The great (?) work that is the High Street history is gradually approaching the modern era and I’ve started to put together a list of the main sources of its story. Inevitably these change over time from a few scanty references to the masses of material available today, which makes telling a coherent story quite difficult.
The ancient and medieval origins of the High Street are the hardest to pin down. There is not much archaeological evidence because there have been very few excavations actually in High Street. References to Poole in documents are few and far between and to High Street are non-existent. One of the few medieval properties is Scaplen’s Court (which now is officially in Salisbury Street!). Apart from that the street’s early origins are mainly speculation. The question is how much of this is allowable and does it pass the waffle test?
The Tudor era is much richer in sources. For a start there are several fine Tudor merchants houses lurking behind modern frontages in lower High Street. Wills start to appear, full of invaluable information about people’s families and property. Inventories are even better. They were drawn up by friends or neighbours of the deceased to record exactly what was in the house to avoid any future disputes. It’s like walking through the house from room to room noting every footstool, bolster, dripping pan and candlestick. For the first time there are some lists of people who actually lived in the High Street. There are even records relating to a gruesome double murder that took place there, and for the first time I can put a face to a High Street resident. He is Sir Edmund Uvedale reclining on his tomb in Wimborne Minster.
In the troubled 17th century, official records really got going and there are town accounts, court records and the first taxation lists. They don’t sound very exciting but they can be pure gold. The accounts, for instance, take us day by day through a terrible outbreak of the plague in Poole. They tell us who were the winners and losers during the vast upheaval of the Civil War. Tax lists give owners and occupiers of High Street properties (if we only knew which properties they referred to!) The official records are brilliant – if rather dry. Just occasionally a letter exists which gives a flash of personal opinion or emotion. Also we get the first detailed maps showing High Street which are worth a thousand words of description.
The transformation of High Street during the 1700s is still visible today in its legacy of buildings, the great ‘new’ mansion houses and the Georgification of older property. Maps from the middle of the century show how the street had become built up under the pressure of a population explosion. Another source, the court of quarter sessions, also provides rich pickings in recording filth, dilapidation and riot in the street. For the first time we can really get a whiff of dangerously smoking chimneys and dung heaps in the corn market. This is the period when taxation and rating lists at last come into their own and we can more or less work out who lived where – an important step forward. Regional newspapers are also starting around this time and their adverts and articles give us more information than ever before about traders and businesses in High Street.
By the 19th century, the sources are multiplying to such an extent that it is hard to keep up with everything. Three major developments in the middle of the century are the coming of census records, the start of a truly local newspaper and the invention of photography. The census invites us into each parlour and introduces us to the family, and being repeated every ten years, gives local and family historians a great structure to work on. The Poole and Dorset Herald, the Poole Pilot and other local newspapers are so good on local news, events and opinions. In the Victorian era particularly, the detail in their reports is fascinating (lists of prize-winners in coronation sports events, verbatim speeches, exhibits at trade fairs etc.). Advertisements for shops and businesses are also great for giving both information and a feeling for the period. Best of all, with the coming of photographs, the scenes, the buildings and the people that we could previously only imagine, are suddenly revealed, showing things that we otherwise just would not know.
As far as the 20th century is concerned, personal reminiscences are a new and vital source. With two world wars, military and defence records are important to show how these conflicts impacted on the street. In the second half of the century a revolution overtook High Street with conservation measures, the building of the Arndale Centre, widening and pedestrianisation. Council records give the official side but people’s opinions on all the changes are part of the story as well. I just hope I can weld all these bits together to make the whole thing readable.