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Dorset, England
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Poole, Dorset

see also: Poole

When the gravel peninsula which is Poole was first settled is unknown but the name derives from the Celtic Pwll, Saxon Pol. The Normans knew it as La Pole.

Formation of the Harbour

The coastline here is by no means a static one as may be witnessed by the changes which have taken place during just the past 15,000 years since the Last Ice Age when the land stretched over what are now salty waves as far out as the Old Harry Rocks. The harbour is a drowned river valley which formed, together with Poole Bay as the rising sea broke through the ancient chalk ridge which connected the Old Harry Rocks with Needles on the Isle of Wight.

The last Ice Age
The coastline 15,000 years ago was very different to that which we find today

The Harbour is, essentially, the drowned valley of a great river which flowed through the area before the last Ice Age. The harbour itself was formed, together with Poole Bay, when rising sea levels caused the waves to break through a chalk ridge which had then connected the Old Harry Rocks in Studland Bay with the Needles in the Isle of Wight.

The geological record of the area shows evidence that a great river, which geologists have named the 'Great Solent River', flowed eastwards through the area from around Dartmoor in Devon. The Great Solent carried huge quantities of flint, gravel and clay which it deposited along the way, right into Hampshire.

The harbour, as seen today, was formed at the end of the last Ice Age, about 7,000 years ago. Since then the mud flats and salt flats we are familiar with have been formed as a result of the sediments deposited in the harbour by its rivers.

Continuing Changes to the Harbour

The process of change is far from over and the sea constantly removes material from the soft and sandy cliffs of the bay to deposit it at Sandbanks - the narrow spit of land which reaches for the Studland Peninsula across the harbour mouth.

The tides also deposit a share of their silt within the basin of the harbour itself although the majority of the silt deposited in Poole Harbour is carried more sernely to its quite backwaters by the rivers Frome and Piddle. So much mud do the rivers deposit that Wareham, once a port of some import, is now only accessible to small craft.


One of the earliest human artifacts to be discovered is a 10-metre (30-foot) long dug-out boat which was fashioned from a giant oak tree. It was dredged up to the north of Brownsea Island and dated to c.295BC. The boat is displayed in Poole Museum.

There is strong archaeological evidence that the sea levels in the harbour were considerably lower in prehistoric times than they are now. This would indicate that any early human settlements on the edges of the harbour would now be hidden under the waters.

The prosperity of the modern Port of Poole is only made possible by the annual dredging of the main navigation channel by the Poole Harbour Commissioners.

The Iron Age
see also:
Iron-Age Dorset

It is believed that rising sea levels have caused the waters of the harbour to rise and drown the evidence of pre-Iron Age human settlement and activity around the shores of the harbour.

As well as a great port, Poole Harbour was the centre of an important ceramics industry - over half of the shards of coarse cooking pots which have been found at Hadrian's Wall in the far north of Roman England were manufactured in the Poole Harbour area.

The excavations suggest a very substantial Iron Age trading complex with huge stone and timber jetties reaching out into the deep-water channel. Such advanced berthing facilities would have allowed the largest ocean-going ships of the time to use the port - possibly Greek and Roman trading vessels from the Mediterranean.It was the shear scale of the works which astounded the archaeologists; the longer of the two jetties found was 80 metres ( feet) in length and the other, of which 45 metres (feet) survives, was probably of the same length. Both were 8 metres ( feet) wide and paved to a smooth surface with worked flagstones. It has been estimated that 10,000 tonnes of roack and rubble reinforced with hundreds of oak trunks, sharpened at one end to be rammed into the harbour bed, to reinforce the structures. Construction on such a large scale would imply a highly organised society wth a large, skilled and organised workforce.

The shores of Poole harbour were only settled by man (the Durotriges from Northern Europe) from about 200 BC onwards. these settlements are evidenced by the shards of their characteristic brown and black pottery which have been found throughout the area. Evidence of their potteries and salt pans have been found around the harbour. Green Island, Hamworthy and Ower all benefitted from deepwater channels and were important Iron-Age trading posts and handled imports of Roman luxury goods from Armorica (modern Brittany) and the Channel Islands. Nearby Hengistbury Head was an important Iron Age settlement and port in Dorset (until the discovery of the huge quays at Poole, it was thought to be the most important British port of the age) and it is likely that goods were trans-shipped through beteen the two.

