Christchurch

 

Situated within a well sheltered natural harbour, Christchurch has been a port since Saxon times. It was built at the confluence of the Stour, flowing in from Dorset, and the Avon from Hampshire. It had often been referred to as a part of Wiltshire, and could have been made into one of the major British Ports during the 18th century, but local opposition would have made this impossible. Such a development would have involved the widening and deepening of the "Run", a narrow opening Map of Christchurch c1790through which the only access to the sea is afforded. However, if this waterway were enlarged it would have meant that Revenue cutters could also enter the Harbour, and that would have had a drastic effect on one of Christchurch's three main activities - smuggling. Brewing and agriculture were the other two industries in the 1770's, the town having a population of around 3,500. As the wages of the labourers were low, smuggling provided a profitable sideline for a large majority of them. Owing to inadequate customs facilities, only coastal traffic was allowed in the harbour, and most of this went to Haven Quay, three miles from the town. Haven Quay was a hard standing area of gravel and ironstone at the entrance to the harbour, but this site is now occupied by a car park. It was here that the Battle of Christchurch was fought in 1784, which is mentioned in the section on John Streeter. The Haven House was built here at the turn of the 16th century, and was likely to have been a Storehouse. Sometime in the latter half of the 18th century, however, the building is known to have been a public house occupied by the Sellers family. The Haven House Inn still stands and played an important part in the Battle of Christchurch. Many natural advantages of the area made Christchurch attractive to free traders. Firstly there were the fine river routes of the Avon and the Stour, providing access inland. Also the gently sloping sandy beaches made landing particularly easy. There were good escape routes should the smugglers be pursued, with the New Forest to the North East, Cranborne Chase to the north-west and the Great Heath where Bournemouth now lies, to the West. The markets of Winchester, London, Salisbury, Bath and Bristol could all be easily accessed by the paths that led through these three areas, and houses on the way also provided customers. The proximity to France, the Channel Islands and Holland also proved attractive, and the fact that the bridges over the Stour and the Avon could be easily blocked by a strategically placed haywain, meant that the smugglers could delay the Revenue men to give them time to either land their goods or escape.

 

 

Originally the Eight Bells Inne, a smuggler's haunt near the priory.

 

In 1795 barracks for Dragoons were built at Christchurch which, perhaps, shows how busy the smuggling trade was here. This could be called on by the riding officers and the supervisor of Customs for help in apprehending the criminals, therefore Christchurch Priorythey had to be watched by the smugglers. They may well have used Christchurch Priory as a lookout tower, and used the large salmon shaped weather vain to point to the position of the King's men. It is quite likely that smuggling was frowned upon by the Church in this particular town, and so the facilities it offered were probably used without them knowing.

 

A little south of the Priory stands Priory House which was built by a Gustavus Brander on an area of land that he purchased from the Church in 1775. As well as being a member of the Royal Society, Brander was a keen antiquarian and as he excavated the site he also dug out the foundations for his new house. Priory House has an enclosed balcony that would have made an ideal lookout post and it has been suggested that he may well have been a venturer. Even if this is not so, it is likely that he was at least a customer owing to the fine spirit he needed for the distinguished guests that he entertained.

 

Richard Warner wrote of how he used to observe smugglers travelling from Hengistbury (or Christchurch) Head through Christchurch from his classroom window. He told of how they used to do their business in broad daylight and bribed the riding officers on their way. Special mention was made off "slippery" Rogers and his vessel which was, reputedly, a fine ship. His crew were apparently undaunted by severe storms and had the utmost faith in the ship. However this eventually proved to be their downfall and it was destroyed, one day, in a storm on rocks just off of Hengistbury Head. It was often said to have been the longest vessel ever constructed.

 

Another tale told by the Reverend Warner was of the father of a classmate of his. He was a Riding Officer at the time, named Robert Bursey, and was apparently beaten to death on his threshold by smugglers after answering a knock at the door. It is likely but he was too zealous in his pursuit of the local free traders and they had decided to put him out of action for good.

 

Abraham Pike 1751 - 1823

 

The supervisor of Customs and coast waiter at Christchurch also had the duty of chief The Tomb of Abraham Pike, Christchurch Priory ChurchyardRiding Officer with 4 riding officers responsible to him. His residence still remains, 10 Bridge Street, and it housed a cellar for seized contraband as well as having a roof that served as a lookout post with a clear view of the Priory Church and the harbour. Abraham Pike once held the post of Supervisor, and his district extended from Hurst Castle to Poole, covering a stretch of coastline 16 miles long. His salary was a mere £25 a year with an allowance for horse fodder. He was responsible to the Collector at Southampton, to whom his journal was sent before being passed on to the Customs Commissioners in London. Pike was a very zealous officer who was undervalued and underpaid. He died on 17th October 1823 at the age of 72, and was buried in Christchurch Priory.