The Altar Frontal from Wool Church

From the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 55 1934, an article written by the G. DRU DRURY, M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P., F.S.A entitled ‘The Altar Frontal From Wool Church.’ (Read the 21st day of November, 1933.)

This interesting frontal is made up from portions of mediaeval vestments, which local tradition would have us believe came from the neighbouring Cistercian Abbey of Bindon.

In the year 1886 the Vicar and Churchwardens of the Church of the Holy Rood, Wool, placed it with the Dorset County Museum, and being extremely fragile, it was carefully repaired by Mrs. Stillwell the following year.

The descriptive references by Hutchins and his continuators are scanty and inaccurate ; and the fact that, during the 47 years our museum has sheltered this fine example of mediaeval embroidery, no adequate description has been attempted can only be regarded as a reproach, with the object of removing which this paper has been written.

Several doubtful points were cleared-up by a visit to the Department of Textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum, with a photograph of the frontal; and I take this opportunity of recording gratefully my indebtedness to Mr. C. E. C. Tattersall for his kindness and courtesy on that occasion.

The most gratifying fact established was that the embroidery is undoubtedly English, though the velvet was probably all imported from Italy.

Most of the work dates from the end of the 15th century; and some of it may even be 16th century, the figures on the second and fourth strips being just about as late as any pre-reformation type.

The  Altar  Frontal from Wool Church

The Altar Frontal from Wool Church © DCM

The frontal is composed of eight approximately equal vertical strips joined together to fit an altar 4ft. 6ins. in length by 3ft. high. These strips differ both in design and material, four being of velvet and four of linen, but in the latter case, not all of the same texture.

The first strip (from the left-hand side) is of blue velvet, the pile of which has nearly all worn off. It is embroidered with coloured silks and gold thread in a design of “fish flowers” and sprays. The name” fish flower” is derived from the fancied resemblance of the central portion to the inverted body and tail of a fish. The rich blue of the velvet still survives in the centres of the two flowers and where it has been protected by the sprays here and there. It is not difficult to imagine this as part of a sumptuously decorated chasuble ; in fact there is in the Victoria and Albert Museum a red chasuble of late 15th century date which is embroidered with practically the same design.

The third, fifth and seventh strips are all from one piece of velvet—probably from a cope—once a rich purple but now faded to a brown colour. The design of “pine flowers” and sprays is finely embroidered in coloured silks, the heads of the flowers being of white linen applique and worked over. Comparison with a cope of purple velvet in the Victoria and Albert Museum which, though still definitely purple, – has faded in places to a colour nearly resembling these strips, confirms this opinion as to their original colour, in spite of the fact that Hut chins mentions brown velvet. Furthermore Mr. Tattersall reminded me that though red, blue, green or purple vestments are frequently mentioned in the inventories of church goods of 1552, brown is unknown.

The  Altar  Frontal from Wool Church © DCMThe second and fourth strips are parts of orphreys made of rather coarse linen embroidered with silks in the designs of figures standing on the ground, beneath architectural canopies, the style of which dates them as late 15th or early 16th century work. Some of the orphreys of English work of this period in the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibit canopies similar to these in general form, in the character of the vaulting beneath the canopy arches, and in the round-headed recesses of the shafts.

It will be noticed that the figures on these two strips face inwards towards each other, doubtless because they formed parts of orphreys from the front of a cope, but not all the panels are complete as to their tops and bases.

Saint Matthias? © DCM

Saint Matthias? © DCM

It is not easy to determine whether these bearded figures represent prophets, apostles or saints, much less to assign them names. None of them have ecclesiastical vestments and with one exception they wear a nondescript kind of “traditional” costume, of forgotten origin after generations of copying; possibly in like manner the very identity of the persons represented may have meant little to the worker who carried on the tradition. The top figure of the second strip carries a spear and wears a large flat-topped hat, his hair and beard are white. The middle figure, who carries a long-handled axe, also has white hair and beard, but appears to have a halo rather than a hat; the upper part of his canopy has been cut off, consequently it is not certain that his position in relation to the

Moses? © DCM

Moses? © DCM

figure above is the original arrangement. The lowest figure with brown beard and small pointed hat might (as has been supposed – Hutchins’s History of Dorset, 3rd Edition, Vol. 1, p. 361.) represent Moses holding the tables of the law in his left hand and a rod in his right.

