On Wednesday the 30th May 1832 John Martin rode home from Dorchester after a week of ‘permanent duty’ with the Dorsetshire Yeomanry. During his working life John Martin, had, as his clients, both the highest lords in the land as well as the humblest farmers. The diaries are peppered with a cast of hundreds a few of whom we will meet but there is another cast, the hamlets, villages and towns of Dorset and the surrounding counties. We cannot describe them all, as even from the partial evidence that we have, Martin worked in over one hundred and twenty parishes in Dorset, Somerset, Hampshire and Wiltshire. It is appropriate to start with the one that was most important to him, his home village of Evershot.
Martin almost certainly returned home along the Maiden Newton turnpike, turning off at Kingcombe, passing through Rampisham and entering Evershot via Summer lane. As he entered the village he passed a small collection of cottages, on the edge of what had once been the common and that were given over to the use of the village poor; an early form of social housing. At the T junction which he approached we may imagine that he paused, for a little down the road to the right was the Fox Inn. Martin was no puritan and he enjoyed a drink, perhaps sometimes a little too much for on the 17th November 1832 after a visit to the inn he recorded
17th November 1832
“Pd at the Fox can’t recollect 2s 6d”.
In any village lucky enough these days to have two pubs they tend to have differing clientele and the sense is that the Fox was more for the labourers than the gentry.
24th November 1827
Went to Ransom and receiving Potatoe Rents at the Fox
20th August 1845
Pd John Groves of Fox for Pork 10s 9d
6th October 1845
Pd Jack Groves at the Fox as he says for Cleaning out Pond 7s 6d
The Groves family were very numerous in the village and John Groves was the owner of the Fox. After a week roistering with the Yeomanry it is probable that Martin wanted just to go home and if so he would have turned left up the main road in the village -Fore Street. Running parallel and to the north of Fore street was, and is, Back lane and it was here that Jack Groves lived. On the large scale map of the area on the Wessex Explorer  there is, to this day, a pond behind the plot which in 1838 was owned by John Martin. Riding up Fore street the road begins to rise and with the wind in the right direction he may have caught the smell of the tanyard in a lane opposite him on the right. In 1836 the tenancy of the tanyard was bought by James Chubb and it was still an active business being “well supplied with hard and soft Water, and a Bark Engine by Wheldon with an overshot power, and very extensive Drying Lofts, Bark-Barns [and] stables.” Fortunately for Martin, it was down wind from him when the prevailing south westerly winds were blowing.
As he headed up the hill he passed the entrance to Summer Lodge, then a large house in extensive grounds, belonging to Henry Petty who bore the epithet ‘gent’ thus guaranteeing him a place in the ‘Nobility, Gentry and Clergy’ section of Kelly’s directory. In more than a few years time Summer Lodge would be occupied by Martin’s son Arthur.
Fore street is lined on both sides by terraced houses with the occasional break those on the left being elevated on a stone embankment. After Summer house he passed the Evershot Free school. None of Martin’s children attended this for it was established in 1628 by one Christopher Stickland “for the instruction and breeding of men children, which were or should thereafter be born in the said town and in the parish of Frome St. Quintin, not exceeding the number of four, and for that purpose to provide some competent maintenance for a schoolmaster there successively for ever to train up, instruct, and teach the same children in good learning, true religion, and the fear of God”. No entrance examination was needed but by the 19th century the criterion for admission had become even more restricted being limited to “Male children either of the kindred or blood of the benefactor, or of the name of Stickland, and born within thirty miles of Evershot.” Although he had nothing directly to do with the school, Evershot was a small community and in 1827 Martin recorded the death of its master.
19th August 1827
Mr Cooper the Master of Evershot School died aged 55
This clearly came as a shock to him especially as his own age, 47, must have seemed dangerously close to that of Mr Cooper. The schoolmasters job was taken over by the Revd. Charles Coxwell the curate of the parish who in another three decades would become its rector.
