Tales of rope and beer
Michael Handy looks at the origins and growth of Bridport through the town’s agricultural, industrial and sociological history
Published in October ’11
It is an interesting fact that Bridport could just as accurately be called Wothmarket. The river Brit which flows through it was named, or at least renamed, for and after the town not the other way round; the river was originally called the Woth (as in Netherbury’s Wooth Grange). The Brid bit of Bridport is named for Long Bredy, which was an important borough when Bridport came to be named and, in Old English, ‘port’ could just as easily be a market as a port. This perhaps explains why the port in Bridport is actually in West Bay. Just to confuse things further, West Bay is due south from Bridport, not west, and it is not actually a bay, but a man-made harbour built on the estuary of the river Brit/Woth, so it should really be called Wothmouth, Britmouth or indeed Southport.
Luckily these etymological issues didn’t interfere with mariners’ navigation and it was here that Joan of Navarre arrived by boat in 1403 on her way to marry Henry IV. Things in Bridport had calmed down a bit in the 15th century compared to the previous one. The Dorset History Centre has a copy of a 14th-century request from T Strangways, who was the steward of Bridport, to the chancellor of Salisbury, requesting strict action against disorderly chantry priests. When merchants are complaining about priests, there is clearly either a priest problem or a special kind of merchant in town.
14th-century Bridport was blessed in a number of ways; its maritime links and history as a market, provided a good mercantile basis, but it was something else which tranformed, for centuries, the prosperity of the town. Flax had come to Britain with the Romans, but it was in 9th-century Saxon England that it started to be more widely cultivated, as was hemp, or cannabis sativa. Flax, or linum usitatissimum, was not the most forgiving of crops and was best suited to cultivation on a soil on a particular kind of geological base. It was also massively dependent on regular rainfall early in the year for significant production.
While parts of the Bridport hinterland proved ideal for growing flax, other parts of the hinterland – around Bradpole and Loders – could grow hemp as a fallow crop for grain crops. With hemp and flax in profusion, textiles in general and rope in particular became the stock in trade of Bridport. For an island nation, as long as the merchant and military fleets used sail technology, rope was always going to be in demand. This was particularly true from the 15th century onwards, but even in early Plantagenet times ropes from Bridport were in demand for martial purposes. The crown ordered 3000 Dorset weights (of 32 lbs each) of hempen thread in 1211. In 1213, King John asked ‘to be caused to be made at Bridport, night and day, as many ropes for ships both large and small cables as you can, and twisted yarns for cordage for ballistae.’
Forty years later, the town was granted a charter by Henry III and Bridport had near exclusivity in providing the cordage for the limited English navy, which lasted until the 15th century. Another rather less important export, except that is to the end-user, was the Bridport Dagger – the hangman’s noose, which at one point was, by statute, required to be made from Bridport rope. ‘Stabbed with the Bridport dagger’ entered the vernacular as an alternative to ‘death by hanging’.
Successive Tudor monarchs insisted that increasing portions of arable land be devoted to hemp production to ensure the supplies necessary for the rope-making industry. In Bridport, by the middle of the 16th century, if you grew hemp within five miles of the town, you had, by Act of Parliament, to sell it at Bridport’s market. The absence of a proper harbour by this time had really become an issue, with the Brit having repeatedly become difficult to navigate. This was, though, far from a new problem. In 1385, John Huddersfield asked the crown for permission to charge a levy on boats using his new haven, or harbour, at the estuary of the River Brit. Sixteen years later, collections were made in Bridport to repair the waterway, which was blocked and damaged at the river’s mouth. Thirteen years later, public subscriptions were sought to rebuild the haven once again. By 1558, the Brit was downgraded to ‘a creek’ as it was no longer navigable. By 1716, the absence of a decent harbour was causing problems, and leaving Bridport somewhat diminished in the eyes of outsiders, as this account from that year reveals: ‘The Corporation is but poor, the buildings ruinous and decayed, which may be supposed to be owing to a double cause: The choaking up of their Harbour, which is barred up with sands by the tides; But they are chiefly impoverished by the Loss of the Hemp Manufacture’.
