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The State of Dorset’s Poor

“In passing through the different villages which lie scattered along the road the attention is arrested by the frail and miserable appearance of the cottages many of which are supported by props and in act every contrivance for keeping falling and tottering walls together seems to be resorted to; and occasionally an open door which reveals a mud floor and the usual heap of squalid half clothed children rolling upon it serves to remind you that you are in Dorsetshire.”

That the correspondent from the Illustrated London News, a city which was home to some of the poorest people in the country, should be shocked by the state of the poor in Dorset is saying something. As the correspondent found poverty is easy to recognise but remarkably difficult to quantify and most analysis concentrates on the financial aspects of poverty, but this barely does the subject justice. In this section I look at Dorset in the early 19th century generally and in a later section, Accounts of the Poor, I look at how poverty manifested itself in Evershot.

Until the late 18th century the plight of the poor was not greatly considered. The Poor Law of 1601 had defined the role that the parish had to play in the care of the poor but the emphasis throughout this period was to ensure that the right order of society was maintained. Little attention was paid to addressing the causes of poverty or admitting that the poor had any particular rights within society. As Sir Thomas Smith had written in 1583 there were four classes in society. Right at the bottom were the day labourers, poore husbandmen, marchantes or retailers which have no free lande,copiholders, and all artificers, as Taylers, Shoomakers, Carpenters, Brickemakers, Bricklayers, Masons, &c. These have no voice nor authoritie in our commonwealth, and no account is made of them but onelie to be ruled, not to rule other,’

Superficially Smith’s meaning was that no account was made of these people in the political sphere but this belied the much wider belief that this class was of no account in any sphere a belief that persisted into the 19th century. There was a slight thawing of attitude in the late 18th century but as the revolution in France turned into the Terror attitudes to the poor once again hardened.

In 1795 the Revd. David Davies wrote one of the most remarkable introductions to his book ‘The Case of Labourers in Husbandry’ [1]. It must surely be one of the first, if not the first acknowledgement ever that the wealth of the rich was entirely dependent on the labour of the poor.

“In every nation the welfare and contentment of the lower denominations of people are objects of great importance, and deserving continual attention. For the bulk of every nation consists of such as must earn their daily bread by daily labour. It is to the patient industry of these that the higher ranks are every where indebted for most of their enjoyments. It is chiefly on these that every nation depends for its population, strength, and security.”

A slightly more conservative work ,‘The State of the Poor’, was published two years later by Sir Frederic Morton Eden [2]. Both attempted a quasi scientific approach to their studies by sending out letters to clergymen they knew in various parishes around the country with questions about the poor in their parishes. As the number and distribution ofresponses were variable their works were to a large extent anecdotal but none the less interesting for that. Each man had a different approach. Eden sought solutions within the existing social structure whereas Davies, argued for what we may regard as modest reform. This difference is exemplified in their attitude to wages. Davies for example thought they should be raised whereas Eden thought that the labour ought “to make the wages which he receives more productive”.

The price of labour.

Historians have tended to concentrate on what they see as hard facts as opposed to subjective, anecdotal, evidence and perhaps inevitably the focus has been on the wages the men were paid. Data is perforce limited and discontinuous, but we can say with confidence that between 1824 and 1859 Dorset labourers had the dubious honour of being the poorest paid labourers in the entire country. In 1824 the Dorset labourer earned on average 6s 11s a week [£20 in modern terms] [3] whereas in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the highest paid labourers in the country were paid 12s 6d [£36, almost double. In 1860 the Dorset labourer came in second to bottom, being pipped at the ‘poorest in the country post’ by Devon who came in at 9s 2d a week [4] compared to 9s 4d [£27] in Dorset. Yorkshire had lost it’s place at the top to Cumbria where the average wage was 15s [£44.30].

It was been argued that the low wages in Dorset were due to the large percentage of the population involved in agriculture. This was certainly what Davies thought. In the West Riding only 11% of the male workforce were involved in agriculture whereas in Dorset it was some 25% but this argument falls down when it comes to Cumbria where the agricultural workforce was also about 25%.

Averages of course can be misleading and although Davies’s work was slightly earlier than John Martin’s it is instructive nevertheless. Davies was Rector at Barkham in Berkshire but in response to his questionnaire he had several responses from parishes in Dorset. The most comprehensive answers came from Affpuddle where the Revd. Mr Etterick provided information on six families in the village.

