This project is about Poole’s Maritime Heritage in the period 1580-1730 and as such it draws on research materials that largely concern the men of Poole in their different guises and occupations. But we wondered what ‘was life like’ for the women in that time period as they receive very little written recognition in their own right.
In an interview with Lyse Doucet for a Radio 4 programme in January 2018, Vigdis Finnbogadottir (Iceland’s first democratically elected female President in 1980) talked about the Icelandic fishermen who sent a long telegram in her support. We think this modern day quote is very relevant to women’s lives in the period we are talking about, 1580-1730. English fishermen used to fish in Icelandic waters before Newfoundland was discovered. Asked why she thought the seamen were supporting her, Vigdis Finnbogadottir said: “Seamen know so well the qualities and the capacities of women, because they (women) are there ashore and while they are out at sea and they (women) are taking care of the home and everything; they are taking care of the home, the finance minister of the home, the architect of the home, they (the seamen) come home for 3 days leave and everything is under control and they realise that that is a woman who has done that – a housewife has done that”
Women in the C16th and C17th were not admitted to the professions but they were often employed by fathers or husbands in their workshops and it was not unknown for the widow of a craftsman to carry on his trade. Women could earn money as milliners, dyers, embroiderers, bakers, brewers and confectioners. They were employed as washerwomen, nurses, midwives and domestic servants, in Poole, we know from sources like the 1574 census that many girls and women were employed in domestic service. In 1574, a quarter of the households had at least one maid servant, and 65 maids are listed in total.
One trade that women did pursue in their own right was inn-keeping. A 1620 list of Inn-keepers and alehouse-keepers includes six women including Mistress Field, as one of the four inn-keepers. The Melledge family owned Poole’s most important Inn, the Antelope and in a tax record of 1662, the widow Mrs Melledge was listed as holding the inn. This was probably Elizabeth, the widow of Micha Melledge, as a trade token of 1666 connects her to the inn. After Elizabeth’s death the Antelope came into the possession of Alice, the widow of Johnson Melledge who left it in her will of 1678 to her daughter, Alice junior, a very rare example of an unmarried woman inheriting property from another woman. Among other women inn-keepers were Rachel Lloyd of the King’s Arms and Mary Carter who ran the White Bear in the early C18th.
Not everyone treated women fairly ( in work that would be considered professional these days) for example, in 21st December, 1648, a nurse, Mary Freind, who attended to the sick and maimed soldiers in Poole garrison, by order of Col. Bingham, by the space of two years and upwards, and ‘made it all her labour, for which she never received any satisfaction,’ is to be paid £6 ‘ for satisfacc’on for her pains taken therein’.
In contrast to Mary Freind’s experience who was finally paid for her work, according to Mr Hutchins in The History of the Town and County of Poole, ‘in or around 1666, a young woman named Mary Cutler, was condemned to be hanged in this town for the murder of her baftard child: That dreadful difeafe the plague being then in this town, the fherrif granted her a refpite from execution provided fhe would attend the perfons afflicted with the plague as a nurfe; this fhe faithfully performed and efcaped the contagion, and in confideration of her fervices, the fheriffs and corporation made great interft to obtain her pardon from the king; but fuch was the juftice or cruelty of thofe times, that their felicitations were without effect, and fhe was executed near the entrance of the town (to the great concern of the Corporation and inhabitants) which place retains to this day the name of “Cutler’s Gallows”.’
When they married, the job of women was to keep the house and look after their families but no doubt they frequently also helped in their husband’s businesses. As housewives, women were kept busy baking bread, brewing beer as the water was unfit to drink, curing bacon, salting down meats, making jams, jellies, preserves, soaps and candles. Tending the garden, growing vegetables and herbs for the table and to make simples to treat common ailments; cooking, cleaning, washing, spinning wool and linen to make clothes, feeding the animals; keeping hens for their eggs and for the pot, possibly bee-keeping as well, with much of this produce being sold on a stall on market day.
