A history of Poole in 12 objects

PUBLISHED: 12:05 27 February 2018 | UPDATED: 12:05 27 February 2018

Poole Musuem

Poole Musuem


From Bronze Age axe head and steam-powered fire engine to fine pottery and scouting badges, Edward Griffiths finds some fascinating artefacts on display at Poole Museum

The ultra-modern steel and glass atrium of Poole Museum may shout 21st century design but inside this building are artefacts covering many centuries of Poole’s travel, trade and industry.

The museum is housed in four very different buildings which in turn reflect the history of the area. The atrium entrance, dating from 2007, is on the site of Poole’s first public library, founded in 1830. You then walk through into Oakley’s Mill, a Victorian grain warehouse and flour mill built in the 19th century after repeal of the Corn Laws allowed grain to be imported from Russia and other producers for processing in Poole, a trade which continued here until the late 20th century. The medieval Ship Inn originally occupied this site and a set of carved timbers from this quayside hostelry are displayed on the First Floor. The third building, the Town Cellars, is a former medieval warehouse which now houses the Local History Centre. Across on Salisbury Street is the fourth and final building, Scaplen’s Court - Poole’s most complete medieval domestic building with its herb and physic garden open throughout the summer; Scaplen’s Court is home to Poole Museum’s Education Service and can be visited during August.

The main part of the Museum is on Paradise Street, the continuing route from High Street to the quay, probably originating from ‘Par Adieux’ meaning ‘Farewell’ - and many families would have waved goodbye to their loved ones as they set sail to seek their fortune in far away lands.

Poole’s rich maritime history started with a rather unpromising gravel peninsula at the mouth of the River Frome which supported a small settlement. This eventually developed into a trading port around the end of the 12th century after the principle port of Wareham was ravaged by both sides in King Stephen’s civil war, and the River Frome began silting up. Poole’s fortunes really took off in 1248 when it purchased a trading charter from William Longespee II, Lord of Canford Manor.

As Poole Museum and Arts Manager, Michael Spender, is keen to point out the museum covers the story of Poole and its harbour from the Palaeolithic Period through to the present day. So here is the history of this fascinating seafaring town in 12 remarkable artefacts and displays. 

1. Stone Age Poole

Palaeolithic hand axes from Solent River gravelsPalaeolithic hand axes from Solent River gravels

Before rising sea levels broke through the chalk cliffs between The Needles and Old Harry Rocks, Palaeolithic man had crossed the land-bridge from Europe following the animal herds, including woolly mammoth as discovered by archaeologists on the Isle of Wight. Near present day Poole, a gravel peninsula had formed where the River Frome met the River Solent‘s original route. Here, as the last Ice Age ended about 10,000 years ago, they discarded or lost some of their chert tools and hand axes.

2. Bronze Age Axe From Poole Harbour

Bronze Age axe head found in Poole HarbourBronze Age axe head found in Poole Harbour

The early Bronze Age began about 2000 BC and continued until the Iron Age started about 750 BC and produced vastly superior tools and weapons. However copper and tin needed much more effort and expertise to produce these items so they were very valuable and greatly treasured. So, the well-preserved late Bronze Age end-winged axe head of 1000 to 800BC recovered from Poole Harbour by diver Philip Butterworth in 2005 was probably deposited there as a ritual offering. The blade is perfectly serviceable although the mounting has been bent.

3. Iron Age Log Boat Ferry

Iron Age log boat - view from sternIron Age log boat - view from stern

Both Bronze Age and Iron Age barrows have been discovered on Canford Heath and Kinson Common near Poole. During this period, dugout canoes were hand-worked with iron tools and chert tools. This fine 33ft long log boat, carved from a single tree trunk, was dredged from the harbour mud. It was used for ferrying people, clay, peat, reeds and light goods around the shallow harbour and the River Frome.

4. The Romans in Poole

Roman black burnished ware made at Bestwall, Wareham ChannelRoman black burnished ware made at Bestwall, Wareham Channel

Between 43AD and about 410AD, the Roman military occupied several areas around Poole’s harbour. Traces of Roman occupation have been discovered at Hamworthy from where a Roman Road stretches northwards to a known supply depot at Lake near Wimborne and onwards to Badbury Rings, Salisbury and Dorchester. At Bestwall, Wareham, a vast pottery site has been excavated, revealing a number of small kilns and scattered remnants of fine black burnished ware pots, bowls, colanders and other assorted domestic pieces. These were produced both for the settled Roman establishments in the area and for export.

