Our coast and the maritime world

Shipping, both international and coastal, for many centuries played a vital role in the well being of the community at large so it is worth looking at our local harbours and ports. The early history of our coastal area is very limited and fragmented this fact, inevitably, has generated much speculation by local historians trying to unravel its past. I suppose the basic point is that where there was an inlet, usually the mouth of a river, there was an opportunity for sailing or man-powered vessels to find a sheltered landing place. Christchurch is of special significance inasmuch as its entrance, from the sea at Mudeford, seemingly was into a kind of large marshy pond created by the junction of two sizeable rivers, the Stour flowing from the west and the Avon from the north. It also had the advantage of protection from the southerly winds and storms by the mass of Hengistbury Head. Its disadvantage appeared later when ships of greater draught were in use and the relatively shallow waters of the harbour made access difficult for those vessels. What we can firmly assume that as far back as the New Stone Age, when the first farmers arrived at our shores, the Stour and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Avon provided access to a potentially rich agricultural region defined principally by the chalk downland encircling the Hampshire Basin to the west and north. (A useful and reliable study of this is most conveniently available in Mike Powell, Christchurch Harbour (Natula Publications 1995) which carries the story forward to modern times.)

Locally, the point about Christchurch is that because it became a Saxon burh built between the two rivers (one of the Wessex defended towns—compare Wareham, between the Frome and the Piddle, to the west, and Southampton, between the Test and Itchen, to the east—introduced so effectively by King Alfred the Great, reigned 871-899, and completed by his son) and was also selected as the base for a monastic institution which early on became the Priory with its body of Augustinian canons: the place plays a dominant role in our local story. It was because of the de Redvers family (lords of Christchurch from about 1100 to 1293) which had one of its family bases in the castle there that Lymington became a borough and a harbour.

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Christchurch Stour 1832. This early 19th century engraving shows the limitation of Christchurch Harbour which inhibited its development as a significant harbour.

The origins of Lymington harbour Travelling eastwards the next inlet suitable for shipping was Keyhaven, sheltered by Hurst Spit, originally somewhat shorter than it is today. It became a significant small scale harbour both for imports and exports which eventually was dominated by the rise of Lymington.

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Keyhaven and Hurst 1832. The engraving by J.M. Gilbert shows small vessels unloading at the quay. The first Needles lighthouse is clearly visible on the downs.

Lymington presents something of a problem. It is difficult to draw definite conclusions but it appears not to have been a harbour in very early medieval times. Undoubtedly, its situation meant it was capable of sheltering vessels and the river, it seems, was navigable at least as far upstream as Ampress (approximately the tidal limit). By inference this suggests it may have been in use in prehistoric times in connection with Buckland Rings but its use fell into abeyance, perhaps in the period of Roman occupation and certainly by Saxon times.

After the Norman conquest the king assumed overwhelming authority backed by law. As Edwin Welch describes it, “Theoretically all maritime rights belonged to the Crown. In the eyes of the common lawyers the king was entitled to every wreck and piece of flotsam cast up on shore, to every whale, porpoise and other royal fish caught off the coast and every royal bird. He was responsible for regulating the fishing, collecting port dues, removing obstructions to navigation and providing justice for seafarers.” (The Admiralty Court Book of Southampton 1566-1585, Introduction, xi.) From our local point of view Southampton became the authority that was to dominate our local coastal affairs from the early thirteenth century until the nineteenth. King John, always strapped for cash, was persuaded by receiving £200 annually to empower Southampton with the right of jurisdiction in maritime matters over all the ports and harbours from Keyhaven in the west to Langston Harbour in the east. The document significantly omits to name Lymington, though starting at Keyhaven. A consequence of this act was that the mayors of Southampton, successively, were designated “admirals” and were empowered to hold admiralty courts in each of the jurisdiction areas. That of Keyhaven covered the coast from Milford foreshore to Pennington, next was the area that became the Lymington jurisdiction from Pennington to Pitts Deep, followed by the extensive Lepe area running from Pitts Deep, eastwards, encircling Calshot Spit and terminating at Hythe. The large central jurisdiction was Southampton itself running north from Hythe to incorporate the entire Test estuary, and then continuing eastwards to embrace the whole Itchen estuary and running along the eastern shore as far as Weston. The remaining two areas do not concern us directly. The practical and financial consequence of this arrangement was that Southampton had the authority to collect all tolls and dues, such as wharfage, keelage and anchorage to the financial detriment of the smaller harbours.

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Lym River from Walhampton. A view of Lymington from Walhampton showing a fairly busy harbour in operation.

As stated Lymington was not named as a port in this document and in 1206 when the king sent an instruction to Southampton to commandeer merchant ships to back up his navy the town is not mentioned though Keyhaven and Christchurch are. As I wrote in my history of the town, ‘This may be explained by the fact that New Lymington, created only a few years before by William de Redvers’s charter, was only in its infancy as a town’. It is only in the early fourteenth century that Lymington emerges as a viable harbour and port in its own right and from that time forward to the present, despite various vicissitudes along the way, it has maintained that position.