Wealthy women supervised and instructed servants and were capable of running an estate and doing the accounts if their husband was away. Women could be named in their husband’s will to inherit the business – mainly because they knew how to run it. It was often in widowhood that women acquired some status and independence as property owners and executrices of their husband’s estates. In the early C17th, widow Helen Dolbery kept an inn and also leased the passage service from the Corporation. Edith, the widow of George Dackombe was listed among the 34 richest citizens in a subsidy list of 1628. Widows could also be vulnerable. In 1598, the wealthy widow Alice Green with her servant Agnes Beard were murdered in her house in High Street and her strong boxes broken open and ransacked.
Elizabeth Hyde is one of the few notable women in the latter half of this period about whom we have proven information. She was the only woman on record as signing bonds for cargoes of clay in the Poole port books. But best of all, (and I am now directly quoting from the article by David Cousins) in 1688, Thomas Hyde was in Rotterdam with a ship, at the time when William of Orange landed in the West Country. The Princess of Orange wished to send important letters to her husband, and approached the masters of several English ships to carry the letters back to William in England. However, they were apprehensive, as memories of the consequences for those involved in the Monmouth rebellion were still vivid. Elizabeth Hyde then travelled to The Hague, took the letters from the Princess, quilted them into her skirt, and carried them to William. As recognition for her bravery, the Hydes received a pension.
Away from the port, the main occupation was farming which did not provide sufficient for the families to live on so the men were fishermen also. Once Newfoundland was discovered and the vast quantities of cod reported in the seas, men equipped their boats with everything they might need to be away fishing for seven months at a time leaving their wives to run homes, businesses and their lives as best they could.
Pirates and slavers (usually one and the same) were a big problem to fishermen throughout the period; they could be attacked and taken anytime and sold into slavery. Sometimes it was possible for them to be ransomed and set free and it was their womenfolk who had to try and raise the money. A document exists dated 6th January 1697, concerning an appeal for ransom to free some Poole seamen held as slaves in North Africa. John King and Henry Hunt were held captive by the Turks and sent letters concerning their plight which Elizabeth King and Elizabeth Hunt (wife and sister to the men) put before the Mayor, Justices of the Peace, Aldermen and Burgesses of Poole Town and County, as they were too poor to pay the ransom themselves. It was suggested that to save these men, it was recommended that the money should be raised by charitable donation by ‘good and well disposed people not in the least doubting but considering the incertainty of the fortunes and chances of this life and that as charity is not only a great duty Incumbent on all, But alsoe very acceptable with God he loving a cheerful giver / they will answer the end thereof.’ The council stated that they would ‘ take and use all possible care for the safe and speedy remitting of all such moneys as shall be given towards the reliefe release and discharging of the said captives…’; this is surely an early example of crowd-funding.
In his book ‘Soe long as there comes noe women’, W. Gordon Handcock writes that the travelling to Newfoundland and running the fishery was a male occupation. There is documentation showing that women came to Newfoundland in as early as 1600s as part of the London and Bristol Company’s first formal attempt by merchant “adventurers” to colonise the island. It has been suggested that women formed the shore-crew who worked as cooks and salters, but no written evidence has been found. There is however, evidence to show that a small number of women did live in Newfoundland and this formed the nucleus for permanent residence there. Some planters or resident boat keepers brought their families with them; some married the daughters or widows of previous residents. A Captain Wheeler uttered the immortal words “soe long as there comes noe women they are not fixed”. One wonders why women went to Newfoundland at all as the voyage was at best, hellish, it took the best part of 5 weeks to get there and the nearer they sailed to Newfoundland the colder and icier it got. Things didn’t improve when they reached shore. Quotes taken from Mr Handcock’s book state ‘the country is barren and rocky…; the Colony cannot subsist itself for it produces nothing…’ which was all true even if the quotes came from anti-settlement advocates.
Another reason for discouraging women from coming to Newfoundland was although it was well known for its fishery in many western European ports, the English were reluctant to use Newfoundland as anything more than a fishing colony. To this end women were initially prohibited from venturing to the island, as it was thought that their presence would increase the likelihood of permanent settlement. Keeping Newfoundland’s population flexible and transitory was in the best interest of the British Crown and its merchants as it could be used as a training ground for its naval officers, they owed little responsibility to those who visited the island and migratory fishing had already proven profitable. Nevertheless, women were eventually allowed to settle on the island once it became apparent that having small settlements could prove even more advantageous for the fishing industry. The first colony was founded at Cupers Cove in Conception Bay in 1610, and in 1611, 40 men and 16 women arrived to start the settlement. The Company’s attempt failed in the 1620s due to it being realised that non-fishery activities were unprofitable, but settlement continued on a small scale at other locations.
