Men of the sea; 1869

Not surprisingly, Weymouth and Portland folk have always looked to the sea for their favour and fortunes.

scattered seed fishermen 2

However, old Father Neptune is a fickle master, sometimes he gives us untold riches…but he also has the ability to take those we love.

Such was the sad case in September of 1869.

You and I might think of Greenhill as a place where we dabble our toes when the weather is warm, or somewhere we sit in the pleasant sunshine to enjoy stunning views with a cup of tea or an ice cream. The long shingle beach littered with the last of the sun worshipers and the hardy bathers.

To our ancestors though, Greenhill was very much a workplace.

One September Sunday became a memorable day in Weymouth’s history.

It was when rich pickings had entered the bay, a vast shoal of pilchards spotted heading for the beach.

Of course, despite atrocious conditions, local fishermen did what had to be done, chase the liquid money. ‘During the whole of the day parties of fishermen had been engaged on the beach near Greenhill, in the pilchard fishery.’

But it also harboured tragedy for the fishermen.

The blustery weather certainly wasn’t in their favour that day, ‘the wind which was blowing in very strong gusts from the north-west’ had made for a ‘very sloppy sea.’

Our Victorian ancestors  were out in force that Sunday, partaking in the day of the Lord, dressed warmly to keep out the Autumn chill, little knowing that as they strolled ‘in the presence of hundreds of promenaders, bent on pleasure,’ they would become witnesses that were ‘entirely unprepared for the terrible sensation that awaited them.’


Folks lines the grassy slopes along Greenhill common, watching as men dragged their wooden boats and heavy rope nets down the beach and into the water.

Time after time they rowed out into the wind swept bay, laying their nets behind them. Having circled round, they then began the hard work.

Men heaved and hauled in their cumbersome nets, moving ever closer to shore.

The sea literally boiled with thousands of erupting fish, screaming gulls circled above, diving again and again to greedily snatch their fill.

A productive days fishing was on the cards.

Men spoke of many a celebration that would be enjoyed that night at inns and taverns around town.

But about four o’clock that afternoon,‘opposite the house of Mr Trenchard,’ four men clambered into their vessel, ‘a trough, a little flat-bottomed craft.’

They too were going to grab their share of nature’s riches.


First to climb in was fifty-seven year old William Watch. Despite his good age, William was a strong man and a powerful swimmer. He sometimes worked as a porter, but fishing was in his blood, it didn’t always pay the bills though.

William lived on Chapelhay Stairs along with his wife Elizabeth and their growing brood.

Fellow fisherman, Samuel Chick, climbed in next, he was a mere youngster at 27. Samuel Charles was the illegitimate son of Eliza Chick. Mother and son lived in Conygar Lane.

Also in the boat was William Chick of West Quay (or John, depending on which newspaper you read!)

The forth man to board that fated vessel was George Watts, a Blandford carpenter, but one who had moved recently to Wyke Regis.

During the inquest he was referred to as ‘George ‘Smuggler’ Watts.’

Maybe he was a man with a somewhat checkered past?

Rowing hard against the winds, the four headed for the tell-tell signs of the rich vein of pilchards, their vessel’s stern low in the water, weighed down by nets and rope.


Once they reached their destination, the fishermen hurriedly began to lay their nets. Only problem was, added weight of the sodden nets dragging in the water made her stern sink her even lower.

Fate waited patiently in the wings…but only for so long.

A sudden swell swamped their low-lying boat, overturning her and catapulting all four men into choppy seas.

William Watch, Samuel Chick and George Watts tried desperately to right her again. But ‘Hampered as it is supposed they were, with the ropes or net, they could not manage it properly,  and turned her over three or four times.’  

Though it was not to be, ‘ at last, exhausted, they sank.’

Back on land, the unfolding tragedy was watched by horrified spectators.

Boats set out from the shore, rowing furiously against the waves in a desperate attempt to reach the floundering men.

One of those boats heading for the upturned vessel contained Sergeant Brine, P.C. Hansford and William Burt.

Old William Burt kept his eyes firmly on the spot where he had witnessed ‘ Watch rising and sinking,’ but once they reached the spot, he was not to be seen, only a  man’s cap being tossed around on the swell. William reached in as far as he safely could and managed to grab hold of someone’s hair.

Hauling in the fully clothed, sodden body was difficult, but the men managed and lay it out in the bottom of their boat.

He was still alive, but only just.

This was William Watch.

William Chick, (or  was it John?) had launched himself clear of the tangled nets and rope as their boat overturned. He was found exhausted, frozen, but still clinging onto an oar some way away from the boat.

William Chick was hauled ashore by one of the many men who had taken to the waters in a desperate bid to save the drowning fishermen.

By now the upturned fishing boat had righted itself again, but no sign of any of its other crew members. Fears were that they had been trapped by their own heavy nets and ropes which were now dragging the seabed.

Sergeant Brine and P.C. Hansford clambered into the empty vessel. They frantically tried to free the dragging nets,‘but the party found they had but one knife between them.’ It was a slow and arduous task as they cut one rope after another, though far too late to save anyone still entangled in the waters below.

