Life was like this then…


With many thanks to Roger Guttridge for his permission to use these extracts from his articles ‘A habit from the past’ and The water that is passed’ for Dorset Life.

Swanskin had nothing to do with swans.  It was a coarse, wool-based cloth known for its warmth and waterproof qualities.  The material was used to manufacture hooded garments popular with fishermen travelling to Newfoundland.DSCF0274 (4)

This picture shows a fisherman wearing such a garment or ‘habit’ thought to be made from swanskin, whose manufacture provided a living for generations of people living in Sturminster Newton.

The fabric was white hence its name.  North Dorset’s swanskin industry dates back to at least 1578 when Sturminster clothier, James Yonge, is recorded as seeking tax relief on cloth sold to mariners ‘ going beyond the seas’.  Following John Cabot’s discovery of Newfoundland in 1497, numbers of ships were sailing from the South West to exploit the cod-rich North Atlantic.  Poole increasingly dominated the Newfoundland trade and was just down the road from Sturminster Newton and carriers carried cloth to the hundreds of ships bound for Newfoundland each Spring.

These carriers were apt to stop at a few pubs along the way, safe in the knowledge that if they fell asleep at the reins, their horses knew the route well enough to complete the journey unassisted.  But not all these journeys went to plan.  At Spetisbury, the local lads thought it a jolly jape to turn the horse around and point it in the direction from which it had come.  When the carter awoke, he would find himself back where his journey had begun.  This mischief became such a problem that in the Dorset Archives is a letter from a carter asking a magistrate to do something about it.  The alternative, of course would have been for the carters to cut back on the pub-crawling and stay awake.


The Pirate Code

Pirates are considered to be a brutal, lawless lot.  But on board ship, they live under a set of rules called ‘The Pirates Code’ or ‘Articles of Agreement’.  Each Captain had his own set of rules for the ship and crew under his command but they followed a general pattern.  These included discipline, compensation, share of the booty and compensation for injury.  Each crew member must make his mark or sign on the Articles whilst swearing an oath of allegiance. This gave each crew member the right to vote for officers and other affairs of interest, bear arms and share booty.

Here are the articles used by Captain John Phillips, of the Revenge, from 1724:

I. Every Man shall obey civil Command; the Captain shall have one full share and a half of all the Prizes; the Master, Carpenter, Boatswain, and Gunner shall have one Share and quarter.

II. If any Man shall offer to run away, or keep any Secret from the Company, he shall be marooned with one Bottle of Powder, one Bottle of Water, one small Arm, and Shot.$_35[1]

III. If any Man shall steal any Thing in the Company, or game, to the Value of a Piece of Eight, he shall be marooned or shot.

IV. If any time we shall meet another Marooner that man shall sign his Articles without consent of our Company, shall suffer such Punishment as the Captain and Company shall think fit.

V. That man that shall strike another whilst these Articles are in force, shall receive Moses’s Law ( that is, 40 Stripes lacking one) on the bare back.

VI. That Man that shall snap his Arms, or smoke tobacco in the Hold, without a Cap to his Pipe, or carry a Candle lighted without a Lanthorn, shall suffer the same punishment as the former Article.

VII. That Man shall not keep his Arms clean, fit for Engagement, or neglect his Business, shall be cut off from his Share, and suffer such other punishment as the Captain and the Company shall think fit.

VIII. If any Man shall lose a Joint in time of Engagement, shall have 400 Pieces of Eight; if a Limb 800.

IX. If at any time you meet with a prudent Woman, that Man that offers to Meddle with her, without her consent, shall suffer present Death.

The Pirate Code became the basis for The Articles of Association used by all companies in England today.  These govern the internal management of the company, regulating the rights of the members among themselves……. it is a requirement of company law for a company to register its own special set of Articles which make specific provision on matters of internal management, particularly suited to the needs of that individual business.

sources: A General History of the Robbers and Murderers of the most notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson; The Gower Handbook of Management


The Fate of the Anne

Anne snip

Early in August 1625, three sailors, Nicholas Nurrey, Robert Rapson and Thomas Marryner arrived in Poole with an ominous tale to tell. A meeting was hastily arranged with the Mayor John Harward and three Justices of the Peace, and the men were soon relating their story. A few days before, the three, together with 12-year-old ship’s boy, Nicholas Jerrard, had been sailing to ‘Croysick’ in France (probably the Breton port of Le Croisic) aboard the 20 ton Anne of Poole. South southwest of Plymouth, between Deadman’s Point and Looe they were surprised and taken by Barbary pirates, then commonly known as ‘Turks’. Nurrey told how they had ‘beate him verye cruellye and toke away from him such commodityes as were abord him wth their victualls, apparrell and their boy, Nicholas Jerrard’.