In the latter half of the period, a Captain Story, in 1681, suggested that women were brought over expressly to marry fisherman or at least, that is what happened soon after the women arrived. An argument was ongoing throughout theC17th and C18th concerning the presence of women and families in Newfoundland. It was debated whether Newfoundland should become a settlement with its own government or whether it should be a seasonal fishing base. ‘It was alleged by an anti – settlement advocate that the planters harmed the migratory effort by using “their womenfolk to debauch ignorant mariners”’. But, since women were few in number, officialdom did not consider them a threat to the future.
Margaret Taverner was born and married in Poole, travelled to Newfoundland, brought up a family and made her mark. She was the matriarch of the Taverner family and founded a dynasty all the way from Poole to Newfoundland and back again. According to The Taverner Family Tree (Jan. 2004 amendment) which is kept and updated by the family, she married William Taverner in Poole and they were some of the early settlers in Bay de Verde in Newfoundland. They had seven children James, John, William, Andrew, Robert, Mary and Elizabeth. Margaret, according to Kathryn Whitaker from ‘The Trinity Notes of Mr. Thomas Cole’, was an industrious lady who when she was widowed, carried on her husbands fishery business. But at some point she must have returned to Poole as she died there in 14 June 1701 and was buried in St. James church. The Taverner history is too long and interesting to do justice to them in this article but through the female line, the family became connected to many prominent families from Poole, among them Whites, Lesters and Masters. For example, Sarah the daughter of William the son of William and Mary, and grandson of William and Margaret, married John Masters in 1740. Masters had served an apprenticeship with his future Father-in Law from age thirteen and went on to become Mayor of Poole in 1748.
It is clear from this short summary that women played a very important role in the development of Poole in those days. Fishing and later merchanting were important to the town’s development and could not have gone ahead as they did without women’s varied activity and support both in Poole and Newfoundland. It should be noted that the spouses of Poole fishermen in Newfoundland were running their families’ interests here for at least for half of the year.
As Vigdis Finnbogadottir pointed out, in identifying why so many fishermen had supported her as Icelandic President; when the Icelandic fishermen came home from the season fishing they’d notice that “everything is under control and they realise that that is a woman who has done that – a housewife has done that.” Across the period women also took on many professional roles. What else would we call running businesses, providing healthcare, running messages between heads of state, writing bonds and managing coastal shipping?
As very little was written or recorded concerning the lives and dealings of women in Poole over this period and this article is about the women of Poole, there has been some generalisation of women’s activities with emphasis on the women we do know about and have written proof of aspects of their lives. To have a greater understanding of women’s lives over the period and beyond, it is interesting to read Anne Laurence’s book ‘ Women in England 1500-1760; A Social History’. Anne examines the life experiences of women in general and how their lives changed from the period of the Reformation towards the Industrial Revolution. She examines not only the differences between the lives of men and women but also the differences between women of different backgrounds and their shared experiences.
In collaboration with Jenny Oliver – Poole museum society
http://www.localhistories.org ‘Life for Women in 16th Century by Tim Lambert (last revised 2017) last visited 9/06/2018
Article by David Cousins ‘The Poole Clay Trade: 1626-1760’
Radio 4 Seriously…Five women who broke the glass ceiling – Her Story Made History – Wednesday 23rd January 2018 – Vigdis Finnbogadottir
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca – European Settlement 11/06/2018
‘so long as there comes noe women’ Origins of English Settlement in Newfoundland. by W. Gordon Handcock
The History of the Town and County of Poole compiled from Hutchins History of the County of Dorset
Kathryn Whitaker from the Trinity Notes of Mr. Thomas Cole
Other sources to be found in records and documents in Poole Museum
http://www.ngb.chebucto.org Sir John Berry’s Census – 1675 (Newfoundland) last visited 10/06/2018
http://www.ngb.chebucto.org Trinity Bay 1600-1800 last visited 11/06/2018
Women in England 1500-1760: A Social History by Anne Laurence