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Poole’s Economy, 1580-1730

Author:   Roger Allen      


Tim Lambert in his paper ‘A BRIEF HISTORY OF POOLE’ slightly amends (for the sake of better understanding today) Leland’s words on Poole made in a visit to the town in around 1540, as follows: ‘Poole was not, in the past, a trading town but it was, for a long time a poor fishing village. There are men living who remember when all the buildings in the town had thatched roofs. It now has many more substantial buildings and much more trade. It stands like an island in the harbor and is joined to the mainland by a piece of land no wider than an arrow shot. It also has a ditch (outside the town walls), which is often filled with water from the harbor. There is a stone gate at the entrance of the town. The town lies north to South. There is a substantial stone house by the quay’.

He also writes that

  • ‘In 1524 a wooden platform was erected on the quayside and cannons were mounted on it. In 1545 a fort was built on Brownsea Island’.
  • ‘During the 16th century many fishing vessels from Poole sailed to the waters off Newfoundland. There was also a flourishing brewing industry in Poole’.
  • ‘In 1568 Queen Elizabeth gave Poole a new charter. This one made Poole completely independent and gave the townspeople complete control over all of their own affairs. In 1574 a census showed that Poole had a population of 1,373. It would seem tiny to us but by the standards of the time it was a small town’.

Newfoundland – Fishing for Cod

Fishing; especially that carried on off Newfoundland, was of massive importance to the town and people of Poole. Over the period, it and the associated trade made a number of individuals extremely wealthy, but it was not without risk. Even large catches did not guarantee large profits as the price paid for fish varied wildly, with supply.

When the navy were short of men to crew their ships fishing vessels would not be allowed to leave port to go to Newfoundland until the navy was crewed and sometimes this could mean that a fishing vessel missed the whole fishing season. The Newfoundland fleet was described as a ‘Nursery of Seamen’, trained fishermen were particularly useful for the Navy.

The growth of the fishing fleet provided work and opportunity for many, including those like the Spurrier family who progressed from seaman to ship’s captain to merchant. The family moved to Poole living in Fish Street. However Fish Street became run down and they later moved to Thames Street.

Provisioning and supporting the fleet required many trades including brewers, bakers, candle makers, providers of swan skin clothing for sailors, shipwrights, sailmakers, rope makers, carpenters, blacksmiths , whitesmiths, anchor smiths  and block makers. All of these needed to be sourced from the small coastal community and its immediate hinterland.

Economic conditions

Poole became a county corporate through Queen Elizabeth’s Great Charter in 1568 and some blame this for its economic woes. In a Discourse of Corporation one writer described Poole as:

  • ‘Merchants decaied’
  • ‘Shipping gone’
  • ‘Towne poore’

This is not a view shared by all. Francis Walsingham wrote about Poole saying it was ‘very il’ because of the demise of the clothing industry. G.D. Ramsey called the 1560’ as a period of uncertainty and adaption never seen before.

In 1571 Poole became one of only 4 places to gain county corporate status along with Bristol, Gloucester and Exeter. This gave an opportunity to the town that was perhaps not fully seized. Despite being a Staple Port for Wool exports from 1433, and the early success through fishing in Newfoundland, while Poole grew in significance, Dorchester remained as the county town.

In the mid-1570s the population structure reflected a comfortable well off community, albeit the Town itself was not well off. Figures for Poole show an average household size of 5.06 well ahead of the national figure. Most households, 79.7%, had children and 14.5% had servants. In 1565 the population was 1,222 living in 201 houses rising in 1574 to 1,373 people living in 226 houses. This is significant growth of 1.5% per annum indicates a relatively prosperous community.

At around this time the local economy was badly affected by poor planning and over-expansion. A new town hall was built, as was a new prison and a new market. This was all hugely expensive to the public purse, as was the decision of the mayor to repay debts to 17 individuals ranging from £1.3s.4d to £91.13s.4d. All of this sent the town itself into serious decline and the town’s market still had to be moved again due to its having been being poorly sited, causing more expense.

Poole, over the period, often managed to protect itself from economic downturns elsewhere and indeed whilst fishing was profitable merchants were drawn to Poole. In good economic times there were bigger households with more children and servants.

Some Poole merchants managed the risks of the times by investing in land and property, which can be seen today. While it may have been illegal, many merchants stored goods in their own house and cellars, making private sales rather than going to market sometimes, to avoid the revenue.

Strong maritime trade links with the Channel Islands provided income and work in difficult times so protecting Poole from hard times experienced by other towns and ports. The trade was of pivotal importance to stability, economically.

When looking at the population and its prosperity, four factors helped Poole to avoid further economic downturns:

  • Its population
  • The population structure
  • The secular building structure
  • Trade and shipping

In the 1620s a business opportunity was missed, as the area around Poole readily grew Mulberry bushes, a basic requirement of the Silk Trade. This was not developed and the only Silk making in Dorset was in Sherborne.

Across the period many communities like Poole suffered greatly from the growth of London and its maritime activities, however Poole managed to avoid much of this and helpfully had very few properties owned by Londoners.

An important business became the export of skins and hides to the Channel Islands and the brewing of beer developed into a significant industry.

Key to Poole’s eventual success and to its being less vulnerable to sudden collapse were:

  • The viable harbour
  • The diverse and flexible trade locally in Britain and internationally.

The economic downturns that did occur often reflected economic downturn in overseas trading partner countries due to wars and disturbances. Typically, Poole was able to earn money from shipping imported goods on and around the UK coast at such times and the Channel Island trade maintained throughout due to their neutrality in such times.

Poole enjoyed business development beyond fishing, including the export of fine white clay to many ports in England in 1620s and other products from Newfoundland. Attempts were made to profit from Alum for the dying of clothes and for making ink and Richard Browne became the first in the realm to manufacture Saltpetre, opening his furnace near Wimborne.

Later in C17th Purbeck stone was mined and traded along the coast into London. Throughout the period Poole’s coastal shipping trade was also an important part of the local economy.

Roger Allen-  April 2018

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