Wallace – Collector and Scientist

ARW butterflyThis article is a taster for the talk at Poole Museum ‘Alfred Russel Wallace: the Poole Years’ by Mike Brooke on Saturday 23rd July at 2.30pm which accompanies the World of Wallace exhibition currently showing in the Museum. (Tickets for the talk are available at the Museum or via j.oliver48@btinternet.com ). The article gives a glimpse into Wallace’s eventful early career.

On 9th October 1852, the Hampshire Advertiser reported that the brig Jordeson, just docked at Deal, brought news of ‘the total destruction by fire of the English vessel Helen, bound from Para, South America.’ Captain Venables of the Jordeson had rescued the crew and single passenger of the Helen in mid Atlantic after 10 days in open boats, exposed to the fierce sun. However, their ordeal was not over. Supplies on board the Jordeson were low and the extra mouths to feed meant that food had to be severely rationed. In fact they might have starved if they had not managed to obtain supplies from a passing ship. As a final trial, the ship had to battle storms in the channel before finally docking at Deal.

Alfred Russel Wallace as a young man

Alfred Russel Wallace as a young man

The sole passenger from the Helen was 29 year old Alfred Russel Wallace, returning to England after four years exploring the Amazon basin, observing and collecting natural history specimens. When fire broke out he had managed to save only a few of his possessions in a tin box but had lost all of his precious specimens of the last two years, which he believed to be worth £500, including his private collection with hundreds of new species of insects and birds. He had also lost most of his notes and drawings. It was a disastrous end to the trip.

Wallace’s family were not well off and he was obliged to earn his way from a young age. His formal education at Hertford Grammar School lasted only to the age of 13 and consisted mainly of learning facts by rote. He was however a keen reader with a practical and enquiring mind. After leaving school he worked in various jobs including land surveying with his brother William, a life which suited him. He developed an interest in astronomy and botany and started a collection of plant specimens. In 1844, he took a teaching post in Leicester which gave him the opportunity to learn mathematics and to use the Leicester Library where he read some of the major scientific works of the day. He also met Walter Henry Bates, a keen entomologist, specialising in beetles, who inspired him to start his own insect collection.

ARW beetlesIn 1847, inspired by ‘A Voyage up the Amazon’ by W.H. Edwards, Wallace and Henry Bates planned a trip to South America to observe and collect the wildlife. They were assured by Edward Doubleday of the British Museum that there were many new and rare species to find and that they could cover their expenses by selling what they collected. They also found an excellent agent in Samuel Stevens, himself a keen collector. The Victorian passion for collecting was partly based on the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ fashionable in the previous century. With the spread of exploration, trade and empire, scientists and the general public alike became increasingly fascinated by foreign artefacts and exotic wildlife. Cases of stuffed birds, trays of butterflies and beetles and tableaux of animals in lifelike poses were to be found in many private houses, institutions and museums. Rare species were much in demand and could command high prices.

Wallace and Bates sailed from Liverpool in April 1848. Wallace was 25 and Bates a couple of years younger. Both largely self taught, they epitomised the enterprising amateur naturalists exploring the world in the early 19th century. In Para they were excited by the abundance and variety of the local fauna. They quickly established a routine, hunting birds in the early morning and then insects until two or three in the afternoon. In the evening they preserved their specimens. Ironically, to a modern way of thinking, Victorian naturalists spent a lot of their time killing wildlife, although they did also observe the habits of the living creatures around them.

ARW Amazon

After a successful few months, the pair decided to separate to cover more ground. Wallace travelled further up the Amazon to the Rio Negro and Uaupes regions, observing the people and the wildlife and pondering ideas about the evolution or ‘transmutation’ of the different species. He also used his surveying skills to map the area. In 1849, Wallace’s brother, Herbert came out to Brazil to work with him but after a year it was clear that he was not cut out for the life, being of a more literary than scientific turn of mind. Herbert prepared to return to Para and England while Alfred set off on another trip up river. Sadly, Herbert caught yellow fever in Para and died after a few days, a fact not known to his brother for several months. In 1852, weakened by bouts of fever, Wallace finally decided to return to England and so embarked on the unfortunate Helen for what would prove to be a near fatal voyage.

