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Mr Russell’s Weymouth Holiday – 1840

In the summer of 1840 Mr T.P. Russell decided to spend a month at the seaside resort of Weymouth. He brought with him from Gloucester, where he was a banker, his wife, two daughters, brother-in-law and a maid. Mr Russell was 65 and suffered from rheumatism; his wife was 56 and his two daughters were in their early thirties. He kept a diary of their month-long holiday at the seaside resort made popular by George III.

They departed from Gloucester in their own carriage. Along the way a small repair to the carriage was necessary and they spent a night at Bath, after sending their maid on separately with luggage. In the morning the family was on the road again, stopping at Frome to change horses, then onto Bruton and Sherborne, passing through many cloth manufacturing villages on the way. Mr Russell thought Sherborne “large but ill-built.” By 5 o’clock the family group had arrived at Luce’s Hotel in Augusta Place, Weymouth, having passed through Dorchester, which Mr Russell decided was “better constructed” than Sherborne.

The family had dinner at the Hotel at a cost of one guinea, including tip. Then followed a stroll along the Esplanade to the Alexandra Gardens where they listened to a band of fourteen Fusiliers.

Lodgings for their stay were found at 6 York Buildings; “clean and sufficient Commodious but dear at fifty shillings a week” thought Mr Russell. The family spent the morning buying supplies with help from Mr Thomas, who kept a library on the Esplanade. He had been recommended to Mr Russell and “proved most helpful”. Mr Russell commented “We found the town larger than we expected, with very good shops and a good market, fish plentiful and at a low price. The baths, however, were a disappointment, being poor.”

The next day Mr Russell took his first warm sea bath. The rest of the family walked along the beach and watched the yachts in the bay. The weather was showery and blustery but this did not deter the family taking a trip in a rowing boat followed by a walk to Radipole Spa where they could smell the Sulphur Spring. The family made an expedition to Wyke, “a pretty rural village with a handsome church”. It was mid-August and corn was being cut.

The family expressed satisfaction with their lodgings and the “cheerful” situation but there was some disappointment as Mr Russell commented: “the place does not fill as much as we expected, the fashion of it has partly gone”.

Mr Russell was suffering from rheumatic pain and did not accompany the family to church on Sunday. The weather was stormy and Mr Russell chose instead to write letters and visit Mr Thomas’ library. The next day the family could have gone to the local races but decided to sail out to Portland, where they saw a large ship bound for Sydney and a brig en route for America.

A few days later they again set off for Portland and found that no work was being done in the quarries as the men were on strike for higher wages. Mr Russell thought the sheep on Portland were “poor”. He was very interested in the modern castle, probably Pennsylvannia, but he found the island generally desolate: “a few miserable villages, scattered on sterile land”, was how he summed up Portland.

Mr Russell continued to take warm sea baths but they did nothing to improve the rheumatic pain. One of his daughters swam in the sea and the family visited Osmington about which Mr Russell said: “a very beautiful retired village very neat, rural and clean, with roses in full bloom”. The church (which one of his daughters sketched) was “remarkably clean and neat”. The family saw the hillside chalk image of King George on his horse. On another trip to Osmington Mills, prawns and lobsters were sampled. At dinner one evening they tried a fish called “pipers, ugly with a large head”; it was eaten baked and stuffed.

The maid joined them on their next boat trip and they all watched men unloading stone for an extension to the pier. Other days passed with them taking walks but because of his rheumatism Mr Russell had to travel by bath chair, which cost him one shilling and sixpence a time; his baths cost three shillings.

The family returned home to Gloucester on the 8th of September by way of Sherborne, Castle Cary and Clifton. On the whole they had enjoyed their stay by the sea and left with some regret.

Mr Russell’s diary concludes with a breakdown of costs; after all he was a banker. The journey to Weymouth cost fourteen pounds, eight shillings and ten pence, the return journey seventeen pounds, one shilling and sixpence. The subscription to the rooms for the month was ten shillings; the boatmen charged four shillings a trip. Four weeks lodgings with linen came to twenty-two pounds and a piano was hired at a cost of thirteen shillings and nine shillings was spent on wine. The total cost for the month was almost eighty three pounds and the diary makes clear this includes the maid, although how much of a holiday the trip was for her, we can only speculate about.