On the fourth strip the top figure with a long brown beard is dressed as a merchant with a belt and gypcière, his turban hat has a long liripipe which depends below the level of his right knee. The second figure with white hair and beard has a halo and grips a long knife and may perhaps represent St. Bartholomew. The lowest figure has brown hair and beard with ruddy cheeks, he wears a tall pointed “Steeple” hat with a broad turn-up and carries a scroll in his left hand.

St. Cuthburga, Abbess of Wimborne? © DCM

St. Cuthburga, Abbess of Wimborne? © DCM

The sixth strip is also part of; an orphrey, perhaps the central strip of a chasuble. It has been rubbed very bare of its silk embroidery, exposing the linen surface which is of very coarse texture.

Two female saints in veil and wimple are worked upon it; the upper figure bears a church in her hands, the symbol of a foundress ; the lower one holds a cross in both hands and might perhaps represent St. Helen. Their canopies are of an earlier type than those just mentioned.

The eighth strip is again part of an orphrey and is worked on linen of fine texture. The design consists of two male saints, each adorned with a blue halo, standing beneath canopies. The lower figure holds a chalice in his left hand but the object held by the upper figure is not now recognisable though it appears to terminate above in a small round knob. The canopy is only complete in the case of the lower figure, and though this resembles in some respects those on the sixth strip, it is not the same, the pediment has a more stately pitch and the diaper work is better, and a date may be assigned to this earlier in the 15th century than any of the others.

The Altar Frontal from Wool Church © DCMIt would seem, therefore, fairly obvious that the sixth and eighth strips belonged to different vestments, and it is a not incredible supposition that the sixth strip, in so far as its canopy work is concerned, may have been a rather poor copy of the eighth strip.

But there are parts of yet two more vestments incorporated in the frontal. On either side of the second strip a thin edging has been added consisting of green and gold “cut velvet” while between the third and fourth strips there is a similar edging of crimson and gold “cut velvet” Both of these are Italian and of 15th century date.

The fragments, preserved between glass in the small frame, came from the back of the Altar Frontal at the time it was repaired by Mrs. Stillwell.

With the Council’s permission I submitted them to Mr. Tattersall for his opinion, and have since labelled them in accordance with it.

The Altar Frontal from Wool Church © DCMNos. 1 and 2 are pieces of 15th century Italian velvet, doubtless from a cope. The crimson pile, which is woven on at least two warps, is cut to show a design in gold. A fine example of such a cope is to be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Nos. 3 and 4 are pieces of the green and crimson edging dividing the strips, described above. The green velvet is much rarer than the crimson. It was noticed that several of the vestments in the Victoria and Albert Museum had an edging of this material round the bottom.

Nos. 5, 6 and 7 are pieces of handwoven linen of various texture and colour, used as linings for the frontal.

To summarise briefly, it is definitely established that there are incorporated in the frontal parts of at least three vestments, probably a chasuble and two. copes, and parts of three different sets of orphreys; but whether the orphreys belonged to these particular vestments or were taken from others it is impossible to say.

Now in regard to the traditional connection with Bindon Abbey, what is the evidence?

It must be acknowledged at once that there is no real evidence and, after all, it is hardly likely that there should be; nevertheless where a strong local tradition exists in matters such as these it is unwise to ignore it.

The compilers of the 3rd Edition of Hutchins’s History of Dorset state that “it was probably brought from Bindon Abbey” Hutchins himself, in the 1st Edition, states rather more explicitly “it is most probable it belonged to Bindon Chapel and was preserved when that and the house were burnt in the Civil Wars.”

The house and chapel here referred to were built by Lord Thomas Howard (created 1st Viscount Bindon in 1559) who “raised a fair house” out of the monastery ruins. The actual position of this house and its domestic chapel cannot now be determined with any certainty, but it seems probable that it covered very much the same area as the present house within the Abbey precincts. It was burnt down during the Civil Wars about the year 1644.