Back in England, Wallace’s position seemed rather grim. The specimens sent back to England early in the trip would only cover his expenses, providing no profit, and the loss of his notes and drawings was a major blow. However, the insurance which Samuel Stevens had advised him to take out did provide £200 compensation and there were the letters which he had written home during the trip. Armed with these, his recollections and the notes that he had saved, he wrote ‘Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro’, part travel book, part naturalist’s guide. Published in 1853, it did not make much of a profit but passages were quoted quite widely in the press:

ARW Amazon 2‘Every night, while in the upper part of the river, we had a concert of frogs, which made most extraordinary noises. There are three kinds, which can frequently all be heard at once. One of these makes a noise something like what one would expect a frog to make, namely a dismal croak; but the sounds uttered by the others were like no animal noise that I ever heard before. A distant railway train approaching, and a blacksmith hammering on his anvil, are what they exactly resemble. They are such true imitations, that when lying half-dozing in the canoe I have often fancied myself at home hearing the familiar sounds of the approaching mail train, and the hammering of the boiler-makers at the iron-works.’

Wallace made some useful contacts in London. He had gone out to the Amazon an unknown, but now he was in a position to meet eminent scientists like the biologist, Thomas Huxley. He attended meetings of the Zoological Society, Entomological Society and the Linnean Society and visited the British Museum and Kew gardens for his research. He also read a paper on ‘The Rio Negro and the Head Waters of the Amazon’ at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society and presented his map of the area. When he came to plan his next trip, he was able to ask the President of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Roderick Murchison, if he could arrange a free passage for him to Singapore.

Sir James Brooke

Sir James Brooke

The destination that Wallace had chosen was the Malay Archipelago which he thought would be a rewarding place to study. He set off in the spring of 1854 for what was to be a trip of great significance to his own career and to the development of science. Over the next eight years, Wallace travelled to the different islands in the group, observing and collecting. In Sarawak he was welcomed by the Rajah, Sir James Brooke, a colourful British adventurer who had been appointed Rajah by the Sultan of Brunei after helping restore that monarch to his throne.

Wallace’s next objective was Sulawesi, via Lombok and Bali and from Sulawesi he took trips to the Moluccas and New Guinea. Later, he visited Java and Sumatra. Some of the smaller islands had never been visited by a European collector before and everywhere, Wallace found a wealth of new and interesting species. In each new location, he was quick to establish an efficient routine of collecting and preserving specimens but he was also interested in the lives and customs of the native people amongst whom he was living. In all, he travelled over 14,000 miles and collected around 125,660 specimens of which about 5,000 were new to European science. Several of these like the flying frog of Sarwak and the beautiful golden birdwing butterfly of the Maluku islands, would later be named after him.

ARW lineDuring his travels he began to notice that neighbouring islands contained ‘two different faunas rigidly circumscribed which differ as much as do those of Africa or South America’. He concluded that the eastern islands of the group had once been much further away from the western islands and closer to Australia. The boundary between the areas of different fauna was later to become known as Wallace’s Line. Wallace’s daily observation of different species also gave him a lot of material upon which to base his ideas about evolution. In 1855 he produced an ‘Essay on the Law which has regulated the Introduction of New Species’ which concluded that each new species to emerge required the presence of a ‘pre-existing closely-allied species’. He did not, however, attempt to explain the mechanism by which a new species was created. It was a bout of fever, leaving him too weak for the daily routine of collecting, which gave him the leisure to come up with a possible solution, as he later described:

‘At that time I was suffering from a rather severe attack of intermittent fever at Ternate in the Moluccas, and one day while lying on my bed during the cold fit, wrapped in blankets . . . the problem again presented itself to me, and something led me to think of the “positive checks” described by Malthus in his “Essay on Population”, a work I had read several years before, and which had made a deep and permanent impression on my mind. These checks – war, disease, famine and the like – must, it occurred to me, act on animals as well as on man. Then I thought of the enormously rapid multiplication of animals, causing these checks to be much more effective in them than in the case of man; and while pondering vaguely on this fact there suddenly flashed upon me the idea of the survival of the fittest – that the individuals removed by these checks must be on the whole inferior to those that survived. In the two hours that elapsed before my ague fit was over I had thought out almost the whole of the theory, and the same evening I sketched the draft of my paper, and in the two successive evenings wrote it out in full, and sent it by the next post to Mr. Darwin.’