Meanwhile, William Burt, of a goodly age, but one that hadn’t robbed him of his strength, rowed a semi-conscious William Watch towards the beach. At one stage, Watch rallied slightly and muttered “Oh, Burt,” and he moved his hands and feet,’ but soon after fell silent.

It took old William nearly fifteen minutes to finally reach dry land, where crowds had gathered.

Once ashore, Watch’s now motionless body was laid out on the shingle, he was quickly stripped of his sodden clothing.

Desperate to help, residents of Brunswick Terrace had been busy, they ‘pulled the blankets from their own beds, and hurried down to the beach.’ 

Even Mayor Devenish arrived on scene to take charge, bringing with him stone water bottles and a supply of suitable stimulants.  He ordered that troops be sent for to keep the rapidly gathering crowds back from the scene of the tragedy.

That summons for help also brought two surgeons of the 51st Regiment from the barracks, they attempted to help local doctors in their frantic attempts to revive a by now seemingly lifeless Watch.

For the next two hours, Dr Tizard, Dr Griffin and Dr Rhodes tried all within their means to resuscitate William Watch’s stone cold body, but to no avail.

Back out in the bay, fellow fishermen were still searching for the missing corpses of their comrades, George Watts and Samuel Chick.

There was not a sign of them.

The inquest on the death of William Watch was held in the Burdon Hotel Tap, where his corpse was laid out for jurors to peruse.

When Superintendent Vickery was questioned by the coroner about William Watch, he rather oddly replied that ‘he believed Watch had left eight or nine children; but Burt made a mystery about that.’

The body of 57-year-old William Watch, (father of an undisclosed number of offspring,)  was laid to rest in Wyke Regis churchyard on the 24th September 1869.


Three days later, 27-year-old Samuel Chick followed in his friends footsteps, his body having later been washed ashore.

He was also buried at Wyke Regis.

There is no further mention of George ‘Smuggler’ Watts. Presumably old Neptune wound his cold tentacles around him and held him tight.


If Weymouth’s military or naval history is your cup of tea try my other blog Nothe Fort and Beyond…



My first book of Nothe Fort and Beyond is now out.

It can be purchased at the Nothe Fort Museum and Weymouth Museum.

Nothe fort and Beyond 261 KB

Or on Amazon priced at £9.99.


The Victorian Weymouth College….ghosts and gowns

There are certain buildings in and around Weymouth which I have passed on so many occasions in my lifetime that they just become yet another invisible part of the scenery, you no longer really see them…not properly.

One such grandiose building stood down towards the bottom end of Dorchester Road, an imposing building which towered tall behind its surrounding stone wall.

I had sometimes wondered at its imposing style, but never really knew what it had originally been built for.

avenue trees dorchester road

I only knew of it as the Teacher Training College where two of my sisters went.

In later years my son also did his art 6th form there and many a time I would attend art exhibitions in the little chapel on the site.

After a little bit of digging I came across a copy of the book written in 1901 by G S Falkner entitled “The History of Weymouth College,” a book which relays it’s origins and long history with the town.

Every now and again I’ll add extracts from the book which gives a first hand view of what this area of the new college in the 1860/70’s was like.

In the mid Victorian era, much of this area of Dorchester Road was open land, free of any significant buildings, in fact, part of it was the old Greenhill Common.

This land was owned by wealthy Sir Frederick Johnston, who seemed to possess vast tracts of Weymouth,(and was the man who certain Weymouth residents had a court dispute with over the ownership of Greenhill Common when the Greenhill gardens were built there.)

The main plot was leased in 1864 and plans were drawn up for the building of a new Weymouth Grammar School. (later renamed the Weymouth College.)

The  architect chosen for the job was to be  George Rackstrow Crickmay, a man  who designed and oversaw the construction of many of Weymouth’s distinctive civic buildings such as the sadly long gone beautiful old Sidney Hall.

They were a family firm of architects who had not long since moved to their new premises in St Thomas Street,(1858.)

In February of 1864 the foundations were laid for Weymouth’s new Grammar School.

By the summer of that same year the building work was complete…the Victorians certainly didn’t hang around!

rocks album radipole lake

Pupils didn’t enter the new school until after the Christmas term when on the 8th February 1865 the boys filed into the big schoolroom to participative in a prayer meeting to bless their new home and for many it was to be their home, as many of the pupils were boarders.

“Just outside Big School, on this floor, was the ‘Class Room,’ as now, with capacious cupboards on one side. It opened into the Tower Room, as now, but the swing door outside communicated with the private part of the house. On the ground floor was the dining hall, shorter than now, with only one door, one fireplace, and two side windows. Behind the Hall were the box room, cloakroom and Day-boys lavatory. From the entrance hall a passage led past these rooms and thence by a flagged, roofed corridor, open on the right hand, to the lavatories and playground.

boys in dorm

At the top of the first flight of stone stairs, and continuing in the same direction, was a short flight of wooden stairs, as now, which led past the bathroom and convalescence room, and, at the end of the passage , to a small sick-room, looking across the fields to Lodmoor. In the upper stories were three large dormitories, a masters room, and, down the passage, a changing-room, with a dozen basins set in slabs of slate, and other smaller dormitories. Communicating with the Hall was the Master’s Common Room and, through the swing door, the Headmaster’s study, the private apartments and stairs, the kitchens, the back stairs, the pantry and cognate offices.”