A return of Church utensils in 1550 belonging to this Bindon Chapel is quoted by Hutchins, (Hutchins’s History of Dorset, 3rd Edition, Vol. 1, p. 352.) which includes a pair of vestments and an altar cloth. Perhaps this may have been the source of his idea.

In the Inventory of Church goods of 1552 (Proceedings, Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, Vol. XXV., pp. 210 &211.) the ” Chapell of Byndon ” possessed “one payre of vestments of rede & gryne saye” and “one alter clothe”

In the same Inventory “The parische of Woolle” had ” iiij payre of vestmentes with branchis of silke. ij copis with branches ” ” iiij aulter clothes ” : of which ” one cope and all the table clothes ” were allowed for the church use.

On the face of it the supposition of the late Rev. W. Miles Barnes (Ibid, p. 198.) would seem to be quite likely, viz.:—that these vestments and the remaining cope were eventually made up into altar hangings after purchase from the Commissioners, of which the frontal is all that now survives.

Advertisements

The History and Finds of Weymouth’s Sandsfoot Castle

The following article entitled ‘Notes on Sandsfoot Castle’ by T. S. Groves is from the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’, volume 3 published 1879.

Sandsfoot Castle

Sandsfoot Castle taken in 2008 before restoration in 2012 © DCM

“This prematurely ruined structure, described by Leland in his well-known itinerary “as a right goodlie and warlyke castle, having one open barbicane,” dates from no further back than 1539, the year when Henry the VII. compelled the surrender of the larger monasteries, and when consequent on the vigour of his assaults on Popery, he began to fear a coalition of Catholic sovereigns against his kingdom.

Portland Castle, on the opposite side of the bay, had been built a few years previously, the two being mainly intended to provide protection from foreign cruisers for English ships frequenting the “Roads,” and prevent the assembling of hostile navies therein with a view to invasion.

A ground-plan of Sandsfoot Castle was published in 1789 by Delamotte, of Weymouth. It appears to be authentic, but from what source he obtained it I am not aware. No good elevation of the castle in perfect state is known to exist, nor is there any adequate description of it in that condition.

As a ruin it has been often engraved, but the artists have usually shown themselves more desirous of attaining picturesque-ness of effect than accuracy of detail.

Grose, who wrote during the latter half of the last century, gives, in his “Antiquities of England,” the best verbal description we have of it.

Tudor Coat of Arms All Saints Wyke regis

The Royal Coat of Arms, carved in stone, was removed from the castle and now is over the south door of All Saint’s Church, Wyke Regis. © DCM

He says, ” The body of the castle is a right angled paralellogram, its greatest length running from north to south. At its north end was a tower on which were the arms of England, supported by a wivern and an unicorn. (These arms, carved in stone, were many years ago removed from the gateway of the castle and affixed to the north wall of the chancel of Wyke Eegis church). The north part seems to have been the governor’s apartment, and is all vaulted. Near its south end is a lower building, said to have been the gun room; this being broader than the other part of the edifice, forms flanks, which defend its east and west sides, and on the south the front is semi-circular; before there was formerly a platform for cannon. On the east and west sides there are embrazures for guns, and below them two tiers of loopholes for small arms, the lowest almost level with the ground. The north front is nearly destroyed, but the remains of an arch or gateway show that the entrance was on that side.

The whole edifice seems to have been cased with squared stones, the walls were thick and lofty, and the buildings, though small, were not inelegant. Since the «’ restoration ” it has been neglected and suffered to fall to ruin. The north, east, and south sides were, at a small distance, surrounded by a deep ditch and earthen rampart, through which, on the east front, was a gate faced with stone, part of which is still remaining.”

In this description there are several inaccuracies. The lower building on the south side is not semi-circular, but octangular, its eighth side forming the southern end of the main body of the castle. The ground-plan I have referred to shows that five of the sides were pierced for embrazures, three of which pointed seawards, the other two covering respectively the shore to the right and left. The sixth and seventh sides are not fully developed, and were not pierced for cannon; the flanking effect must, therefore, have been produced by loopholes for small arms in the upper story, of which indeed indications are given in Buck’s engraving (date 1733).