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

What followed is famous scientific history. When Darwin received the letter, he was dismayed to realise how closely Wallace’s ideas mirrored his own unpublished work. He consulted his friends, Sir Charles Lyall and Dr. Joseph Hooker who proposed a compromise. At a special meeting of the Linnean Society on 1st July 1858, part of Darwin’s work and a letter outlining his theory was read, followed by Wallace’s essay. Wallace did not hear about the meeting until later but his only regret was that he had not been able to correct and proof-read his work. At the time, the theory did not create much response, but the following year, Darwin produced his book ‘On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection’ which produced an increasing storm of controversy.

One of the main confrontations between supporters of Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) ideas and those who opposed them took place in Oxford at a meeting of the British Association on 30th June 1860, as reported in the Athenaeum:

‘The Bishop of Oxford came out strongly against a theory which holds it possible that man may be descended from an ape,—in which protest he is sustained by Prof. Owen, Sir Benjamin Brodie, Dr. Daubeny, and the most eminent naturalists assembled at Oxford. But others—conspicuous among these, Prof. Huxley—have expressed their willingness to accept, for themselves, as well as for their friends and enemies, all actual truths, even the last humiliating truth of a pedigree not registered in the Herald’s College. The dispute has at least made Oxford uncommonly lively during the week.’

Birds of Paradise

Birds of Paradise

By the time Wallace returned to England in 1862 (bringing with him two birds of paradise never before seen alive in Europe), enough time had passed for the public and the scientific community to get used to the ideas if not accept them. His return was very different from his previous return from Brazil. His name was now well known and respected in scientific circles and he had a store of notes and specimens to work upon and information to present. In December 1863, for instance, he gave a paper to the Leeds Literary and Philosophical Society ‘On the Varieties of Man in the Malay Archipelago’ in which he contrasted the Malays in the western islands with the Papuans in the east, as being very different in appearance and character. He suggested that the islands could be divided ‘by a vertical waving line through the Moluccas. . . This division was in harmony with that which had been shown to exist in the animal productions of the same region.’

ARW Malay AIn 1866, Alfred Wallace married Annie Mitten, the daughter of a keen botanist, William Mitten. They were to have three children, Herbert, Violet and William, although Herbert died as a child. After spending some time sorting out his collections, he wrote possibly his most important book ‘The Malay Archipelago’, published in 1869. The Times’ review described it as ‘a careful and deliberately composed narrative, the fruits of 60 or 70 journeys made within the Malay Archipelago, journeys which occupied nearly eight years of time, and extended over a distance of 14,000 miles.’ Mr. Wallace had delayed publication while he sorted his collection of specimens ‘and scientific readers will all agree that this judicious delay has greatly enhanced the value of his work. Every page contains matter of interest; we shall there fore only attempt such a cursory survey of the numerous topics discussed as may induce those of our readers who have not seen the book to get it for themselves.’ One can imagine that Wallace was pleased with this review.

Wallace was to go on to publish a total of 22 books and innumerable papers, articles and essays. He remained an enthusiastic supporter of Darwinism and embraced many other interests including land nationalisation, socialism, and spiritualism. In 1882 he was present at Darwin’s funeral and acted as a pall-bearer, sharing the honour with two dukes, an earl and several eminent scientists. In 1885, he went on an extended lecture tour of the United States and Canada, even meeting the American president, Grover Cleveland. It was a far cry from the circumstances of his early life. He never became a wealthy man but a Civil List pension gave him some financial security. It was a kindly, enthusiastic and enquiring man who came to spend his retirement in Poole.


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Charity and Luxury – Lady Cornelia of Canford

Lady Cornelia

Lady Cornelia

On 25th May 1868 a marriage ceremony was held in St. James’ Piccadilly in the presence of dukes, earls, marquises, viscounts and other members of Britain’s social élite. The 20-year old bride, Lady Cornelia Henrietta Maria Spencer-Churchill, wore a dress of white satin, covered with Brussels point lace and trimmed with silver, white tulips and orange blossoms and a Brussels lace veil. Her necklace, earrings, brooch and hair ornaments were set with diamonds. The eight bridesmaids were dressed in white tulle with blue satin and blue wreath head-dresses. After the ceremony, performed by the Bishop of Oxford, a party of 200 went to the St. James’ Square residence of the bride’s father, the Duke of Marlborough, for the wedding breakfast. Then the happy couple left for the Duke’s country seat Blenheim Palace where they were to spend their honeymoon.

