Sheltered to the South by the Purbeck Hills, Poole was a supply port in Roman times. By the 12th Century it was one of the largest and most prosperous of the south coast ports.
In the 17th Century there were strong links with the Newfoundland cod trade. The opening of Poole’s first railway line in 1847 and the advent of larger draught vessels caused the port to go into decline in the mid 1850’s. At that time the Port was in the private hands of rich merchants and the Corporation of Poole Town and little had been invested in new quays and dredging.
An Act of Parliament in 1895 gave responsibility to the Poole Harbour Commissioners (PHC) to conserve, regulate and improve the Port and Harbour. At that time, the port’s main business was carried out on what is today known as Poole Town Quay.
The Great War brought an increase in traffic in the form of potatoes from Jersey and in 1916 the opening of a Royal Naval Cordite factory nearby saw imports of iron pyrites from Spain and Norway. This traffic continued until 1938.
In 1935 the New Quay was developed on land at Hamworthy, opposite the Town Quay. By 1939, 280 dock workers were employed at the Port. In World War II a flying boat service started in the Harbour when Imperial Airways transferred operations from Southampton Water until 1947.
The Dorset Lake Shipyard at Hamworthy constructed minesweepers during the war, and Poole Quay was also an embarkation point for the D-Day landings. In 1950 an oil storage terminal for J.R. Wood & Company was built on Ballast Quay, this later became known as Corralls.
By 1964 400,000 tonnes of cargo were being unloaded from 1,500 ship visits to the port which then employed over 90 dock workers. The Town Quay was still thriving with the principal imports being timber for Norton Limited and grain for Yeatman’s Mill and Christopher Hill’s Grain Store. Up to 200,000 tonnes of coal were also imported by the Southern Gas Board annually for use in their works adjacent to the Quay. The Devlin Act of 1968 required ports to employ a permanent workforce and not just casual labour, so PHC became the employer of registered dock workers, of which there were just 46 in 1968.
In the 1970’s on the Hamworthy side, coal was imported for Poole Power Station and timber for J.T. Sydenham & Co. Ltd, However, at this time Poole Quay was becoming increasingly popular with tourists which caused problems for PHC as it was a busy working environment with many potential hazards for the casual observer. Undeterred, planning permission was given for a grain plant and silo. Trade continued to increase into the early 1970’s although only a small percentage was handled by dockers, as companies owned their own wharves and workforces. At Hamworthy, the New Quay had already been developed and in 1971 the Commissioners formulated a plan to move their business away from the Town Quay. In stages, land adjoining New Quay was reclaimed to accommodate a new Ro/Ro berth with eight acres of terminal. The linkspan had a bridge width of 7m and there was also a side loading ramp. In 1972 the late Peter Allsebrook, Vice-Chairman of PHC helped to establish a freight only Ro/Ro service from Poole to Cherbourg, this route is the shortest crossing on the Western Channel. The new company was called TRUCKLINE and Poole’s role as a ferry port was about to start. A new vessel ‘Poole Antelope’ inaugurated the service on the 29th June 1973 and was joined later in the year by a sister vessel. By the end of the year 2,324 freight units had been carried. In 1974 the company secured contracts to import up to 25,000 Citroen cars per year, plus 2,000 tractors over a two year period. In addition, 14,000 lorries and 2,000 trade cars were carried. By the following year, foreign trade amounted to over £200m, mainly due to Truckline.
The growth in driver-accompanied lorry traffic saw the introduction of chartered tonnage during 1975 and further growth resulted in these being superceded in 1978 by two identical new builds ‘Coutances’ and ‘Purbeck’. Each had a capacity of 33 freight units carried on two decks together with a basement deck for trade cars.
Unfortunately, one day in 1979 ‘Coutances’ lost all power whilst arriving at her berth and severely damaged both the linkspan and car-loading ramp. With this linkspan out of action, Poole Harbour Commissioners turned their attention to the construction of a second Ro/Ro berth and the terminal was subsequently extended to 44 acres and a 10m wide linkspan commissioned in 1984. The following year, Truckline was purchased by the French company, BRITTANY FERRIES.
Demand was such that ‘Coutances’ and ‘Purbeck’ were both lengthened by 16m to increase capacity to 46 units and tonnage to 3,099. Although Truckline’s original intention was to convey freight only, during 1986 Brittany Ferries commenced a seasonal passenger service with ‘Cornouailles’. Operating under the Truckline name, 48,300 passengers and 14,500 vehicles were carried in the first season. The popularity of the Truckline route grew to such a extent that the 1989 season was launched using ‘Corbiere’ later joined by ‘Tregastel’. These two Brittany Ferries’ vessels ran until the end of the 1991 summer season.
During 1989, more land was reclaimed to provide a total terminal area of 60 acres and a third Ro/Ro berth with a 10m wide linkspan was constructed.
In October 1986 the hydrofoil ‘Condor 7’ operated a service to Guernsey during the strike by crews of Sealink’s Channel Island vessels.
1990 two new freight links began – Vasco Line to Portugal and Torbay Seaways to the Channel Islands but both routes closed in 1989 and 1990 respectively.
Another turning point in the Port’s fortunes occurred in January 1989 when British Channel Island Ferries (BCIF) moved services from Portsmouth to Poole. As well as passenger vessels, the vessels carried freight, traffic and trade cars.
The 12 months to April 1991 saw 781,000 passengers use the Port, together with 219,000 passenger vehicles, 41,067 trade cars and 96,759 freight units. Over 2.35 million tonnes of conventional cargo were handled.
Poole became home to a superferry on the 4th April 1992 when Truckline’s brand new ‘Barfleur’ the largest vessel ever to serve the port, arrived on her maiden crossing. PHC carried out a series of port improvements to accommodate her including dredging the main shipping channel and constructing an upper deck linkspan at Ro/Ro berth 3. This popular vessel is very much part of the local scene and provides a wonderful sight leaving the harbour, passing the Sandbanks Chain Ferry which plies the entrance.
A bitter blow came in 1994 when it was announced that BCIF had been taken over by Weymouth based rival CONDOR FERRIES and the service would cease on the 22nd January.
The shipbuilding and repair yard J. Bolson and Son established in 1922 was purchased by PHC in 1994. The yard was eventually disposed of, the last vessel to be built there being PHC’s tug ‘Herbert Ballam’.
On the 26th January 1997, Condor Ferries 41 knot passenger and vehicle catamaran ‘Condor Express’ entered Poole for the first time. From the 1st March Condor services from Weymouth transferred to Poole which also saw the passenger only Condor 9 operate to Jersey and St. Malo. Their headquarters moved to the Port at the same time where improvements totalling £600,000 were made, including armouring the sea bed at Ro/Ro berth 2 with hundreds of tons of rock to resist the thrust from the catamaran’s powerful engines.
In 2006 the harbour was again deepened to a depth of 7.5m to accommodate the needs of modern ferries and vessels, the majority of which now have a minimum draught of over 6.5 metres. 500,000 passengers are carried from Poole with a further 80,000 freight units transported to and from Cherbourg. The Port also handles approximately 600,000 tonnes of conventional cargo.
Today the Port of Poole continues to thrive and in late 2007, the Brittany Ferries ‘Cotentin’ the largest ferry to use the port arrived to commence sailings from Poole to Cherbourg and Santander.