Excavations of the site of Carter's Pottery in 1920 revealed evidence of an Iron Age settlement and a supply base for the Roman army.

It was believed that the development of Poole Harbour (the largest natural sea inlet in Europe ) with significant port structures was a Roman feature but archaeologists diving beneath the waters of the harbour in 2002 have shown that there were impressive port structures within the harbour in the Iron Age - at several centuries before the Roman conquest of Britain, the oldest working harbour to be discovered in the British Isles.The timber pilings which were excavated from beneath silt on the bed of the harbour were originally thought to date from Roman times but radio-carbon dating showed them to date back to at least 250BC.

Local fishermen, sailors, and amateur divers have also been involved in the hunt for relics of the harbours Iron-Age past, the team of archeologists have appealed for any sailor snagging lines or running aground on uncharted obstacle to contact them.

The excavations suggest a very substantial Iron Age trading complex with huge stone and timber jetties reaching out into the deep-water channel. Such advanced berthing facilities would have allowed the largest ocean-going ships of the time to use the port - possibly Greek and Roman trading vessels from the Mediterranean.It was the shear scale of the works which astounded the archaeologists; the longer of the two jetties found was 80 metres ( feet) in length and the other, of which 45 metres (feet) survives, was probably of the same length. Both were 8 metres ( feet) wide and paved to a smooth surface with worked flagstones. It has been estimated that 10,000 tonnes of roack and rubble reinforced with hundreds of oak trunks, sharpened at one end to be rammed into the harbour bed, to reinforce the structures. Construction on such a large scale would imply a highly organised society wth a large, skilled and organised workforce.

The discovery of the Iron-Age port facilities prove that the Romans did not found the harbour but naturally made for a place familiar to their mariners through generations of trade, probably importing luxury goods such as amber, fine ceramics, oil and wine and exporting local products such as pottery, metal work and shale jewellery.

Archaeologists now hope that some of the trading ships themselves might be preserved in the silt of the harbour bottom - perhaps complete with their cargos.

A dug-out boat over 10 metres (30 feet) long was dredged up from the bottom of the harbour near Brownsea Island in 1964. Dating from the 3rd century BC, it is one of only six to have been fund in Western Europe.

see also: Iron-Age Dorset

The Roman Occupation
see also:
Roman Dorset

The Romans occupied several sites around Poole Harbour and Poole Lake. It is surmised that Saxon and Frankish raids on the Roman settlements around the harbour caused the inhabitants to bury their possessions to prevent them being captured; a large hoard of Roman dinarii from c. 275AD was found in 1932 and a similar hoard had been discovered during the previous century.

Vespasian, commanding the invading 2nd Legion Augusta, used an inlet on the Hamworthy peninsula near the existing Iron Age settlement as a supply port. A road was built to connect the supply port to the base near Wimborne which was the Roman headquarters in Britain until about 60Ad when the fortress was dismantled. it is likely that supplies were also trans-shipped at Poole.

The nearby Purbeck 'Marble' was used for construction by the Romans and a jetty found at Ower may have been used for loading the stone onto Roman ships. Green Island, now isolated in the harbour, was connected to the mainland at Ower by a causeway which may also have been Roman.

see also: Roman Dorset

Saxon Poole Harbour
see also:
Saxon Dorset

By the beginning of the 9th century, Wareham had become a prominent Saxon town and the chief port of Poole Harbour. Viking raids caused the town to be fortified. In time, as Wareham's rivers (the Frome and the Piddle) silted up, it waned as a port while Poole rose to dominate the harbour.

The battle of Swanage Bay in 877 is hailed by many as the first English naval victory, although Alfred was the ruler of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex.

In the ninth century, the Danes entered Poole Harbour entrenched themselves strongly in Wareham itself until routed by King Alfred the Great both on land and, in 877, at the battle of Swanage Bay. The Danes killed many clergy throughout the lands they touched and sacked the churches and monasteries for what booty they could plunder. Such a fate befell the Church of St Nicholas at Studland where the raiders left only the bare walls standing.

In 1015, the Danes returned as Cnut's (or Canute) raiders destroyed the Saxon priory at Wareham.


Evidence of salt pans has been found at Kimmeridge, Charmouth, Lyme Regis and Poole Harbour. Salt extraction from seawater was once a profitable business and salt was exported to france in the 15th century.

