2. Research & References Poole Themes

Poole Women, 1580-1730

Author: Katy Nutt


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. 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

The status of Women

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 pursued 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 early C18th.

Text Box:  Not everyone treated women fairly (in work that would be considered professional these days), for example, on 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’.

When married, the job of women was to keep the house and look after their families but 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[1] 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.

Text Box:  Elizabeth Hyde is one of the few notable women in the latter half of this period about whom there is proven information. She not only gained recognition for her bravery during the 1688 Rebellion but 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[2]) 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[3] 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.  For this act, the Hydes received a pension, as their son’s petition to the Treasury for the sum of £50 per annum indicates.

Fishing and its risks

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 (often one and the same) were a big problem to fishermen throughout the period; they could be attacked by Barbary Pirates from North Africa and taken in the English Channel or on-route to and from Newfoundland to be 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…’; could this be 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 the early 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[4] 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 wome, 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 going to Newfoundland was although its fishery was well known in many western European ports, the English were reluctant to use it 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 make a permanent settlement more likely. 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.

In the latter half of the period, a Captain Story, in 1681, suggested that women were brought over to Newfoundland expressly to marry fisherman or at least, that is what happened soon after the women arrived.  An argument was ongoing throughout the C17th 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.

One family, with daughters, who made their mark all the way to Newfoundland from Poole and back again was the Taverners. The two brothers, William and Jacob, lived at Bay de Verde, from about the 1650’s but moved to Trinity in 1700 because the French had burned their property. William returned to Poole in 1705 but Jacob stayed, married and raised a large family. Their history is too long to mention here but through the female line, the family became connected with many prominent families in Poole, among them Whites, Masters and Lesters. Jacob’s flourishing business in Newfoundland was inherited by Benjamin Lester through his marriage to Jacob’s daughter, Susannah. The Taverner daughters founded a dynasty through marriage and motherhood.

It is clear from this short summary that women must have 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 each 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 clearly 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?

Other Sources

Records and documents from Poole museum; in collaboration with Jennie Oliver, Poole Museum Society

The History of the Town and County of Poole compiled form Hutchins History the County of Dorset

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Radio 4 Seriously…Five women who broke the glass ceiling – Her Story Made History – Wednesday 23rd January 2018 – Vigdis Finnbogadottir – european settlement

Trinity museum website; notes of Mr Thomas Cole by Katherine Whittaker

Newfoundland Grand Banks website –

  • Sir John Barry’s Census- 1675
  • Trinity Bay – 1600-1800

‘so long as there comes noe women they are not fixed’  by W. Gordon Handcock

Women in England 1500-1760, A Social History – Anne Laurence

[1] Simples – herb garden, ‘garden of simples’ – specialised gardens have existed since the Middle Ages, though plants were gathered for medical purposes long before. ‘Simple’, a herb used on its own in medical treatment. –; – Oxford English Dictionary.

[2] The Poole Clay Trade, 1626-1760, David Cousins

[3] Monmouth Rebellion – in June 1685 the Duke of Monmouth landed a small fleet and force at Lyme Regis, intending to depose King James II. They marched to Somerset, establishing a larger local force, and fought the Battle of Sedgemoor, where they were defeated. In the following months, Judge Jeffries, known thereafter as the ‘Hanging Judge’, held his ‘Bloody Assizes’ across Somerset, Dorset, Hampshire and Devon sentencing over 300 people to death, who were hanged or hanged, drawn and quartered. Around 800 were transported to the New World. Executions were in public and bodies left, covered in pitch, in prominent places as a warning to all.

[4] Planters – Early emigrants were commonly called ‘planters’ – settlers moving to a new country and home would set up ‘plantations’ either to grow produce to sell for a living or to establish homesteads and grow their own food and produce. The land confiscated to create the plantations was thus part of colonisation of an area.

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