Some of the more old-fashioned aristocratic guests may well have disapproved of the alliance because the groom Sir Ivor Bertie Guest was directly connected with trade. His mother Lady Charlotte Schreiber was the daughter of the Earl of Lindsey but his father Sir John Josiah Guest had been a successful ironmaster. What is more, the Guest family still owned and ran the vast ironworks at Dowlais near Merthyr Tyfill, at one time the largest in the world. It was a sign of the family’s wealth and rising position in society that Sir Ivor could aspire to marry a duke’s daughter.

Ivor Bertie Guest, Lord Wimborne

Ivor Bertie, Lord Wimborne

In 1846, Sir John Josiah and Lady Charlotte had bought the Canford manor estate near Poole for £335,000, remodelling the house at considerable expense as a fitting family home. When Sir John Josiah died in 1852, Ivor, the eldest son, was only seventeen and it was the formidable Lady Charlotte who took over the direction of the ironworks, the management of the estate and the care of her ten children, the youngest being only five years old. In 1855, at the age of 42, she caused a minor scandal by marrying her son’s tutor, Charles Schreiber, who was fourteen years her junior. After Ivor’s coming of age, celebrated with a lavish party at Canford, he took over the management of the business and the estates but his life style was still more that of a wealthy gentleman than of an ironmaster. Besides the properties in Wales and Dorset, he also owned the 65,000 acre Achnashellach Lodge estate in Ross-shire described as the finest deer forest in Scotland. The year before his marriage he bought No. 22 Arlington Street, St. James’s, London, the former home of two prime ministers and several dukes and earls. This he renamed Wimborne House and renovated with the addition of a splendid ball room with elaborate gilded mouldings.

The iron works at Dowlais

The iron works at Dowlais

Visiting their estates after the wedding, the couple were given a reception which today would only be accorded to royalty. In Wales they travelled to Troedyrhiw station by special train from where their carriage was pulled the five miles to Dowlais by the ironworkers, past thousands of cheering onlookers with flags, banners and welcome messages in English and Welsh. It would be interesting to know what Lady Cornelia thought of Dowlais House, large and comfortable but unnervingly close to the ironworks with its eighteen blast furnaces producing around 1,600 tons of iron a week.

Canford Manor

Canford Manor

Ivor’s new bride was beautiful, petite, charming and spirited, with decided ideas of her own. The newly married couple enjoyed a luxurious life style, dividing their time between the social scene in London, Dorset, Scotland, Wales and the continent. The first of their nine children was born in 1869 and they acquired a villa at Branksome Dene, ideal for family summers. At Canford Manor they entertained leading members of society, politicians, aristocrats and royalty in a round of house parties, shooting parties, political fetes and horticultural shows. The house was equipped with every convenience and luxury including a billiard room and a real tennis court.

Cottages, Wimborne Road

Cottages, Wimborne Road

There was also a philanthropic side to their lives. Like many Victorians, Lady Cornelia believed in charitable social improvement and continued projects started by her mother-in-law besides initiating many of her own. Lady Charlotte had decided to improve the living conditions of Canford tenants by building a number of cottages in a rustic gothic design to the very latest standards. Around 111 of these ‘Lady Wimborne cottages’ were eventually built, mainly during Lady Cornelia’s regime, and many of them can still be seen today all over the former estate.

The School House, Broadstone

The School House, Broadstone

From 1874, Sir Ivor tried unsuccessfully for election as a Conservative in Glamorgan, Poole and then Bristol, eventually leaving the Conservative group and entering the House of Lords as a Liberal. In 1880, he was created a baron by Disraeli. Given her husband’s political preoccupations, it was probably Lady Cornelia who was most active in local schemes. Following the Education Act of 1870, which required the provision of primary education for all, the Guests sponsored the building of schools at Hampreston, Hamworthy and Broadstone in the same distinctive gothic style as the cottages. They also gave generously towards the founding of churches in Parkstone and Broadstone and played a big part in the development of the estate by offering land for sale at low prices. Speculation was discouraged by the estate retaining first refusal on any houses offered for sale.