The pirate ship was not alone but part of a flotilla of six ships which sailed in pursuit of two Scottish merchantmen keeping company with the Anne. What is more, the ‘Turkish’ ships were large and well armed, two of them being about 160 to 180 tons and another two having 20 guns apiece. The pirates had already taken a considerable toll among English merchant ships. Rapson and Marryner described how once aboard the pirate ship, ‘they saw some three skore English captives lyeing in chaynes in ye hold’ who had been taken in the Channel from Bristol ships, a Barnstable vessel sailing from Virginia, and fishing boats ‘driveing uppon the streame’.

At the helm of the pirate vessel was another English captive whose ship had been taken the previous season when sailing out to Newfoundland. He told Thomas Marryner ‘that there were twentye sayle of Turks att sea about this coast & the coast of ffrance or hovering betwixt Bellyle and Ushant to make their praye on all his Maties subiects tradeing to and fro twixt England and ffrance especially on the newfoudlandmen expected homeward wthin this moneth, threatening that wthin these 2 yeares they would not leave ye king of England sayles to furnish his shipps to sea.’

How the crew (except for the unfortunate boy Nicholas Jerrard) escaped being taken captive, we do not know, but perhaps the pirates had taken as many captives as they could manage. John Harward lost no time in writing to the Privy Council with the news of the situation, warning the authorities that unless measures were taken the returning Newfoundland fleet of 250 sail with 4,000 to 5,000 men on board would be surprised and fall victim to the pirates. His message joined a chorus of protests from Channel ports suffering shipping losses. The mayor of Plymouth, for instance had fears for the ships sailing from Virginia and Newfoundland, adding a grim statistic. In the space of only 10 days, 27 ships and 200 men had been taken by Barbary pirates.

piece contributed by Jenny Oliver


The Smuggler’s Curse


Copy of an original letter written by a smuggler to a Captain Bursack of the Revenue Cutter Speedwell and was found in Poole Custom House during renovations. The gentleman in question, a one J. Spurier, is hopping mad that Captain Bursack has dared to interfere with his (un)lawful smuggling activities and says as much in very colourful language!

‘Sir, Damn thee

and God Damn thy two Purblind Eyes thou Buger and thou Death looking son of a Bitch O that I had bin there (with my company) for they sake when thou tookes them men of Mine on Board the Speedwell Cutter on Monday ye 14 Decr. I would drove thee and all they Gang to Hell wher thou belongest thou Devil Incarnet Go Down thou Hell Hound into thy Kennell below & Bathe thy Self in that Sulpherous Lake that has bin so long Prepared for such as thee for it is time the World was rid of such a Monster thou art no Man but a Devil thou fiend I hope thou will soon fall into Hell like star from the Sky; there to lie (unpitied) & unrelented of any for Ever and Ever Which God Grant of his infinite Mercy Amen’

Letter from J. Spurier, smuggler; Fordingbridge, January 1700 to Captain Bursack

Source – Smugglers Tales by Tom Quinn in Contraband p.167

No Friendly Fire

The blockhouse on Brownsea Island was built in 1547, one of a string of coastal defences ordered by King Henry VIII against invasion from the continent. It was based on a solid platform and consisted of a single storey square tower about 13m by 13m with walls 2m thick and guns mounted on the flat Brownsea blockhouse 4roof of the tower. On the eastern side was a barbican or walled courtyard and the whole structure was surrounded by a ditch, with a drawbridge to give access. The purpose was to protect the entrance to Poole Harbour from enemy ships but in fact the guns were rarely fired in anger and on one rare recorded occasion when they were, the target was no enemy but a ship from Poole itself.

Sir Christopher HattonIn 1576 Queen Elizabeth had awarded the castle at Brownsea to her favourite, Christopher Hatton. He had first come to her notice through his skills as a courtier and rapidly acquired lands and titles including that of Vice Admiral of Purbeck and Constable of Corfe Castle. The following year he was knighted and made Vice Chamberlain and ten years later he became Chancellor, proving to be an impressive statesman with a fine grasp of public affairs. The demands of Hatton’s public duties and almost daily attendance on the Queen, meant that he left his duties in Purbeck in the hands of a deputy, Francis Hawley, based at Corfe Castle. Under Hatton’s sponsorship, Hawley was able to indulge in lucrative sidelines such as doing deals with the pirates who haunted the Purbeck coast, even though part of his job was supposed to be to suppress them. Richly attired pirate captains would come ashore at Studland to sell their stolen goods without fear of the law while Hawley pocketed sweeteners or had his pick of the choicest goods.

The relations between the gunners of Brownsea and the seamen of Poole had long been tense. As far back as 1578, John Gobey had complained at the Poole Admiralty Court that a ‘callyber’ [hand gun] which he had found at the bottom of the sea near Brownsea had been taken from him by force by the gunner, Richard Skovell. In 1681, the minutes of the Court reported that ‘the gunner of Brownsea castle doth molest the inhabitants of the town and will not suffer them to pass any persons from Northaven to Southaven Point but doth threaten them to shoot at them and violently doth take their money from them, which is not only a great hindrance to poor men that were wont to gain money that way, but also an infringing of our liberties.’

