The Victorian Backwater…fowling pieces, ospreys, auks and otters.

The Backwater, or Radipole Lake played  a large part of my childhood.



I spent a lot of my childhood playing in and around here, I fished for eels from the riverside with nothing but a stick, string and bent pin for a hook,(not very successfully I hasten to add,) I watched the swans build their nests and later cooed over their fluffy babies nestled protected under their parents wings.

The Victorian also enjoyed the delights of this vast stretch of water, though not quite the same way that we do today.

rocks album view from rodwell

The Backwater was so named because it literally was the back water to the sea front…before the dam was built in the harbour, it was tidal right up as far as Radipole, boat excursions were popular in those days bringing tourists up river for afternoon teas at Radipole.

rocks album radipole lake

In 1847 a rare specimen of a fish was caught here, a King Fish of Shaw otherwise known as  Lampus Imperatus. It was a massive three foot in length, weighed in at a humongous 90 pounds.

So impressive was this fine (dead!) specimen that it was put on public display in Weymouth.

The same year, a rare bird was spotted feeding in the lake, a Spoon-Bill, or Plateba Sencorodia of Pennant. It was claimed by the Victorian writer to be a most beautiful bird, measuring almost 2 foot in length from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail. The Victorians loved their natural sciences and revelled in new discoveries…only problem was they liked to keep hold of their unusual  specimens, so first they shot them… then stuffed them!

This one  ‘dead-as-a-dodo Spoon Bill’ was down to a certain Mr Crocker Esquire no less.


Mind you, their habit of approaching the wildlife with guns rather than looking glasses sometimes literally backfired on them.

Such was the case in 1856.

Thirty two year old John Gillingham, a whitesmith from Melcombe Regis was on the Backwater in a boat with his wife,  Eliza and young daughter, 12-year-old Sarah.John was out for a spot of sport, he had his fowling piece with him. He had just pulled into the side of the lake to let his wife and daughter off the boat, when somehow, the fully loaded gun that was resting in the boat suddenly discharged its contents, and young Sarah who was stood on the bank received the full blast of the shot at close range. Her arm was shattered with the force of the gun, and had to be amputated, the local paper stated that her life was in imminent danger. But Sarah was made of sterner stuff than that because by the next census, the family have moved to St Nicholas Street, where they ran the Welcome Home public house, and Sarah, now aged 18,  is still listed as a student at that point.


In July of 1864, a spot of tourism promotion was the name of the day when a local man, Mr John Brett wrote to the Southern Times extolling the virtues of a boat trip on the Radipole lake, advising visitors to the area (in such flowery terms as the Victorians seemed to revel in,)  not to miss such a  delightful experience.

Maybe todays tourist board should find such a fine fellow as he.



To the Editor of the “Southern Times.”

SIR- It is much to be regretted that some of the most interesting scene and sources of pleasure are lost to our visitors from want of knowledge of the circumstances under which they may be enjoyed. Such is the case relative to the delightful trip to the charming little village of Radipole at spring tides or even a morning 10 or 11 o’clock tide. No lake in Cumberland can be more lovely than our estuary at high water in the summer season.

boy girl child boat 1887

Fringed even to its margin with fields of grain or over-hanging honeysuckles, resounding with the song of the cuckoo, the lark, and the blackbird, often has my heart been ravished while gliding smoothly over its glassy waters at their contemplation, and while my thoughts have ascended from nature up to nature’s God, they have found language in the words of the poet-

“These are thy glorious works

Parent of Good.-Almighty.

Thine this universal frame

Thus wondrous fair,

Thyself how wondrous then.”

people rowing boats

After a morning spent upon the briny deep in viewing the boundless ocean and its margin of magnificent cliffs of chalk, or its cavers that the ceaseless waters have worn on the coast, how sweet to vary the scene by an evening trip on the placid waters that isolate our town from the main. A farm, ancient and substantial, adjoining the church, will kindly furnish refreshments of the class used at the marriage at Cann, in Galilee, as well as those of a less stimulating property. Our worthy old townsmen, Caddy, will furnish a boat like an old family coach, in which the children may dance Scotch reels, or possibly old Davy himself may amuse his fare with a hornpipe man-‘o-war fashion. As I know that, like myself, you are desirous of giving our visitors all possible enjoyment during their excursions, I lay aside the deep and important matters that are my usual study to refresh myself with this light ebullition, and request your kind insertion thereof.

Yours truly,




Even though some of the more enlightened Victorian people saw the beauty around them for what it was, a pleasure to enjoy, many still wanted to capture those fleeting moments for all time, but were destructive to the nth degree in doing so!