Just next door to the Free School was another school- a Sunday school run by a Mr Alex Wellman who housed it in his own home which also served as the local post office for Wellman was also the post master as well as being Martin’s part time gardener. As befitted a churchwarden, Martin was a generous contributor to the school. It is believed that the same house continues to be used as the post office.
Nearing the end of his short trip up Fore street Martin came to his own house and grounds, a substantial estate comprising “Dwelling house, Stable, Offices, garden &c” of some three quarters of an acre and paying 4s in tithe.
Had he been inclined he could have popped across to the next property which was the Acorn Inn, run by John Chubb. This was no ordinary inn. Not only was it mentioned later by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the d’Urbevilles but it also served as an office for the excise men, and occasionally as the court room for the Court Leet of the manor of Evershot and Frome St Quinton.
Just up the road was the church of St Osmund’s where he served as a church warden for over thirty years and which we will return to later. Opposite St Osmund’s there is a low wall, the boundary of a property named ‘Pipers Hey’. In Martin’s time the original house on the site was occupied by Joseph Crew Jennings his second cousin. The land in this area lies between two roads which taper to the point of a triangle. Near the apex of the triangle is a five acre plot of meadowland which in 1838 was known as ‘Pipershay’ occupied by John Martin. Just a bit further down Fore Street is an imposing building which was owned by his cousin William Jennings Jnr.
Today, the Poor houses have gone and so has the Fox inn, Summer lodge is now a country house hotel and the school is now a private residence, but the terraced houses, the post office, the Acorn inn, the church, Melbury House and the William Jennings’s house Crew Jennings’s wall are all still in existence. Martin’s house had been replaced by two semi-detached houses and a part of his garden appears to have been given to the Acorn but there is a remnant of what was probably the original boundary wall of the property and I like to think though that the magnificent Cherry tree in the garden was planted by him.
Pigot’s Directory of 1830 describes Evershot  as ‘a neat and clean little place without possessing any thing worthy of especial notice.’ It had not always been quite so obscure, in earlier centuries, about 1503, the village had been granted the privilege of holding a market and thus became a town. At some stage it had acquired a number of fairs, a three day event beginning on St Phillip’s day [1st May] and another on the “eve, day and morrow” of St Osmunds day – 15th July. By John Martin’s day, the only thing of note remaining was a single days fair on 12th May devoted to ‘Bullocks and Toys’.
Pigot’s was being a little unfair, for in its own way Evershot was a very important economic hub. The most notable of the five hundred or so inhabitants were listed by Pigot’s according to rank. Pride of place were the ‘Nobility, Gentry and Clergy’. In a strangely egalitarian way they are listed alphabetically, and the most important person in the area Henry Stephen Fox Strangways, third Earl of Ilchester, is relegated to fourth on the list. The Ilchester estates were massive, scattered throughout south west England, and very possibly beyond, their full extent is not publicly known. Melbury House was more than just a grand house it was the centre of an economic power house that provided work and employment for thousands one of whom was John Martin. On the day after his return from Blandford he made up the Yeomanry accounts in the morning and went to see the Earl in the afternoon,
31st May 1832
Making up Accounts and went to Melbury House in the afternoon
luckily for him this was not to arduous, just a short ride down Fore street and then just as he was leaving the village, a driveway led, indeed still leads up to the house.
In 1833 Dorset was divided into “9 Divisions; 35 Hundreds; 22 Liberties, and 8 Boroughs; also into 241 Parishes; 41 parochial Chapelries; 5 extra-parochial Places, and 3 Tithings and Hamlets, which maintain their own poor; and it contains 20 Towns; 404 Tithings; 253 Vills; 244 Hamlets, and 617 Farms and Lands.”
