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The Battle for Weymouth

It was a cold and miserable day that greeted the people of Weymouth as theyawoke on the morning of March 3rd, 1645. They would have seen the Parliament Navy’s ship the ‘James’ anchored in the bay, dark clouds hanging low over it. Soon after daybreak Captain William Batten, Vice-Admiral of the Parliament Navy, came ashore and together with his officers marched straight to the Nothe; on the way he was joined by William Sydenham, the Parliamentary Governor and his garrison officers. Many of the battle fatigued half starved men of the town trailed along behind them through their ruined town.
The gallows loomed large in everyone’s view summoning John Mills , who had been the Town Constable and Captain John Cade a Royalist sea captain, and Walter Bond, a local tailor. All three were charged with treachery. Mills and Cade were hanged but the penitent tailor, described as being “full of confession and sorrow “, was reprieved and returned to Marshallsea, the prison within the Nothe fort.  Another man did not wait to be dragged through the streets to meet his end, choosing to hang himself. No-one knew his name but he was thought to be an “Irish rebel – a native Papist”. Fabian Hodder one of the instigators of the plot to secure the town for the king, was not hanged; he was in prison at Poole.  Hodder survived and following the Restoration became a member of the Corporation of Melcombe Regis.

By Christmas 1644 there were few men in Weymouth who supported the Royalist cause; indeed Weymouth had little to thank either the King or Cromwell for. Fabian Hodder was a prominent merchant in the town, and was plotting with Sir William Hastings, Royalist Governor of Portland, to take Weymouth for the king.

The plan was for Portlanders to attack along the beach road while cavalry under Sir Lewis Dyves, Commander in Dorset for the King, would attack the town’s inland defences. Hodder, Mills, Cade and other Royalists in Weymouth would rise-up when the attacks started at midnight on February 9th 1645, but Hodder found he had over-estimated the support for the king.  He went about the town offering men £5 if they would join him and those that took the money were made to swear an oath: “You shall swear by the Holy Trinity that you will conceal the intended plot”.  The password for the royalist conspirators within the town was Crabchurch and they were told to wear a white handkerchief on their arm.

It had been a hard winter but militarily a quiet one. Peter Ince, the Minister appointed by Parliament, wrote: “In the beginning of February we were in as sweet and quiet security as any garrison in the Kingdom. No enemy near us but one at Portland, and they not very considerable, being about 300 or 400 men”.

Fabian Hodder’s wife Anne wrote the letter that was sent to Sir Lewis Dyves at Sherborne and it was another woman, a widow, (Elizabeth Wall), who undertook the dangerous mission to deliver it to Sherborne, a distance of some nineteen miles.

Battles rarely proceed according to plan and this proved to be no exception. John Cade visited Fabian Hodder just four hours before midnight and was told Sir Lewis Dyves and his cavalry would attack at midnight. Earlier at a church service on Portland the islanders and the King’s troops were told to be at Portland Castle at five o’clock. This was going to be a two pronged attack: one along what was then a quiet country road and the second group were to move by boat to the pier under the Nothe guided in by Walter Bond. Marching along the beach road the Portlanders were met at ‘The Passage’ (there was no bridge) by John Dry, a Weymouth tanner, who led them to the Chapel Fort on the heights of Chapelhay.

Amongst the Parliamentarians within the fort, most of whom were asleep; there was more than one man who had taken Hodder’s money. The men of Portland attacked from the rear and from the harbour but within the hour the Roundheads counter attacked but failed to re-take the Chapel Fort. It was here that Major Francis Sydenham lost his life – he was the Governor’s brother.

Chapel Fort commanded the harbour, the town and much of the Bay. Nothe Fort and a smaller fort at Bincleaves were soon captured. Parliamentary troops still remained in Weymouth and suffered from the Royalist guns which fired upon them from the heights of Chapelhay.
The attack by the Portland men was the only attack that night. Dyves did not keep his promise to march on Sunday.  It was not until the following day that Dyves’ 1,500 horse and foot battled their way into Weymouth forcing the Roundheads to retreat to Melcombe, raising the drawbridge between the two towns as they left.

