Poole’s press barons
Jenny Oliver looks at gutters and journalism in Victorian Poole
Published in January ’15
The election of the first Liberal mayor in 1841 was a sign of a new era. Something of a ‘shopocracy’ was emerging, a powerful grouping of middle-class shopkeepers, traders and businessmen, who were mainly members of the Liberal Party.
The voice of the Liberals in the town was also heard through the pages of the Poole and Dorsetshire Herald, established in 1846 and produced in the heart of High Street. In the early 1800s, its founder, John Sydenham, had come to work for his uncle, Joseph Moore, a well-established stationer, printer and bookseller on High Street. In 1805, Sydenham married Joseph’s daughter, Elizabeth, and eventually became a partner in the business.
When Joseph Moore died, John Sydenham carried on the business with his cousin, Joseph Moore junior, at the same premises, (the present No. 67). The Sydenhams had eight children of whom the oldest surviving son, John junior, was trained in the business, which by now included journalism.
In 1825, Moore and Sydenham became part owners of the Dorset Chronicle and John Sydenham junior worked on the newspaper as a journalist. In 1829 (aged just 22), he became its editor.
As a journalist, he was deeply involved in the issues of the day, including parliamentary reform.
In 1842, John Sydenham senior sold his interest in the Chronicle and in 1846 launched the Poole and Dorsetshire Herald with his son as editor. The first edition came out on 9 April 1846; at last Poole had a truly local voice. Sadly John junior died a few months later at the age of only 39.
There was still plenty, though, for the new newspaper to report, not least the ongoing and thus far losing battle to connect Poole to the growing railway network. By the 1840s, the golden age of coaching was coming to an end and the coach no longer set out daily from the Antelope lnn with maximum bustle and importance for the long run to London. Instead, by 1812, according to Pigot’s Directory, the Union coach which left the Antelope and the London Tavern at 7.00am now went no further than over the county border to Southampton, where it met the train for London, so that the passengers could complete their journey with greater comfort and speed.
In 1847, the railway at last reached Poole (or rather it just reached Hamworthy) at the end of a branch from the Southampton to Dorchester Railway. Nonetheless, this first station at Lower Hamworthy served Poole, and the growing town of Bournemouth, for the next 25 years.
Still in 1847, the Poole and Dorsetshire Herald reflected on a High Street which ‘though tenanted by respectable and wealthy shopkeepers, gives no idea of its large trading character and in which houses may be seen almost nodding to a sudden fall’.
Overcrowded houses were now densely packed along streets essentially no cleaner than they had been fifty years before. Although the Public Health Act came into existence in 1848 with the aim of improving sanitary conditions, its measures were not compulsory and only towns with very high death rates were required to comply. Poole was not in this category and the authorities did not see the need to adopt the act.
In summer 1849, Poole suffered the consequences of poor sanitation. On 18 June, St James’s parish registers recorded the burial of James Joseph Wills age 3. The next day, Mrs Hescroff was buried at Skinner Street Congregational Church, with the cause of death recorded as cholera. The Poole and Dorset Herald of 21 June reported the fatalities: ‘Considerable alarm was excited in this town Saturday last by a report that the much dreaded Asiatic cholera had made its appearance here but happily this is not the case, although there have been two fatal cases of English cholera.’ Adopting a reassuring tone, the newspaper argued that ‘both of these parties were predisposed to disease and the child in particular was very much emaciated; had they been of good constitution, there is no doubt that the attack would have terminated much differently.’
Even so, the whisper of cholera had prompted the Mayor, Richard Ledgard, to issue handbills urging the people of Poole to ‘assist in the cleansing and keeping the gutters etc. in a wholesome state.’ He asked all householders to thrown at least six buckets of clean water into the gutters in front of their houses between eight and nine every morning. The virtues of cleanliness and proper ventilation were also strongly recommended.
On 27 June, Mary Ann Hescroff was also buried at Skinner Street, another victim of cholera.