There is reason also for objecting to his description of the east and west sides of the main building. The lowest tier of apertures on the west sides are evidently those of windows for lighting the cellar of the castle ; the tier next above these are, or rather were, loopholes, but the facing stones having been removed the contraction of the openings that originally existed is no longer apparent. The uppermost tier is simply a range of windows—the places where the iron bars were inserted being plainly visible.

From the east side the cellar received no light, consequently there is one tier of perforations less.  On this side was a doorway and four loopholes on the ground floor, and four windows above.  I doubt very much whether there were on either the east or west side embrazures for cannon.  The ground-plan certainly gives a figure of what appears to be a cannon lying in one of the eastern openings, but it must I think be an error, as at the point in  question,   immediately behind the  supposed embrazure is the head of a staircase leading to the cellar.   The castle on the land side was in fact very weakly fortified.     It relied perhaps for defence in this direction on its ditch and rampart, the latter doubtless furnished with cannon, especially at . the bastions at its east and west angles.

The “open barbicane” mentioned by Leland is not visible. He must, I think, have inaccurately applied the word to the gun-room at the southern end. The term is rightly employed to indicate a port in advance of the main building for the purpose of protecting the entrance gate and drawbridge, if any.

Grose omits to mention the grooves in which slid the portcullis, and which are still visible at the north and principal entrance.

Inside Sandsfoot Castle

The interior of Sandsfoot Castle after restoration in 2012 © DCM

The arrangements of the interior will best be understood after actual inspection, I will, therefore, refrain from describing them. It is evident that a very large portion of the octagonal gun. room has fallen owing to the sea having undermined its foundation. A large block is now lying on the rocks below, undergoing the gradual disintegration by the action of the waves that has in my time dispersed many still larger fragments. In my father’s time, sixty years ago, a carriage could be driven between the castle and the cliff, and in 1859, if an ancient map may be credited, the castle, surrounded on all sides by a moat, stood in the centre of the field.

The dilapidated (a word here most correctly applicable) condition of the outer walls is said to have been occasioned by the stones having been torn from their places and carried to Wey-mouth for building purposes. Two houses in St. Thomas street have been pointed out to me as having been mainly constructed out of the spoils of Sandsfoot Castle. One is half inclined to wonder how such a thing could have happened seeing that the building has never passed out of the hand of the Crown. But there were giants in those prae-reforrm days—at peculation and robbery!

It seems that round shot of stone were used, at least occasionally, for the service of the guns. Some schoolboys, playing about the castle, crawled into one of the large drains that opened on the cliff, and found there a stone shot of some six inches in diameter. A similar shot was found at Portland, and brought to Sir John Coode, who had the curiosity to know whether it was really a shot or only a natural concretion. He therefore placed it under a steam-hammer, and gave it a blow so judicious that it cracked into two exactly equal pieces, when lo ! in the centre was found a perfect specimen of a petrified Cardium of some sort. The split shot is to be seen at the Engineer Office, Portland. There can be no doubt I think of the stone being really a shot—its perfect sphericity would seem to prove that— but there is reason to suppose that in order to save labour the ancient artificer had selected a stone already partially rounded, a concretion in fact founded on the shell of the Cardium.

Sandsfoot Castle can scarcely be said to have a history. It must have changed hands again and again during the Civil Wars, but existing records make no mention of any siege whatever—a fact which strengthens my argument that the castle was indefensible on tho north or land side. Probably it followed as a matter of course the fortunes of the neighbouring fortified town of Weymouth and Melconibe Regis. The names of some half-dozen of its Governors are known, but no interest would attach to their enumeration.

The same must be said of the references, few and far between, to  the existence of the castle and its garrison, in the borough archives—archives which are alas in private hands, and probably about to suffer  dispersion to the four winds of heaven under the very noses of a body of men whom I fear I must characterise as indifferent to the history of their borough, and more antiquarian in their notions than in their tastes.”