Two miles away at Radipole Meadow, Mr Wood, Curate of Sutton Poyntz and about thirty other men, most of them armed only with cudgels, had waited all night for the arrival of the King’s cavalry.  Brought before a Parliament Council of War, they pleaded “We waited and went home”. They were fortunate.

From the Chapel Fort the Royalist guns thundered down on around 900 Roundheads trapped in Melcombe surrounded by more than 4,000 Royalists. Thatched houses were set alight as fire balls, bolts and bars rained down on the town. It seems William Sydenham might have been close to surrendering when he said “Let us cease this useless burning”.  The King’s man, Dyves, replied “We scorn to parley with you.” After that exchange Sydenham sent out a patrol that burnt eight more houses and a Royalist ship in the harbour.

A jubilant Dyves arrogantly certain that this time the Royalists would hold Weymouth and confidently expected to capture all of Melcombe, but could the tide of events be about to turn? Vice Admiral Batten brought two Parliamentary ships into the bay and landed two hundred of the toughest fighting men in the Dorset campaign and Lieut. Colonel James Haymes arrived with one hundred men.

On his way from mid-Dorset was Lord Goring, the King’s Lieutenant in Hampshire; with him 3,000 horse, 1,500 foot and an artillery train. On February 23rd Goring unleashed this overwhelming force against the 900 Roundheads in Melcombe but Sydenham did not surrender.

William Sydenham’s men captured twenty-five Royalist cavalry on February 25th. The Cavalier Dyves watched from his vantage point high above the town at Chapelhay and ordered 100 Foot to rescue the prisoners. The hard pressed Sydenham countered by sending 150 musketeers to attack the Chapel Fort. These men were led by Major Wilson and Captain Langford and to the heights of Chapelhay they climbed, stormed the fort taking more than 100 officers, soldiers and “some perfidious townsmen”.

The Royalists had held Chapel Fort for 17 days. With their superior numbers it is surprising they were beaten but the facts of their defeat suggest a lack of enthusiasm amongst the troops, perhaps aggravated by an arrogant and cavalier style of leadership.  On February 27th Lord Goring unsuccessfully fought to regain the fort and suffered heavy losses.  The following day Dyves and Goring heard that Sir William Waller was marching towards Weymouth. Goring withdrew his men to Wyke where his they rested while his wounded were patched-up before marching off to Taunton. The Royalist troops holed-up in the smaller forts of Nothe and Bincleaves – which had not been attacked –appear to have left in a hurry leaving their colours and most of their guns.

At the end of all the fighting the people of Weymouth and Melcombe were left ragged, hungry and filthy. Their towns in ruins, the narrow streets lined with their demolished homes and burnt timbers were scattered all about the place.

“My soldiers, Horse and Foot, have all had very hard service of it day and night. I shall entreat you to write to the Parliament for something for their encouragement; they have neither money nor clothes, and yet unwearied in thisbusiness”, wrote William Sydenham.

Weymouth – Alexandra Gardens 1906

The Kurzaal, Alexandra Gardens, Weymouth 1906

The Kurzaal, Alexandra Gardens, Weymouth 1906

Princess Victoria’s Tour of Dorset

July 1833. Fourteen years before the first railway tracks are to be laid in Dorset, travel is by horsepower or by sea and at Weymouth the population is in festive mood, excited at the prospect of greeting a 14-year-old Princess who will one day be Queen. It was the start of a royal tour to acquaint the people of Dorset and Devon with the woman who one day would rule over the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

Guns were fired as her yacht appeared off St. Alban’s Point and as the ship dropped anchor off the Esplanade buildings and the royal party came ashore in the royal barge, Royal Salutes were fired

Princess Victoria’s home was Kensington Palace, but Norris Castle on the Isle of Wight was her summer base. Accompanied by her mother, the Duchess of Kent, the yacht “Emerald” was towed by a naval steam packet from Portsmouth. With the Princess was her adored King Charles spaniel “Dashy”. The Duchess was “dreadfully” sea-sick on the journey along the south coast, according to Victoria’s diary, which she kept assiduously throughout and which is today preserved at Windsor Castle.

