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‘A champion of the port of Poole’

Henry Burden was a central figure in the establishment of the Poole Harbour Commissioners and in the life of the port for almost fifty years. Jimmy James, his great-nephew, recounts his career.


A very stylised watercolour of Sunklight Tender, the handsome ketch owned by H & A Burden (image: Poole Museum Service)

James Burden, born in Church Knowle in 1791, had an adventurous youth, going to sea during the Napoleonic Wars, being taken prisoner and escaping back to England. It may have been with some relief that he married and settled down as a miller in Longham. Later he moved to Poole and established a bakery which diversified into groceries, wines and spirits. His son, Henry, developed both the business and his own standing in Poole, being elected an Alderman of the town in 1886.

Henry and his wife had nine children, of whom Walter and William went into the family business and supervised its further growth. Their second son, Henry Burden junior, followed his grandfather and went to sea. He joined the training ship Conway in 1873 at the age of 14. He served on a number of ships, including one circumnavigation of the world, during his career in the Merchant Navy. His seafaring experiences turned him into a tough, self-reliant and probably irascible young man. With his younger brother, Arthur (the writer’s grandfather), he set up H & A Burden on Poole Quay in 1887 or thereabouts, as chandlers and wholesale and retail coal suppliers.

Henry Burden junior as a young man

Poole had been a thriving port in the early 19th century, based largely on the Newfoundland trade, which declined from 1870 onwards. It was replaced by coastal cargo traffic moving clay, coal, timber, cereals and other goods between south coast ports and London. H & A Burden supplied and equipped visiting ships. H & A Burden also owned and operated a number of ships including the ketch Sunklight Tender, an elegant schooner, and two small packets, Glencarnock and Gannet. Henry Burden junior qualified for a place on the Poole Harbour Users Board, a position he used to full advantage. Henry Burden was clearly a man of strong opinions and personality, and was pre-occupied with three factors that he saw as obstacles to the growth of the port: the difficulties of access caused by the sandbanks in Poole Harbour; the inferior status of Poole compared with its more prosperous neighbour, Bournemouth; and the involvement – Henry would have called it interference – of Poole Corporation in the affairs of the Harbour and Quay. He set about tackling these obstacles with typical determination and vigour.

In 1887 he became Secretary of the Association of Harbour Users and in 1894 formed the Merchants Association of Poole to further the interests of harbour users in the face of increasing local and central government control. The harbour users had no representation on the Board of Harbour Trustees and objected to the levy of 1d per ton imposed on clay exports by the 1891 Poole Harbour Order. The Poole Harbour Act of 1895 was the first serious defeat of the local authority by the Burden faction in their struggle for representation for the harbour users on the new Poole Harbour Commissioners. In the centre of the dispute was the imposing and impatient figure of Henry Burden.

By 1896, at the age of 37, he was a Poole Borough Councillor, Vice-Chairman of Poole Harbour Commissioners and Honorary Secretary of Poole Lifeboat. He donated the latter’s first collecting box, which is to this day still on display at RNLI headquarters in West Quay Road. He was Honorary Secretary and Treasurer of Poole Boys Brigade and Vice-President of Poole Amateur Rowing Club.

An equally unlikely painting of the Gannet, the steam packet owned by Burdens until well into the 20th century. Note the house flag with its bold ‘B’. (Image: Poole Museum Service)

Henry was also a formidable businessman, and the years immediately after the turn of the century were probably the zenith of his and Arthur’s commercial activities. As well as the
chandlery and yacht agency and the coal factoring business, H & A Burden owned and operated a number of clay barges that carried clay between Goathorn and Poole Quay, where it was manually off-loaded to larger vessels for the voyage to London, the Isle of Sheppey and Liverpool. The two Burden steamers, Glencarnock and Gannet, often carried clay to London, returning with general cargo to Poole and Weymouth. Glencarnock was operating regularly in 1890, sailing to Guernsey and from there to London before returning to Poole with general cargo on a weekly cycle. Sometimes she carried clay to Hartlepool, returning with coal from Newcastle. Gannet was still registered with Burdens in 1928. In addition, Henry had founded Henry Burden Junior & Co Ltd, wharfingers and cartage contractors, who in 1902 became Lloyds’ agents at Poole. The company also owned and operated two steam railway locomotives.

As Vice-Chairman of Poole Harbour Commissioners, Henry’s pungent observations about bureaucracy and the cost of regulation were regularly quoted in the local press. In 1905 he retired as Honorary Secretary of Poole Lifeboat, citing pressure of work. He continued as Chairman and retained a keen interest in lifeboat affairs to the end of his life, campaigning for a better lifeboat and bigger slipway. In 1912 he converted an ex-RNLI lifeboat into a houseboat and moored it off Sandbanks, the first of many to do so until the Harbour Commissioners ordered their removal in 1930.

Poole Quay in about 1910, with the premises of H & A Burden on the left. Note the railway lines, the working ships moored, the Custom House and, in the distance, the overhead gantry that served the gasworks. (Image: Poole Museum Service)

While Arthur Burden ran the business on Poole Quay and continued to be a stalwart of the Yacht Club, Henry Burden did not let commercial pressures stifle his appetite for politics. In 1907 he met with Ernest Bevin on Poole Quay in an unsuccessful attempt on Bevin’s part to settle yet another labour dispute. The Mayor of Poole at the time, Herbert Carter, recalled in his memoirs, ‘It was a day when few people questioned the right of an employer to get his labour at a rate fixed solely by the law of supply and demand…. This was a period of bad trade and Henry Burden got his labour where he pleased.’

After World War 1 and into the 1920s and 1930s, the road haulage fleet of Henry Burden Junior & Co Ltd covered an area within a thirty-mile radius of Poole. The H & A Burden barges and steamers carried clay and other cargoes between the south coast and London.

In 1919 Henry Burden was closely involved in the promotion of a plan to establish a shipbuilding and ship and railway wagon repair business at Salterns, between the Beehive Inn at Lilliput and the Elms estate. Opposition from shipyards in the north of England ensured the failure of the project (see Dorset Life, October 2009). He was much involved in the establishment in Shell Bay of the ‘training bank’ which helps keep the entrance to the Harbour clear of sediment. In 1921, now 62, Henry was the leading light in PHADIS – Poole Harbour and District Improvement Society – an ambitious scheme to turn Poole into a deep-water port to compete with Southampton. In 1925 he stood down from the Poole Harbour Commissioners and in 1927 he retired as Chairman of the Poole Branch of the RNLI. In 1936 he sold his West Quay Road wharfinger and cartage business and retired from commercial life. H & A Burden was sold in 1937 to Dunkerton Coal Factors.

In spite of failing eyesight, Henry Burden remained a tenacious correspondent to the local press on matters pertaining to Poole Harbour and Quay and the lifeboat. He died aged 87 on 21 September 1946 at 1 Berwick Road in Bournemouth, the house he had occupied for twenty years. The Poole and Dorset Herald published a long and fulsome obituary, in which it rightly described Henry  Burden junior as a ‘champion of the port of Poole’.

Poole Quay from the water. It is of a similar period to the photo above, but Burdens are no longer ‘Coal Stores’ but the presumably more up-market ‘Coal Merchants’.


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