Poole Park, West Lodge

Poole Park, West Lodge

Another important development for Poole was Lord and Lady Wimborne’s donation of 26 acres of land on the shores of Parkstone Bay for the creation of Poole Park. As the Prince of Wales was to visit Canford in January 1890, Lord Wimborne suggested that his royal guest would be willing to formerly open the park. In the event, the visit was slightly marred by absence of the Princess of Wales and her daughters who were suffering from severe colds. Lord Wimborne was also afflicted and had to take to his bed. At Canford, every luxury was laid on and a congenial house party provided for the prince. Unfortunately, the actual opening did not go according to plan because a storm of wind and rain wrecked the decorations in the park. The ceremony was successfully performed in the station booking office before the prince set off on his journey home!

The mayor that year was the outspoken solicitor, Philip Budge who once said of Lady Cornelia that ‘she had an irresistible means of getting her own way which should cause any man that did not agree with her to fly to the uttermost ends of the earth’. She also was a great public speaker, said to never speak at less than 150 words a minute; in fact she was a pocket whirlwind hard to deflect when she was pursuing one of her charitable projects.

Sir Peter Thompson House

Sir Peter Thompson House

The same year as the opening of the park, Lady Cornelia persuaded her husband to buy the old mansion house of Sir Peter Thompson in Market Street, Poole. Here she set up a 30 bed hospital to replace the small surgery she had started in West Street. Cornelia Hospital as it became known, served the community for many years before it was transferred to a purpose-built premises in Longfleet Road on land donated by Lord Wimborne. It was also Lord and Lady Wimborne who laid out the golf courses at Broadstone and Parkstone, in the first instance for the use of their family and friends, but later opening them to others.

The death of Lord Wimborne in 1914, marked the end of a period of unprecedented philanthropy at Canford. Lady Cornelia stayed on at the manor until 1922 when she moved into Merley House and then the unprofitable parts of the estate were sold, including the manor house which became a school. Lady Cornelia died in 1927 in London at the age of 79. In her obituary she was described as ‘one of the most influencial of late Victorian hostesses’. ‘Her Ladyship was possessed of great force of character. Had she been of the opposite sex or had she been born 20 years later, she would probably have figured as prominently in politics as her brother, Lord Randolph Churchill, or her nephew, Mr. Winston Churchill.’ Locally she is remembered for a great number of charitable projects which had a lasting impact on the town of Poole and as a representative of almost unimaginable wealth and privilege from an era now vanished.


Selected sources: Lady Wimborne Cottages by Pat Clark / A History of Poole by Cecil Cullingford / A Portfolio of Old Poole by John Hillier.

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Only Connect Quiz Answers

I hope you managed to solve the clues and they weren’t too obscure.


  1. Red squirrels / Blue Lagoon / Yellow buses / Greenslades ( the connection is, of course, colours)
  2. These are all the names of past or present harbour vessels; the Herbert Ballam and the Kingston Lacy are or were Harbour Commissioners’ tugboats, the Maid of Poole is a pleasure boat and Bramble Bush Bay is the name of the Sandbanks chain ferry.
  3. These were different themes for the day at Baden-Powell’s first scout camp on Brownsea Island in 1907.
  4. Hosiery (sorry – a bit obscure!) / ball / bull / castle. These represent lanes off Poole Quay: Hosiers Lane, Ball Lane, Bull Lane and Castle Street.



  1. Answer: ‘1837 Swing’. These are the dates in reverse chronological order of the four Poole/Hamworthy bridges with their method of opening.
  2. Answer: ‘Late Medieval Poole’ (or something similar). These are the different locations of the principal port in Poole Harbour at different times in history.
  3. Answer: ‘Poole Quay’. These are the places visited during the Beating of the Sea Bounds ceremony.
  4. Answer: Any picture of a local stretch of water. The clues represent the elements: the Globe (ie. earth), air and fire.

Connecting wallWall2

  1. Coat of armsFirst row: local worthies who have had schools named after them.
  2. Second row: symbols from the Poole coat of arms.
  3. Third row: bodies of water from local place names eg. Westbourne, Longfleet, Lake (Hamworthy), Creekmoor.
  4. Fourth row: Islands in Poole Harbour.

