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Population and Occupations, 1580-1730

  Author: Jenny Oliver 

The population of Poole is known pretty accurately from a census of 1574 when 1373 people were recorded. The first national census was not taken until 1801 so any totals of population between these dates can only be estimates and have to be treated with caution. Unfortunately this covers the whole of the period of our project. The estimate of around 1650 people in Poole in the 1660s is based on hearth tax records and involves multiplying the number of households by an estimated figure of average household size. This can obviously be prone to large error. The following table shows how Poole’s population grew to make it the most populous town in Dorset by 1801.

Main Towns15741662-641801
Lyme Regis16371451
Melcombe Regis8872350
Dorset County70053114452
Based on table in Chalklin, C. W., The Provincial Towns of Georgian England: a Study of the Building Process 1740-1820.

Infant mortality, particularly at the beginning of the period, was high and outbreaks of disease must have had a significant effect on population. In 1645-6 over 3 months, about 118 people (perhaps 7 to 8% of the population) died of the plague in Poole. In addition, the loss of life nationally during the Civil War relative to the population is believed to have been higher than in World War I, around 3.7% of the total population, with more people dying from disease than in combat. Poole must have suffered war losses although there is very little evidence available. The population probably started to grow in the final decades of C17th and rose sharply in the C18th, overtaking that of Dorchester. The success of the Newfoundland trade was no doubt a major factor, attracting mariners, tradesmen and merchants to the town. Evidence of this growth can be seen by comparing the extent of building development in C17th and C18th maps and in the legacy of Georgian buildings.  

The trades and professions of Poole people naturally included a lot of maritime occupations, such as ship-owner, merchant, mariner, shipwright, blockmaker, cooper, ropemaker and fisherman. Several important C18th merchant businesses were founded on specialist maritime trades. The Lesters’ original business was cooperage (barrel-making) and the Barfoot family fortunes were based on blockmaking. Yards and workshops clustered around the Quay but could also be found behind houses in the main streets. One rope walk owned by John Adams and mentioned in Admiralty Court minutes from 1611 was situated on the shore at lower Hamworthy. By the mid C18th century, there were rope walks on the east of the town abo Baiter and in Longfleet just north of the town ditch.

Seafarers and ship-owners are the only people for whom any statistics exist. The 1574 census states that there were 180 seafaring men in the town at that date and lists 28 ship-owners. A list of ships in 1591 mentions 20 ship-owners.[i] Another list of ships and seafarers dated 1628 has 14 owners plus 21 masters, 53 mariners and 11 fishermen, a total of 85 seamen but this was following a period of losses at the hands of pirates and enemy ships.[ii]

[i] John Sydenham, History of the Town and County of Poole. Poole Historical Trust 1986

[ii] Poole History Centre transript.

A third list of 1664 gives 32 masters, 145 mariners and 9 fishermen, totalling 186 seamen, although 50 of these are described as ‘imprest men’ so they were probably serving in the navy and may not all have been regular sailors. (List of Seamen and Masters of Ships 1664, National Archives EXT/6/111/119/474). Obviously these totals have to be treated with caution.

It was common for leading businessmen to have a range of interests; John Bramble (early C17th) was a ship-owner, merchant, brewer and property owner. Peter Hiley (later C17th) owned several ships and local inns and was also a stocking maker. Other leading inhabitants, including John Berryman, Thomas Roberts and Henry Harbin were mercers (dealers in cloth) as well as merchants. There were also the usual town trades such as butcher, baker, grocer, ironmonger, tailor, shoemaker, and tallow chandler. Thomas Mellmoth, a member of the Corporation in the early C17th, was described as a yeoman (farmer), a less common but not unknown occupation in Poole, especially in the early part of the period.

Tudor inn, The Bull Head, 73, High St

Inn-keeping was an important trade and inns were among the most valuable properties in the town, catering for civic meetings and celebrations and accommodating important visitors. Many men were employed as domestic servants.

Builders, tilers and other tradesmen frequently worked for the Corporation and are mentioned in the town accounts. Young men learned their trade by serving an apprenticeship of seven years, after which they could aspire to become a master. It was an offence to practice a trade without serving an apprenticeship and this was strictly enforced to eliminate unfair competition and maintain standards. Professionals such as lawyers, chirugeons (surgeons) and clerics required a specialist education and were often drawn from the local gentry.

The fact that some of the men were away at sea for long periods must have meant that the women had to be fairly self-sufficient. 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. 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 husbands’ businesses.

One trade that women did pursue in their own right was inn-keeping. A 1620 list of innkeepers and alehouse-keepers includes six women including Mistress Field, as one of the four innkeepers.[i] 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.[ii] 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.

Widows could be vulnerable economically or even physically. 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.[iii] Nevertheless it was often in widowhood that some women acquired status and independence as property owners and executrices of their husbands’ estates. In the early C17th, widow Helen Dolbery kept an inn and also leased the passage service from the Corporation. Widows Christian Hill and Edith Dackombe were listed among the 34 richest citizens in a subsidy list of 1628.[iv]


[i] Dorset History Centre DC-PL/C/B/4/1/2

[ii] Six month’s assessment on Poole 1662. National Archives E179/245/24

[iii] Documents relating to the murder of  Mrs Alice Green and her servant Agnes Beard. 1599-1640 Dorset History Centre DC-PL/C/H/1

[iv] Subsidy 1628 National Archives E179/105/315

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