From Pirates to Press Gangs – Georgian Portland

Chesil beachNicola here. A couple of weeks ago I visited Portland, one of the most wild and remote parts of the UK. It lies off the south coast of the county of Dorset, opposite the famous seaside town of Weymouth and is a “tied island” connected to the mainland by a causeway. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries though the best way to approach was by boat and even that was very dangerous with the tides, currents, and lurking rock shoals that surround the island.

The day we arrived was extremely stormy with the sea lashing the famous Chesil Beach and it was easy to see how isolated you might feel in the depths of a Regency winter. Despite its remoteness however, Portland has been inhabited since the Stone Age, with the Romans settling there and the first Viking raids in England recorded to have taken place there in 787AD. The castle, built by Henry VIII to guard against French invasion, Portland castle still stands and is open to visit. Once a part of the Portland Naval base and off-limits to the public, it now stands on the rejuvenated harbour.

Portland really came into its own in the 17th century with the opening of the limestone quarries on the island. Sir Christopher Wren used six million tons of the fine white stone to rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1665 including such buildings as the Banqueting House, St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham House. The quarrying families such as the Gilberts who owned property on the island grew rich through the stone trade and built themselves very nice houses such as "Queen Anne's House" in the village of Fortuneswell.

Box pewsOne of the Gilbert family was also the architect of the church of St George, built to a stunning Georgian design with box pews, each with their own door and latch, and three galleries. The lives of the inhabitants of this wild island are recorded on the tombstones of the churchyard. Sailors, fishermen and pirates have their graves here, as do prisoners from the nearby gaol. Shipwrecks were so common that only the ladies and officers tended to be buried in the churchyards; everyone else was buried on the beach where their bodies were found. Plunder of the wrecks was also common.

At St George's a very unusual memorial to Mary Way and William Lano notes that they were murdered by a press gang in 1803. This event was known as the Easton Massacre where a crew of a Navy vessel illegally tried to press male members of the town into naval service. When the townspeople opposed them, the ship's captain fired on them and killed three people, injuring Mary Way who also later died of her wounds. Four of the ships officers were tried for murder but acquitted. The wording of the memorial, however, leaves no room for misunderstanding; this was murder and was recorded as such.

There were other casualties of the wild weather over the years as well, including a lighthouse keeper who was struck by lightning on Chesil Beach in 1858 and a man whose house fell down on top of him in the Great Storm of 1824.

A number of the gravestones have the skull and crossbones depicted on them, not as might be imagined at first Skull and crossbones glance, because they are pirates’ graves but because from the 17th century this symbol was used to denote mortality. Pirates borrowed the symbol because they liked the way that it struck the fear of death into people. However, once the pirates started to use it the Church decided it was no longer appropriate for burials and it was phased out in the later 18th century!

Bathing carriageWhilst Portland may have been remote and lawless, across the bay was a very different place, the popular Georgian seaside resort of Weymouth. With its sheltered bay and golden sands, Weymouth was the ideal centre for a spot of sea bathing. By the mid 18th century there were wooden bathing houses on the bay and in 1773 Stacie’s Hotel and assembly rooms opened. The photo shows a Georgian bathing machine that still stands on the sea front.

As part of the plan to popularise the resort, the roads were paved and improved, watchmen patrolled the Royal hotel streets and kept the peace. The first guidebook was produced in 1782 by the postmistress, Mrs Delamotte, and the famous Harvey’s Improved Guide followed in 1800. These listed all the entertainments on offer as well as the hotels and lodging houses, many of which are still standing today, including the elegant red brick of the Royal Hotel.

It was in 1789 that King George III first came to Weymouth to recuperate from a bout of illness and he liked the town so much that he continued to visit until 1805. The royal seal of approval brought even more rich and influential visitors flocking to the seaside town.

Wild beaches or the delights of sea-bathing? If you were visiting Dorset in the Regency period would you have preferred mingling with the pirates on Portland or high society in Weymouth?