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Lilliput’s industrial past

Jeremy Waters considers what might have been

Today, Lilliput is one of the most sought-after residential areas on the shores of Poole Harbour; elegant and expensive houses surround the quiet tidal backwater that is somewhat inappropriately called ‘The Blue Lagoon’. Yet few are aware that were it not for the failure – as yet unexplained – of a substantial public company, this might today be a major complex of docks to rival Poole Quay.

Lilliput has a long industrial history: the earliest chart of Poole Harbour, drawn by Ralph Treswell in 1585, marks ‘mynes’ – probably extracting alum – in approximately this location. The area is next shown on a map dated 1748 which shows the lagoon, together with what is now Salterns Way and Lilliput shops, as ‘salt works belonging to Sir Thomas Webb baronet’; Sir Thomas was Lord of the Manor of Canford. Other documents suggest that the commercial extraction of salt from sea-water in the lagoon started in the 1730s, if not earlier. The use of the lagoon as salt pans, and of the surrounding higher areas of Lilliput for the manufacturing processes, continued well into the 19th century. A succession of Admiralty charts and the very first Ordnance Survey map, published in 1811, all mark this use. However, by the time of an Admiralty survey in 1849, the lagoon is noted as ‘Old Salterns’, apparently now disused.

The next phase of the commercial development of Lilliput started in 1856, when a successful London drainage engineer, George Jennings, took a lease from the Canford Estate of clay beds at Parkstone, a short distance north of the lagoon. Here he built South Western Pottery, which was to be a significant influence on the development of the salterns. South Western Pottery quickly became a major industrial complex, producing a wide range of bricks, stoneware drainage pipes and terracotta facing blocks.

The kilns required large quantities of coal, which at first were brought in by ship to Poole Quay, whence Jennings shipped out the finished pipes to his wharf on the Thames at Lambeth. Soon he fell out with the Harbour Board over the amount of the harbour dues. In addition, the transport of such bulky materials by horse and cart over three miles of unmade roads from the Quay was slow and inefficient. So he instructed his pottery manager to build a pier at Salterns, only three-quarters of a mile from the pottery, in the hope of avoiding the Harbour Board’s charges. This pier was completed in 1867, but the Commissioners took him to court over the dues and eventually won. Nevertheless, the pottery continued to use the pier until after World War 1. Jennings wrote to his son, ‘Instead of ships taking our coal to Poole, they deliver it at once to my coal store at the salterns, and I ship off my pipes from the same place.’

Salterns Pier in the years just before World War 1, showing on the left the lagoon and the rear of the Beehive Hotel, and on the right Jennings’s railway line

An Admiralty chart of 1891 shows this pier clearly. For the first 500 yards it was a solid embankment, created by tipping brick and broken pipes from the pottery, and leaving a bridged culvert to allow the tidal access and drainage of the lagoon. The last hundred yards were a substantial timber pier which extended right out to the Main Channel and was still there in the 1960s.

At first Jennings linked the pier to the pottery with a light horse-drawn tramway, similar to those already in use within the clay beds. However, in 1872 he invested in a full-gauge saddle-tank steam engine and soon permanent rail lines were laid to the pier for hauling the coal and pipes. On the 1925 Ordnance Survey map, the line of the railway is shown running from the pier, along what is now Lagoon Road, crossing the Sandbanks Road near Lilliput Sailing Club, over Elgin Road and so up to the pottery.

So after more than a century as a salt-works, for the next sixty years this area by the harbour’s edge became an industrial wharf and coal-yard, while the lagoon itself was allowed to degenerate into what was marked on the maps as Salterns Marsh. The surrounding countryside remained as farmland, with a few large houses.

World War 1 brought considerable change. The war effort required more industry of all types, and the Salterns coal-yard was developed with several substantial industrial buildings comprising an engineering works and sawmill. The rail access enabled this to be used for making and repairing railway wagons, while a large woodworking plant made aircraft hangers on the site.