Lerrets and Fishing Off Chesil Beach

The Lerret is a traditional Dorset boat designed specifically for use off the Chesil Beach. They have been around for at least four centuries; David Carter found one mention of a Lerret in the minutes of Weymouth Council of 1615:  “…Mr Mayor J. Roy also furthered Harbour Works eg 2 Lerretts to save the towne boatt from castinge awaye £0.7s.4d…”

Alas, in the name of ‘progress’ and in common with many of the old ways, they are disappearing. In 2010 a new boat was built and launched at Lyme Regis but other than that David Carter, who has made a study of the boats, tells us he believes only four still exist: Pleasure, Blessing, Blessing Two and Silver Star. (David has sent us a photo of Silver Star which we have placed in the photo section).

Lerrets were used for fishing off the Cheseil Beach and are known to have been owned by fishermen from Portland, Wyke, Chickerell, Fleet, Langton Herring and Abbotsbury. Information from Weymouth Council suggests that in the early years of the 20th century over 50 Lerrets were in regular use by fishermen from the area. We have some of the names and the owners: Agnes (Before 1914); Bunger (Fred Sergent); Cauliflower (Sid Huddy); Dawn; Fearless; Girl Pat; Lark; Linnet; May Queen; Ping Pong (F & E Sergent); Queen Mary; Rescue (Jim Burlage); Scarisbrick (Henry Pitman); Speedwell and Twilight (George Morris); Bluebell and Comrades (both owned by the landlord of the Swan Inn, at Wyke, Tom Hatcher); Dauntless (George Randall); Ena (known to have been built in 1926); Lucky Liza (Robert Denman); Mackerell; Nellie and Silver Star (Fred and Toby Randall); Plum (John Randall); Vera( a 19th century boat).

At first glance a Lerret appears to be like any other large wooden rowing boat. But look again. Where is the stern and why is the bottom flatter than a conventional boat? Approximately sixteen feet in length with a beam of between five and six feet, there are three main thwarts across the boat, which would usually be rowed by four men seated on the middle and forward seats, although in some circumstances six oars would be used. Lerrets are double-ended with a high stern post to enable them to be launched off the steep Chesil beach and hauled up onto the beach. Their wide beam and unusually flat bottom makes them very buoyant and they will survive all but the most extreme seas.

The oarsmen will pull double-handed, but the rowers on one side pull stroke alternately with those on the other side. Each oar has a block of wood fixed to the loom by spikes and lashing, this block is known as the copse and it has a hole through it to receive the iron thowle pin, and it is fixed to the gunwale of the boat so standing about five inches above it.
The mackerel move to deeper water by the end of August and soon the weather and seas change from their benign summer ways and will become very ill tempered;  this is the signal for the Lerrets to be ‘beached in’ for the winter. The boats will be pulled to the top of the beach where it is flat, a hollow is made in the beach and the Lerret ‘sunk’ into it, secured with ropes and boxes of pebbles.

William Bilke will be remembered as one of the Wyke fishermen who one day netted 63,000 mackerel off the Chesil Beach. Despite his success on that trip, like most other fishermen in the area he would have had to find other employment as well as fishing to make a living – in William’s case labouring.

He was born in Wyke Regis in 1876; his father, also William, being a fisherman. His grandfather, another William, was a shoemaker but his grandmother, Mary, was the daughter of Joseph Summers, a fisherman. When her husband died in 1865 Mary Bilke went into business as a general carter and by 1871 her eldest son William (24) and Edward (15), his brother, were established fishermen. At that time boys as young as eight could be found helping the men on the beach.

