Now and Then – Lower High Street

High Street running down to the Quay

This picture was probably taken about 1860, showing the bottom of High Street where it turns sharply to meet the Quay. On the left is a row of cottages, converted into shops and beyond them an old store on the corner of the Quay. On the right is a large pub, then the King’s Arms, with an arch of the Poole Subscription Library in the foreground.

It was in this area that there was once an inlet in the shoreline, known in the 16th  century as ‘Mesurer’s Gap’ from the Mesurer family whose house was situated on the eastern end of the Great Quay. It was not until 1618-20 that the merchants of the town raised money to fill in Mesurer’s Gap and extend the Quay in an easterly direction. The workmen were provided with extra beer to tackle the unpleasant task of clearing the ‘great mixen’ or rubbish dump that had accumulated there! This final stretch of High Street must date from after that period.

Hutchin’s map c.1760

The King’s Arms Inn is known to have been in existence by 1697 and must be part of the block of buildings shown on the western side of High Street on this map from about 1760. Part of the block had been converted into a Custom House and this was the building which was attacked in 1747 by a gang of smugglers to reclaim a cargo of tea which had been seized by a revenue cutter in the harbour. Their brazen action and the brutal murder of a witness and his escort by a group of fellow smugglers became infamous and the authorities took great pains to hunt down the ringleaders who were eventually hanged.

In 1813, a fire broke out in The King’s Arms which destroyed the whole block including the inn, a druggist’s shop, some tenements, two large stores and the Custom House. The present, purpose-built Custom House was constructed soon afterwards under the terms of the lease and care was taken that the new building should not abut directly on to any other building. The stores were also replaced with large warehouses and the inn with the present substantial public house. In the late 20th century, the pub was given many different names including The Helmsman, The Water’s Edge, Hector’s House, The Inn on the Quay and its present name, The Spotted Cow.

The pub today

The Subscription Library has been described in a previous post on this blog. It was built in 1830 as the gift of the town’s two MPs, Benjamin Lester Lester and the Hon. F. S. Ponsonby.  The arches along the front were originally open but were enclosed in 1867, helping to date the old photograph above. After the building of the Poole Free Library in 1887, the building was a sport’s club and in the 1930s, a booking office for the Gondolier Boats that used to do trips around the harbour. Towards the end of World War II, it became an office for the cargo section of the British Overseas Airways Corporation which operated  international flights with flying boats from Poole harbour. Later it was the Missions to Seamen headquarters and then in the 1960s and ’70s, the engineer’s office for the Poole Harbour Commisioners.

The old library building was replaced by a rather undistinguished office block which served as the entrance to the Poole Museum until it was replaced by the modern entrance gallery in a refurbishment in 2007.

The cottages on the other side of the road were inhabited at the time of the old photograph by sailors and maritime craftsmen – shipwrights, sailmakers and ship’s carpenters, some of them doubling as shopkeepers. This changed in the 1870s with opening of the steam flour mill and the corn store further along  High Street when there was an influx of mill workers. John Compton, the foreman of the mill lived at No. 3 High Street and James Perry, millwright and engineer lived at No. 9 for over 20 years. Another miller, Frederick J. Brown lived at No. 9 from 1911 right through to 1938. The cottages today house shops and cafes, the Cabin, Truly Scrumptious and others.

The building on the corner by the Quay was a grocer’s, a ship chandler’s and then, in the 1920s and ’30s, a tobacconist’s shop run by Mrs Marie Stokes, John Coghlan and later, Wilfred Hopkins. At the end of the war, it was taken over as a cafe by L. Constandinos who ran it up to the 1970s. Today, Corker’s cafe and restaurant occupies the building on the site.

Looking at this part of High Street today, although the buildings have been improved and modernised, they are actually still used for similar functions as 150 years ago.


Sources: Census returns, Directories, A Pint of Good Poole Ale by Andrew Hawkes


About Poole High Street Project

Contact: Jenny Oliver -
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