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Tragedy in Poole Harbour

Ferries have plied across Poole Harbour for centuries, but the safety of today contrasts starkly with the risks of yesteryear. Tony Burton-Page brings some poignant stories to light.

An aerial view of the north-western end of Poole Harbour

An aerial view of the western end of Poole Harbour (Alan Holiday)

During one of the routine bouts of dredging in Poole Harbour in 1964, a large wooden object was discovered. It seemed to be the trunk of a huge oak tree; indeed it was, but on closer inspection it was realised that this particular one had been hollowed out to make a boat – some two thousand years before, as the radio carbon dating proved. It was quite a substantial object: one of the giant oaks of the ancient forests which prevailed in Dorset at the time, it would have weighed about fourteen tons in its original condition.
After a forty-year-long period of restoration, it can now be seen in Poole Museum, where it is the star exhibit. It is 32 feet long, 5 feet wide and could have seated eighteen people; but because of its shallow draught, it would have been too unstable to put to sea, despite its considerable size. So it seems that it was specifically designed to be used in Poole Harbour, a recent theory being that it was built by the tribe that the Romans called the Durotriges.

Poole Quay in the 19th century

Poole Quay in the 19th century

If all this is so, it is the earliest known vessel associated with the harbour. It may well have functioned simply as a water taxi, the first of an honourable tradition of such craft in these waters. Poole Harbour is the largest natural harbour in Europe, with a perimeter of over a hundred miles, and mankind must have realised long ago that it was possible to save travelling time by taking short cuts across the water instead of doing circuitous trips to avoid it. There were settlements around the harbour from the earliest times: it is only comparatively recently that the southern and western sides of it have become so barren and deserted. Arne, for example, was a thriving little village until World War 2, when it was compulsorily evacuated so that it could become an extension of Bovington Camp’s tank training area.
Moreover, there had been many small ports on the Purbeck side of the harbour to serve the boats which transported clay to Poole for wider distribution: the clay-mining industry on the Isle of Purbeck had taken off in the 17th century with the increasing popularity of tobacco and the need for clay pipes, and demand for the product had continued to grow. Hamlets such as Ower, Fitzworth, Middlebere, Shipstal and Wytch all had their own quays, and these were used not only by the clay boats but also by the ‘passage boats’ which ferried local inhabitants to Poole and Wareham. There were numerous small farms around the shores of the harbour, and Wareham (from Saxon times) and Poole (from medieval times) acted as market towns for them. (Shipstal’s name, despite its nautical implications, merely means ‘sheep-fold’.) The passage boats called at strategic points to pick up passengers, and many were served by ‘passage houses’, where passengers would gather to wait for the boats – in effect, they were water bus stops. The passage houses at South Haven, Ower, Wytch and Gold Point were small brick buildings with more lightly constructed outbuildings. A 19th-century commentator describes them as poor quality inns which offered very basic food and drink – ‘potatoes, onions and sour beer’ – and where a horse could be stabled. The passage boats became obsolete with the development of railways and roads in the later 19th century, but in the 18th and early 19th centuries they were arteries vital for the continuity of rural life.

