Poole’s Merchant Venturers __ By Eddie Newcomb


From small beginnings as a trading centre in pre-Christian times, Poole survived the fluctuations of history as a somewhat poor fishing and trading port, exporting produce such as wool to France and the Low Countries. When he visited the town in the early C16th John Leland, the Tudor topographer, noted that:

‘Poole (is) a poor fisher village. There be men alyve that saw almost all the town of Poole kyvered with segge and risshes’.

 Poole was, however, on the cusp of a major change for its fishermen began to brave the terrors of the Atlantic Ocean to search for cod off Newfoundland. The era of Poole’s merchant venturers had begun. Over the next 250 years fortunes were made and lost and within 100 years Poole’s Golden Age was under way, continuing until the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815.

The attractions of Poole

What were the reasons for this development and what attracted merchants to Poole? Both geographical and economic factors were at play but, as is so often the case, it was individual entrepreneurs and risk takers who paved the way for others. As early as 1551 Poole’s town accounts recorded a payment of 6s.6d. to ‘two men which brought herrings and laded away certain Newfoundland fyshe’. A more significant step came in 1583 when Sir Humphrey Gilbert landed in Newfoundland and claimed possession of the territory in the name of Queen Elizabeth I. One of his captains was Christopher Farewell, a former Mayor of Poole. For his pains the town fined him £30, a serious sum in those days, for Farewell had earlier agreed to be Senior Bailiff of  Poole and had failed to obtain permission for the voyage from the then Mayor and the Justices. He was also removed from office.

Nevertheless, this pioneering expedition led to further fishing boats leaving Poole for Newfoundland and in the early 1600s up to 20 ships a year were involved. Initially, many of the ships were owned by their captains but over time a merchant class emerged. One such example is William Phippard. His father was a merchant seaman who lived in Poole. William himself started as a seaman and then became a merchant and ship owner, later serving as Mayor of Poole on three occasions and being elected as an MP. Another early merchant venturer was Thomas Robartes, Mayor of Poole in 1627 and 1628, who established the first free grammar school in Poole.

The merchants were very clear about the potential gains to be derived from the fishing trade and about the potential of Poole as a base for commercial activities. Poole had many advantages: its ship building capacity, for example, and the associated services available in the town: sailmakers, ropemakers, carpenters and so on. As trade developed, merchants arrived from the surrounding counties and began to set up their own flax mills in the area to ensure regular supplies of linen cloth whilst swanskin cloth to keep the mariners warm was produced in Sturminster Newton. Locally, Poole had all the resources for provisioning the ships through its bakers, brewers and candlemakers whilst the surrounding farms, particularly in Ringwood and Blandford, supplied meat and vegetables. The other great advantage of the area for the merchants was the ready supply of seamen, though, as we shall see later, this was something of a double-edged sword when Government was seeking recruits for the Navy during the wars with France, Holland and Spain.

Putting together an expedition

Once the initiative of individual ship owners had shown the potential of Newfoundland, merchants began to build or charter ships. Apart from the cost of building a ship of, say, 200 tons (and it would be rare for a ship to exceed 250 tons), there were other capital and recurrent costs in furnishing and equipping a ship for the North Atlantic.  A document from 1616 (reproduced as Appendix A) shows the costs and profits from a Newfoundland voyage. The ship concerned of 200 tons appears to have had a crew of 44 and it seems that the expedition was expected to last 8 months. Note that the estimates say ‘Wee give the Mariners and sailors no pay buy (should perhaps read ‘but’) they haue a third off the Fish and traine.’ (traine being cod liver). Presumably, the crew were allowed to sell on the fish themselves at the end of the voyage but this seems a poor reward for the dangers they had to face and the miserable conditions on board.

The potential profits to the merchant were, however, considerable. If the 1616 estimate is to be believed, it appears to suggest a potential gain from a single season of over £2000, roughly equivalent to over £500,000 in today’s money, though this may have been unduly optimistic. Nevertheless, as we shall see later, some merchants prospered to an extent that enabled them to diversity their trading interests, build substantial mansions for themselves and become powerful figures in the life of the town.