The townspeople of Weymouth turned out and greeted their royal highnesses as illustrious visitors.  It seemed the whole population was proceeding from the King George III statue to the Quay. God Save the King was played as the royal party mounted the King’s Stairs used by King George III on his frequent holidays in the resort; they were then driven in carriages to the Royal Hotel facing the beach.

The following day after an official reception the princess and duchess travelled in a carriage to Melbury House in north Dorset to be entertained there by the Earl of Ilchester.  They were accompanied out of town by many of the inhabitants and a detachment of Lt.Col. Frampton’s Troop of Dorsetshire Yeomanry. Every prominent building in Dorchester was decorated with flowers, and there were flags waving and the sound of bells and cannons as horses were changed en route to Maiden Newton and Melbury, where according to Victoria’s diary they arrived at about 5 p.m.

A visit to Sherborne Castle had been suggested but did not take place. While at Melbury their royal highnesses ascended a tower and had the shapes of their feet cut on the leads. They enjoyed the park, the lake, the great house, and the church.

After a two-night stay the party was on the road again at 9.15 a.m. on August 1 to be “enthusiastically received” at Beaminster, where there were arches of flowers across the road. The carriage passed through the recently opened Russell Tunnel. The Dorset County Chronicle told of “spontaneous outbursts of enthusiasm” being received everywhere the royal party went.  This was at a time when there was pressure for a republic; it was the period of the Reform Act and agricultural disputes, which in a few months would become illuminated as several agricultural labourers from a small Dorset parish would emerge to become those Dorset heroes forever remembered as the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

At Bridport the ‘royals’ were given a hearty reception by the inhabitants but, according to Hine’s History of Beaminster, were angry that they were “not received by the Mayor and Corporation”.  Then onto Charmouth and Lyme Regis, where there were triumphal arches – and where the “Emerald” was waiting. Every boat in port was filled with paying spectators. Here, in 1685, the Duke of Monmouth landed to lead a revolt against King James II. Mayor John Hussey, in his public address, noted that the princess’s visit was taking place on the anniversary of the Protestant Succession to the throne.

Here, as she boarded the yacht, Princes Victoria was reunited with Dashy her dog. Sailing to Torquay, she remarked on the beautiful coastline and cliffs but both she and her mother were sick on approaching Torquay. From there, after an overnight hotel stay it was off by sea to Plymouth for several days in Devon.

On August 7 an informal return trip was made by coach, changing horses at six places including Bridport and Dorchester, with a military escort from Winfrith to Wareham and Swanage. Passing Corfe Castle, the princess noted in her diary some of the climactic events in history that had taken place there. The reception at Swanage was unforgettable for the young princess, and she must have been sorry to leave Dorset as she embarked with her mother on the “Emerald” for “dear Norris.”

It had been close on six weeks of strenuous activity since they left London. The ‘Royal Progress’ was one of a number leading up to the crowning of Queen Victoria. When that happened, exactly five years after her tour of Dorset, the county must have been proud to have been part of the grand design.. In Sturminster Newton, Gillingham, Cerne Abbas, Sydling, and Evershot, there were demonstrations of loyalty on the occasion of the “beloved Queen’s” coronation, but most of all perhaps in those communities the Queen had visited as a girl. Celebratory dinners were held in Ilchester and Lyme Regis, and at Dorchester there was a ball and much merriment at the King’s Arms and a gathering at the Antelope Hotel and a band wound its way around the streets.

Residents of an almshouse in South Street were regaled with roast beef, plum pudding and beer. At Weymouth, meanwhile, all the shipping in the Bay and Portland Roads was gaily attired and there was a procession along the Esplanade. Along the coast at Poole no less than 2,000 Sunday school children gathered for a “substantial dinner”, while vessels at Bridport Harbour were dressed overall.

Victoria, who first learned of her destiny at the age of 10, moved into Buckingham Palace. Her marriage to Albert was to come. She served as queen until 1901, becoming Empress of India in 1876, creating a new ceremonial style of monarchy, with social rather than political emphasis, and thus preserving it, and giving her name to a whole new age of modernism and expansion.

Notes: Extract from Dorchester’s Municipal Records relating to this story:

1833: Aug 2nd. Locket, for ringing on occasion of the Duchess of Kent and the Princess Victoria passing thro’ Dorchester (Per order of the Mayor) £1.0s.0d.