An artist’s impression of Poole Harbour from Constitution Hill

An artist’s impression of Poole Harbour from Constitution Hill

The sea is a perilous place, however, and with such a well-used facility it was a statistical inevitability that there would be accidents. The first recorded case was during the violent storm of 8 March 1759, which did much damage all along the south-west coast of England. The Ower passage boat was returning from Poole market at about seven o’clock that evening, carrying nineteen passengers, mostly farmers and tradesmen, when the wind strengthened so much that the boat was blown off course and into the mud, where it stuck fast. They waited for the storm to abate, but after three hours of relentless beating by a ferocious sea, the boatman, William White, instructed his passengers to get out of the boat and make their way to Furzey Island, which was only about 500 yards away.
Out of the frying pan, into the fire: the mud which had trapped the boat now trapped its passengers. Poole Harbour looks deceptively blue on most maps, but even nowadays its average depth is nineteen inches, despite the continual dredging of navigable channels, which raises the average. Most of those on board the passage boat on that March evening did not have the strength to force their way through the soft mud. Only one man, a miller called Charles Roe, was a good enough swimmer to make his way to Brownsea Island, a challenge which the others were unwilling to attempt since it was a long swim. Even he had to cope with muddy stretches, but he had the fortune to encounter a butter basket which had escaped from the boat and he used it to prevent himself from sinking into the mud. On reaching Brownsea Island, he managed to summon assistance, but by the time Roe and his helpers reached the scene only five were still alive. Those who perished included five farmers and the steward of John Calcraft, who had recently bought the Rempstone estate (which includes much of the western side of Poole Harbour) and whose son became the MP for Wareham. Amongst the thirteen victims, ironically, was William White, the boatman.
It was on another Thursday nearly half a century later that another passage boat came to grief. On 2 October 1806 the ferry to Wareham left Poole Quay between five and six o’clock – ‘heavily laden’, according to contemporary reports. There were twelve passengers, ten of them farmers’ wives on their way home after the market; also on board were William Gillingham, the owner of the boat, and two boatmen, William Turner and Charles White. Darkness was falling – the sun set at 5.46 that day – and not only was there a thick fog and heavy rain but they were sailing into the wind, which grew stronger and stronger.

The first Ordnance Survey map of Dorset in 1811 shows the harbour in greater detail than had ever been seen before (Dorset Maps (David Beaton))

The first Ordnance Survey map of Dorset in 1811 shows the harbour in greater detail than had ever been seen before (Dorset Maps (David Beaton))

They rounded the Arne Peninsula, passing Patchins Point, Gold Point and Russel Quay, but as they entered the Wareham Channel (the north-western part of Poole Harbour which leads to the River Frome) the boat ran aground and stuck fast across the channel at a spot then known as the ‘First and Last Boom’ (marked nowadays by the WH12 buoy, which indicates the end of the water-skiing area). The wind was now blowing directly at the sails and forced the boat to heel over at an alarming angle. The passengers made for the mast and the rigging, and the men were able to climb up, but in a short time the boat sank, and even those who had managed to get to the top of the mast now found themselves floundering in the turbulent water.

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The WH12 buoy in the Wareham Channel is near the spot where the Wareham passage boat sank in 1806 (Dave Hills)

Only Edward Everett, a Wareham man, had the strength to keep himself afloat. He attempted to swim to the nearest shore, which was the Purbeck coast, less than a hundred yards away, but the current dragged him towards the western shore. He grabbed hold of an oar which was floating past, thereby managing to keep his head above water. Seeing a woman from the boat nearby, he shouted at her to hold on to the other end of the oar. After a lengthy struggle for survival, they reached the shore, but by then night had fallen and there was a thick fog. Everett was disorientated and the woman, Jane White from Church Knowle, was exhausted; they wandered about haphazardly and eventually she fell down unconscious.
At length Everett came across a cottage, which turned out to be the dwelling of some workers on Kesworth Farm (nowadays usually spelt ‘Keysworth’), about two miles from Wareham. Three of them went in search of Mrs White, while Everett made his way to the town, which he reached at about midnight. Word of the accident reached Captain Thomas Bartlett, the Town Clerk (later the Recorder of Wareham and Deputy Recorder of Poole), who lived at Gold Court. Contemporary accounts report that Bartlett’s ‘humane exertions were eminently conspicuous… He immediately hastened, accompanied by Mr Everett, with every thing necessary to the relief of the poor woman (who had been found by the labouring men who went in search of her on the moor), and brought her in a post-chaise to his own house, and every possible care was taken of her till she was restored to her grateful husband and children.’

Thomas Bartlett, the Recorder of Wareham whose ‘humane exertions were eminently conspicuous’ in the disaster of 1806 (Wareham town Museum)

Thomas Bartlett, the Recorder of Wareham whose ‘humane exertions were eminently conspicuous’ in the disaster of 1806 (Wareham town Museum)

But thirteen others were not so lucky – by a strange quirk of fate, the same number of victims as in the 1759 tragedy. A fund for the relief of the affected families was set up by a committee of the ‘Principal Inhabitants’ of Wareham, which included Thomas Bartlett – and John Calcraft, whose father had lost his steward in the disaster on that other Thursday fifty years earlier. ◗

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