The follow-up article entitled ‘Sandsfoot Castle, Weymouth’ by  W. C. Norman is from the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’, volume 41 for 1920, published 1921

“I have recently read with considerable interest T. B. Groves’s “Note on Sandsfoot Castle, which appeared in Vol. III. (pages 20, &c.) of the  Proceedings of our Club. This to a great extent is accounted for by the fact that my school days were spent at Weymouth, and naturally I was well acquainted with this ruin.

For this reason, and because of what is related further on, I thought I might, without presumption, add a few remarks on the subject.

My earliest recollection of the Castle reaches back to a period of over 60 years, and is, that it was then on the edge of the cliff. Indeed, most of the gun-room was gone, and its south-eastern and south-western walls projected over it considerably, as a result of being undermined by the disintegrating action of the sea.

An old ostcard of Sandsfoot Castle and Gardens

An old postcard of Sandsfoot Castle and Gardens

At this time there was no way round the Castle and the sea cliff outside it, except the dangerous one of climbing round the overhanging ruins, which afforded a very precarious foothold, and from which to the rocks below was a sheer drop of 40 feet.

There was a large fall of masonry from the south-front in 1835, and there have been others at various times since.

I will briefly refer to Mr. Groves’s remarks in passing.

From a plan of Sandsfoot Castle dated 1789 (in my possession) and which I was, many years ago, (by the courtesy of an official) allowed to copy from one in the War Department Office, on Bincleaves, the dimensions of the Castle are there given as :— length, 100 feet; width, 50 feet.

The east, north and west sides still have the protection of the ditch and rampart, and it is fair to assume that similar works defended the south side; but all traces of these must have been obliterated more than 70 years ago, by the occasional subsidence of the cliff into the sea.

Sandsfoot Castle

Sandsfoot Castle taken in 2008 © DCM

That the opening in the east rampart was a gateway or entrance is, I think, open to grave doubts. On a map and plan of the Castle which I saw more than 50 years ago, and which was then in the keeping of the War Department at their Office on the Bincleaves, that opening is described as being a magazine. Years ago there reposed in the ditch, directly behind the so-called u gateway,” a massive door jamb of stone. The upper end of the jamb was turned, so as to form half of the head of a semi-circular door arch. When the corresponding jamb was in position it would accommodate a door measuring 3ft. by 4ft. 6in. in the rabbet formed for this purpose. A door of this size, although suitable for a magazine, would be totally inadequate for the general purposes of the Castle. When I last saw this jamb, it had fallen from the ditch on to the undercliff below. I searched for it in June, 1918, but could not find it. Possibly it was hidden by the rank growth of weeds, or had sunk in the soft earth.The grooves in which the portcullis moved are clearly in view, also the stone stairway leading to the chamber (over the main entrance) in which was the machinery used for raising or lowering this.

There were two entrances to the cellars, one at the northeast angle of the Castle, the other a few yards to the south of this, When a school-boy, I, with three boy friends, resolved to clear the steps of the last-mentioned entrance from the earth which, in the course of very many years, had accumulated there. We devoted a half-holiday to the object. We began at the top, and had nearly reached the bottom, when I found a small coin, which proved to be a Rose farthing of Charles I., 1635. This type is similar to the Harringtons’, the difference being, that these bore the Rose on the reverse, in lieu of the Harp, which distinguishes the Harringtons’.It is evident that the old map showed the Castle as it was at some early date of its history, and not as it stood in 1859; as, at this time, not only had the rampart, ditch and intervening land between them and the Castle entirely disappeared, but also a considerable portion of the building itself had fallen into the sea.

As I was one of the school-boys referred to in Mr. Groves’s paper (Vol. III., p. 23) I feel quite qualified to give a few details relating to the finding of the stone shot.

About the year 1855 I was walking, with two other boys, on the sea-shore under Sandsfoot Castle, when we “spotted” the opening of a drain which a fall of the cliff had brought to view.

It was directly under the south-west angle of the Castle, and about 30 feet above the shore. The opening  was almost closed with earth. We had a strong desire to investigate ; but how ? It was not an easy matter at that time, as the cliff was then nearly perpendicular. I was deputed to make the ascent, and, by the aid of my pocket-knife and a pointed piece of wood, foot-holes were cut in the face of the cliff, and the upward journey began.

