Middlebere Quay

Children playing on the remains of the loading pier, Middlebere
Children playing on the remains of the loading pier, Middlebere

The CITiZAN South West team have been working with staff and volunteers from the National Trust to survey and monitor coastal and intertidal remains at the site of Middlebere, on the edge of Poole Harbour, Dorset. This has also been carried out with the help of Julian Whitewright and the University of Southampton who has enabled us to rapidly record the remains using a high precision RTK GPS system.

The area has been exploited for clay from at least the Iron Age, but the unique properties of the local ball clay began to be utilised on a larger scale from the 17th century when it was used to produce clay pipes for tobacco. By the 18th century the ball clay was recognised by Josiah Wedgewood and became a key ingredient in producing fine tablewares. This resulted in large scale mining and export of the ball clay from pits across Purbeck. Ball clay is extremely fine and also very rare, it’s properties make it ideal for making high quality products which were increasingly in demand as the fashion for tobacco smoking and tea drinking created a new market for clay pipes, teacups and teapots.

In the early 19th century the clay pits at Norden were managed by London merchant Benjamin Fayle who recognised the need to improve the efficiency of transporting the clay from the pits to the harbour edge in order to become more competitive in what was now a large scale enterprise (Legg 2016).

Fayle commissioned Dorset’s first railway, technically a ‘plateway’, in 1806. Built by John Hodgkinson the plateway consisted of L-shaped cast iron rails and stone block sleepers which allowed horse drawn clay wagons to transport the clay three and a half miles from the pit to a wooden quay at Middlebere, where it was loaded into boats and taken to London and Staffordshire (Buxton, 2007).

The plateway and quay were used for around 100 years, the channels around Middlebere began silting up meaning larger vessels were not able to access the quay and the route was replaced with a steam tramway which ran from Norden to Goathorn, a deeper quay capable of loading the clay into larger vessels. However, the plateway was extremely successful whilst in use and it has been estimated that up to 22,000 tons of clay were being transported annually by the late 19th century (Purbeck Mineral and Mining Museum).

The area has been subject to previous archaeological studies, initially by Martin Papworth in 1982 and later by members of the Purbeck Mineral and Mining Museum Group. The remains of the quay consist of several wooden posts which are now hidden within a reed bed on the edge of the harbour. The foundations of several associated buildings as well as the stone block sleepers from the plateway also survive slightly further inland.

The CITiZAN team visited the site in the summer of 2017 and undertook an RTK (Real Time Kinematic) GPS survey of the wooden quay remains at low tide. The equipment provides centimetre level accuracy and enables us to record the longitude, latitude and height of a feature. The RTK GPS system uses satellites to record the positions, this results in a point dataset which is then imported to ArcGIS to create detailed site plans. The benefit of this equipment is the speed at which the survey can be carried out and the lightweight portable nature of the equipment itself, making it an ideal tool for use in the intertidal zone where time is often limited.

A site plan of the remains has now been produced and added to our interactive map; this will be used by National Trust staff and volunteers who can continue to monitor and record this site.

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Extant remains of the timbers at Middlebere Quay
Extant remains of the timbers at Middlebere Quay



Buxton, B. 2007. Purbeck’s clay railways. In Dorset Life Magazine, January 2007.

Dyer, B and Darvull, T (eds). 2010. The Book of Poole Harbour. Dovecote Press, Wimborne.

Legg, C. 2016. Fayle’s Tramways, Clay Mining in Purbeck, Two hundred years, six different gauges. Twelveheads Press, Truro, Cornwall.