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 roof 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.
In 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 sail 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