By 1743, a new harbour had appeared and by eight years later was said to be capable of taking ships up to 100 tons of cargo.
Twenty years later, a ship-building business was established that would, over the next 110 years build four hundred or so ships.
The new harbour had a very positive effect on the town and its commercial fortunes. It also started to attract visitors more genteel than mercantile, as this excerpt from a summer 1792 edition of the St James’ Chronicle reveals: ‘Bridport then is a clean, well-built small town, situated in the midst of a number of little mountains, which give one no bad idea of many parts of the Alps, and are about a mile and a half from the sea… There is excellent bathing… and for the more hardy bathers, such as can swim, there is the best bathing in the county at Bridport beach…. All the conveniences and comforts, indeed the luxuries of life, are obtainable here; and that which infinitely surpasses every consideration of this kind, namely the society of sensible and hospitable people, whose notions of urbanity incline them to treat strangers with distinguished civilities; the only contention among them appearing to be who shall excel in instances of politeness and kindness to them.’
The St James’ Chronicle correspondent, the self-styled ‘Viator’ (traveller), in writing for his London audience, is clearly an antecedent of those who have more recently christened the town as ‘Notting Hill-on-sea’ thanks to its literary festival.
On a rather less genteel level, but with an eye to the commercial possibilities in Bridport, members of the Gundry family, one of the main rope-making families of the town, used experience from the family’s other expertise – as maltsters – in a new venture. They decided to engage in what could be said to be either a fortuitous, synergistic piece of enterprise, or a cynical method of getting back much of what they paid in wages in their rope-making enterprises: they established the Bridport Brewery in Gundry Lane in 1794. Looking at contemporary record books of payments from local agricultural employers, a fair proportion of their costs to hemp and flax pickers was in the form of ‘liquor’. Sadly for the Gundrys, if the brewery was meant to be the Bridport equivalent of the ‘company store’, it clearly did not succeed in the long term. By 1851, ownership of the brewery had passed through various owners’ hands, before Thomas Legg took it over. Fifteen years later he moved the operation to what is now the Old Brewery. Four years after his death in 1892, Legg’s brewery passed to John Cleeves Palmer and Robert Henry Palmer; two of their descendents, John and Cleeves Palmer still run the company today.
When rope production for what was to become the Royal Navy, for reasons of both a financial and a logistical nature, moved from Bridport to the Royal dockyards, Bridport could have found itself in great trouble, but the maritime connection once again ultimately proved to be its saviour. In the early 17th century, the burgeoning East India Company needed supplies of sails and rigging for its fleet of ships. A century later, fishing line, to be supplied to the Newfoundland cod fleet and colonies, made Bridport an important part of a trade triangle, based on salt, rum and fish or salt, wine and fish. In March and April, a fleet of ships would head westwards to Newfoundland with supplies for the fishermen and stocks of salt (hence the Salt house in West Bay), the holds would then be filled for the second stage of the journey with dried, salted cod for shipping either to the Caribbean (where it was exchanged for rum and sugar) or to the Iberian peninsula and Italy (where it was exchanged for oil, wine and preserves), thence back to Bridport.
As line fishing gave way to net fishing, Bridport’s manufacturing industry was again well placed to supply the needs of those who worked at sea. To this day there is a net manufacturing connection with the town, brought bang up to date by Amsafe Bridport, who specialise in the manufacture of engineered aerospace textiles for both cargo and military aviation clients – the 21st-century equivalents of the Royal Navy and East India Company. Bridport may not be a port and its river may not have originally been called the Brit, but it is still, 1200 years on from its foundation, a centre of excellence for the cordage industry.
pic 1 Daniel Bristow
Pic 3 Daniel Bristow
pic 5 Daniel Bristow