Weymouth Grammar School

Behind the school buildings it was still farm land and common as seen here in the old photo from the period, it mentions a couple of names that might still ring bells with a few of Weymouth’s more stately residents, Radipole Farm and ‘Nangles.’

“Mr Wadsworth was tenant of the local farm and lived in the farmhouse(Radipole Farm,) since known as Nangles and ‘Radipole Villa,’ but now used as temporary Science Laboratory and Carpenters shop. The house was approached by a farm track, which may be traced along the lower boundary of the Chapel grounds and over which have been built Moffat house and the hospital, running down to small farm cottages almost on Lodmoor, where the pigs were tended.”

“Along the Dorchester Road was a farmyard shut off from the public gaze by a stone wall, with a lean-to thatched roof and shelter for cows. this wall is in existence today, though some years ago it was moved a yard or more further back from the road. The farmer kindly allowed the boys to use his land, extending from the farm track to the Preston Road, for games, the lower or rougher part, which was decidedly billowy, for football, and the smoother portion, in the neighbourhood of St John’s Church, for cricket.”

Weymouth Grammar School 2

Sports and leading a good clean healthy life style was all part of the Victorian school boys day…healthy mind, healthy body.

“School football was played sometimes in front of the pavilion, sometimes along the potato patch, sometimes on the barrack field,( old Hanovarian barracks,) and sometimes by the timber pound (now the Great Western Railway Yard), along the Backwater.”

boys football

Other forms of outdoor recreation were often indulged in…

“…the great paper-chases of the ‘seventies’ became a feature of the School life; we never used to think of anything of twelve or fifteen miles. It must be repeated that shorts at this time were unknown, and only a very few could sport a flannel shirt”

Of course, corporal punishment was very much on the cards for those young boys who dared to flout the strict rules…

“Punishment, like holidays, was dealt out with no niggard hand in the form of severe floggings on the back with the cane. The headmaster was subject to sudden fits of temper, and discipline was then as fitful as an April day.”

Even the distinctive uniform only added to the boys misery…

“On Sundays top-hats were de rigueur for everybody and black coats for seniors, while ‘Eatons’ were compulsory for small fry. The top-hats were a cause of offence to the town boys, who used to waylay the College boys of a dark night on their way to christ Church.They had a regular slogan: ‘Drums up, Monkeys under!’ and continued with their insulting behaviour…”

“On Sundays boys attended morning and evening service at St Mary’s and marched to and fro via the Esplanade, which proceeding precipitated further town-and-gown rows and again led to fisticuffs.”

The school was popular with those who could afford to send their children, in its heyday back in the 1870’s it held 80 odd pupils, many parents sent their darling little Alfred’s and Johnny’s  because it was by the seaside which at the time advertised the benefits of sea bathing and the strengthening of one’s weak constitution.

” In the summer term we were allowed to bathe under the surveillance of a master, who sat on the beach just below Greenhill. There was no gardens in those dyas. No instruction in swimming was given; no bathing-dress was considered necessary.”


In the winter the boys would flock onto Lodmoor to skate when the weather permitted it.(which seemed to be fairly frequent in those days of pre-global warming)

boys skating

Come 1891 and further buildings had been added to the school site as seen here in the photo below.

Weymouth Grammar School 1891

The school could even boast of their own resident ghost in the building, the sound of a pair of heavy boots being thrown onto the floor in the study room would happen every night regular as clockwork. Come 10 o’clock the mysterious sound could be heard from one end to end of the room to the other, but no one ever found its source.

Even as late as the start of the 20th c students inhabited the range buildings, shown here in an early postcard, boys of the Junior School enjoying a tennis match in the sunshine.

Weymouth College Junior School

The old building continued to serve Weymouth over the following years, becoming the Teacher Training College, then a 6th Form College.

Later, when education no longer had a use for these grand old buildings  due to the erection of their modern new premises behind, they  became unused and unloved. Left empty and deserted, time soon began taking its toll on the grand Victorian facade with its elegant tall windows boarded up.

Thankfully, someone had the vision of what it could become once again, a lasting testimony to Victorian design and craftsmanship, the foresight to save it from demolition, the whole original Victorian school site was turned into flats.

But I wonder if that old ghost still launches his boots into the corner of his room every night, or if the sound of a small top-hatted boy’s footsteps running can be heard as he flees the wrath of his irate Headmasters cane?



Below are two postcards from the taken between the two WW’s of Weymouth College boys practising their drill on the sports gound.

soldier boys1

soldier boys2

Interested in Weymouth’s history? Then check out my numerous Pinterest Pages of old views of Weymouth.