With such a bewildering list of possible terms to describe the countryside it is difficult to know what term to use when describing these places. Our story has to start somewhere and it is convenient to start with the Anglo-Saxons who appear to have introduced manors to the country. How the land was divided and allocated and by whom, at least in the early centuries, is not known and in any case the situation was modified and developed under the Norman yoke. Parishes [“that circuit of ground which is committed to the charge of one parson, or vicar, or other minister having care of souls therein” came later, although once again, precisely when is unknown. Whereas parishes could contain several manors it was unusual for a manor to straddle more than one parish and frequently manors and parishes had boundaries that were co-terminus. A parish would often have a mixture of habitations within it. Larger communities were generally known as villages whilst more isolated and sparsely populated areas were known as hamlets. One of the consequences of inclosure was for farms to move out of the centre of the village but even before inclosure Hutchins is full of references to isolated farmsteads that were ‘formerly a manor’.
By the 19th century manors had frequently decayed in their functions [see later section] and the parish was dominant. There were then, in one form or another, hundreds of other ‘Evershot’s’ in Dorset. Had it been possible to view the county from above it would have resembled a massive patchwork quilt of fields with, scattered amongst them like raisins in a bun, were the dwelling places of the people. Invisible parish boundaries divided them into a range of sizes, from those of no more than a few hundred acres, to those with several thousand or more. Between the habitations was a meshwork of minor roads serving the purposes of the farmers but generally not part of any interconnected through routes. Nor were these roads signposted; if you had to ask where a road went it probably meant you did not need to go there. From the mid 18th century this picture changed slightly with the construction of the turnpikes and the introduction of finger post signs in 1773 but even then many parishes remained distant from one. Even today these villages are isolated; one can well imagine that in Martin’s day the inhabitants rarely saw a stranger from one year to the next.
In this regard Evershot was slightly different. Rebellion at Exeter in 1549 had led Mary Tudor to order the upgrading of the road from London to Exeter running through Salisbury, Shaftesbury, Sherborne and Yeovil. This, together with a similarly maintained road from Salisbury running through Blandford and Dorchester to Exeter meant rapid communications with London. In the 17th century mail carts between London and Dorchester had taken two days; by 1830 the whole journey to Exeter could be made by “Fly Van” in about seventeen hours, although the more solid and stately mail carts could take another five hours or so. We should be under no illusions though about the speed of most coaches. The Royal Mail coach to Southampton left Dorchester at 7pm and arrived at Blandford at 8.30 pm whilst the ‘Red Rover’ left Dorchester three days a week at 08.30 and pulled in to Yeovil at 11.30 on it’s way to Bristol.The capacity of these coaches varied, up to 13 with the driver and assistant has been recorded on some non-mail coaches, but the fact they only ran three times a week meant that they were probably never at full capacity. Despite these limitations the close proximity of Evershot to the turnpikes meant that Martin had excellent communications with London, vital for him during the period of his his tithe commutations.
Like snowflakes the physical appearance and size of each parish differed, but in so far as the essential functions of the parish was concerned they were almost identical and this gave them a curious equality. No one parish could be regarded as more important than another. We don’t usually think of parishes as having a function but in Martin’s time their functions extended over virtually every aspect of the villagers life and it is in this respect that John Martin’s world differed so widely from ours. In towns the power of the parish was mitigated to some extent, by ease of travel as much as anything, but in the country, until the end of the 19th century their power over the lives of the parishioners was almost paramount.
Any community of people has a number of problems it needs to address. The most important of these is the need to provide sufficient food for itself. Communities had no choice but to be self sufficient and after the development of the manor this particular function was controlled by the lord of the manor. Through him land and dwelling houses were apportioned to the villagers in amounts that they could farm and which would support their families. In time this would lead to the feudal system with it’s complex system of obligations and land tenures. To regulate conduct within the parish, Manorial courts were established which, amongst other things, directed the course of agriculture in the parish, kept a record of the tenancies and punished malefactors.
With time however the feudal system declined and although the tenures remained, feudal obligations were eventually abolished in 1660 whilst sporadic sales of manorial lands began to compromise the integrity of manors and in many parishes the functions of the manor decayed and a new ,institution, the ‘Vestry’, took on their civic responsibilities. As it’s name suggest this new institution met in the vestry of the church, no doubt other venues such as Inn’s were considered too profane for the tasks involved, and there was as yet no other communal meeting place such as a village hall.
