History Matters – Jacqui Wragg uncovers tales of Victorian striving, Newfoundland and bankruptcy

Jacqui Wragg uncovers a story of Victorian entrepreneurship and Newfoundland connections amongst the Sturminster family.

As society enabled the rise of a new middle class entrepreneurship and the commercial spirit took hold in the Victorian era. One seemingly unusual consequence of this seeking out of wealth was trade with the distant and hostile world of Canada and Newfoundland in particular. It was a surprisingly common route to riches for many English people including oddly enough people living in Sturminster. The trade focussed mainly on fish for domestic consumption and seal products although the Hudson Trading Company also dealt in minerals and goods made in the Newfoundland area.

Jacqui has recovered the history of two local families that took this route to wealth, in so doing uncovering a tale of entrepreneurship that would raise people’s eyebrows even today. The story gives you some idea of how hard-working and committed to wealth creation our forefathers were.

Try to follow the twists and turns of the Coulbourne and Bird family tales as these old Sturminster residents make a fortune, employ more of their fellow town inhabitants, go bankrupt, emigrate to the new exotic world from which they make their fortunes and who knows finally find their feet in more sedate activity in Canada.

The Colbourne family and ‘Daltons’

In a previous article we discovered the life and times of Dennis Barnett and his war record with the RAF. In it we mentioned how he had finally finished his service and founded Barnetts in the building that once stood on the site of what is now the Community Chest and Daisy Delbridge at Market Cross. It is no longer there as it burnt down in the ‘70’s. There is a picture of the place in a previous blog

This building was bought in 1856 by one Thomas Hancock (great-great grandfather of Dennis Barnett).

This indenture reveals that the tenant at this time was Richard Roberts, manager of the National Provincial Bank and that the property had previously belonged to John Colbourn and before that his father Thomas Colbourn. Further work shows that he had in turn purchased the building form one John Dalton, indeed the building was subsequently known as ‘Daltons’.

These documents reveal that the building included a bank!

My research showed that Thomas Colbourne (1755-1828) was a very wealthy man. He initially supplied Poole-based merchants with Swanskin, a coarse flannel fabric produced at Sturminster Newton Mill as all-weather gear for mariners and fishermen.

In 1805, no longer content with this enterprise Thomas along with W Warry and Thomas Best of Haselbury Plucknett, founded the Sturminster Newton Bank.

In 1806 clearly a restless chap Thomas working with his brother William (1748-1819), bought two boats, purchased several properties in Poole and in acquired a property in Twillingate on the north-east side of Newfoundland. From here they traded salted fish, from cod caught on the Newfoundland Banks, with Spain and Portugal in return for salt and casks of brandy. The business thrived and by 1816, Edmund, another brother, was the principal merchant for Twillingate. By 1821 the firm had increased its fleet of boats from 1 to 5.

Eventually the Newfoundland fishing industry went into decline and by 1834 Thomas’s son and heir, John Colbourne still a resident of Sturminster, was declared bankrupt and the Sturminster Newton Bank still trading at that time went under.

Following the bankruptcy, newspapers reveal the financial situation that Thomas Best and John Colbourne were in. An auction held in October 1834 shows the extent of property held by John. John must have returned or emigrated to Twillingate at this point, as his descendants still live in Newfoundland today.

Interestingly, the Colbourne family had been in Sturminster Newton since at least 1525. The last Colbourne was William (1809-1865), nephew of Thomas, who was a bank manager for the  Dorset Bank.  In the mid-1800s William lived at the property we know today as Hammonds but had previously occupied a ‘banking house’ on the site of the former Lloyds Bank building.


Joseph Bird and the Market House

Another Sturminster man connected to the Newfoundland trade is Joseph Bird the Elder (1747-1804); he occupied the Market House (where Root & Vine is today), from around 1771, offering a wide range of drapery goods. The northern end of the building appears in a listing as the Markethouse Steps (have you noticed how you step down into Root & Vine?).

The original Market House had burnt down in the devastating town fire of 1729, but if you look closely at the building you will see lintels, windows and other architectural features that have changed and been added over the many years. This unassuming building sited in the heart of our town makes for a very interesting record of the Town’s built history. A trade directory from the 1790s states: “Near the middle of the town stands the market-house, which is a lofty oblong, its length almost three times its breadth. The upper part is used as a warehouse, the under part for butchers’ shambles.”

In 1801, at the ripe Victorian age of 53 our man Joseph Bird the Elder, after 30 years in the drapery business, passed the business onto his son Joseph Bird (1773-1841) while he himself followed the Colbourne family to Newfoundland. Here, Joseph established headquarters for a business focused on the seal trade at Forteau, north of Twillingate. Unlike his fellow competitors Joseph began an all-year-round trade by exploiting seal fisheries. This meant he and his employed men staying Newfoundland for the winter. In the case of Joseph this meant that he ultimately settled there.

The enterprise was of some scale. In Summer Joseph would hire around 50 hands for the cod fishery and an average of 15 men over the winter. This included other Sturminster Newton men many of whom would be employed for periods of two summers and a winter for wages or, in the case of youngsters, for two and half years to learn a trade. Some of the settled men from Sturminster, have surnames familiar to us today – Butt, Clark, Curtis, Fudge, Hammond, Hancock, Ridout, Rose, Snook, Stockley, Upshall among them.

The Bird family business clearly thrived and we find records of their leasing a number of town properties and vast tracts of land from Lord Rivers. These included the Market House and Shop, as mentioned, as well as houses that stood on the site where Wessex Photographic and the adjacent buildings are. Not content with this they also held leases on properties in the area around Oxford Bakery and the Old Malthouse opposite Sturminster Fish Bar. What ultimately happened to this wealth we don’t know. But we do have living relatives of both families still in the Town and members of both Colbourne and Bird families lie in St Mary’s churchyard. A careful study of the Church also reveals memorial inscriptions to members from both families on the walls, clearly families to be reckoned with.


Jacqui Wragg


With thanks to Denis Colbourne and Steve Case