Missing vowels

  1. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUpton House / Canford School / Clouds Hill / Mansion House
  2. Custom House raiders / Isaac Gulliver / Tichborne claimant / Harry Paye
  3. Amity Cinema / Poole Stadium / Tower Park / Branksome Solarium
  4. Longespee charter / Swash Channel wreck / Log boat / Poole Pottery collection.

All the best


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Only Connect Poole & Dorset Christmas Quiz

If you are a fan of the fiendish TV quiz, you might like to have a go at this local version over Christmas. I hope it is not as difficult to solve as it was to compile! Drop me an e-mail with your answers.

Connections – Can you decipher these local clues and identify the link between them?

  1. Rare island dwellers / Tropical-sounding sailing club site / Sunny road transport / Fish merchant or pleasure boat operator.
  2. Kingston Lacy / Bramble Bush Bay / Maid of Poole / Herbert Ballam
  3. Woodcraft / Chivalry / Life-saving / Patriotism

Sequences – Three clues: what should come next and why?

  1. 2012 Lift / 1927 Lift / 1885 Swing / ?
  2. Iron Age Green Island / Roman Hamworthy / Early medieval Wareham / ?
  3. Broomhill, Hamworthy / Redcliff Atwell, Arne / North Haven Point / ?

Connecting wall – Can you sort these words into 4 groups? What connects the words in each group?


Missing vowels – replace the missing vowels to identify the words or phrases.

  1. Local houses or former houses: PT NHS / CNF RDS CHL / CLD SHLL /         MN SNHS
  2. Beyond the law: CST MHSR DRS / SCGL LVR / TC HBR NCL MNT / HR RYPY
  3. Places of entertainment, past and present:       MTYC NM / PLST DM /          TW RPRK / BRN KSMS LRM
  4. Historic artefacts: LN GSPC HRTR / SWS HCH NNLW RCK / LGBT /         PLPT TRYCL LCTN

Good luck!


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Wreck and Mayhem on the Dorset Coast

Map Weymouth 2Some time before noon on Saturday 11th December 1641, a Dutch vessel called the Golden Grape was driven ashore in foul weather and cast away on Chesil Beach near the village of Wyke. Seven crew members were drowned. The inhabitants of the coast where the ship was wrecked had a long history of wresting their living from ships and the sea, sometimes within the law, often outside it. Merchants, privateers, out-and-out pirates, not to mention smugglers, flourished there for centuries, often with the connivance of the highest in the land.

The Golden Grape was carrying a rich cargo on her voyage from Cadiz to Le Havre, including raisins, wine, oil, wool and silk. She also carried a quantity of silver plate and gold and silver coinage whose origins and intended destination were mysterious. These goods now lay at the mercy of the wind and sea and of the local population. As the surviving crew struggled ashore, wet, cold and shaken, what reception could they expect for themselves and their stricken ship?

Selwyn WilliamsDiscover the fate of the vessel and the background of piracy, smuggling and other lawless activities along the Dorset coast at a talk by Selwyn Williams, local historian, diver and author of The Treasure of the Golden Grape. The talk is at Poole Museum (5th floor) on Wednesday next, 18th November as part of the Museum Society programme, and visitors are welcome.

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The Skutt family of 17th Century Poole

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThroughout a turbulent century, the Skutt family was at the heart of events in Poole. The family was a large one with the habit of using certain common Christian names, George, William, Thomas, Joseph and Benjamin, so it is sometimes difficult to tell which individual is being referred to in the records. To add to the problems, the parish registers are damaged, making it hard or impossible to find vital entries. This article therefore needs to be regarded as work in progress and far from definitive.

George, son of William Skutt, was baptised in Poole in 1582. There were other branches of the family living in the town. William and Morgan Skutt were listed among those required to attend to fight at Brownsea castle in the Poole census of 1574 while George Skutt and his wife and Mar (Morgan?) Skutt and his wife appeared in the main list of residents.

In 1608, George Skutt was admitted as a burgess of the town for a consideration of 20s and in 1614 he served as Sheriff. His name also appeared in the town accounts paying the quarterly tax imposed upon brewers. Brewing was an important trade in Poole, not only supplying the needs of the town and ships sailing from the port but also supporting a healthy export trade, particularly to the Channel Islands. Many of the leading citizens included brewing among their business interests.

