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Isaac Gulliver — the Ferndown connection

Roger Guttridge investigates the famous smuggler’s links with the town

The White Hart at Longham, supposedly owned and run by Gulliver, although the evidence for this may be inconclusive

A few years ago, someone sent me a photocopy of a legal document dated February 1812, which provided new evidence that the smuggler, Isaac Gulliver, had strong connections with the place we now know as Ferndown. In the affidavit, a Kinson-born labourer called William Lockyer provided a summary of his life to that point – a fairly adventurous existence which included at least two spells with Poole’s Newfoundland fishing fleet, impressment into the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars and capture by the French as a prisoner-of-war. Even more interesting to me, however, was Lockyer’s statement that at the age of 15, he ‘went to service and lived two years as a yearly servant with Mr Isaac Gulliver of Hillam Lands [sic] in that part of the parish of Hampreston that lies in the County of Hants’. Given that Lockyer was ‘about 45 years old’ in 1812, this must have been around 1782 or possibly a little earlier.

It didn’t take long to identify the property in question. Hillamsland Farm is the 17th-century farmhouse which overlooks the entrance to Dudsbury Golf Club in Christchurch Road, Longham – which is indeed in the far-flung parish of Hampreston that includes present-day Ferndown. During a subsequent visit to the house, filmed by the BBC for ‘South Today’, I and the TV crew were invited to enter the large cellar, where we encountered an intriguing feature – a bricked-up arch or doorway. Was this once the entrance to a tunnel of the kind believed to have existed beneath other smuggling communities in the area, such as Kinson, Wimborne, Corfe Mullen, Blandford and Lymington? If so, then it heads right under the present-day golf course towards the River Stour and Kinson – a hotbed of smugglers in Gulliver’s time. I began to fantasise about Channel 4’s Time Team digging up the golf course!

Dudsbury Farmhouse, formerly Hillamsland Farm, certainly was owned by Gulliver

While Isaac Gulliver is traditionally associated with south-east Dorset, particularly Kinson and Wimborne, his contraband empire extended over a much wider area – at least as far as Devon in the west, the New Forest in the east and probably Wiltshire to the north. In fact, he was a true ‘Wiltshire Moonraker’, having been born at Semington, near Melksham, in 1745. There is evidence that his ‘father or reputed father’, also Isaac Gulliver, was involved in smuggling and it was almost certainly the thriving trade in contraband spirits, wine, tea and tobacco which first brought the younger Isaac to Dorset. There is also evidence that his in-laws were involved; he married Elizabeth Beale at Sixpenny Handley in 1768 and later took over her father’s pub, the King’s Arms (formerly the Blacksmith’s Arms) at Thorney Down on the Blandford-Salisbury road.

In June 1778, the King’s Arms, its stock and an adjoining farm were sold by auction. As a new landlord took over, Isaac and Elizabeth Gulliver and their infant children moved nearer to the coast. Writing in the 1950s, Gulliver’s principal historian, Vic Adams, stated that the smuggler’s next home was at Longham – ‘an ideal centre from which to supervise smuggling ventures’. The exact location of the house remained unknown until Lockyer’s affidavit came to light, although some writers have assumed that it was the White Hart Inn. The only rather tenuous evidence for this was a newspaper advertisement identifying the White Hart at Longham as the venue for the auction in April 1779 of ‘twenty good hack horses, the property of Isaac Gulliver, of the same place’. It now appears that Gulliver’s house was not the White Hart but Hillamsland Farm two or three hundred yards away – unless he had an interest in both.

Longham in Gulliver’s time was one of several settlements within the large and scattered parish of Hampreston. These included Tricketts Cross, Stapehill, Little Canford and the village of Hampreston, all of which had smuggling connections. The area now occupied by Ferndown, however, was ‘Hampreston Heath’, a stretch of virtually uninhabited heathland between the surrounding settlements. The rural nature of the area, coupled with its proximity to the coast, contributed to its suitability as a smuggling base.

Smugglers Cottage may just be a fanciful name, or does it echo memories of smuggling activity in that area?