On 11th February 1589, Walter Meryet, owner and master of the Bountiful Gifte was sailing out of Poole with a cargo of copperas bound for London. Because of the international situation, a year after the great Armada, the authorities had put a stay on shipping in case vessels might be needed for naval purposes. Any ship wanting to leave port needed a special pass from the correct authorities. Meryet had a pass from the port authorities at Poole and went ashore at Brownsea to present this to the gunner, Walter Partridge. However Partridge told him that this was not good enough and that he needed a proper pass from Francis Hawley at Corfe Castle. Meryet replied that he had sent someone to fetch this pass and pressed Partridge to let him pass. Apparently a similar situation had arisen before between the two men because Partridge again refused, saying that Meryet had caused him trouble before with his master, Mr. Hawley.

Meryet went back on board his ship, but instead of sailing back to Poole, he defiantly set OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsail for the harbour entrance. Partridge’s response was to open fire. His first shot passed over the ship but the second, according to one witness, fell short, grazed the water and then hit the vessel. Other witnesses reported that Partridge deliberately aimed ‘between wind and water’, in other words, at the vulnerable part of the ship just below the waterline. The shot hit Walter Meryet behind his right knee, shattering his thigh bone ‘fower ynches long on the owt side of his legg’. It also hit crew member William Drake in his right thigh, giving him a six inch wound. After firing, Partidge got up on the wall to try to see through the smoke and asked witness Peter Peers if he had seen the shot. Peers said that it had struck the barque and done some harm to which Partridge replied ‘I cannot help it nowe.’ The two terribly injured men were put on board the Primrose moored nearby to be taken back to Poole but William Drake died as they came up the channel. Walter Meryet was landed alive at Poole Quay and taken to his house where he died the following day.

Electrified first by the sound of shots across the harbour and then by the news of the deaths, the people of Poole must have been incensed. An inquest was convened and evidence heard, resulting in a verdict of wilful murder against Walter Partridge. At his trial at the Admiralty Court at Corfe Castle, Partridge was found guilty of manslaughter and condemned to death, being unable to plead benefit of clergy because his offence had been committed at sea. However this was not the end of his story because in December 1590 he received a grant of pardon for the killing of William Drake and Walter Meryet ‘by the glancing of a bullet, which he shot at a ship wherein they were, intending to stay the said ship.’ Obviously his masters Francis Hawley and Christopher Hatton looked after their own.

Sources included: CI 1 Coroner’s Inquest on Walter Meryet and William Drake (Poole Archives) / Plan of Brunksey (Brownsea) Castle, island, Poole and harbour, and district from Cecil Papers: Miscellaneous 1597 (copy at Dorset History Centre

With thanks to Jennie Oliver who researched this piece

Henry Harbin and the Battle of the Fishing Nets               

 The Admiralty Court of Poole assumed authority over activities in the harbour, including fishing and the conservation of young fish by the use of nets of suitable mesh size. They were particularly suspicious of the practices of fishermen from Wareham. This witness statement from the early 17th century tells of a confrontation, not exactly on the high seas but on the calmer waters of Poole harbour and with rowing boats rather than fighting ships:

The coppy of Henry Harbin’s examination to be seen on the file – taken in Mr Melmoth the ironmonger’s yeare of Maioralty 1635

 Henry Harbin, Water Baylieffe of the towne & County of Poole sayeth that he having a warrt [warrant] under Mr Maior’s hand & seale of Poole to fetch in such drawers as should be found fyshing within ye libertyes of the towne of Poole, and to bring in their netts to be viewed whether they be lawfull, goeing aboard a boate of John Northover of Stoborough fishing in our libertyes wth a sett of netts, shewed his warrt to the fishermen of the sayd Northover’s boate, and telling them that by virtue thereof, he did require them to bring in their boate and netts before Mr Maior of Poole, whereupon they sayd they would obey the warrt, and takeing their words in that kind they presently rowed away towards Warehame, sayeing they did not care a ffart for them, and there uppon the sayd Henry sayeth that he causeth his boate to rowe towards the other boate, the company of the sayd other boate sayd that if they did come abord them, they would shoote them, and thereupon the sayd Harbin’s company attempting to enter the other boate they strake Anthony Millett on the head with an oare and brake his head and the oare likewise and there uppon Phillipp Northover leapeing into the sayd Harbin’s boate and struggling with his company, William Northover & Richard Northover went away with the other boate towards Wareham, and the sayd Phillipp Northover confesseth that the netts wch they fysheth with were those netts that were formerly seised by the towne for unlawfull netts, but delivered back upon security given never to be used agayne in or libertyes. 

John Melmoth Maior               Henry Harbin        

With our thanks to Jenny Oliver who researched this piece


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