Corn market 1Sometime before 1613, George married Jane Roberts, daughter of the merchant, M.P. and several times Mayor of Poole, Thomas Roberts. He also bought an old house known as the Priory in the corn market area of High Street. Over the next two decades, the couple raised at least twelve children, eleven of whom survived their father. In 1621/2, George served as Mayor for the first time, the beginning of a long connection with public affairs.

In the 1620s and 1630s, local shipping was under attack from pirates, including Barbary pirates from North Africa, operating in the Channel. The fleet sailing out to Newfoundland to fish for cod in the summer season was drastically reduced by their attacks. One expedient was to issue Letters of Marque and Commissions to Fight Pirates for many privately owned ships, among them the Desire owned by George Skutt and Thomas Roberts’ ship the Concord, which received their licences in 1626. The following year, the two ships were successful in capturing a pirate vessel and bringing her back into Poole.

Prospect town shipsIn 1628 a list of Poole ships and seamen showed George Skutt as the leading ship-owner of the town. Besides the Desire (80 tons), he also owned the Seaflower (60 tons), the Primrose (50 tons), the Susanna (20 tons) and was joint owner with his father-in-law of the Jeane (50 tons). The record did not show where the ships were employed but George’s largest vessels were certainly of a size to take part in Newfoundland trade in normal times. The fact that the times were far from normal was emphasised in a report from Poole that same year. The port had lost twenty ships worth £13,400 in the previous four years. Where once twenty ships had been employed in the Newfoundland fishery, there were now only three. In 1632, as George Skutt served again as Mayor, he was involved with Trinity House in efforts to ransom 22 Poole sailors taken captive by Barbary pirates and likely to be sold into slavery.

To fund ships to combat the pirate threat, the King levied a Ship Money tax on coastal towns. In 1634 and again in 1635, Poole was asked for £60, nearly equal to the town’s entire annual revenue. People paid up slowly and with resentment and the town’s complaints of poverty resulted in the sum being reduced to £30 in 1636 and £24 in 1637. The committee which had the hard task of raising the money included George Skutt, mayor for the third time, and his eldest son William who had been admitted as a burgess in 1632 and was to serve as Sheriff in 1639.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy 1642, relations between the King and Parliament had broken down and Charles left London with his family. In August, he raised his standard at Nottingham. Poole declared for Parliament and set about organising its defences under Governor, Col. John Bingham. In March 1643, William Skutt, now Captain of Volunteers for the town, ‘took and apprehended’ the Mayor of Poole, Henry Harbin and Johnson Melledge, inn-keeper and Collector of Customs, as delinquents. What they had done or why their loyalty was suspect, we do not know. They were sent up to London to be questioned and William was given indemnity for arresting them. Johnson Melledge lost his post and was probably detained in custody but Henry Harbin was apparently back in Poole by August when he was named as a member of the committee for raising money for the armed forces. As George Skutt was also a member of the committee, it’s likely that proceedings were rather strained.

36In the summer of 1643, members of the Poole garrison were besieging the Royalist stronghold of Corfe Castle under the command of Sir Walter Erle when news came of the advance of Royalist forces and the fall of a series of Parliamentary towns in Dorset. The siege was lifted in confusion and the troops withdrawn to Poole. The town’s Recorder and M.P. William Constantine wrote to the Poole authorities asking them to surrender to avoid the devastation of a siege. However the Poole men rejected the notion. In a letter to Portsmouth signed by John Bingham, Robert Butler (the Governor of Wareham), George Skutt and William Skutt, the garrison was described as ‘valiente and full resolved to fighte’. The letter concluded by asking God to ‘give us hartes never to feare them that are runninge headlong into hell’. Later that year, William Constantine was disabled as Poole’s M.P. and recorder.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the event Poole avoided a siege and survived a plot to betray the town. The garrison also scored some military successes against the Royalists but in the next couple of years Poole, along with other communities, suffered shortages of food and other necessities. In June 1644, Parliament supplied £500 ‘for the Service of Poole, now in great Distress’. That summer, the local Standing Committees across the country were given greatly expanded powers. They could, for instance, assess wealth and raise money, assemble forces and appoint officers, imprison anyone disturbing the peace or considered to be a malignant or delinquent, dismiss ill-affected ministers and school-masters and sequester their estates and distrain goods in lieu of payments due. The members of the Poole committee, John Bingham, George Skutt, Aron Durell, Haviland Hiley, William Skutt and John Mellmoth had thus acquired immense power and influence in the community.