At the time of the Norman Conquest, Poole may have been a tiny fishing village. Large deposits of oyster shells, dating from the late Saxon or early Norman period have been found Poole and Hamworthy Quays.

see also: Saxon Dorset

Medieval Poole Harbour
see also:
Medieval Dorset

The medieval port seems to have grown steadily in importance and, in 1433, the monarch made it Dorset's Staple Port. The Town Cellars, dating from the 14th century, were used to store the important wool prior to its export to Europe. The medieval port had wide-ranging trading links - from the Baltic to Spain and even Italy.

see also: Medieval Dorset

17th Century

The 17th century brought the start of transatlantic trade with the New World, particularly with Newfoundland. This trade was the foundation for many a fortune amassed by the merchants of Poole. By the early 18th century, the Port of Poole had more ships engaged in trade with America than any other English port.

see also: Economic History of Dorset   The Wessex Newfoundland Society

19th Century

At the beginning of the 19th century, some ninety per cent of the working population of Poole was involved in the activity of either the Port or the Harbour. In part due to the arrival of the railway and new industries not connected with the harbour, by the turn of the following century this figure had dropped to twenty per cent. The advent of vessels of deeper draught which could not use the harbour also contributed to this drop and the decay of the harbour.

The decay of trade led to such a decay in the Port of Poole during the last decades of the century that the Poole Harbour Commissioners was established by Act of Parliament in 1895 to manage the port and harbour (see: Management of the Harbour).

20th Century

The ancient ceremony of Beating the Bounds of the Harbour was revived in 1921, quoting the Winchelsea Charter of 1365 which Poole recieved as a limb of the Cinque Port frequently along the way.

The closing decades of the 20th century brought a programme of modernisation and the redevelopment of commercial links with mainland Europe. This has resulted in a new prosperity and modern Poole is a thriving Channel Port.

Before World War II changed so much here, the flying boats of BOAC were based in the harbour and linked Poole, and Britain, with the empire.


World War II brought different priorities and the RAF's Sunderlands of Coastal Command. The huge expanse of water and vast length of the shoreline made the harbour an ideal site for amphibious warfare training with landing craft - the Royal marines have remained at their base in Hamworthy, a legacy and reminder of those war-time excercises.

In May 1940 Belgian and Dutch refugees who had escaped before the Nazi onslaught on their homeland in small boats arrived in the sanctuary of the harbour having been shepherded there along the south coast by the Royal Navy. They made their temporary home on Brownsea Island.

Flares were lit at the western end of Brownsea Island to mislead the German bombers which sought as their would-be targets the harbour installations of Poole and Bournemouth. The harbour installations were thus spared but the estate cottages of the village of Maryland on the island were all but destroyed.

Large areas of the Purbecks to the west of Studland are they palyground of the military with either limited or no access to the public. For a considerable time after World War II the areas around Agglestone and Little Sea were ringed with signs warning of the dangers of military obstructions and there were instances of accidents involving hidden explosives (see also: The Explosive Legacy of WW-II).

The latter half of the 20th century saw a growing appreciation of the value of natural resources such as lanscape and wildlife. The waters and mudflats on the shores of the harbour attract many waders wildfowl which over-winter in the harbour and many of which roost here throughout the year. The area to the south and west of the harbour has not only been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but and harbour and many of the heathlands there are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSI's), Amongst other fascinating species and habitats, all six species of reptiles native to the British Isles can be found here. The nature reserve on Brownsea Island is one of the last havens of our native red squirrel south of the Scottish border. It was the first reserve to be managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust.

Oil, the fossil which drives our industrialized society has been discovered in large quantities under the rocks of the harbour and has been exploited, amongst much initial controversey, during the later part of the 20th century and into the 21st from Wytch Farm.

Managing the Harbour

The port and harbour have been managed since 1895 by the Poole Harbour Commissioners who are a statutory body established by Act of Parliament. Their aim is to maintain the harbour as a commercially viable port so as to finance improvements and conservation. The Commissioners have to balance recreation, fishing and economical interests as well as commercial ones.


Port of Poole
Poole Harbour Commissioners
Poole Harbour Heritage Committee





Recommend a Book for this Page

The Story of Poole, Old Town, Port & Harbour
Joan Sutton ©1988   ISBN 0 906596 04 1

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