‘1870 5 NOV

OSPREY AND LITTLE AUK AT WEYMOUTH. -Mr. William Thompson, writing to the Field, says :- An adult male osprey (Pandion Halicetus Gould ) was killed in the Backwater of Weymouth on September 22 last, and is now in my possession, having been brought to me in the flesh the same day. It was observed on the feed the previous day, when it caught a fish, either a mullet or bass. The osprey soared with its prey to some height, when it fell; but the hawk, making a swoop, recovered the fish before it touched the water, and flew with it inland. On the following day the osprey was again seen flying towards the Weymouth Back Harbour, and mobbed by some rooks and a kestrel. The birds crossed the Backwater, and on nearing the railway station the rooks beat a retreat; but not so the kestrel, who attacked the osprey, and gave the gunner the opportunity of bringing down the osprey with the right hand barrel, and the kestrel with the left. The kestrel was a female. Gillingham tells me that the osprey screamed when attacked by the kestrel. Little auk (Mergulus melanoleucos) was shot on the same day in the Weymouth Backwater.’

heron backwater quiver 1877

It wasn’t just the poor old birds who were on the receiving end of the Victorian sportsmans guns…so too were the resident mammals.

‘1884 6 DEC



On Thursday a man, name Brewer, shot a fine dog otter in the Backwater. From tip to tail it measured over 3 feet, and it was in splendid condition. A short time since the female was trapped. There are now two young otters in the neighbourhood of the Backwater.’

(Mr Brewer was actually the keeper of the swans, he fed them three times  a day, took care of their every need, and was to frequently be seen on picture postcards of the era in his rowing boat attending the regal birds.)

During the 1870’s serious discussions had begun on reclaiming parts of the Backwater, but the major fears that once the tidal flows of the estuary were interfered with problems would arise in the harbour, the natural ebb and flow of the tides scoured the sands from the harbour, some were convinced that altering the lie of the land and nature would ultimately result in Weymouth harbour silting up altogether.

As we now know,  this large open expanse of waterway has slowly been eroded over the years with various plots of land reclaimed from the brine, being created here and there for building purposes, Commercial Road, Radipole gardens, Melcombe Regis gardens….until the Radipole Lake is a mere shadow of its former self.

But its history  has so many more stories to tell, murder, tragedy, joy….that’s for another time.




Writing a book, blog, short stories or your own family history, then why not make them jump off the page, bring them to life with historical graphics.
I have a huge collection that cover illustrations from numerous Victorian articles about travel, prisons, children’s homes, poverty, philanthropy…
Check out my Etsy site for Victorian illustrations, many local ones being added all the time from my own personal collection.


Fishing for trouble, Weymouth quayside 1887.


Weymouth harbour early morning is a beautiful tranquil place, with only the local fishermen busy on board their vessels getting ready to set out to sea, but as the day picks up, so the harbourside begins to fill with boats of all shapes and sizes and  people, some working  and those out enjoying themselves.

So it was during the Victorian era.

Since time immemorial the harbourside has been like a magnet to many, especially children, summertime and the quayside walls plays host to the many fidgety bottoms perched along there, with lines a myriad of lines dangling in the water ready for that big catch.

The Victorian children were no different.

Also running along Weymouth’s harbourside is a railway track, this carried the goods wagons right from pier on the quayside to its final destination or later on the Jersey boat trains that carried hundreds of passengers depositing them virtually at the gangplank of their chosen vessel.


Living in Weymouth you became accustomed to dodging the metal tracks in the road surface, or even the great trains themselves as they slowly trundled along at a walking pace making their way through the busy street, a man in front waving his flag warning folks of oncoming railway traffic. Not that you could miss them, their wheels ominously creaking and grinding along, metal against metal as they slowly rolled towards their destination.


During the Victorian era , further back in the harbour, along Commercial Road, the train line ran between the rows of terraced houses and the old quay wall, now an area of the Backwater which has since been filled in and built on.

When the railway came to town in the mid Victorian era, so did the men who worked them. Such was the family of the Jones’s.

Newly weds Charles James and his wife Clara Isabella had moved to Weymouth, Charles was working as an engine driver on the London and South Western Railway. The family lived in a little terraced house at no 8 Bath Street, a short side road that originally ran out onto the quayside. Their family grew over the years, Dad was in a steady job, he earnt a decent wage. The kids grew up with the entire harbour area as their playground, they had no fear of the water.

JUVENILE MAG 1889 dolly in water

Life had it’s usual ups and downs for the family, but all in all they were happy.

That was until one fateful day in 1887.

One Wednesday morning late in July, the youngest son of the family, Arthur James, who was only 4-years of age had wandered the short few steps down to the harbourside completely alone. Armed with a simple stick and a bit of string, a piece of stale bread swung on the end as he tottered along the road towards the quay wall.

Laying down on his tummy, he peered into the murky waters below as he dropped his make-do fishing line down, he was after some crabs. His little chubby legs stretched out behind him as he reached over the old wall.

Concentrating so hard on his attempts to catch that elusive crab the little lad didn’t hear or see the danger approaching him…and neither did the driver of the train!