Among many important families and individuals, the Skutt family’s position in local affairs was prominent. In the autumn, George Skutt began his fourth term as Mayor of Poole. Meanwhile William continued in his military role as well as serving on the Committee. In September, for instance, eight guns were sent from the Isle of Wight to be delivered to Captain Skutt and Captain Harding for the use of the Poole garrison and the Brownsea blockhouse. (Henry Harding, captain of Brownsea Castle, was probably the husband of Jane Skutt and William’s brother-in-law.)

Windmill colIn the late summer of 1645, as George’s year of mayoralty was coming to an end, the town was terrified by the appearance of the dreaded symptoms of plague among the population. The authorities had to respond urgently to the situation. The sick were first isolated in the windmill at Baiter and then four pest houses were built to contain the increasing numbers. In September as Aron Durell took over as Mayor, the town was in crisis with normal life on hold. To secure food for the town, Poole’s leading men made contact with other local towns to beg for money or supplies. George Skutt and Henry Harbin managed to obtain £50 6s 7d from Southampton while other sums came from Shaftesbury, Dorchester, Christchurch and Blandford by the efforts of Haviland Hiley, John Mellmoth and others. At around 63 years of age, George Skutt was possibly too old to ride around the countryside at war as others did. ‘Major George Skutt’, however, did perhaps travel to obtain the £23 he secured from Portsmouth and the 10 bushels of meal for the town’s use. The major was almost certainly George’s second son, George junior, but I have not discovered how he acquired his military title.

In December the outbreak was showing signs of abating. In London, Parliament had detained William Constantine for questioning and now appointed George Skutt to be M.P. for Poole in his place. How much time he spent in Parliament, given his local duties, is not clear. The Skutts were now even more prominent than before. In 1646-7, William served as Mayor of Poole while George junior was admitted as a burgess in 1647 and appointed Sheriff in the same year. In March 1647, according to the Journal of the House of Commons, William Skutt was approved as Governor of Poole and Brownsea Castle.

Col. John Rede

Col. John Rede

In November 1647, Lt. Col. John Rede was apparently appointed to the Governor’s position by commission from General Fairfax. Perhaps he did not take up his post immediately or he and William Skutt worked together over the next few months. Certainly in August 1648, Parliament was in correspondence with William Skutt who had reported on the condition of the garrison and the urgent need for supplies. The authorities replied to him as Governor of Poole and also wrote to the Dorset Committee: ‘we therefore recommend these garrisons [including Poole] to your especial care and desire their speedy supply lest they should be seized by the enemy’. In October 1648, however, Sir Walter Erle was asked to deliver supplies to Lt. Col. John Rede, Governor of Poole and Brownsea Castle and this seems to mark the transition to the new governorship.

This was far from the end of the story of the Skutts of Poole. In fact a battle for the leadership of Poole was about to take place. During the second half of the century, as we shall see, the family story expanded to include London, Barbados, Jamaica, the coasts of Africa and contacts with kings. . . .

For the next part of the story, see http://poolemuseumsociety.wordpress.com


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Too Radical for Poole?

Col. John Rede

Col. John Rede

Debates about politics and society are nothing new. A talk at Poole Museum on Saturday 26th September at 2.30 pm by writer, broadcaster and activist, John Rees, will take the audience back over 350 years to a time when England was without a king and the country abounded in new political ideas. The Governor of Poole was Col. John Rede, a charismatic soldier whose radical beliefs and revolutionary associates had begun to raise alarm in the heart of the Poole establishment. When they petitioned Parliament for his removal, the stage was set for a dramatic confrontation between Rede and George Skutt, the man who planned to take over as Governor.


John Rees

John Rees

The illustrated talk will explore the background and discuss the outcome of this little known episode in Poole and national history. John Rede, the Levellers & the Battle for Poole 1647-1651 is run jointly by the Levellers’ Association and Poole Museum Society. Numbers are limited so booking is essential. Tickets cost £4 each; click, print and complete the booking form below to apply.

Rede Booking form 2

Haydn Wheeler organiser of the talk with Jeremy Corbin and the poster!

Haydn Wheeler, organiser of the talk with Jeremy Corbyn and the poster!




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