What is now known as the Blue Lagoon (then Salterns Marsh), taken in about 1907 from just behind the Beehive Hotel, showing the Elms Estate in the background

Towards the end of the war, the site, then still owned by the Canford Estate, was the subject of two separate development proposals, either of which would undoubtedly have changed the character of the area for ever. First came the Dorset Shipbuilding Company. In 1917 it reached agreement with the Harbour Commissioners for a very ambitious scheme to establish a major shipyard within the harbour, anticipated to employ 10,000 men. This was to be sited on the existing industrial area of Lilliput, which was close to the main channel and needed little dredging. Despite vociferous objections by neighbouring landowners, the scheme had the strong support of both the Harbour Commissioners and Poole Council, who wanted to expand maritime industry in the town.

Such a large development required extensive Government approvals. Although some of these were obtained, this ambitious scheme failed. The story goes that MPs representing the shipbuilding interests in Scotland and on the Tyne, who did not want a southern competitor, lobbied the Treasury to limit the amount of capital it was permitted to raise to £500,000. This made the scheme impossible to achieve and its promoter, a Captain Gardener, went on to develop a much smaller venture at Dorset Lake Shipyard at Hamworthy.

The second development scheme was much more realistic. It was promoted in July 1918 by Messrs W Alban Richards & Co Ltd, the engineering and woodworking company which leased the industrial premises at Salterns from the Canford Estate. First, Mr Alban Richards negotiated with the Estate to buy the freehold of the site, which included 62 acres between Sandbanks Road and the harbour edge, and 53 acres of mudlands or foreshore of the sea, including Salterns Pier.

Having acquired the property, Mr Alban Richards formed a new company, Salterns Ltd, and recruited some heavyweight local directors, including H Wragg, the Managing Director of South Western Pottery; Col. Woodall, director of a local brewery; Florence Van Raalte, owner of Brownsea Island; and Henry Burden, a shipowner and Harbour Commissioner in Poole. These were all substantial and reputable people, each of whom injected large amounts of capital into the new venture. Salterns Ltd was registered on the 30 July 1919 with an authorised share capital of £200,000. It issued a formal prospectus listing clear objectives: to establish a shipyard and ship-repairing works, to build up its existing wharfage and distribution business on Poole Quay, and to extend the Alban Richards engineering business.

A photograph from the Salterns Prospectus of October 1919, showing the industrial estate at Lilliput, with the George Jennings steam engine and wagons. The pier is top centre and the lagoon is on the right.

The prospectus contains a plan showing how it intended to develop the site. The proposals included building up the west side of the existing pier to form 700 feet of substantial new wharf, constructing slipways and creating a large dock in the centre of the lagoon, dredged to a depth of 15 feet at low water springs. All the proposed work was costed at a total of £90,000. The Company was floated on the stock market in October 1919 with the aim of raising £125,000 to cover these development costs plus £35,000 of working capital. Although not completely successful, it raised £104,683, still enough to carry out the work. And yet, within 3½ years, Salterns Ltd was put into receivership. Despite owning excellent premises, despite having an established ongoing business, despite attracting experienced local directors and sufficient capital, it failed. The big unanswered question is: why?

The only development which Salterns Ltd did undertake was the construction in 1922 of a small dock on the south side of the main pier – now the inner basin of Salterns Marina. In July 1923 a Receiver was appointed by the High Court and over the next couple of years he sold off all the assets of Salterns Ltd. By 1926 the company was nothing but a shell, and it was wound up on 17 July 1931.

If Salterns Ltd had not failed, Lilliput today would look very different. There would be no Blue Lagoon; in its place would be a substantial deep-water dock, and the marina would be a massive wharf. Factories and shipyards would cover the area of Salterns Way and Dorset Lake Avenue. Who knows what the effect might have been on the surrounding area and on the rest of Poole?

Credits
1, 2, 3, 4 Author’s collection

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