At length I reached the drain, and cleared its mouth. Inspection revealed the fact that its bottom was covered by a few inches of earth, and that it extended about six or eight feet in a direct line, when it appeared to be choked by fallen masonry. This ended the first introduction to the drain; but we arranged to pay it daily visits in order to carry on the work, and, in order not to interfere with our school duties, these visits had to be made in the early morning. So, for some time, we rose with the lark, and reached the scene of operations at 7 a.m. This gave just an hour for work, before we had to start for home, breakfast, and school.

The Poisoned Cup by Joseph Drew

‘The Poisoned Cup’, a short novel by Joseph Drew set in the reign of Elizabeth I has Sandsfoot Castle as its backdrop. © DCM

As our operations were carried on in semi-darkness, lying prone, and in a very confined space, our progress was not rapid. The earth had to be loosened and scraped forward; then the worker wriggled backwards, drawing the earth forwards until the outlet of the drain was reached, when the result was sent over the cliff. As the clearing progressed, the one working in the drain was occasionally quite hidden from view. One morning, when I was at work, and nearing the obstacle, I came upon something which for a time defied my efforts to remove it; but at last I loosened it, and took it from its bed, where it had probably been resting for centuries. I wriggled back to daylight with my unknown prize, when it was seen that it was a hollow cylinder of iron, open at one end, and closed at the other. There was a handle on one side. What it was I knew not then; but the heavy burden was cheerfully borne as, with light hearts, we trudged back to breakfast. Another visit sufficed to clear the floor of the drain of accumulated earth and rubble, and to enable us to see clearly the nature of the obstruction. I should state that in the roof of the drain and about six feet from the outlet, a perpendicular drain joined it; and down this had fallen a rectangular piece of stone measuring about 2 feet x 10in. x 10in., which was firmly jammed at the angle formed by the junction of the perpendicular and horizontal drains.

To remove this was both difficult and dangerous. The working space was cramped; the prone position of the operator most uncomfortable. Moreover there was the knowledge that when the obstruction moved it would come with a rush; and then it would be a case of stand clear, or be crushed. The obstruction was at length removed without mishap, and when it came down into the drain, I found to my great joy, that three stone shots, which had lodged behind it, were now released. These I drew towards me, and wriggled back to the outlet with them. They were received with shouts each took one. We were a happy trio as we wended our way homewards.

A few years later I found an iron shot, about 3in. diameter, 18 inches beneath the surface of the gun-room floor.

Some years after this, when visiting the Tower of London, I found that the iron cylinder was a breech chamber of a 15th Century cannon in which the charge of powder was placed. It was then inserted in an aperture in the cannon and pressed forward in the direction of the muzzle, and secured in this position by a bar of iron which passed through holes in the sides of the gun and rested against the end of the chamber, thus preventing it from moving. There was a touch hole in the chamber. The shot was then inserted in the muzzle and rammed home, and the gun was ready for action.

Formerly there was a tradition that when Henry VIII. built Sandsfoot Castle, he used some of the material which he obtained from Bindon Abbey (which, like so many other religious houses, fell a victim to his rapacity) for its construction; but there appears to be no proof of this. However, a close inspection of the Castle walls show that there are, among the rubble, many fragments of worked and carved stone, including two archaic corbel heads which evidently came from some ecclesiastical building. This appears to give a little colour to the report; but it is too slight for anything but the merest conjecture.

My three “finds” at Sandsfoot Castle referred to in the foregoing pages, viz., the breech-chamber, stone shot and iron ball, are in the Dorset County Museum.

In writing the above I merely desired to place on record circumstances which are in my personal knowledge, and which otherwise might have been lost sight of.

Loading the Cannon Pierrier

Loading the Cannon Pierrier © DCM

N.B – Since this paper was written I have received information from the Royal United Services’ Institution, Whitehall, to the effect that this early breech-loading weapon, known as the cannon pierrier, was much used in the early part of the Sixteenth Century for throwing stone shot from small castles. The accompanying sketch, from a drawing by Grosse, in the Royal United Services’ Institute shows the progress of loading the cannon pierrier. The small stone or iron balls were apparently inserted at the breech. (See middle gun).