Vic Adams believed that the sale of Gulliver’s horses in 1779 was a response to the government’s introduction of tougher penalties in an attempt to crack down on smuggling. ‘Gulliver was in his 34th year and had a wife, a family of three young children and a fair fortune put by,’ he wrote in the Dorset Year Book for 1959-60. ‘The time had come for him to withdraw from the more active side of smuggling and henceforward to conduct affairs from behind the scenes.’

Some time around 1780, the Gullivers moved across the river to Kinson, living in a house with ‘shop, malthouse and winecellars adjoining’, from where Isaac ‘openly engaged in the retail wine and brandy trade’. In 1782, Gulliver accepted the free pardon offered to any smuggler who volunteered for the Navy or provided two substitutes. Isaac was well able to afford the going rate for substitutes – up to 15 guineas. He then publicly announced his intention to move his wine and spirits business from Kinson to Teignmouth in Devon.

From another report from Poole Customs House, dated 1788, it is clear that Gulliver built up a veritable chain of wine outlets along the coasts of Dorset and Devon, some of them in ‘remote places’. His prices greatly undercut those demanded by ‘fair dealers’, which strongly suggested that his wines were ‘illicitly imported’. The report adds – rightly – that Gulliver was ‘a person of great speculating genius’ who carried on a variety of other businesses besides smuggling.

These other business interests included property. Over the years he invested in numerous houses and farms across the region. At Kinson, which had become a major smuggling centre, his houses included the elegant Howe Lodge in Brook Road (demolished in 1958) and the forerunner of today’s Pelhams (the present community centre building was built by his daughter’s in-laws, the Fryer family of bankers and merchants).

The original barn at Gulliver’s Farm, West Moors, with a modern lean-to attached on the right and the house, re-built after a fire in the 1960s, visible to the left

By 1789, the Gullivers had returned to the Ferndown area. Isaac gave his address as ‘West Moors’, and the house on the road to Three Legged Cross is known to this day as Gulliver’s Farm. The original farmhouse was burnt down in the 1960s and re-built, but the barn is thought to be from the smuggler’s time. Gulliver’s Farm was one of only a scattered handful of houses at West Moors then and it was handily placed near one of the old tracks which wended their way in from the coast. Vic Adams believed it ‘occupied an important place in his organisation’. It was still owned by his descendants more than 100 years later.

A mile or so away in Wimborne Road East, Ferndown, is the thatched Smugglers Cottage, an olde-worlde bed and breakfast establishment promoted as 400 years old and a former haunt of smugglers. Whether Gulliver had a direct connection with it we don’t know, but a woman who lived nearby as a child in the 1920s once told me that there used to be a sunken track nearby called Gulliver’s Lane. She also claimed that Smugglers Cottage was built as recently as the 1930s. She added, however, that there used to be a couple of much earlier buildings nearby – a pair of semi-detached cottages, which stood a little behind the site of Smugglers Cottage, and a farmhouse called Thorneyham Farm, which was hidden in a hollow at the end of Gulliver’s Lane. Thorneyham Farm was thatched and similar to Smugglers Cottage in appearance. ‘It may be that some old timbers and perhaps other materials from the farmhouse were used in the construction of Smugglers Cottage,’ she suggested.

The nearby Smuggler’s Haunt pub and restaurant is also 20th-century, although there was once an older cottage in its grounds. However tenuous the connections between smuggling and the present-day buildings may be, there is no doubt that Isaac Gulliver and other smugglers regularly passed this way. Given the isolation of any buildings which did exist at that time, it is also probable that the smugglers made good use of them from time to time, or perhaps even lived in them.
According to Vic Adams, Isaac Gulliver moved from West Moors to Long Crichel ‘at some time in the early 1790s’, returned to Kinson in 1815, then moved again in 1817 to Gulliver’s House in West Borough, Wimborne, where he died a wealthy and respectable man in 1822. He was buried in Wimborne Minster, where he had served as a churchwarden. Some of his descendants still live in Dorset, although not, as far as we know, at Ferndown, Longham or West Moors.

The church of St Andrew at Kinson. The damage to the drip-stones is said to have been caused by barrels of contraband as they were hauled up to a hiding-place at the top of the tower. If there was a tunnel behind the mysterious door in the cellar of Hillamsland Farm, it would have been heading in exactly this direction.

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