Many important social functions fell to the vestry to organise. Some were purely practical; it was the vestry who recommended a villager to oversee road mending, another to be appointed to ensure the hedges and fences were maintained or to impound stray livestock. Some parishes were also ‘tythings’ and the Vestry appointed a villager as a kind of unofficial policeman whilst the churchwardens [also appointed by the vestry] and the clerical incumbent acted as the moral guardians of the parish.
The most important role of the vestry however was to ensure that the terms of the Poor Law were complied with. The amount of relief, how it was to be distributed and to whom were, to a large extent, determined by the vestry. At it’s most extreme the vestry, through the provisions of the various settlement acts, could also determine if a villager could travel to another parish to reside. Perhaps most distressingly of all if you did find work in a neighbouring parish your new parish could arrange for your forcible removal to your home parish if you did not have the right paperwork.
The vestry was perhaps the closest thing to real democracy that there has ever been and it existed in every parish, large or small, rich or poor.. Indeed a famous historian, Sir Arthur Bryant was so impressed with it that he wrote the following; “The cradle of our liberties was the village…Centuries before universal suffrage was ever dreamt of we were governing ourselves…the local community was the only real authority: the parish was the unit of government”.  There were downsides to the vestry; the poor in particular were subject to the whim of the local rate payers and no doubt old scores could be settled. Their plight will be explored when we come to John Martin’s poor law work. Nor was every villager eligible to be a member of the vestry; in towns particularly, the number of people who could take part was so large that numbers had to be restricted usually by increasing the property qualification. This led to a self selecting [and thus self-perpetuating] elite of freeholders, lease holders or rate payers and came to be known as the ‘select vestry’.
The select vestry became synonomous with nepotism, corruption and waste but I am pleased to say that this does not seem to have been a problem in Evershot. Women, if they were landowners, not infrequently attended vestry meetings but I have not come across any who were granted one of the parish offices, or got to vote.
Members of a vestry had little opportunity to escape their social responsibilities; you would be expected to take part. This was no form of tokenism; these people were obliged to fulfil their roles themselves, “Every householder had to serve his year as an administrator of the nations business. Unpaid with little option of escape and almost certainly reluctantly he had to take his turn in one of the parish offices or to provide an efficient substitute….For a year the mantle of authority rested on his humble and unlettered shoulders… During the year of his office he may not have shown himself a particularly good administrator -often he must have been a ludicrously bad one—but he learnt a great deal. At the end of his year he went back into the general body of the village community with what he had learnt. He transmitted it to his children.”
Martin was to take his part in the function of Evershot as Churchwarden and Overseer of the Poor but at least he escaped one of the most dreaded jobs – that of way warden. This man who oversaw the repair of the roads had no choice but to accept the job. It was so unpopular that the man would be fined if he refused to accept the job.
Next The Bigger Picture
Previous The Diaries Described
2 Hutchins J History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset various editions .
3 Both Hutchins and Mills agree that the name originated as land frequented by wild boar. Hutchins History of the County of Dorset , 1861. A D Mills The Place Names of Dorset Part 4 2010.
4 By 1851 the number of towns had reduced to just eleven. This feat of magic was achieved by removing from the ‘towns’ list those places that had lost their markets or fairs. The feature that distinguished a town from a village.
5 Boswell E The Civil Divisions of the County of Dorset 1833.
6 Blackstone Commentaries on the Law of England 1753. Note that in 1894 the civil and ecclesiastical functions of the parish were separated and ‘civil parishes’ were invented. In this work the parish retains it’s original, religious connotation.
7 The Exeter Road The Story of the West of England Highway. Charles Harper 1899.
8 Well new if you consider the 14th century new !
9 Humanity in Politics Sir Arthur Bryant 1937
10 Tate W E The Village Chest 1983