A History of Poole

By Tim Lambert

Poole in the Middle Ages

Poole was founded in the Middle Ages. At the time of the Domesday Book, in 1086, England was divided into areas called manors. The area where Poole now stands was part of the manor of Canford. However, there was no record of a settlement at Poole at that time. There may have been a handful of huts but no substantial settlement.

The town of Poole was probably founded in the late 12th century. Merchants from nearby Wareham, which was burned in 1139 during a civil war, may have founded it. Perhaps merchants from Wareham moved to Poole because it was easier to defend. Poole was built on a peninsula. Since it was surrounded by water on 3 sides it was, of course, easily defended. However, it began by the early 13th century Poole was a flourishing port.

In 1239 the people of Poole were given a charter (a document giving the townspeople control over their affairs). The people of Poole were allowed to elect 6 men to form a town council. The Lord of the Manor of Canford chose one of the 6 to be a Reeve (an official similar to a mayor). The men of Poole were also allowed to have a court where people who committed minor offences in the town were tried.

The people of Medieval Poole were also given the right to hold a weekly market and an annual fair. (In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year for a period of a few days. People would come from all over Hampshire and Dorset to buy and sell at a Poole fair). In 1453 Poole was granted the right to have 2 fairs.

In the Middle Ages wool was England’s most important export but only certain ports called staples were allowed to export it. In 1433 Poole was made a staple port. However, Medieval Poole was a small town with a population of less than 1,500. To us, it would seem tiny but towns and villages were very small in those days.

In 1377, during a war with France, Frenchmen landed and burned part of the town. In 1405 a combined Spanish and French army attacked Poole. At first, the French were afraid to land but the Spanish did. They landed and attacked a warehouse. The men of Poole fought them in the building but they were forced to retreat through the rear. The rest of the Spanish and the French then landed and they looted the warehouse.

However, the people of Poole regrouped. They were armed with longbows and they used doors taken off their hinges as shields. From behind the doors, they were able to shoot at the enemy and they prevented the enemy from advancing into the town. Eventually, the raiders burned the warehouse and fled. Later in the 15th century stone walls were erected around Poole.

Poole in the 16th Century

About 1540 a man named Leland visited Poole and wrote a description of it.

He wrote: ‘Poole was not, in the past, a trading town but it was, for a long time a poor fishing village. There are men living who remember when all the buildings in the town had thatched roofs. It now has many more substantial buildings and much more trade. It stands like an island in the harbor and is joined to the mainland by a piece of land no wider than an arrow shot. It also has a ditch (outside the town walls), which is often filled with water from the harbor. There is a stone gate at the entrance of the town. The town lies north to south. There is a substantial stone house by the quay’.

In 1524 a wooden platform was erected on the quayside and cannons were mounted on it. In 1545 a fort was built on Brownsea Island.

During the 16th century, many fishing vessels from Poole sailed to the waters off Newfoundland. There was also a flourishing brewing industry in Poole.

In 1568 Queen Elizabeth gave Poole a new charter. This one made Poole completely independent and gave the townspeople complete control over all their affairs. In 1574 a census showed that Poole had a population of 1,373. It would seem tiny to us but by the standards of the time, it was a small town.

Poole in the 17th Century

In 1642 a civil war between the king and parliament began. The walled town of Poole firmly supported parliament. The royalists made one attempt to take Poole. In 1643 a captain called Francis Sydenham agreed to leave the gate open in return for 40 pounds (a large sum of money in those days) and a pardon.

However, it was a trap. In front of the gate was a semi-circular earthwork called a half-moon. Across its entrance were chains. The gate was left open and the chains were lowered. When the royalist cavalry entered the space created by the half-moon the gate was shut and the chains were raised trapping them. However, most of them managed to escape.

Soldiers with muskets

Poole suffered an outbreak of plague in 1645.

Poole in the 18th Century

In the 18th century, Poole was still dominated by the Newfoundland trade. Ships went fishing off the coast there. Some of the first settlers in Newfoundland came from Poole. Furthermore, manufactured goods were exported from Poole to Newfoundland. As Poole lived by shipping it is not surprising there was an important shipbuilding industry at Hamworthy. There was also a rope-making business in Poole. (Since sailing ships required miles of rope).

During the 18th century, Poole was a prosperous and growing town. (Although as in all towns, there were plenty of very poor people). A new town hall was built in 1761.

Poole in the 19th Century

At the time of the first census, in 1801, Poole had a population of 9,276. By the standards of the time it was quite a large town. Poole grew at a phenomenal rate in the 19th century. The population reached 12,310 in 1881 and was approaching 20,000 by the end of the 19th century. Part of the reason for the growth was the creation of a new seaside resort at Bournemouth which created a vast demand for the goods made in Poole.

As Poole grew its amenities improved. A new Customs House was built in Poole in 1813. A Harbor Office was built in 1820. St James Church was also built in 1820. In 1859 a private water company was founded to supply Poole with water. (The council took over the company in 1906). However, no sewers were dug till the end of the 19th century.

Meanwhile, in 1834, a toll bridge was built linking Poole with Hamworthy.

In the 19th century, the old Newfoundland trade came to an end. When the war with France ended in 1815 fishermen from Poole were suddenly faced with competition from other nations. Furthermore, some countries imposed import duties on dried fish to help their own fishermen. The result was the death of the Newfoundland trade in Poole.

There was also a coastal trade to and from Poole in the early 19th century but it went into rapid decline when a railway was built to the Hamworthy side of the bridge. Businessmen could now transport goods to and from Poole by rail. Another railway was built to the center of Poole in 1872.

Life in 19th century Poole gradually improved. The first public library in Poole opened in 1887. Poole Park opened in 1890. Parkstone Park opened the same year.

It is not certain why Lilliput has that name. Lilliput is the name of a land in the novel Gulliver’s Travels. According to some accounts, there was a house called Lilliput House in the early 19th century (the first resident had the surname Gulliver) and the house gave the area its name.

Poole in the 20th Century

In 1901 electric trams began running through the streets of Poole. But buses soon replaced them. The last trams in Poole ran in 1935.

The first cinema in Poole opened in 1910. Civic Offices were built in Poole in 1932.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Poole was only 19,000. But it grew at a phenomenal rate.

Meanwhile, the old industries of shipbuilding, brickmaking, and brewing declined in Poole in the 20th century. However, the pottery industry survived.

The Dolphin Centre opened in 1969. (At first, it was called the Arndale Centre). Also in 1969, Poole General Hospital opened. The Dolphin pool opened in 1974. Poole Lifeboat Museum also opened in 1974. An Arts Centre opened in 1978. (It was later renamed the Lighthouse). In 1997 Poole became a unitary authority.

Poole in the 21st Century

In the 21st century, Poole is still flourishing. Today there is a Pottery Centre in Poole, which is a thriving tourist attraction. Today Poole thrives on tourism. Poole Museum reopened in 2007 after redevelopment. In 2020 the population of Poole was 151,000.