Arthur’s legs were laid right across the outside railway line…within seconds the metal wheels of the great steam train had passed over Arthur’s little wayward limbs, severing them both completely!

His heart rending screams brought people out from their houses, only to be confronted by a nightmare scene, the two severed legs lay in between the tracks, and blood poured from his gaping stumps.

He was bundled up in blankets and rushed immediately to the local hospital, but there was nothing to be done…Arthur died not long after.

policeman in dock with boy quiver 1891

On the 25th July 1887, what remained of the tiny body of 4-year-old Arthur James Jones was lowered into his last resting place in Melcombe Regis graveyard.



Writing a book, blog, short stories or your own family history, then why not make them jump off the page, bring them to life with historical graphics.
I have a huge collection that cover illustrations from numerous Victorian articles about travel, prisons, children’s homes, poverty, philanthropy…
Check out my Etsy site for Victorian illustrations, many local ones being added all the time from my own personal collection.

Who’s a naughty boy then? Victorian prisoners, were they really all bad?.


The Prison Registers contain many intriguing stories within their yellowed  pages, and the faded elegant script tells us of our ancestors past lives.

They are just a tiny snapshot of their life’s story, but can reveal a great deal about the person or the family.

On the very last day of the year 1872, James Benfield, aged 20, was admitted to Dorchester prison.

The Prisoners admissions book gives us a few inklings of what he looked like, but tells us nothing about the man himself. For that you have to dig a little deeper.

James was a seaman, following in the age old family tradition. his Parents William and Mary Ann lived in Lower Lane at Chiswell, Portland which once lay behind the great Chesil Bank, the constant sounds of waves on pebbles his lullaby at night and wake up call in the mornings.


He was only a young lad, but one who had worked hard throughout his early life.

He first signed up to go to sea at the tender age of 13. On the 28th April 1866 James joined his father and brother on his first ever paid voyage as a ships boy on the vessel Myrtle,

it was owned by Weymouth businessman Henry Attwooll, the ship plied its trade between British ports, Portland, London, Hartlepool, Chatham….it was a good grounding for the young lad to learn the skills necessary to help keep him alive in what could be a dangerous job.

Over the years James worked his way up through the crew, and on many different boats that sailed from Weymouth or Portland. It was a life he knew well and lone he loved. Most of his friends and family in the Chiswell community were sea going folks or earnt their living from the sea. They spent time together on the sea, and most of it when back on dry land.


It was during one of those spells on ‘dry’ land that James and his young pals got themselves into a spot of bother. Their time on land wasn’t quite so ‘dry!’

One Thursday in 1872, James and three of his seagoing friends, John Anthony, Henry Peters and Benjamin Pearce had made their way to the Kings Arms Inn on Portland, they fancied wetting their whistles somewhat…only they didn’t just wet them, they almost drowned them! The four lads were more than slightly inebriated, they were rip roaring drunk, and obnoxious drunks at that.

They were physically picking up and shaking all the tables so that the glasses all fell off and smashed on the floor, they were making so much noise and commotion that the other customers in the pub were leaving in disgust. The landlord wasn’t at all happy, he demonstrated with the lads, and told them in no uncertain terms to leave…but they weren’t having any of it. They were enjoying themselves, no one was going to make them leave.

Then along comes Constable Loader, it was his turn to confront the young Victorian version of todays lager louts, he ordered them away to their homes or he would arrest them. Did they heed his warning, did they as heck! John anthony turned round and swung an almighty blow to the coppers face. Then all four lads literally bundled the poor fellow out of the pub and onto the ground outside, watched by a crowd of astonished and frightened women and children the lads proceeded to viciously assaulted the man, they hit him, kicked him as he lay prone on the ground. When more reinforcements  arrived, the lads took flight, they knew they were outnumbered.

But of course, Portland being such a tight knit community as it was, it didn’t take the police long to find the names of the four   miscreants, and they were fairly swiftly rounded up and removed to the local police station where they were locked up until it was time for them to appear before the magistrate.

boy jail

Hence, the 31st December1872 , James found himself, along with his fellow cell mates incarcerated in Dorchester prison for the vicious assault on the police officer, P.C. Loader, which had left him off work for a long time, he had suffered broken ribs and severe bruising all over his body.

John Anthony had got 4 months hard labour as he was considered the ring leader and the one who had struck the first blow, James and the other two lads fared slightly better, they only received three months hard labour.

As 20-year-old James was officially entered into the Prison Records book, his physical description is recorded for all eternity to witness in the far left hand column of the page.

He was described as 5ft 8 1/2 ins tall, had brown hair, dark grey eyes and a the sea going mans usual ruddy complexion. Distinguishing marks were a cut on the centre of his forehead and mole on the left side of his face near his right ear. It appears that his nose was fairly distinctive too…the tip turned up.