5. Booming Trade in Newfoundland

Glass bottomed pewter tankard inscribed 'Destiny', one of Poole's 19th-century Newfoundland shipsGlass bottomed pewter tankard inscribed 'Destiny', one of Poole's 19th-century Newfoundland ships

John Cabot discovered Newfoundland in 1497 and Poole’s merchant adventurers immediately started cod fishing around Newfoundland, selling the prepared and dried fish to European markets. Poole thrived on its Newfoundland trade and by 1802 a fleet of 300 ships were trading from the harbour. Their owners grew rich and built the fine Georgian mansions which are a feature of old Poole today. However, after 1815, when the Newfoundland fisheries were opened to ships from America, France and Spain, Poole’s trade collapsed, causing bankruptcy and ruin for many.

6. Shipbuilding in Poole

Model of two-masted brig built in PooleModel of two-masted brig built in Poole

The Newfoundland trade alone needed unprecedented numbers of ships to be built and maintained in the Port of Poole so shipyards sprang up all around. The thriving shipbuilding industry employed carpenters, rope makers, sail makers, tanners and shipyard suppliers. Most ships built for the Newfoundland trade were brigantines (brig) with two masts, square rigged and with a vast foresail. Many had elaborate figureheads usually related to the ship’s name. For example, the figurehead on the 1790 ‘Queen Charlotte’ probably represented the reigning monarch George III’s wife.

7. Victorian Poole

Shand, Mason and Co. fire engine c1890Shand, Mason and Co. fire engine c1890

By the mid 19th century Poole’s coastal trade had virtually disappeared due to the collapse of the Newfoundland fisheries and the arrival of the railway in 1847. But there was a silver-lining to this cloud. Just along the coast Bournemouth was rapidly developing into a popular seaside resort. Poole’s service industries with clay pits, brickyards, foundries and timber importers, all helped to revive the town’s fortunes. As early as 1840, annual regattas and sailing events were taking place in Poole Bay, the winners being rewarded with magnificent silver salvers and cups. Later in Victoria’s reign, the town acquired its first steam-powered, but still horse-drawn, fire engine. The steam power provided a far more effective reach for the water jet, essential with the height of some of the warehouse buildings along Poole quay.

8. Carter Tiles

Carter glazed tilesCarter glazed tiles

One of the first potteries in Poole was T W Walker’s brick and tile works on East Quay in 1861. When Jesse Carter bought the firm in 1873, it became Carter and Co. Ltd., makers of all kinds of wall and floor tiles and architectural ceramics. Changing the company’s name to Carter’s and Poole Pottery, Jesse’s son Owen, was responsible for introducing ornamental and table wares into the range during the early 1900s, especially experimenting with lustre glazes.

9. Scouting on Brownsea

Scouts’ badge commemorating 100 years 1907-2007Scouts’ badge commemorating 100 years 1907-2007

In 2007 Poole celebrated the centenary of Lord Baden-Powell’s first Scout camp on Brownsea, a beautiful island in Poole Harbour which today is a nature reserve. The hero of Mafeking had adapted his 1899 training manual Aids to Scouting into Scouting for Boys, which he used for this experimental week-long camp for 20 boys. Subjects covered during that August gathering included: life-saving campaigning, observation, woodcraft, chivalry and patriotism. This was the start of the world’s most successful outdoor pursuits’ programme for young people, which is still going strong today – though a badge in chivalry may no longer be possible! 

10. Poole Pottery

Twin-handled Poole Pottery vase about 1930Twin-handled Poole Pottery vase about 1930

Between the wars, Poole Pottery produced Art Deco styles 1921-1940, then post-war contemporary items 1950-1958, before concentrating on Art Pottery 1959-1982. Over its long and successful history, Poole Pottery has become renowned for excellence in design and commitment to developing innovative collections. It has created work for many of the finest retailers and organisations throughout the world. Pieces from Poole Pottery remain highly collectable.

11. Post-War Poole

The 1950s kitchen with all the latest gadgetsThe 1950s kitchen with all the latest gadgets

Older visitors admiring the 1950s kitchen display in Poole Museum can often be heard saying ‘We had one of those’. With neat storage cupboard and work-space, smart Formica-topped kitchen table not to mention the cutting-edge green enamelled gas oven, gas clothes-boiler and electric vacuum cleaner, this evocative display reveals the innovative ideas that would have made the Poole housewife’s lot just that little bit easier after her sterling effort to ‘make do and mend’ during the war.

12. Poole’s Cubist Power Station

Radiovisor smoke density indicator from Poole Power Station East StackRadiovisor smoke density indicator from Poole Power Station East Stack

After the war, a new power station was planned for Poole at an estimated cost of £4million. The Central Electricity Generating Board’s Cubist-style building, with twin 325ft high octagonal chimneys, was built on reclaimed land bordering Holes Bay using local brick. Opened in 1952, the station burned 1.000 tons of coal everyday. Its twin chimneys made it the tallest building in Dorset until it was demolished in 1993. The vast brownfield site is planned for redevelopment around the far side of the recent Twin Sails Bridge.

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