The large stone balls, 6in. diameter, which we found, would be used not in a pierrier, but in a howitzer.”

Related Links:

A Fisherman’s Tale: The Monster Fish of the River Frome

Monster Fish -  The Sturgeon hangs suspended in the Dorset County Museum

Monster Fish – The Sturgeon hangs suspended in the Dorset County Museum © DCM

Visitors to the Dorset County Museum may have noticed the large fish suspended in the Victorian Gallery. Believe it or not this is a Common Sturgeon (Acipenser Sturio), also known as a European or Baltic Sturgeon, is one of the largest fish ever to be caught in an English river using a fishing rod. Nearly three metres in length and weighing 92 kilograms, this fish was caught by Major Charles Robert Eustace Radclyffe of Hyde House, Bere Regis in the River Frome at Bindon Mill on 2nd July 1911.

Here is his amusing fisherman’s tale taken from the Dorset Year Book 1918 -1919 from Major C.E. Radclyffe’s article ‘My Years of Sport in Dorset’:

“And now we tune to the gentle art, so well beloved by Issac Walton.  Here again in Dorset rich in rewards for those who frequent the banks of her silvery streams.  True it is that the River Stour is not so noted for its pellucid waters as for the size of the great course fish which frequent its dark and deep pools.  But in the clear waters of those beautiful streams, the Frome and the Piddle, which teem with all kinds of fish from salmon and trout to grayling pike, roach and dace, an angler must be hard to please if he cannot there find anything to amuse him.  No two men beautiful streams are to be found in England than these which meander over their winding courses and glide gently into Poole Harbour by two months situated a short distance apart.

The Frome in its upper reaches yields magnificent trout fishing, whilst in its lower stretches salmon run up to 50 lbs. in weight, and enormous pike and countless coarse fish, and a few sea trout, frequent its waters.  The Piddle is without doubt one of the best trout streams in England, and teems with fish for many miles.

Born and bred on the finest stretch of the latter river, it is not to be wondered at that in early youth I took fishing as a duck takes to waters to their mouths, that I have not explored and fished in the past 35 years, and during that time have taken from them many hundreds of fine trout, and many scres of salmon.

An angler is always expected to have some great yarn to tell of each river he has fished, and the writer does not plead to be an exception to this rule; in fact he could fill a book of yarns on Dorset angling.  The difficulty is to get people to believe them all.  But the following is a well authenticated event which happened seven years ago.

Radclyffe Family and the Sturgeon

The sturgeon after its capture, on top of the roof of Major Radclyffe’s Daimler. In front are his four daughters © DCM

Early in the season I was fishing the lower waters of the Frome for salmon with a friend. Shortly after we had started, my friend came running wildly towards me across the meadows, as if chased by a mad bull. Breathlessly he explained that he had seen the biggest salmon in the world I reasoned with him that even a 40-pound salmon looked ‘some fish’ in a small river like the Frome. Whereupon he swore solemnly that this fish was at least 140lbs. As the old saying goes ‘seeing is believing’, so we went to the spot, and soon in the centre of the pool appeared a huge back fin shaped like that of a shark. A closer inspection showed the back of an enormous fish, which my friend had clearly underestimated at 140lbs. But this great back with scales like armour plating was familiar to me, since I had killed sturgeon in Russia, and hence was able to say at once that my friend is a sturgeon, and a big one; but how to land him on our light tackle is more than I can say. Repeatedly the monster rolled on top of the water close between our feet, and finally we decided to borrow a gun from a neighbouring farm and shoot the fish.

The gun having arrived we waited until the fish again showed on top of the water, and then gave him both barrels in the head at a distance of five yards. The only result was to make him take a series of wild rushes across the stream, where he began to roll about as before, apparently none the worse for a double dose of No. 5 shot.  Seeing that big things required strong measures, I sent my car home for an elephant rifle, and we waited. Just before the rifle arrived the fish disappeared in a deep pool, and although we patrolled the river, and had scouts out looking for him for days afterwards, we did not then find further traces of the fish, and decided he must have returned to the sea.

