Through the 19th century, Scaplen’s Court changed hands many times and was further sub-divided. Rooms were partitioned, fireplaces and doorways blocked up, walls plastered over. By 1901, there were five families (23 people) living in the building. The accommodation was basic. Mrs. Phyllis Cole who had lived there as a child, described it forty years later as old, draughty and ugly. ‘I can only remember one sink and that was out in the back garden. It was used by us and all the other tenants.’ If the weather was reasonable, all the washing had to be done out in the open but if it was too bad, bowls of water had to be carried inside.
The view from the High Street was of a row of ordinary brick tenements, but a passageway from the street led through to a quaint old courtyard, modernised on the south and west sides by brick additions. A second passageway led to the gardens with a view of the north front of the house.
By the 1920s, the property housed seven families and was in a very dilapidated state. During a storm in October 1923, a seven year old girl who lived in the Court was sitting in her classroom in St James’ School when she saw a chimney stack topple over and crash through the roof of Scaplen’s front range. ‘I said at the time that it was my mum’s house and then my uncle came round and got me out of class and said mum and auntie were taken to hospital’. The family was rehoused in Ballard Road, Baiter.
The damage to the property meant that some of the tenements were unfit for habitation but it also revealed parts of the ancient structure which had long been hidden. In 1924, local historian and school master, Harry Peace Smith was given access to the building by the owner, Mr F. S. Allen. Mr Allen was planning to demolish part of the building to allow space to garage his lorries but he allowed H.P. Smith to examine the vacant parts of the building and even joined him in taking down brickwork and plaster as the search intensified.
An article written by H. P. Smith for the Poole Observer conveys some of the excitement of the discoveries they made. ‘When the partitions which had divided one room from another were removed . . . we found ourselves in a hall forty feet long and twenty four feet wide. The left hand jamb of an arched stone doorway (bricked up) was already visible, and when we had removed a brick chimney piece we found ourselves looking at a fairly well preserved Gothic doorway, seven feet high and three feet six inches wide.’ Behind a modern mantlepiece in the upper hall and under a thick layer of plaster, was an original stone fireplace inscribed with initials and dates from the 17th century and earlier. One read MD35 (1535). Medieval roof timbers, carved stone window frames, 18th century panelling, cornices and carved doors were all revealed.
A remaining tenant, 80 year old Mrs Adey, told H. P. Smith that an old painting had once hung above her mantelpiece showing the marks of a pistol shot and a rapier thrust. There was also the story of a picture over the mantelpiece in another tenement, which was supposedly by Rubens. This was sold for under five shillings and sent to London where it apparently fetched £900.
H. P. Smith felt strongly that the building should be preserved and also came to believe that it had been the headquarters of the Guild of St. George, an important religious fraternity in medieval Poole. He started a campaign to persuade the council to preserve the building and turn it into a museum. In a speech given to the Society of Poole Men and Poole town councillors in August 1924, he argued that Scaplen’s Court should be saved not just because it would make a good museum and tourist attraction but because it was a symbol, ‘a potent, yet silent witness – the sole remaining witness – to the sacrificial labours of your medieval forebears’. He concluded: ‘if you let the building come under the hammer of demolition, future generations will rise up and condemn you.’
However the owner’s asking price was £1,000 and while the council debated, the building deteriorated. In late 1925, £600 was raised with the help of ex-mayor, Charles Carter J. P. and then disaster struck. A gale caused another major collapse of the front range of the building and the cause seemed hopeless.
In the next couple of years the remaining tenements were vacated. The last tenant to leave was Mrs. Nellie Bowering and her last day there was a tragic one. As her belongings were being loaded on to the removal van, her husband Sidney who was a docker, was injured in an accident on the Quay and died soon afterwards at Cornelia Hospital.
The building stood empty and forlorn, but as a result of fresh discoveries in the west block, The Society of Poole Men determined to have another attempt at preserving it. The sum of £430 was raised and the building was finally acquired by a society specially set up called Scaplen’s Court (Poole) Ltd. After repair and renovations it was opened to the public in April 1929 with H. P. Smith as Honorary Curator. The front range was still open to the sky but it had been tidied up and made secure. In the first two years, 10,000 visitors paid their sixpences to see the house and in 1931, the Poole Corporation finally took over the building for the sum of £1,600.
Jenny – to be continued
Poole and Dorset Herald
Guides to Scaplen’s Court
Text of a speech H. P. Smith 1924