Paid Oliver, Churchwarden of The Holy Trinity (Per order of the Mayor) expenses incurred on the above occasion £1.17s.0d.

Memories of Weymouth’s Old High Street

Weymouth can be a busy town – in summer holidaymakers crowd the seafront and the town, in winter it’s more peaceful, although the shopping streets are usually busy. Now the Christmas lights are on, the seasonal atmosphere aids the traditional pursuit of spending money and more money.

A Dorset Echo columnist commented that far too much of old Weymouth and Melcombe Regis has been demolished. That is certainly true, but there are still unexpected examples of the old towns which have somehow survived the march of modernisation. Some look increasingly threatened by neglect.

In Elizabethan times, it was Melcombe Regis on the north bank of the River Wey – where the modern town centre is now situated – and Weymouth on the south bank. There were many rows and disputes, until the Privy Council and the Queen forced the two boroughs to unite in 1571.

In the old borough of Weymouth – behind the ghastly concrete structure of the modern Council Offices – stands the rump of the old High Street. Leading from Holy Trinity Church to Boot Hill, this was the trading centre of the old borough – controversially demolished in the early 1960s, considered by many to have been a great corporate act of vandalism.

The old High Street, with the raised pavement, even today has something of the charm of Tudor England. The two oldest buildings are The Boot pub and the Old Town Hall opposite. The old centre of local government is mired in controversy as the owners, Weymouth & Portland Borough Council, have allowed this grade II listed building to decay for years. Repairs are estimated at over £100,000 and the council say it doesn’t have the money. Having installed a “temporary” odd replacement window, plastic drainpipes and chicken-wire over the windows, local criticism over their lack of stewardship has been increasing.

Across the road from the Old Town Hall, the splendid grade II listed Boot dates to about 1600. Well known to real ale drinkers, The Boot has won their Wessex Region Pub of the Year by the Campaign for Real Ale. This fine old pub, Weymouth’s oldest, is also lauded in the Good Beer Guide and the Good Pub Guide.
There are two versions of how the pub got its name. In the days of Queen Elizabeth I, the River Wey flowed at the back of the pub, with the public slipway running down the side. The Melcombe Regis ferry operated from here and “Boat Inn” could have been corrupted to “Boot Inn.” Others speak of the fact that the Dorchester to Portland mail coach would stop at the inn and force those sitting on top to help push the coach boot up the Hill. Did Boot Hill get its name from the pub, or vice versa? That is unclear.

The hooded stone mullion windows are certainly late Tudor and as the road falls away to the level of the old boat ramp, one door is at lower level.  Built on a slope, the bare boarded rise carries on up into the main room, which opens out to the full width of the house. A waist-high skirting board follows round the room and the walls are adorned with local pictures. The black beams are certainly original and the inside has a warm, homely feel. In winter, a real fire warms the room. A carpeted snug forms the right hand room, leading to a few more stairs and the short bar to the right.

Local historian Mark Vine has been researching the Civil War and highlights the many battles that were fought around The Boot and the old High Street. He rightly criticises the lack of official interest in an important historical story and battle site. Many royalist and parliamentary soldiers lost their lives in these skirmishes, the existence of which is not marked in any way.

In 1645, Colonel William Sydenham and his Commonwealth troops set up a defensive line at the top of High Street, near the Boot Inn. Roundheads set up cannon on the raised pavement by the Town Hall and pounded King Charles’ men every time they looked out of The Boot’s door! Eventually, there was a battle royal in High Street and a major massacre of 500 Royalists ensued, right outside the pub and along the quayside.

Dorset – Smugglers Coast

The south coast of England in particular has had a long tradition of smuggling, especially where there are many coves or inlets ideal for concealing contraband. Devon and Cornwall are particularly well endowed in this regard, but Dorset has hardly been less important as a focus for the trade. The life of Isaac Gulliver, the ‘smuggler’s king’ of Dorset, has been covered in a biographic feature on the site, here I am considering the more general look at smuggling and what motivated people to become involved in its illegal operations.