Two months later, a man arrived from Bindon Abbey with a request that I would go next morning to try, and catch the biggest salmon in world, which was then in a big weir pool. From the man’s description I had no difficulty in deciding that here was our long-lost sturgeon.

Early next morning, armed with the strongest rod and line I possessed, and having rigged up a grappling tackle of the largest-sized salmon flies, a party of five of us stood watching the weir pool. After an hour’s waiting, there suddenly appeared the great shark-like fin, and then the back of our friend the sturgeon.

Major Radclyffe and Sturgeon

Major Radclyffe (right) and his Gillie with the 230lbs. Sturgeon, caught by the Major near Bindon Abbey. The largest fish ever caught in fresh water in England. © DCM

Since a sturgeon belongs to the family of bottom-feeding fish, it was obviously impossible to hook this one with any form of bait. Hence it became a problem of casting over the monster and trying to get the hooks to grapple in some soft spot. This was no means easy owing to the thickness of its skin and armour-plated scales. Finally, however, I grappled the fish under the jaw, and then the fun began. For one hour and forty-five minutes I and a friend took turns at the rod, as the continuous strain on one’s arms was more than one man could stand for long; and at last it felt like trying to hold or turn a motor car with a rod and line.

As a last resource we had to requisition services of a small seine net, and floating it down stream until the fish struck into it. The fish tangled itself up like a fly in a spider’s web, and was thus hauled into shallow water. It took three men with two gaffs to land this leviathan, which measured no less than 9 feet 3 inches from nose to tail; verily the largest fish ever captured with rod and line in an English river.

According to a time honoured custom, I presented the fish to His Majesty King George, who graciously returned it to me with a request that it might be preserved in my private museum at Dorchester; all of which was done in due course.

An amusing incident occurred as the fish was landed. A local labourer arrived with a towel on his shoulder for a morning bathe.On seeing the fish he said, ‘Lord, zur, do ee think there’s another of they girt brutes about, cause if ‘tis I bain’t agoin’ to bathe in thik pool agean,’ and I don’t believe he has done so since then.

I have often heard a fine fisherman say he considrers the Frome to be the most sporting, and best all-round river in England.  And although I can claim a somewhat unique record of having caught salmon on almost every country in the world where they are known to exist, from Iceland Scandinavia and Russia, to Siberia, Kamchatha, Japan and Alaska; and from the Bristish Columbia to Newfoundland; yet I look back with great pleasure of all to the days on which I have landed my first and many subsequent great salmon, on the banks of the dear old Frome.

‘Big things with fins’

SturgeonSturgeon are rare visitors to our rivers. Most of the population is found in the Rivers Gironde, France and Guadalquivir, Spain and in the Baltic and Russian rivers. They have four barbels which are tactile organs in front of their toothless mouth that seek out food on murky river bottoms. Sturgeon are covered with bony plates called scutes rather than scales; the Victorians made jewellery out of these, setting them in silver and gold.

Most species of Sturgeon are highly prized for their caviar and, as they are slow growing and mature very late in life, are consequently at risk of extinction, as a result of over fishing, poaching, black market trading, and habitat loss. Caviar comes from the Persian word Khaviar which means ‘bearing eggs’ and can cost several hundred pounds for a small pot. Now the Common Sturgeon is protected and can no longer be caught for its caviar.

It has been suggested that sturgeon have been the origins of some sightings of the Loch Ness Monster.

In Morris Collman’s book ‘Hants and Dorset’s Legends & Folklore’, published by James Pike ltd, 1975. He mentions a local Dorchester tradition that monster fish once inhabited a lake near Poundbury Hillfort.

“Poundbury is an ancient British earthwork which the Romans adapted for their use.  It was placed on high ground above the river, and in its early days a great lake which fed by the river Frome, lay to the north of the camp. There are stories of monsters which used to inhabit this lake, but no description of them seems to have been attempted.  They were just monsters, ‘Big things with fins’ according to one old Dorchester lady.

Related Links: