Settlement and economy around Poole Harbour 1250-1350

On the northern side of Poole Harbour lies the town of Poole, which today is the largest of the medieval settlements in the area. By the late thirteenth century Poole had obtained a grant of a weekly market and yearly fair, and the Great Quay had been built (Penn, 1980; Horsey, 1992; Watkins, 1994). However, in the Lay Subsidy of 1332 only 27 people were recorded paying a modest sum that is suggestive of “a small and relatively poor town” (Penn, 1980: 78). During the 1340s the burgesses in Poole petitioned for and achieved the customs and liberties enjoyed by Melcombe. It was then made a ‘free borough’. The town had even begun to send members to Parliament. The population at Poole suffered during the Black Death, at a time that when the town was gaining importance (Penn, 1980: 79). It was not until the sixteenth century that Poole began to represent a substantial port that would be used for widespread trade throughout the post-medieval period.

The town of Corfe is situated next to the late eleventh century castle, of the same name, in a narrow gap in the chalk ridge of the Purbeck Hills. The earliest stage of the town’s development may have been little more than a “construction camp” (Penn, 1980: 45). However, it is likely that as a result of the Purbeck Marble trade (discussed below) and the extensive stone quarrying in the area that Corfe became an independent economic entity from the castle from the twelfth century onwards.  In the mid to late thirteenth century Corfe was awarded a grant of a market and fair and was recognised as a borough (Penn, 1980: 45). Penn suggests that the town was said to be decayed in 1325 and that “the decline in the use of Purbeck marble in the early fourteenth century had probably affected its prosperity” (1980: 45).Similar to Poole, Corfe began to grow from the sixteenth century onwards.

Corfe Castle and the village from the south
Corfe Castle and the village from the south

The Saxon burh town of Wareham differs from both Poole and Corfe due to its early date. Dated to the reign of Alfred, Wareham had developed into an important town by the Domesday Survey of 1086. On its southern edge laid a busy quayside on the River Frome which in 1309 was “made a passage port for the south coast” (Penn, 1980: 110). As with both Poole and Corfe, Wareham was confirmed as a borough and given market grants during the thirteenth century; however, the importance and scale of Wareham by 1300 can be seen in the presence of at least seven churches in the town (Penn, 1980: 110). In the 1332 Lay Subsidy, four people of Wareham paid sums comparable with the wealthier merchants of Southampton and were some of the highest sums in Dorset (Mills, 1971: 103; Platt, 1973: 264; Penn, 1980: 110).

It seems that the quay went out of use or went into decline in the mid-fourteenth century as its last mention comes with three ships and 94 men being provided for the King for an attack on Calais (Penn, 1980: 110). It would seem that the town had also gone into decline by this time due to many reasons such as the silting up of the River Frome and the south and east areas of Poole Harbour, the use of larger ships and thus the growth of Poole and the impact of the Black Death (Penn, 1980: 110). Unlike Poole and Corfe, Wareham did not grow during the post-medieval period and remained a small market town.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the Isle of Purbeck may be regarded as a “marginal economy” (Hinton, 2002: 84). Despite the area consisting of a wide range of resources including downland, pasture, woodland and ploughland, the 1334 Lay Subsidy (Glasscock, 1975; Hinton, 2002: 85) indicates that there was little wealth.

Shortly after the conquest in 1066, the Isle of Purbeck was seen by the ruling Normans to be a major source of stone. Purbeck Marble is found across Britain as it was used in major building projects such as the cathedral in Canterbury, York, Winchester, Lincoln, Exeter, Salisbury and London. The trade went into decline during the 14th century as major buildings works declined along with the suggested stagnation in the economy of England at this time.

As well as its use in ecclesiastical construction, Purbeck Marble was also used in secular building works local to its source such bridges at Wareham over the rivers Frome and Piddle. The large scale trade suggests that there was a sizeable population in Purbeck during its peak years of the early to mid-thirteenth century (Cochrane, 1970: 56). In order to support quarrying, carried out between Corfe Castle in the east and Langton Matravers in the west, working, often carried out in West Street in Corfe, and the shipping and transport, a great number of people would have been involved. Indeed, Hutchins describes the debris and associated waste in West Street as being up to twelve feet thick. However, Blair does suggest this may have been deliberate deposition in order to make up the road (1991: 41).

Cochrane suggests that barge-type vessels were loaded in the shallow waters on the south side of Poole Harbour at Ower, before the stone was transferred to large ships in the deeper waters out in Poole Bay (Cochrane, 1970: 54). Blair (1991: 43) also suggests that the marble may also have been taken off by ship from the quays at Swanage and Wareham. It may then have been shipped to Christchurch and up the River Avon to places such as Salisbury.

The remains of Ower Quay in the foreground, looking out towards Green Island
The remains of Ower Quay in the foreground, looking out towards Green Island

Whilst the marble was remained a popular building material until the sixteenth century Blair (1991: 41) states that “the great age of the marblers was the century between 1250 and 1350”   and Salzmann (1913: 86) suggested that “the marble had gone out of fashion and been largely superseded by alabaster in the fifteenth century for sepulchral monuments.”


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