Was this the start of a life of crime for James, would this be the beginning of numerous trips in and out of courts and jail?

Not a bit of it.

He did appear in court again in 1880, but that was to summons another sea going Captain named  Smith of the Kingdon of Sweden barque for monies owed him as a pilot working in the local area.

James went on to become a well respected pilot,  in 1890 he was the Master on the Fox, working along side his brother John. The records show a list of the various vessels he skippered over the following years, eventually going on  to work at a steady job for Trinity House as a pilot.


By 1891 James is living in Queens Row over on Portland with his second wife Elizabeth and a stepdaughter, still doing the job he loved, working out at sea for Trinity house.

Sadly things had changed for James by the 1911 census, by then, aged 59, he has lost his wife and home and is living in the the Union Workhouse on Wyke Road, Weymouth. Far away from the sounds and constant views of his beloved sea that he had adored during his lifetime on Portland, though he is still listed as a pilot and seaman, so maybe he was still  able to work on the waters.

Here he died  on the  11th February 1935 at the ripe old age of 82.


History of Chiswell.


Some people though took slightly longer to learn the lesson that crime and bad behaviour doesn’t pay.

Such was the case of William John Bilke.

He was the son of William and Mary, a family that lived and worked in Wyke, Dad William was a a boot and shoe mender in the village.

William jnr had opted for a life working on the sea, he was one of the many Wyke  fisherman that plied their trade from the beach.

scattered seed fishermen 2

By the 1871 census William is still living at home with his Mum and sister Mary, his Dad had died and Mum was trying her best to keep the family going by running a carrier business.

But by next year, the  31st Dec 1872, 26-year-old William John Bilke found himself before the courts.

A family row had erupted at home in their little cottage in Wyke, and all over half a crown!

William and his mother had been arguing over the said sum of money, when suddenly William lashed out, hitting his mother. Hearing the awful commotion going on downstairs, his sister Mary raced down to see what was happening and witnessed the blow. Remonstrating with William for such an ungentlemanly act, she suddenly found herself on the receiving end of his wrath when he attacked her, hitting her about the head  with closed fists.

He was taken before the court, but because his family had dropped the charges against him, and it was his first appearance in court, the magistrate only gave him a short sentence, 14 days.

A couple of years later, 1875,  and William was back before the court again, this time for the theft of some bones!

According to the Prisoners Description book, William was a tall lad for the day, 5ft 10 3/4 ins, he had a mop of light brown hair, with dark grey eyes and a fair complexion. On the left side of his lips was an old  scar that looked like a dent, his left hand bore a scar that stretched right across the back of his fingers.

After that he seemed to have managed to keep out of trouble, well, at least from the police and the courts.

In 1881 William finally took the plunge, on the 28th April married  Eliza Hallett, a Somerset lass. But their wedded bliss wasn’t to last long.

wedding q 1877

On the 10th September 1883, aged just 38, Eliza passed away in the Union workhouse, we can only guess why when we look down through the burials for that time. On the opposite page to Eliza is another  death on the 2nd August, Elizabeth Bilke, this was a 4 day old girl, whose sad demise also took place in the Union workhouse.

William tries matrimony again later in 1889, on the  28th April William as a widower aged 46, tied the knot with Mary Frampton, who was also on her second marriage, she was aged 50, and another local born woman of Wyke Regis.


Aged just 50, on the 28th april 1893, death struck once more…William.


Age, or lack of,  was no barrier to being thrown into prison in the Victorian era…if you were found guilty, that was that.

raggedy boy

In 1873 a small lad stood in the dock, he could barely peer over the box, he was aged 10, but appeared to be much younger because of his diminutive stature. Maybe poverty had a role to play in that. He was only 3ft 6 ins tall, he had a fair complexion, sandy coloured hair and sad grey eyes that mirrored his wretched life. His body was too young and fresh to have accumulated those scars and markings that many of the older and more worldly wise men wore with such pride, but he was fairly distinctive because he lacked any hair whatsoever on the sides of his head.

Thomas Bartlett was stood before the judge for stealing a pair of boots in Weymouth.

For his sins he was committed to 1 months hard labour to be followed with 5 years in a reformatory school. Ironic as it may be, he more than likely would have had a better start to his life here.

In the Victorian era, Reformatory schools were fairly progressive in their thinking, the lads were taught self sufficiency, a variety of trades, they were educated, many going on the  a  life in the army or military.

boys at exercise

Maybe it just gave Thomas a chance in life……..



Writing a book, blog, short stories or your own family history, then why not make them jump off the page, bring them to life with historical graphics.
I have a huge collection that cover illustrations from numerous Victorian articles about travel, prisons, children’s homes, poverty, philanthropy…
Check out my Etsy site for Victorian illustrations, many local ones being added all the time from my own personal collection.