The obvious hazards of voyages to Newfoundland meant that merchants became increasingly keen to manage their risks through insurance. It is interesting to recall that Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, written in 1596, turns on the reported wreck of ships and loss of cargo which in turn means Antonio is required to pay a bond to Shylock from whom he borrowed money. It is just possible that the timing of the play was no co-incidence for the beginning of the C17th ushered in a new era of maritime insurance in Great Britain. Although maritime insurance has a long history going back to Greek and Roman times, it had mainly been undertaken by financiers in other parts of Europe, mainly the Low Countries and Italy. There is evidence that until 1600 or thereabouts British merchants’ use of insurance was irregular. They seemed not to trust the arrangements in the event of a claim which sometimes took years to settle. One merchant in 1570 wrote that ‘when a ship comes safely at destination, most underwriters would never offer money again’. The turning point appears to have been legislation passed by Parliament in 1601: ‘An Act Concerning Matters of Assurances Amongst Merchants’, the first British law relating to marine insurance.

Following this there seems to have been a greater willingness among merchants to insure against loss and around the time of the Great Revolution in 1688 Lloyd’s of London was founded at Edward Lloyd’s coffee house near the Royal Exchange in London. It became the focal point for insurers, merchants, ship owners and captains wishing to insure their cargo and for them to meet underwriters willing to take on the risk of doing so. No doubt some the more successful Poole merchants were frequenters of Lloyds from the earliest days.

Having procured a ship, estimated the costs and the requirements in terms of provisions and so on, the merchant or ship owner had to recruit a crew. Normally, in a sea faring area like Poole there was no shortage of men willing to risk life and limb. They came from all parts of the West Country. But there were problems, the principal one being the ‘press gangs’. When war was in the offing, they made regular appearances in Poole, knowing that it was, as Beamish, Hillier and Johnstone noted, a pre-eminent ‘Nursery of Seamen’. The merchants resented the gangs trying to recruit for the Royal Navy (and the Army) and adopted whatever stratagems they could to minimize the gangs’ effect, including, it seems, hiding their seamen away. For their part, the sailors themselves often did what they could to avoid being press ganged: skipping ship early before it returned to the home port was a favourite ploy. Inevitably, this landed captains and merchants in trouble with the port authorities but perhaps they thought this a sanction worth risking if it meant there was a crew for their next expedition.

Another problem was the Embargo Warrant. Since war might break out when merchant ships were at sea, the Government issued such warrants to prevent ships from leaving home until authorized by the Navy to do so. This was to give the Navy time to recruit seaman to its ranks. Such embargoes could mean the loss of an entire fishing season.

The hazards facing the seamen and the owners

The natural hazards facing the Poole seamen on their travels to Newfoundland are obvious: gales, high seas, shifting currents, fog and the consequent dangers of capsizing or even hitting icebergs in poor visibility. For the mariners these were an accepted way of life. What they might not have expected were the pirates and privateers, some of whom operated close at home from Studland Bay. In 1583, the year of Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s claiming of Newfoundland for the Crown, the Admiralty sent two ships, each with 100 men, to engage with the Studland pirates.

A further threat came from Spain. In April 1588 Poole was asked to contribute one ship and one pinnace to the Navy but the Mayor argued that Poole ‘had only one ship above 60 tons in port and she was about to sail for Newfoundland.’ The Spanish Armada was repulsed with one of its ships being sunk in Studland Bay. Not all the locals were sympathetic to the English cause and it is said that one prominent Roman Catholic landowner, Sir Henry Carew of Hamworthy, paid the captain of a Poole ship £10 not to fight against the Armada