Usually thought of as a male preserve, what may at first surprise many people is the extent to which women were also involved. Some of these would have been smugglers wives, though this is not invariably the case. Dorset, in the heyday of smuggling, was of course a very rural and sparsely populated county, with much agrarian poverty. The business of importing goods, usually liquor, from cross-channel boats under the cover of darkness in order to flout excise regulations was a lucrative sideline that impoverished families living within a few miles of the coast would find too great a temptation to overlook.

The register for Dorchester Gaol 1782-1853 lists the names and occupations of no fewer than 64 women convicted of various smuggling related offences. Twenty one of these (32%) were from Portland alone, while just six resided in Weymouth, five in Bridport, three in Bere Regis and two in Lyme Regis. The parishes of another nine are not recorded. Wool and Woolbridge, Preston, Pulham, Sutton Poyntz, Langton Matravers, Marnhull, Morecombelake, Beaminster, Bradpole, Broadwindsor, Buckland Ripers, Charmouth, Chetnole, Chickerell, Corfe, Dorchester and Kington Magna account for the remaining sixteen.

Three notable examples are Charlotte Drake of Bridport and Ann Maidment, a Bridport buttoner, who both assaulted and obstructed excise officers, and Mary Applin of Langton, who committed an excise offence. Martha Lumb of Weymouth was sentenced to three months hard labour in 1822 for smuggling, while Catherine Winter, a Weymouth seamstress, served an 18-day sentence in 1844 for smuggling at the age of 70!

But regardless of the sex of the offender, for the populace as a whole, smuggling was generally considered an honourable trade. The customs officers or the “King’s Men” were responsible for ensuring that contraband was impounded and fines levied. At Poole the problem of smuggling was so rampant and the customs men so understaffed and overworked that Dragoons had to be deployed to assist them as early as 1723. Typically the customs officers were brave and resourceful with a strict code of conduct; so that names were never banded about and nothing ever put in writing.

Poole was especially ideal for smuggling operations because of the exceptional size and highly indented nature of its harbour, the second largest natural harbour in the world. Goods were disembarked into inlet hideaways at Hamworthy and then transported by waggoners to Bristol via Blandford. Furthermore, goods could be offloaded on the south Purbeck coast and hauled overland to be temporarily laid up in the deep inlets such as those at Arne or the Goathorn Peninsula for later distribution to Poole markets without the smugglers having to risk detection by passing through the harbour mouth. Longfleet and Parkstone farmers constructed secret tunnels down to the water’s edge for bringing goods ashore.

After 1759 the volume of smuggled goods passing through Poole significantly increased, though raised vigilance on the part of the Preventatives gradually brought this down. The Commissioners of Customs based in London frequently requested reports on the amount of smuggling going on in the Poole area.

Although landings and disembarkation operations took place from Lyme Regis to Christchurch, the coast from Portland westwards to Lyme attracted special attention. This was because most of the coast is occupied by the Chesil Bank, a shingle spit enclosing a lagoon (the Fleet) which was a convenient storage-sink to hold casks (“tubs”) for collection at a more appropriate time. One memorable incident took place in 1762 when a Cornish vessel was broken up on the Chesil in a winter storm and its cargo washed into the sea. There then followed a desperate attempt by Weymouth citizens to salvage what tubs of liquor they could before the customs house officers could reach them! In the end the citizens claimed 26 tubs to the revenue’s 10; another ten were cast out to sea but recovered the next day.

Probably the greatest hideout and smugglers haunt along this coast was Lulworth Castle, the seat of the Weld family, but which had a connection with smuggling throughout the 18th century from 1719 onwards. In 1719 revenue officers from Weymouth raided the castle and the entire Lulworth area. It has been said that maids working at the castle would routinely warn smugglers when the customs men were in the vicinity by showing a light at a window to indicate when it was safe to come in, but also act as a bearing. The gangs at Lulworth could comprise as many as 100 disguised and heavily armed men, who used Mupe Rocks as the disembarkation point, but the deep ravines and inlets along the coast west of Kimmeridge were also ideal for concealing kegs. A gap in the cliffs at Worbarrow Bay was a special favourite and tubs were raised to the top of Gad Cliff, and brought ashore at Arish Mell and for storage at Tyneham Church.