Beaulieu River presents an unusual case as its limited maritime significance initially rested on the activities and requirements of the Cistercian monks. We cannot reasonably doubt that all the building stone for the abbey itself and all the associated buildings arrived by sea – a colossal enterprise covering a long period from the early thirteenth century. And think of St Leonards chapel and the great stone-built barn (in its time the largest in England) indicating that stone was unloaded at or near what much later became the shipbuilding  yards of Bucklers Hard. Presumably, the monks and their lay-brothers must have imported agricultural produce and requirements by sea from the Beaulieu River but without an established urban centre would not have traded in the same way as, say, Lymington or Christchurch. We know that both Lymington and to a greater extent Southampton were used as the ports to export wool from the Beaulieu flocks. For example, we find in the Lymington accounts for 1615, “the wharfage of 18 loads of wool…15s.” and the following year, “Wharfage of 16 loads of wool…13s. 4d.” Although these entries were after the Dissolution of the abbey it no doubt indicates the continuance of the established pattern of trade (unfortunately, no relevant records for Lymington survive from the medieval period).

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Beaulieu River 1832. Beaulieu had an active but small commercial trade in the nineteenth century

Lepe incorporated Ower, Exbury, Hardley, Cadland and Fawley but jointly their maritime activity appears to have been somewhat limited and although ships called the trade was small and erratic. Calshot (part of Fawley) takes on a more significant role during and following the construction of the castle in the reign of Henry VIII, this was particularly intense during the building work. Of course, a very similar situation occurred during the building of Hurst Castle (1541-4) (see my Hurst Castle: an Illustrated History (1986) for a detailed account. I have also written a history of Calshot but it remains unpublished).

It is evident that considerable maritime activity was being conducted along our shore-line throughout the ages and the Southampton Admiralty Court records help to describe this and the former Southampton archivist, B.C. Jones, with an example highlights this, “We may particularly value the Elizabethan Admiralty Court Book,” he writes, “because it was on one occasion so narrowly lost to us forever. In 1599 violent opposition was offered to the Mayor at Keyhaven when he attempted to hold his admiralty court there. The (Southampton) town clerk only just managed to prevent the Court book from being thrown into the sea.”

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Lymington Roads 1832. The wide entrance to Lymington. Note Jack in the Basket, the ancient entrance marker, to the left.

Maritime hazards and a tragic shipwreck

One of the consequences of maritime commerce was the fact that vessels quite frequently were lost at sea or along the hazardous shore lines. As there was no effective insurance until the later sixteenth century the practice developed from an early stage of shared ownership either of the cargoes or of the ship itself or a combination of the two so if a vessel was lost the expense to any individual was limited. The precise way the costs were shared depended on the fraction of ownership; eighths and sixteenths were commonly used. From this system gradually emerged the principle of insuring a vessel, initially conceived in the renowned Lloyd’s Coffee-Houses, where the business was conducted. This developed in the late seventeenth century and has continued into the present day. In general it was a period of great fiscal development at all levels with the Bank of England being founded in 1694 but I mustn’t get side-tracked by the story of banking and insurance and the development of the national debt, and of the host of joint stock and family banks that were fostered as the system developed, but it is vital to gaining some understanding of the world we live in today. The Enlightenment philosophy exemplified in this area by the seminal work of Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations 1767-73), I would argue, is fundamental to the subsequent developments and underpins our underlying conceptions.

I would like to conclude by considering an actual case of a wreck at Becton Bunny and the consequences it had for the community in Hordle. David Garrow in his history of Lymington (1825) tells briefly the story. He records that the “excessive inhumation at Hordle is owing to the many shipwrecks that have happened from time to time on this and the neighbouring coast.” Then he goes on to recount that he “himself witnessed no less than nine bodies lying, at one time, in this [Hordle] Church …which were only part of the whole crew of the British Tar, merchantman, of five hundred tons, which were wrecked in February (actually, 29 January) 1818 on the cliffs below, and perished. She was bound from Sierra Leone to London with teak wood and ivory.”

The account published in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal on 9 February 1818 adds flesh to the story. It speaks of the loss of a ship of between “3 and 400 tons” in a strong gale on the night of Thursday, 29 January, “at a place called Beckon Bunny…when melancholy to relate, all on board perished. The ship is in pieces under the cliffs and the boat’s stern is marked ‘British Tar of London, John Pirie, master’. The bodies of 10 men and 4 women have been washed on shore, out of which the captain of the vessel, six of the seamen, and a mulatto woman have been interred, the remaining six will lie at Hordle till Sunday, to be identified if possible. Part of the ship’s cargo of timber, a few elephants’ teeth and a small quantity of bees’ wax have been saved. A woman’s chemise has been washed on shore marked ‘J. Gunshott, No. 6, 1817’ and another ‘A. Brown’…It is conjectured the vessel came from Africa”.

The records of the churchwardens, however, give an unusual insight to the social mechanisms used when such a tragedy struck. Local men were engaged to gather the bodies from the shore and lay them in the church. This challenging task evidently warranted a reward of beer costing the parish 16s. 6d. on top of their pay of well over £3. Women were paid for washing and laying out the bodies and afterwards vinegar was purchased to fumigate the church. Further expenses were incurred in making three journeys to Ringwood to contact the coroner, costing £1 4s. After the lapse of a whole year the county fully reimbursed Hordle parish with the payment of £21 18s. 10d.

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Mudeford –the run 1832. Haven House at Mudeford and the entrance to Christchurch Harbour, 1832.

This article was written by the President of the LDHS Jude James. We are grateful to him for allowing us to use publish it on our website. It should be noted that this was first published in the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times on 25 Aug 2017