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Poole’s Maritime Heritage and our Three Leading Men

Poole’s Maritime Heritage and our Three Leading Men

Poole in 1568 began to develop in its importance, Queen Elizabeth 1st’ “Great Charter” made it one of only 16 ports in the country to be directly responsible for its maritime interests. Across the succeeding 150 years it grew in importance with the development of its fishing interest in Newfoundland, and through developing trade with the Communities and colonies on the east Coast of America and in the Caribbean.


The period we chose for the project is spanned by the lifetimes of our three leading men: Button at the beginning of the period; Bennett and Rogers towards the end. These were the three mariners that we thought might have lent their surnames to some of the alleys on Poole Quay:

  • Sir Thomas Button was an Admiral working for the Crown;
  • Bennett was a Royal Naval Captain and probably involved as well, with his wider family, in local smuggling; and
  • Rogers was a famous privateer who established the Bahamas as a colony on behalf of Kings George I and George II between 1717 and 1732.

We found that their lifetime experiences mapped onto Poole’s maritime history and development during this period, well. They certainly help to explain more about what was going on in those days …. What do you think?

Poole’s Maritime Heritage: Ways the three characters’ lives map onto it

Elizabeth 1st recognised Poole’s growing importance nationally; under her Charter it became the Town and County of Poole, the nearest other port town given this privilege being Southampton. This freed the Town and County from direction by Dorset and from any influence of the Lord of the Manor, excepting some rights concerning the foreshore and the heath. The status of a County Corporate implied the establishment of a corporation and extended Poole’s existing powers. The Charter allowed the town through its Burgesses to choose its own Mayor, his brethren (Aldermen), Sheriff, Water Bailiff, Justices of the Peace, Recorder and Coroner. Another real advantage to the port was that Poole’s ships were henceforth exempted from docking dues at other English ports.

In 1577 Elizabeth 1st was concerned about French and Spanish pirates in the Channel, and locally there had been concern too. The Privy Council wrote to the Mayor of Poole concerning the perceived invasion threat.

The Harbour Commissioners were tasked with apprehending pirates in their waters and to name suspect vessels and those who had fitted them out in a warlike manner without her majesties’ “special licence” (the distinction between a privateer and a pirate) over the previous five years.

Some 43 ships were captured off the Dorset coast by two Royal Navy warships in 1583: Francis Rogers of Poole, brother of the High Sherriff of Dorset, Sir Richard Rogers, had been named a pirate and nine pirates were hanged on Studland beach.

Nowhere in Poole then was far away from the Quay and its activities. Poole town mainly occupied only the “island”, protected on the north-eastern side by the big ditch and the town gate and elsewhere by the water of the harbour, the back water channel and Holes Bay. People living here would have known well what was happening from day to day in the port and on the quaysides.

1636 Poole map incl copyright Towngate in close up

The town was dominated by maritime activities and business in support of those – imagine the loading and unloading of vessels, the many horses and carts, the storage of goods in warehouses, the markets for selling goods to local people, the shipyards where boats were maintained and built, the hub-bub of the port itself and the pubs and hostelries on the back streets where life went on.

As the older harbour-side buildings in Poole testify today, warehouses abounded and there were also breweries, chandlers, rope-makers, sailmakers, public houses, hostelries and coaching inns, stables and places for people to sleep and eat. The promontory also contained several areas of land that were given over to producing food for people and for animals to graze, as well as St James Church and its graveyard. All these things were in support of the main activities which comprised fishing, merchant venturing, trading with new colonies and the middle-east, local sea trade with France, Spain and Portugal, and short sea shipping around the English and Welsh coasts.

St James Church

Poole in those days already had links to Newfoundland for fishing and the annual run drew fishing vessels and people from the town and surrounding areas; generally out in April/ May and back in October. Local families shared ownership of vessels and ran trading concerns as well as fulfilling demand for fish locally.

In the late Elizabethan period particularly it was an economic necessity that people took up the option of the Newfoundland run in order to earn more than a living on the land in the surrounding areas of Dorset and Hampshire provided. The Poor Law was enacted in 1601 when 50 people were said to rely on the town for sustenance.

discovery stained glass picture

In 1612 Thomas Button went to Newfoundland from Bristol in command of two ships to search for the Northwest Passage, and to survey parts of the North American coast-line. He returned in 1613 and received a knighthood in Dublin in 1616 for his efforts. His vessels, the Resolution and the Discovery, had sailors as part of their crew who a year earlier had been with Henry Hudson the explorer, before the mutiny that saw him cut adrift and disappear in the same waters.

Button had to abandon the Resolution that summer because it was crushed by the ice. He and all of his men were forced to return together in the Discovery, shown above in a stained glass window in St Sepulchre without Newgate in London.  It is hard to believe today that the Discovery  was used to explore those waters or to imagine conditions on-board when it had to bring back all of the men.

John Bennett and Woodes Rogers lived in Poole after the restoration; Bennett was born here and while Rogers lived here in his early years, his place of birth is not recorded. In a 1690 Poole Poll Tax list, the Rogers family was living in Thames Street and consisted of Woods Rogers senior, Frances his wife, Woodes, his son and another child.

12559-10976-MA[1] cropped

Captain Woods Rogers, Woodes’ father, had by then developed a thriving shipping business trading with Newfoundland. He moved his  family to Bristol in the 1690’s where he bought land and had a property built on Queen Square near to the docks.

John Bennett’s family also left Poole at that time to return to roots in Essex. They lived out the remainder of their lives in Barking. John Bennett senior, his father, had also worked as a Royal Naval Captain while living in Poole.


Throughout most of the period privateering was relied upon to help the state protect its waters and to bolster the Royal Navy. The logic of this was that privately owned ships licensed by the crown could legitimately take vessels that were deemed pirates (deemed so because the nations were at war with one another).

Elizabeth 1st encouraged privateering during her reign, through the wars with the Spanish; there was little to distinguish the process from naval warfare. While James 1st and Charles 1st did not employ privateers, thereafter it arose again as a valid activity through the remainder of C17th and C18th. Privateering reduced in intensity following the treaty of Utrecht in 1713 but only properly ceased after the 1856 declaration of Paris.

Privateers received Letters of Marque from the crown when mounting expeditions and trading trips. These were effectively licenses for them to engage with any vessel from another nation at war with England and to capture the vessels, their crews and goods.

Button in his early career served on privateering raids in the West Indies and Woodes Rogers did so too, when he set off from Bristol in 1708 on his round-the-world voyage. His is later exploits firstly to become Governor of the Bahamas, and then to run the Islands, were also pursued as privateering projects. That is to say he himself, together with financial backers, came up with the ideas, worked them up as business plans and found and persuaded enough share holder backers to allow him to carry them out.

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