In 1875 William Bilke married Eliza Hallett, they named their first child, who arrived in 1876, William John, and like his father and uncle he was fishing by the time he was 15. In 1898 William married Janetta Critchell and by 1911 the couple had three sons and two daughters. William John Bilke had a long life; he passed away in 1963 aged 87 years; he was buried at All Saints, Wyke Regis. William was also known for shrimping or prawning in the Fleet Lagoon. He would spend hours at a time raking along with a shrimp net in water up to his waist as he worked with the ebbing tide, but he will forever be remembered for his part in landing the big catch.
Eli Hatcher was born at Osmington in 1827 and came to Wyke Regis in the 1840’s to find a bride and employment. He married Elizabeth Roberts late in 1849 and became the landlord of the Swan Inn, where he and his sons would have come into contact with the fishermen of Wyke. Indeed his son Thomas who took over as landlord at the Swan in the 1890’s described himself as an innkeeper and fisherman and is known to have owned two Lerrets.

The Lerret has earned its place in Dorset’s maritime history. Primarily a fishing boat, their crews have often risked their own lives launching into challenging seas to rescue mariners in difficulty on the turbulent seas off our coast.

There are photos of Lerrets in the photo gallery.

A Lerret Boat

Silver Star 2 - one of only a few remaining lerret boats. Photo by David Carter.

Silver Star 2 - one of only a few remaining lerret boats. Photo by David Carter.

Chesil Beach

Fishermen on Chesil Beach

Fishermen on Chesil Beach

The Trial of Augustine Elliott

Two men appeared at the Summer Assizes in Dorchester on the 15th of July 1749 to answer for their part in the plundering of the Dutch vessel Hope when it ran ashore on the Chesil on the 16th of January 1748, and resulted in ten days of lawlessness on the Chesil.  One of those men was Augustine Elliott; we do not have the name of the other man.

Augustine Elliott was a Portland man. The son of John and Joan Elliott, he was baptised on the 25th of April 1696 and on the 4th of April 1716 he married Joan Mitchell. The couple had a daughter, Edith, baptised on the 15th of February 1717 but we haven’t found at Portland any other children from the marriage.
The charge against him was: “Feloniously stealing and carrying away ten ounces of gold and twenty ounces of silver from the ship called the Hope, the property of Hendrick Hogenbergh, merchant of Amsterdam, and others.”

Counsel for the prosecution said in his opening remarks: “My Lord and gentlemen of the jury, I am counsel for the Crown against the prisoner at the bar who stands indicted and charged with a crime of a very heinous nature. Considered in itself it is horrid and barbarous, contrary to the first principle of reason and impressions of humanity. Religion most severely threatens and condemns it. A crime it is which the laws of all civilised societies most strictly punish; a crime in its consequences highly prejudicial to the honour and commercial interest of the kingdom in general. And such in every respect as cries aloud to public justice to lift an avenging hand.”

Counsel went on to describe the conditions at sea and the lack of light from the Portland lighthouse that conspired to cause the Hope to run ashore and said of the people who went to the beach from Portland, Wyke and Weymouth “these people I’m sorry to say it, came not with dispositions of men, but with those of beasts of prey, They came for rapine and plunder.” Counsel said of Augustine Elliott he was “accustomed to prey and ravages of this kind”  and described him as one of two men  who led and organised the men on the beach into one “merciless battalion”  and then sub –divided them into groups of twenty. The prosecution claimed: “In vain did the captain and his company in faltering foreign accents as well as they could “No wreck. The goods ours. Bring it to we and we will pay for it” – meaning the salvage.”

The court was told: “it seems the pillaging parties threw all they could snatch into one heap, for the security of which the prisoner at the bar (Elliott) was posted – as commander of an armed select party. As soon as the reflux of the sea had made the ship accessible, the scattered bands were again united – in a hostile manner armed with cutlasses, clubs, hooks and such like. They marched down to the ship swearing it was a wreck and if not so, they could make it a wreck. Shocking to relate!…the injury of strangers in distress is adding barbarity to iniquity and committing an act exceedingly sinful in the sight of both God and man.”

We learn from the court hearing that the captain with some of his crew made their way off the beach and took the goods they had managed to save to Fleet House, where they had hoped the King’s officers would help them. It seems they were disappointed. Counsel claimed in court: “They came indeed, but basely deserted their duty. Their behaviour was despicably timorous and infamously negligent.”

