In 1774, a visitor to Poole, staying in ‘a queer old inn called the Antelope’ described ‘lots of stage coaches and chaises, great broad wheeled wagons, and strings of pack horses coming in and out. Horns blowing late into the night woke us up several times’. (Quoted in A Pint of Good Poole Ale’ by Andrew Hawkes). The High Street was the centre of Poole’s transport network, but for two centuries or more, the street itself was a dead end.
When Poole first grew up as a small settlement near the sea, the main track out of town probably followed the route of the High Street. People coming and going to the church and the manorial court at Canford would have taken this route, as would traders coming to the market and merchants bringing their goods to the port. However, this changed after Poole was made a Port of the Staple by Henry VI in 1433, a great boost to the port’s trade. Part of the deal was that the citizens should ‘wall, embattle and fortify the town’to protect local and visiting merchants.
The defences that they constructed consisted of a ‘town ditch’, dug across the narrow neck of land joining the Poole peninsular to the mainland (roughly along the route of the present railway line). Behind the ditch were defensive walls, and the only way into the town was over a drawbridge and through the town gate, consisting of a stone gate house flanked by two round towers. For some reason (perhaps to do with the firmness of the ground) the gate was built not in the High Street but a hundred yards or so to the west. Another road, Towngate Lane, branched off from the High Street, to access it. So for two and a half centuries, the High Street actually led nowhere and in fact terminated in a wall.
The lower High Street near the Quay was still very much a transport hub however, as some of the main inns of the town were situated there. When Henry VII visited Poole in July 1496, he may have stayed in one of the High Street inns or perhaps at Scaplens Court. We can imagine the awed townsfolk lining the street to stare as the King’s party passed by.
The Antelope and the King’s Head (originally the Plume of Feathers) were welcoming travellers from at least the 17th century, if not earlier. At this time, most travellers to Poole probably arrived by sea, on horseback or on foot. Although the first stage coaches started in the 17th century, development was slow because of the terrible state of the roads. Poole was not on a main route and in the 1650’s Poole travellers would have to go to Blandford or Dorchester to catch the stage, reaching London only two and a half days later.
At the end of the 17th century, the old town gate was finally demolished, but Towngate Lane still remained the main route out of town. Maps from the mid 18th century show a rope walk across the top end of the High Street and the only exit from the street was through a turnstile. Meanwhile, Turnpike Trusts were gradually improving the country’s roads. The Poole Turnpike Trust was set up in 1756 for ‘repairing and widening the several Roads leading from a gate called Poole Gate’ to Wimborne and Cranborne, Bere Regis, Wareham, Ringwood and Christchurch. The Poole Gate mentioned was near the site of the old gate on Towngate Lane.
The improvement of the roads meant the spread of stage coaches and by the 1770’s, Poole had a regular stage coach and a mail coach service, ‘a convenience long awaited by the merchants of Poole’. Some of the High Street Inns became coaching inns with all the associated noise and bustle.
By 1798, there was a daily service arriving at 12 o’clock from London and going out again the same day. Other services ran to and from Blandford and Wareham and for goods there were wagons running to Bristol and Exeter several times a week and a weekly wagon to London via Salisbury.
In the 1830’s, it would have been difficult for anyone living in the lower High Street to oversleep. Every morning except Sunday, the Age coach would be wheeled out of the Antelope yard, horses harnessed and bags and passengers loaded, ready to set off for London at 6 am. Then only half an hour later every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, preparations would begin for the 6.30 am departure of the Wellington for Bath and Bristol (via Shaftesbury, Gillingham and Stourhead).
The London Tavern Hotel (on the site of the present Globe café) was the departure point for the Independent coach which arrived from Weymouth en route to Southampton daily except Sundays at 1.30 pm. The coach travelling in the opposite direction to Weymouth also arrived at 1.30 pm, causing maximum confusion. The Bull’s Head Inn (no. 73/75 High Street) was the depot for the carriers’ wagons going to London, Lymington and Southampton every Tuesday and Friday.
In 1830, the Antelope and the London Tavern sheltered some unusual visitors from France. They were part of the entourage of King Charles X who had fled his country aboard the Royal Navy steamboat Meteor. Landing in Hamworthy, the king was whisked away by Joseph Weld to stay at Lulworth Castle, but some of the large party accompanying him had to be accommodated in the town. One wonders whether they got much sleep.
Coach travel was uncomfortable and could be hazardous. In 1826, the Poole mail coach was robbed at Stoney Cross, the thieves taking the coach and 3 horses. In the winter of 1836 there were terrible snow storms and 14 mail coaches were abandoned, the Poole and Portsmouth routes being the only ones to be kept open. There was also a danger to passers-by in the busy, narrow High Street. On 31st December 1844, Ann Waterman was knocked down in the High Street by the Emerald coach, drawn by 4 horses and heavily laden. She was forced to the ground by the near leading horse and the coach then ran over her legs ‘and bruised them. She lived until 2ndJanuary 1845, when she died, languishing from the bruises’.
Meanwhile, the turnpike trustees had woken up to the fact that if the rope walk at the top of the High Street were removed and the toll house and gate rebuilt on the High Street, it would give vehicles a straighter run into and out of town and avoid the sharp turning into Towngate Lane. They stated this intention in an Act of 1818, but it probably wasn’t until the 1840’s that the scheme was realised, the new tollhouse was constructed (on the site of the present George Hotel) and the High Street once again became the main route after nearly 300 years.
However the golden age of coaching was drawing to an end with the advent of the new form of long distance travel, the railways, and a new chapter was about to begin.
Jenny (To be continued)
Waggons and Coaches in Dorset by Cooksey
A Pint of Good Poole Ale by Andrew Hawkes
Poole Turnpike Trust 1756-1882 by A J Miller
Coroner’s Inquests, Poole Archives