells. The scallop shells are everywhere in Poole, including at the church and on the brass plaques we were following!
As I continued along the front, I came quite quickly to the boatyards. For centuries this was the main hub of trade – and even smuggling.
The outstanding building here is the Custom House, which still has the town beam in front of it. The beam was used to weigh goods for customs duty. In 1747, drama ensued when valuable smuggled cargo was confiscated, and sixty armed and terrifying smugglers battered down the door to take the precious goods back. Later, some unlucky members of the gang were arrested and hanged. What was this cargo you ask? Well, the most important good of all – tea!
From the Custom House, I could see the Town Cellars, which is a 15th century building. It is now home to the Poole History centre, the Old Harbour Office (dating from 1822), and the King Charles pub, of which the main section is Tudor. I was so impressed by the amount of truly historic buildings that were not only still standing, but had become working, living parts of the existing town today. The King Charles pub even still has the old roof beams and an original fireplace.
At this point, the options were to continue along the harbour front, or follow the scallops into the town itself, which is what I did. Straight ahead was a beautiful church, called St. James’. There has been a place of worship standing on this spot for 800 years, growing along with the town. The existing church was built in the early 1820s, and is a gorgeous and peaceful spot, despite only being maybe a two minute walk from the main harbour.
I didn’t go inside, but it is supposed to be beautiful, and on the very top of the spire, the weather vane is a fish, to symbolise the old trades of the area.
Looping round the church, you can see some of the beautiful Georgian houses, but just behind the church is a small, tucked away patch of green. This was used as an overspill graveyard when the population grew rapidly in the 19th century and the deaths surpassed the room in the original graveyard.
Surrounding the church are several beautiful, Georgian houses, including Poole House, what is now the Hotel du Vin, and West End House.
These are all gorgeous 18th century houses, that were built by and for the families that grew wealthy in the 1700s through trading, particularly with Newfoundland. In the Hotel du Vin dining room, the fireplace is decorated with marble cod fillets, to show off the source of their wealth, while West End House is decorated with stone pineapples on the façade. This was a common symbol of prosperity for Newfoundland traders.
Later, towards the end of the 1800s, the Carter family lived there. They were the founders of the famous Poole Pottery and the descendants of the Carters of Poole, who made the green tiles that covered the Poole Arms at the start of the tour. Later, Poole Pottery produced a lot of the tiling that was used on London Underground stations built in the 1930s, some of which can still be seen today.
Moving on from the church, I emerged onto Church Street, which is the oldest part of the town. This was the Medieval town, and although most of it was rebuilt and redeveloped in the Georgian period, there were again some beautiful old buildings that were not only still standing, but still being used – some of the cottages still standing are older than most of the street!
A personal favourite was the St. George’s Almhouses, which were originally built in the 15th century, and feature a small niche where the town’s very first street lamp was placed. Poole was full of lovely little quirks like this that show off not just its own history, but change and modernisation across a whole era.
Another quirky feature can be found at the Guildhall, which was built in the 1700s. Apparently, on the right hand side of the wall there is a bullet in the bricks from when an ex-mayor was shot and killed over a dispute about a boat – although I will admit I didn’t manage to find the hole.
During the late 18th century, there was a lot of religious and political turmoil, which I didn’t really find much context about on the tour, but right next to the Guildhall is the Angel Inn where apparently the Poole Reform Party would gather for pre-election breakfasts, able to shout over to people around the hall itself. It’s much more sedate now – when I was there, there was just a family having a quiet drink, but it’s not hard to imagine the hustle and bustle in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The final part of the tour took me round and back onto the high street, past the Courtyard tearooms, which date back to the 16th century; the Antelope, which is 500 years old and used to be a coaching inn that brewed its own beer; and the King’s Head (previously named the much more flamboyant Plume of Feathers) which has at least five hidden passageways that were used by smugglers.
Many of the buildings around the area are around 400-500 years old, but have been redesigned so the fronts often date from the 18th and 19th centuries, hiding the depth of history behind them.
I was amazed to find so much history in one small town, and really impressed not only with the preservation and use of these buildings, but also how proud the town clearly is of its roots. I would definitely recommend taking the self-guided tour – there’s lots more information on there – and it’s a great way to spend an afternoon and really appreciate Poole’s past.
I write about women between 1400 -1900 in Europe, especially about sex, relationships and the body. I’m fascinated by the experiences of women in the past, and want to connect modern conversations and concerns – from body image to relationships, careers to sexual experiences – with the women who came before us.
I’m a part-time Early Modern History masters student, historical fiction reader, Taylor Swift fan, list writer and 90% tea.
I also hang out a lot on instagram @historychatter – I share smaller snippets on the same historical subjects, but also what I’m reading, seeing, and organising at any moment in time.