The seamen encountered similar issues in Newfoundland waters. Even a century later, in 1696, the merchants were concerned about the threat to cod fishing from French ships and requested the Government to send 8 warships to protect their vessels. Pirates and privateers were also a constant concern. Although peace with France was concluded in 1697, a vessel owned by Sir William Phippard (see above) called the William and Elizabeth, with a cargo of tobacco bound for London was captured by French pirates off Newfoundland in 1699. The French crew took the master and his men prisoner and sailed the ship to Antigua. Sir William petitioned the Commissioner of Trade to order the Governor of Antigua to release his vessel with its cargo as he was under a bond of £2000 to deliver the tobacco to England. Eventually, the King granted the petition and the William and Elizabeth was released. As a result of all these dangers, shipping losses were huge. Mathews claims that during the Cromwellian period some 1200 vessels were lost. Many of these would have come from the West Country ports, including Poole.

The merchants were sometimes able to retaliate. In May 1694 Peter Jolliff, a member of another family which became very prominent in Poole, was sailing his small ship of some 25 tons, the Sea Adventure, when he came across a French privateer three times bigger. The privateer had taken a Weymouth fishing boat. Jolliff caught up with the French vessel, took back the fishing boat and forced the privateer ashore near Lulworth where it was broken up. Jolliff captured the French crew of 24. Just a year later in 1695, William Thompson, another name which subsequently became famous in Poole, was master of a small fishing boat working off the Isle of Purbeck when he encountered a privateer from Cherbourg. Thompson’s crew was one man and a boy and his boat was equipped only with two small guns but, despite the disparity in size, he managed to wound several of the enemy crew and caused their ship to try to escape. Thompson pursued the privateer and, after a fight lasting two hours, captured the French ship and escorted it into Poole Harbour. For these exploits the Admiralty awarded both Jolliff and Thompson gold medals.  

A different kind of threat to the Poole merchants came from the fierce competition for the Newfoundland trade, not least from their counterparts from Bristol who had been early into Newfoundland waters. Indeed, Bristol and London merchants tried to form a Newfoundland Company in the early C17th to give them a monopoly of Newfoundland trade and so exclude Poole. This was, however, unsuccessful and subsequently Royal Charters, the last of which was granted in 1676, gave authority to the mayors of several towns in the West Country, including Poole, to organize the trade. The Newfoundland Act of 1699 confirmed these arrangements which lasted until 1825 and contributed to the Golden Age for the town.

The Markets and their volatility

As stated at the outset, Poole had conducted trade with the continent of Europe for a very long time and it is no surprise that, as the Newfoundland cod industry developed, European markets were the main targets. There were two principal trade routes known as the Triangular Trade:

England > Newfoundland > Southern Europe (mainly France and Portugal) > England

England > Newfoundland > West Indies > England

Use of the second route appears to have dwindled by the end of the period but earlier trade from Newfoundland to the West Indies enabled fish products to be exchanged for rum and molasses, the fish being used to feed the slaves on the sugar plantations.

The principal route from Newfoundland to Europe involved the transport of fish, dried cod oil and skins which were then traded for wine, fruit, olives and salt bound for England. Salt was particularly important; it was stored in large quantities in Poole ready for the next fishing season when it was needed to cure the Newfoundland fish. The work of Professor Gillian T. Cell illustrates both the development of the Newfoundland trade and the destinations of the catches in the first half of the 17th century:

1611ShipsFishValue in £sDestination
 111070Channel Is
 24020Channel Is

In 1620 (and again in 1638) it seems that no fish were successfully exported from Newfoundland

 1290150Not known

These figures suggest that the estimated profit in the 1616 document may be exaggerated but one has to take into account that there was a further trade from the various destinations and that when the ships returned to Poole they brought with them, for example, wine, silks and other luxury goods. Thus it is that the many of the catches from Newfoundland never reached Poole itself. Port Books show the number of ships which returned directly to Poole: for example, 6 in 1611, 10 in 1619 and then, later in the century: 1 in 1637, 2 in 1635, 1 in 1660. In 1661 and 1664 – the period of the Dutch Wars – the number rose to 6 and 8 respectively, reflecting the difficult political situation.

