Fishermen and traders alike cared very much about their safe passage free from risks from pirates and privateers. Life was hard enough without having to deal with the loss of goods or catches to other seamen. At the beginning of our project period piracy from French and Barbary pirates was rife in the Poole waters and further afield there were always such risks to business.
Privateering was pursued by most countries and deemed acceptable during times of war; it was little more than state sponsored piracy in effect. Button and Rogers had experience of being privateers early in their careers, and as such they used the Letter of Marque (from the Crown) as the licence they needed to take prizes in their travels.
Smuggling was also rife across the period and it was evident that people from all social classes took part in related activities.
So in a port like Poole how did the powers that be govern it with the effect that it grew and prospered? This is part of the story that we want to tell as this project progresses. At present we have some insights into changes that happened to make seamanship, fishing and trading safer and more secure, but we feel there is more to come.
Poole and its governance particularly with respect to maritime security
In 1586 the Privy Council granted Poole the power to manage its own affairs concerning its waters. In effect the Borough was instructed to establish a process to monitor its ports and landing places, and a force with which to ensure proper use. Thought to have been an action to protect against possible French and/or Spanish invasion this also had its effects on the ease of smuggling and piracy in the area.
Poole’s governance at the start of the 1600s was dominated by the Admiral of the Town and County of Poole (the Mayor of Poole) and several Burgesses (trusted senior experienced people from the community), together with officers such as the Recorder, the Water Bailiff and the Constable. These were the early days of a group of people collectively being charged with the security of the town, its surrounding waters and its inhabitants but the council, as we see it today, did not come about until after the Civil War and Restoration in the 1660s.
Button in his early career worked initially on behalf of traders from Bristol suffering the attacks of pirates. People living on the coast of southern England and Ireland in those days were prone to occasional raids by Barbary pirates, which could mean the capture of local people and their transport to North African slave markets for sale. He joined his uncle who led the unsuccessful Algiers Raid to tackle the problem of the Barbary pirates in 1620-1621.
Subsequently as Admiral of the Narrow Seas, his title for most of the rest of his career, a prime responsibility was to protect the interests of the Newfoundland “fleet” as the vessels, from ports along the English southwest coast and Wales, travelled to and from Newfoundland each year. This collection of vessels was thought in 1615 to have amounted to as many as 250 ships and in subsequent years the numbers rose substantially as the fishery grew more popular.
There is a letter from this period in which the Admiral of Poole writes to the Privy Council for support in this locality against the attacks and negative effects of pirates on the south coast. As in Bristol, earlier, it was the merchants beginning to trade internationally that were most concerned at these problems.
By the early C17th colonies were establishing on the east coast of America and in Newfoundland and Poole people were able to exploit some of the trading opportunities that this offered along with the growing “triangular” trade in fish and train oil (extracted from whales). Later in the C17th century vessels from England stopped and picked up provisions from the ports in Southeast Ireland destined for the migrant population in Newfoundland.
Most of the colonisation in those days was carried out by privateers, captains backed by ship owners and business people and companies established to explore and settle in places around the world. Privateers were also backed by merchant venturers.
Throughout much of the C17th and the early C18th the country was at war with one country or another; Spain, France and Holland in particular. On occasion press gangs were sent out to ports to find seamen to press into the navy and in one case in the 1620s an early warning of a press gang by a Dartmouth seaman sent warning up and down the coast. The result was that many men dashed into the countryside or sailed to Newfoundland to escape its clutches.
Charles I re-introduced “ship money” in 1634, a local tax that all maritime Towns, Cities and Counties had to pay, ostensibly for the costs of naval defence in times of war, but also for more general use by the king who had few other sources of income to the Exchequer. Ship money was a tax that the King could employ by prerogative without the approval of Parliament. The tax was widely opposed at the local level and subsequently seen to be part of the general discontent that led up to the Civil War.
The war years saw resistance in Poole to the more Royalist sympathies of Dorset and Hampshire. Poole opted for Parliament and became a Parliamentary garrison town with enhanced defences.
The Restoration brought with it the introduction of the Council, as a Corporation rather more like the Borough of Poole that we know today. A charter in 1667 from Charles II reaffirmed the earlier responsibilities of the Town and County and stipulated its governance arrangements. The Restoration and growing international trade led Poole’s fortunes to grow and prosper from the latter half of C17th.
John Bennett’s forebears were Burgesses in Poole towards the end of C17th, his father and two uncles, and he himself became an Out-Burgess in 1705 after he had moved to Essex. Bennett learnt his seamanship here in Poole and is thought to have made trips to Newfoundland early in his lifetime. His career involved “hard convoy work” in relation to wars at the end of the C17th and beginning of the C18th.
There is evidence that Woodes Rogers also made the Newfoundland run as a young adult and as an apprentice seaman. His family is also represented on the list of Burgesses and Mayors of Poole in the latter part of the C17th. His round-the-world voyage as commander of two vessels in 1708 was done as a privateer. That is to say that he had backers who helped him to put together the necessary funding for the voyage and a Letter of Marque from the King allowing him attack any Spanish ship/ territory and bring back any resultant prizes. The result of the trip was that he brought back prizes of C£150,000, an enormous sum in those days.
Privateering at the beginning of the Early Modern British period was a common thing. Many of Elizabeth’s famous explorers were privateers and she engaged people as privateers to carry out war work on the country’s behalf. Privateering as a concept reduced in significance in C18th with the treaty of Utrecht (1713), but did not become unacceptable practice until after the 1856 declaration of Paris, and even after that date the Americans still practised it until the 1890s.
Piracy and smuggling were endemic throughout the period 1580-1730 and made worse often in times of peace, as far as home pirates were concerned. But Barbary pirates and Corsairs came up from Africa and threatened coastal communities along the southwest coast of England and southern Ireland, taking many as slaves to be sold in the North African slave markets. Poole and Dorset coastal communities were renowned as places where smuggling went on and where the goods so procured could easily be sold. John Bennett’s cousins were involved locally amongst many others and it is surmised that this is where much of the money he left in his will might have come from.
By the beginning of the C18th trading with the colonies and Newfoundland fishing had become very significant to Poole and money was coming back as profitable business. In the last decade of the C17th Rogers’ family removed to Bristol where a large house was built in walking distance from the port and his father ran his extensive business there. It was from there that Woodes Rogers’ round-the world voyage left in 1708.
Bennett went back to Essex at around the same time, to Barking, the London drop-off point for short sea shipping but kept his links here through cousins and later left a charitable donation to the town.
By the time that Rogers had established through his governorship a colony in the Bahamas, Poole was becoming the place that is marked out today by the fine Georgian buildings in Old Town and further afield. The merchant venturer families were all well established in their businesses and clearly the town was beginning to prosper when compared with earlier days.
In the first detailed map of Poole and its quay (1751 and credited to Sir Peter Thompson), several of the alleys were named, including Button’s Lane, Bennett’s Alley and Rogers Lane. It is thought that the alleys perhaps mark the lines of a set of medieval jetties and that the water between them was gradually filled in and built upon.