This series on Scaplen’s Court is turning into a bit of an epic but perhaps that is appropriate for a building with such a long and eventful history!
To resume our story, the ancient house had survived one of the most dangerous decades in its 600 year history – the 1920s. Physically restored and with its antiquity recognised, it was conveyed to ‘the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of the Borough of Poole’ on 30thJuly 1931. During the 1920s and ‘30s, Poole was establishing itself as a holiday resort and the ‘Old Town House’ was a major attraction to tourists in keeping with the historic Quay and old town buildings.
Visitors could admire the massive carved fireplaces and doorways, the fine ancient timber roofs and the stone or oak mullioned windows. The garden had been redesigned in an appropriate style with crazy paving paths around a sun dial and planted with herbs and old fashioned flowers.
The rooms were used to display documents and objects relating to Poole history. Maritime objects, a sea chest, ship paintings and models, a harpoon, the figurehead of the brig Queen Charlotte were on display in the winter parlour. Architectural bits and pieces from old Poole buildings, the foundation stone of the old Poole Grammar School, 17th century panelling from Hunger Hill, a fireplace and hammer beams from the Old Ship Inn and other pieces were displayed elsewhere. In the solar was a collection of objects found during the restoration of the house and garden including cannon balls, tobacco pipes, wig curlers, 18th century matches and a medieval jug.
For 20 years, Scaplen’s Court museum was open to visitors, until the building was found to be structurally unsound and was closed. It took 9 years of renovation and major reconstruction, especially to the rear block, before the building was opened again in 1959. Again in 1977, emergency repairs to the roof were needed. In 1981, two glass cases were forced open and some Roman gold ingots and other items, valued at £3,834, were stolen. A 19 year old man from the High Street was later arrested for the theft.
Throughout these decades, the front range of Scaplen’s Court remained roofless, giving a rather forlorn appearance to the High Street frontage. This is what the building was like when I first knew it. Inside, were displays on Poole history including interesting archaeological finds from the surrounding area. I remember Dad and I nearly getting locked in one winter Sunday afternoon through browsing too long!
However plans had already started to rebuild the front range using local materials and traditional styles, to restore Scaplen’s Court to something like its original appearance. In 1986, the High Street frontage was finally reconstructed after 60 years open to the elements. Downstairs was a spacious entrance hall and upstairs, a fine function room open to the timbered roof. The two-storey bay window which had once been a major feature of the old house was also reconstructed with modern stained glass designs relating to Poole history.
This reconstruction gave the museum staff the chance to carry out a limited excavation in part of the front range in 1985 which cast light on the earliest phases of the building. The excavation revealed the chalk and stone foundations of a cross wall more or less parallel to the front wall of the building but 3 to 4 metres behind it and dating from the late 13th or early 14th century. The size and layout of this early house is unknown, but it seems to have been largely rebuilt in the late 15thcentury to form an L-shaped building, consisting of a hall on the High Street (now extending further forward), and a parlour wing projecting at right angles to the rear. The hall and possibly the parlour may have been open from the ground floor to the roof. Later the house was considerably rebuilt with two further ranges enclosing a courtyard. This story and the rest of the complicated history of the Court was brought together in a 1990s report by Keystone Historic Buildings Consultants, encapsulating all the existing documentary, archaeological and architectural evidence.
Today, Scaplen’s Court is open to visitors for a few weeks in August (with the garden open for the summer). It is also used as a wedding venue and for educational and one-off events such as displays of historic cookery and a Victorian school room experience. My recent memories of Scaplen’s Court include a reconstruction by schoolchildren of the 1405 Spanish raid on Poole, an evening of folk tales and songs with Tim Laycock and a karaoke and fish and chips evening! Maybe not a typical museum experience, but quite in keeping with the jovial days of the old GeorgeInn.
Who knows what is in store for Scaplen’s Court in the 21st century? Judging by the past 600 years, we can imagine more changes of use, more reconstruction and more discoveries for one of Poole’s most ancient buildings.
Poole and Dorset Herald
Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Proceedings