Poole and Poole Harbour


"If Poole was a fish-pool, and the men of Poole fish 

There'd be a pool for the devil, and fish for his dish."


To the west of Bournemouth lies the Haven, which marks the entrance to Poole Harbour, the second largest in the world. Poole was given a Royal Charter in 1433, which established it as a Staple Port, having to collect customs dues. The town proved to be an ideal location for smuggling, partially due to its proximity to the Purbecks, another great smuggling area, and the benefits provided by the road links to the markets of Blandford, Salisbury, Wareham, Dorchester and Christchurch. 


Records of smuggling in Poole date right back to the 15th century, and one example was of a Spanish merchant in 1486, whose ship, the "Rose", was seized carrying 1,200 lbs of best paper, ginger, cloves, silk and diamonds. 


The stationing of a squadron of Dragoons so early in the 18th century, 1723, shows us how vulnerable Poole was to the trade. Christchurch, another hot-bed of smuggling, however, had to wait until 1795. 


In 1720 Poole petitioned the House of Commons for action to be taken against the dramatic increase in smuggling, stating that legal business was declining as a result. Two years passed with no progress and another petition was sent. The people of Poole, however, may have later regretted this decision, as the Government responded a little too enthusiastically. No stone was left unturned in apprehending the criminals, and ignorance of the law led to many merchants being prosecuted for unknowingly evading customs dues. In 1728 Poole, and many other towns, appealed against the injustice and a Government committee was appointed to address the matter. Many of the offenders were released as a result.


The Vigilant


Ships coming into the port had two customs lookouts to pass in the harbour. The first was on Brownsea Island, where only a visual check was usually made on the vessels. When this island was passed, customs officers at the quay would keep an eye on the vessel until it reached the port and a further check would be made. One Saturday in 1796, the "Vigilant" passed the Customs lookout on Brownsea laden with a cargo of spirits. On being asked to declare his load by the officers at the Quay, the captain replied "Deal ends" and the vessel was steered to moorings in midstream near to Poole Bridge. When dusk came, the casks were removed from the ship one by one in canoes and taken to nearby Holes Bay before being placed in wagons and taken to Corfe Mullen where it was hidden in the gorse. The next day the ship was boarded by Customs men investigating reports of unusual activities the previous night. Although there was no one on board and the cargo had been removed, tell-tale signs confirmed the officers' suspicions. 


Eventually, the Customs men began searching all at the cottages in Corfe Mullen, and they came to one where an illegal keg had been bought. The woman of the house promptly sat on the contraband and hid it in the folds of her skirt. Satisfied of the woman's innocence, the gobblers moved on to search another cottage. 


Tunnels and Drains


The town was once full of hiding places and underground tunnels and drains, through which smuggler's could crawl under the inns and houses from cellar to cellar. In times of heavy rain, kegs could be floated along the drains under Caroline Row to emerge at the Bakers Arms. Kegs could also be transported from the Quay into the town itself by using the drains. A float with a line attached to it would be dropped through a manhole and thus forced to the sea's edge by the current. At the outfall a smuggler would be waiting to join kegs attached to a rope to the line, so that they could be hauled through the drains. 


It has been said that contraband was also transported by means of a hearse hired out by a Poole livery stable. It seems unlikely that a customs officer would stop such a vehicle without definite proof of foul play. 


Wagons were often loaned to the smugglers by farmers from Parkstone, Longfleet and Hamworthy, who might to receive a cask or two as payment which would be left in the barn when the wagon was returned. 


Russell Quay


There are many recorded incidents of smuggling in Poole. In the spring of 1840, for example, a vessel left France for Bridport laden with a cargo of contraband. On their crossing they were helped by a South easterly wind, but on spotting a Revenue cutter, the ship changed course for Poole Harbour. They took on a pilot when they reached the harbour and decided to moor at Russell Quay, arriving at 11 am on a Sunday, when most of the people were at Church, and by 2 pm all the kegs had been removed from the vessel. It just so happened that a large quantity of clay was shipped from this quay every year, and in order to fool the customs men, the captain ordered the ship to be filled with clay. He then went in a small boat to Poole, and after doing a little business in the town, informed at the customs officers that his ship was loaded with clay bound for Runcorn. Although the customs officials were suspicious, the crew were on their way again by Tuesday. 


Corruption in the customs service was rife, and the officers at Poole were no exception. In 1789, for example, a captain of the Royal Navy found evidence on board a seized ship against the deputy collector at Poole. He was proved guilty of divulging military dispositions to John Earley, a friend of the notorious Christchurch smuggler John Streeter, and later dismissed.