On a knoll near the coast between West Bexington and Puncknowle there still stands an unusual monument. This is The Lookout, a square building constructed as a signal-station for the Fensibles, but which may also have been used by Isaac Gulliver, who used the Bexingtons, Swyre and Burton Bradstock as landing sites after 1776.

Lyme Regis has had an especially long smuggling history extending back at least as far as the 16th century, when certain merchants were suspected of smuggling bullion out of the country by sea. In 1576 a revenue man called Ralph Lane was sent to Lyme with a deputy bearing a warrant to search ships alleged to be involved in the operations. His arrival however, provoked a riot during which the warrant was seized and Lane’s deputy was thrown into the sea. From Lyme contraband was traditionally floated up the Buddle River, often under the noses of the Preventives, who were frequently understaffed and restrained by bureaucratic regulations. Booty offloaded onto the Cobb could not be inspected until it had been carried half a mile to the Cobb Gate. Lyme is believed to be the birthplace of Warren Lisle, a customs officer who at 17 was appointed Patent Searcher at Poole and who made his first seizure of a cargo from a small vessel in Portland Harbour in 1724.

Weymouth was central to excise operations for the sea, but the town’s revenue officials had a long and shameful history of ineptitude and corruption. Enter George Whelplay, who in the 16th century failed to make any headway in countering popular local support for smuggling. Originally a London haberdasher, Whelplay came to Dorset to try his fortune as a public informer, and as such could claim a fifty per cent commission on each fine he imposed upon those he caught, but in 1538 he incurred the wrath of smugglers and fellow customs officers alike when he exceeded his remit. Whelplay twice stumbled on a cargo of horses being illegally shipped to France, but instead of coming to his assistance in rounding up the French boats the officials joined a gang of merchants and attacked him.

Around 1830 smuggling reached a climax in the Weymouth area, where, it is said; tunnels were constructed from the harbour to merchant’s houses and even to the residence of King George III. The leading figure in smuggling to be connected with Weymouth was Pierre Latour, otherwise known as French Peter, who functioned as a prominent gang-leader in the town. In Wyke Regis churchyard there is a grave of one William Lewis, a smuggler shot dead by a revenue officer on board the schooner Pigmy.

In conclusion, anyone who has anything to do with Dorset will know of Thomas Hardy, the well-known novelist-poet. Less well known is that Hardy was an authority on smuggling – and not without good reason. His birthplace cottage at Highter Bockhampton was actually a capacious safehouse for smuggled contraband that could accommodate up to 80 casks of brandy. “But this isn’tall.” When a child, Hardy was regaled with smuggling stories from his grandfather and his own father had a manservant who was actually involved in the trade. The Bockhampton cottage lay on the smugglers route between Osmington Mills and their markets in Sherborne and Yeovil.

Weymouth – Love Lane

Two flights of steps help you get started on the gentle climb up Love Lane to Franchise Street.

Two flights of steps help you get started on the gentle climb up Love Lane to Franchise Street.

Weymouth – The Boot Inn

The 17th century Boot Inn, one of the oldest public houses in Weymouth: it is reputed to be haunted!

The 17th century Boot Inn, one of the oldest public houses in Weymouth: it is reputed to be haunted!

Weymouth – The Marina

A view of The Marina in the upper reaches of the harbour as it tucks in around Melcombe Regis. It is home to some of the smaller craft moored at Weymouth.

A view of The Marina in the upper reaches of the harbour as it tucks in around Melcombe Regis. It is home to some of the smaller craft moored at Weymouth.

Weymouth – The Old Town Hall

The Old Town Hall of Tudor Weymouth was rebuilt in 1774 and restored in 1896.

The Old Town Hall of Tudor Weymouth was rebuilt in 1774 and restored in 1896.

Weymouth – The Old Town Hall

The Old Town Hall of Tudor Weymouth was rebuit in 1774 and restored in1896 and in on High West Street near The Boot Inn and the lower end of Love Lane.

The Old Town Hall of Tudor Weymouth was rebuit in 1774 and restored in1896 and is on High West Street near The Boot Inn and the lower end of Love Lane.