The description of the events to the court reached the point where there were thousands of people on the beach engaged in plunder when the forces of law and order determined to step in. Three Justices of the Peace with a well-armed group of men finally halted the wreckers and proceeded to search from house to house through the hamlets, villages and towns making many people surrender their ill-gotten gains to the agents of the ship’s owners. About £25,000 worth of goods were retrieved.

Elliott, it was claimed, was the principal organiser and the court was told “He was the muster-master, the treasurer, and divider of the prey amongst his plundering regiment.”

Captain Corneliz came to give evidence but was shy of saying how much his cargo was worth, saying only that it was rich and worth over £30,000. His command of English was not very good.

Next up was Bartholomew Cooper, officer of Customs at Portland. He told the court: “Early Monday morning I heard a loud talking in Chesil parish in Portland that a ship was on shore. I got up, but the thing being doubtful, I went and fed my horse with oats at a stable which was at some distance.” Copper was not a very co-operative witness and Counsel for the prosecution had to question him hard to get him to answer any question directly; we might be excused from thinking Cooper was on Augustine Elliott’s side.

It appears that once Cooper had determined there was a ship wreck, he and two other officers of Customs rode along the beach. Under questioning Cooper eventually told the court that there were at least 2,000 people digging and turning over the beach, the ship was pretty much dashed to pieces and he added “My business of surveying would not let me stay long.”

Further evidence was provided to the court that plainly supported Elliott. Another officer of Customs, Benjamin Roper, an officer in Portland quarries, told how he was at Schollard’s public house at Chesiltown when a great number of people clamoured for a division of the loot. Elliott, said Roper, was for keeping the money together till the owners called for it: “But within doors they insisted on sharing the money, as I was told, or else they would burn the house.”

Another witness, John Comben, gave similar testimony. He said “when bags were found they were hoisted on his horse and taken to a boat on the shore of the Fleet…” He said he did not see Elliott in the boat “but saw a man at some distance who mid or mid not be the prisoner. The Captain, I mind, did ask me for a bag but then I had none, The Tuesday after there were a great many of Weymouth, Wyke and Portland at Chesiltown to have the money divided. I did not see the prisoner at first myself but after I did and he said he was for keeping the money together till called for by the owners. But many threatened him, if the money were not divided, and accordingly, it was the next morning – it was £7 a piece.”

Elliott’s defence Counsel took this argument further. “We have several sufficient witnesses to prove,” he said, “that the prisoner in the whole affair acted an open and public spirited part. What he assisted in carrying away home was with an intention to save and not destroy; to preserve for the owners and not to steal and keep from them. On this generous fixed principle he not only acted himself but to his utmost laboured to bring the company he was concerned with to behave in the same humane and honest manner.”

The defence produced a receipt for the money Elliott was charged with stealing, it had been handed to the ship’s agents. The prosecution suggested the money had been brought in as an afterthought by his friends four days after Elliott was committed to stand trial and this was a ruse to mitigate the charges against him.

John Hutchins’ report of the trial reveals the defence had a second strand: arguing the Dutch were pirates who had argued amongst themselves over the division of their bounty and then deliberately ran the ship on shore and deserted her for fear of being taken and punished. The two argued that the Dutch had taken the goods from the Spaniards, who had bought and paid for them; thus they maintained it was lawful to plunder pirates.

Elliott’s trial lasted six hours and thirty minutes and the jury brought in a verdict of “NOT GUILTY

Afterwards, Judge Baron Heneage Legge, commented: “As the nature of this in itself, and the penalties of the law, have been fully and plainly open in the preceding trials, so I am strongly inclined to hope these proceedings might have their proper design and influence, in causing crimes of this sort to cease amongst us.”

An anonymous reporter at the time wrote a layman’s summing up, saying: “As at a moderate computation 10,000 from all parts of the county, of farmers, tradesmen, labourers with one Lord of the Manor, have been concerned either in carrying away part of the property of this ship themselves, or in purchasing the same off them that did so; it is therefore far from being any matter of wonder to find the jury under a strong disposition to favour such, as were tried for offences of this kind.”