These figures indicate the volatility of the market in the C17th. It began with a period of prosperity but by the late 1620s Poole, which had once sent around 20 ships a year to the fishing grounds, was sending only a handful. The Newfoundland trade and the Mediterranean markets had been devastated as a result not simply of war but also of piracy, some of which was in effect authorized by enemy governments. The first of Poole’s heydays was over: some of the merchants had done well from it but the Golden Age was still to come.

Relations with the Crown and Governments

Relations between the town of Poole, including the merchants, on the one hand, and the Crown and Governments on the other were far from straightforward. A particular problem were the settlements which were developing in Newfoundland from the early C17th as immigrants, some from Poole and Dorset, sought a new life. Apparently the Government opposed settlement for reasons which are unclear but the advantages for the merchants were obvious as they retained control. In addition to the profits from the export of fish, the merchants were able to supply settlers with food and other goods which they needed – at a price which the merchants determined. Moreover, settlement reduced the risks for the merchants’ fishing fleets from French pirates and privateers. It also reduced their costs: fishing equipment need not be brought across the Atlantic and vessels could be repaired and maintained in the Newfoundland ports. Even some ship building was possible. A letter from Poole’s Mayor as early as 1616 said ‘All its other activities were auxiliary to its main business of supplying the settlers in Newfoundland with their requirements and taking fish caught by them for sale in Southern Europe’.

What the merchants did not want to see was the development of permanent governance structures in Newfoundland lest these reduced their influence over a growing and profitable new market. It was, however, in their interests that good order should prevail and to this extent they did not try to prevent ships’ captains (known as Admirals of the Harbour) from settling disputes and acting as judges. The justice must have been rough. As Mathews points out, the captains were often illiterate, prejudiced and open to bribery.

Relations between the merchants and the Crown grew tense towards the end of the C16th as a result of Charles II’s decision in 1683 to remove various privileges, including some granted by Charles himself just a few years before. Charles, rightly as it turned out from his point of view, was alarmed at the radical attitudes in Dorset which had earlier shown themselves in the support given to the Cromwell regime. These particular tensions were brought to an end by the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688.

The Golden Age

The Glorious Revolution marked a new beginning for Poole’s merchants and their activities. Poole’s partiality to the Commonwealth in the Civil War meant that many locals greeted the protestant reign of William and Mary with enthusiasm. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 brought to a conclusion the conflict with Louis XIV of France and resulted in the recognition of Newfoundland as British territory. Thus began a period of huge prosperity for Poole, its surrounding area and for the merchants involved in the Newfoundland trade. The Golden Age lasted until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

During this period the most successful merchants became prominent in civic and sometimes national life. Family dynasties were created: the Whites, the Thompsons, the Spurriers, the Jolliffs, the Lesters, the Garlands, the Jeffreys and the Slades. As they developed from simply employing seamen for the Newfoundland cod to being suppliers to the colony in Newfoundland, huge fortunes were made. These so-called Merchant Princes built substantial properties for themselves; mansions such as Upton House, the Poole Mansion and the Mansion House testified to their prosperity. Some of their best (and worst) years fall outside our period.

Not all the merchants had unblemished reputations. The truck or credit system ensured that settlers and employees were in thrall. Sometimes the merchants chose not to tell their fishermen the price they would give for the catch but would wait until the end of the fishing season before doing so. They have been charged with ‘complete selfishness in their conduct of the Newfoundland trade and in their dealings with those they employed’ (Matthews).