As with the ‘putrid fevers’ of the previous century, High Street traders were not slow to sense a business opportunity. The Poole and Dorset Herald of 28 June carried a large front-page advertisement from JB Bloomfield offering the recommended anti-cholera medicines for sale.
In the same newspaper, correspondence from ‘PUBLICOLA’ debated the sanitary state of Poole which, the letter suggested, fell far short of what the public had a basic right to expect: ‘What is the condition of the High Street? Is it not decidedly bad? Gutters, emptying the most solid of their varied contents into open cesspools (which may be termed “ingenious contrivances for diffusing the most noxious gases, the breath of pestilence and the seeds of death”).’ The writer castigates the Poole authorities for allowing ‘this most prolific evil in the principal thoroughfare, causing it to be inhaled by multitudes of people.’
Meanwhile, cholera brought tragedy to High Street boot and shoe maker John Weeks and his wife Louisa. On 30 June, Skinner Street church recorded the burial of Amy Weeks, aged two, and Fanny Weeks, aged four and a half, victims of cholera. Harriet Weeks (six) was buried on 2 July and George Weeks (fifteen) on 3 July.
Two days later, Louisa followed them to the grave and the clerk recorded the cause of death as ‘Cholera (or grief?)’. John Weeks had lost half of his family and their mother. In 1851 he was listed on the census as a widower with four surviving children: Louisa, David, John and Elizabeth aged two to fifteen. The fatal spread of cholera was probably helped by the cramped conditions of their living arrangements in lower High Street.
By 12 July, the cholera had passed, partly due to the quick thinking and decisive action of the authorities plus a providential change in the weather. The Poole and Dorset Herald praised the sanitary measures taken to curb the spread of the disease: ‘the drains of all kinds have been thoroughly cleaned, and copious streams of water daily poured down them.’ The epidemic had pushed cleanliness and sanitation to the forefront of public attention, but the sad fact was that the dirty streets, infectious diseases and death of children were too common at the time to be very remarkable. The struggle to introduce better sanitary conditions was to continue throughout the century.
In 1864, John Sydenham died, having survived John Junior by eighteen years. His youngest son, Richard, believed that the Herald had become too bland and uncritical and he decided to publish his own magazine of news, comment and criticism, the Poole Pilot. He promised that the Pilot would ‘devote itself to all that is good and true and… will be found the determined enemy of all that is base and false’. It was launched in 1867 and only lasted until 1869, but in that time it attacked many things that Sydenham saw as abuses in Poole society. He saw the scheming of such leaders as Charles Waring, railway contractor and MP for Poole, as a way of lining the pockets of the few at the expense of local people.
Both the Herald and Pilot took up the vexed question of poor sanitation. On 1 October 1867 the Poole Pilot carried a piece of correspondence complaining about the smell of cabbage water and rotting dinners lingering in the streets, particularly on a Sunday. Two weeks later, the Poole and Dorset Herald carried a heartfelt plea from ‘Valetudinarian’ on the connection between poor draining and deaths from consumption [what we would now call TB], concluding that ‘when the surface soil is dried with good sewers, consumption – the cruellest and most mysterious of our silent morbid enemies – appears to depart.’
A development for which Poole people were still waiting was the arrival of the railway into Poole proper. A branch line was finally built in 1872 from Wimborne via Broadstone to a new Poole station, just to the west of High Street. Two years later, a line was built from the new station to Bournemouth West, cutting across High Street itself. The demolition of a private house was required for the new footbridge.
The Herald expressed the hope that an early train ‘not later than six in the morning’ would be provided ‘for the benefit of the working class’ so that workers would no longer have to walk into Bournemouth.
The railway inevitably brought noise, smuts and disturbance to the Parade, then home to some of Poole’s wealthier residents. The level crossing and footbridge are still there 140 years on. ◗
❱ Abridged from The Book of Poole High Street by Jenny Oliver, published by the Poole Historical Trust at £14.99 ISBN 978-1873535882