The varying fortunes of the merchants may be illustrated by three examples: the Thompsons, the  Spurriers who later allied with the Jolliffes, and the Lesters who later allied with the Garlands. The most successful of these families were the Lesters. John Lester came to Poole early in the C17th. He was a cooper by trade, perhaps attracted to the town by the fact that barrels were in constant demand to transport the fish, fruit and other goods coming into the port. The family prospered, not least through the efforts of his grandson, Francis Lester, who became Mayor of Poole in 1720. His three sons advanced the business further. Of these, Benjamin Lester became the richest man in Poole. Eventually, he owned no fewer than 30 ships and built the Mansion House in Thames Street which was completed in 1800. The Lesters were among the first of the merchants to realise the benefits of diversification and the dangers of relying solely on the Newfoundland trade. As they prospered, so they traded in deer skins, timber imports from Scandinavia and North America and built up a large and lucrative property portfolio. Marriage into the Garland family reinforced their pre-eminence.

Another family quick to see the virtues of diversification in their business affairs were the Thompsons. Reference has already been made to William Thompson and his exploit in 1695 in capturing a French privateer. William had two brothers, James and Thomas, who were already trading not just with Newfoundland but also with the Carolinas further south. They imported pitch, tar, indigo, rice and mahogany to England. The business prospered and Thomas’s son moved to London and created an import-export business with Germany with his brother Peter. He maintained his links with Poole and kept property in the town. Peter Thompson became the best known of the family, serving as High Sheriff of Surrey and MP for St. Albans and being knighted by George II. He was an erudite and literary man who built Poole Mansion. Sir Peter Thompson died in 1770.

By contrast the history of the Spurrier family is something of a cautionary tale. Like the Lesters, the Spurriers benefitted greatly during Poole’s Golden Age. They came to Poole at some point in the 1600s, beginning as humble seamen in the fishing fleets to Newfoundland. They showed such aptitude that they soon became captains of their vessels. Further success enabled them to become merchants. By 1690 Walter Spurrier, who seems to have been a shrewd individual, was living in Fish Street in a house inherited by his wife, Mary Beale, the daughter of a former Mayor of Poole. The Spurriers were quick to see the opportunities presented by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 which gave to Britain all the territory previously held by the French in Newfoundland. They established their business in the former French area of St Mary’s Bay, some distance from the majority of the Poole merchants located in Trinity, Bonavista and Conception Bay. This was a hugely perceptive move as it meant that Spurrier ships could catch fish earlier than their competitors as, being further south, ice caused fewer problems. It was Walter’s son, Timothy, who advanced the family’s fortunes significantly and such was his success that be became a member of the City Company of Merchant Taylors. He was Mayor of Poole in 1722, 1725 and 1730-31. Accounts indicate that, perhaps not surprisingly for a successful businessman, he proved an energetic and capable leader of the town, taking an interest in safety issues, particularly fire prevention. After our period the tale ends sadly in 1830 for the Spurrier firm, by then Spurrier, Jolliff and Spurrier went bankrupt. They had failed to see market changes, relied too much on the Newfoundland trade and, according to some historians, spent too much time, effort and money on seeking to achieve personal ambitions rather than attending to their business interests at a time of economic depression. Christopher Spurrier built Upton House in 1816 but the mansion had to be sold as debts mounted.

Concluding Note

It is difficult for us today when we visit Poole Quay to appreciate just what a thriving and bustling port was developed first in the early C17th and again in the C18th. There was huge activity and many businesses supporting the seafarers. This eventually came to a sad end in the early 19th century but that is another story.

(there follow two appendices)



This piece draws extensively of the research of others whose contribution is gratefully acknowledged. The principal sources are as follows:

A History of Poole, Cecil N. Cullingford, 1988

English Enterprise in Newfoundland 1577-1660, Gillian T. Cell, 1969

Mansions and Merchants of Poole and Dorset, D. Beamish, J. Hillier and HFV Johnstone, 1976

Poole and Newfoundland, FW Mathews, unpublished, 1936

Poole’s Newfoundland Heritage: the impact of Newfoundland trade on the prosperity of Poole in the 17th to 19th centuries, Christine Ballantine, unpublished BSc dissertation, 2009

The History of Maritime Insurance, Nicholas G. Berketis, undated

The History of Parliament: the House of Commons, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002

The Pride of Poole 1688-1851, D. Beamish, J. Dockerill and J. Hillier, 1974

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