The range of wages varied between £18 4s [£18.20p] to £26 6s [£26.30p]. The best paid amongst them was Robert Miller and his wife Martha. Robert’s base salary was slightly better than others in the village, he earned 8s, as opposed to the more usual 7s [35p] a week, and his salary was boosted considerably by the fact he had four children between 15 and 6 years. Assuming that the youngest was not put out to work the other three netted 1s 6d a week, together earning three times as much as his wife, who earned just 6d [2.5p] a week.

Matthew and Ann Lawrence were the poorest in the village. Matthew earned 7s a week but with three children under the age of six his wife could only earn 3d. Two other families with young children were in the same situation, in both cases the wife’s earnings dropped away leaving the husbands income to support the family. Should illness strike them the family’s would have been thrown back on the parish. Older children who were able to work made a major contribution to the family income. From an economic perspective it was probably best to space them out as best you could. Miller had four children aged between six and fifteen and it is probable that one of the older children was able to care for the youngest, allowing his wife wife to fulfil her earning capacity. This was almost certainly what happened in the Harvey family where there were seven children, the oldest being seventeen and the youngest one. Francis, the husband, earned 7s a week but his wife and children increased the family pot by almost a third, bringing in another 2s between them.

Despite the fact that wheat was subsidised [a fact always stressed by commentators to justify low wages] all of the families ended the year in debt. The Millers by a mere 5d, but the rest by several pounds. For most of them it was touch and go. A slight change in circumstances made the difference between being in net profit to net loss. All of the families received help from the parish in one form or another, often by payment of their rent or fuel costs. Had this not been the case all would have been in debt some of them by as much a third of their annual income.

Apart from the Millers the only other family to buck this trend was Mary Chilcott a widow with four children. Wisely she had spaced her family the eldest being nineteen and the youngest six together their income was 6s 3d a week but on top of this they received 2s 6d from the parish. Their rent was also the lowest of the families with the result that she ended just 4s 11d in debt.

Almost contemporaneous with Davies’s inquiries were Sir Frederic Eden’s. He investigated two parishes in Dorset; Blandford and the neighbouring parish at Durweston. Blandford was of course a thriving, although frequently burnt down, market town. It’s population of 2091 had a preponderance of women [1164] but it’s 927 men enjoyed some twenty inn’s or alehouses.

There were the usual occupations of inn and shop keepers but even within the town there were numerous agricultural labourers and a farmers. The labourers were paid 1s a day although this increased to 1s 6d in time of harvest and he notes that the wages had recently gone up to 1s 4d “since the scarcity” reflecting perhaps the dramatic rise in staple foods that occurred at this time. He notes that the women, and children, are, chiefly, employed in making thread and wire buttons for shirts, &c.”

His inquiries led to some interesting findings; “The rapid rise of the Poor’s Rates, in this parish is generally attributed to the high price of provisions; the smallness of wages and the prevailing spirit among the gentlemen of the landed property in the neighbourhood of consolidating small farms”. The effects of this had been disastrous. It had led to the depopulation of villages and the sacking of labourers and servants who “seeing no opening towards advancement become regardless of seeing no opening towards advancement, become regardless of futurity [sic] spend their little wages as they receive them without reserving a provision for old age and if incapacitated ….inevitably fall upon the parish.” Typical of Eden though is that after providing a perfectly sound analysis of the problem he cannot quite see his way to offering any criticism of the existing social order and their practices for he goes on to say, “Many of these notions, I think, are false; but the prevailing opinions of a country, even when erroneous, are worth noticing.”

The consequence of what was happening in Blandford had a knock on effect at the nearby parish of Durweston where one of those ‘gentlemen of the landed property’, Mr Portman [as he was referred to] was making the same radical changes as he was making at Blandford. Eden noted that provisions were cheaper than at Blandford and wages slightly higher [8s vs 7s per week].

Despite this all was not well in Durweston for another rapid rise in the Poor rate was envisaged and once again the reason was the dearness of provisions and the consolidation of forty farms into two. Moreover Mr Portman had overseen the “the introduction of a great number of labourers, from different parts of the kingdom” who had acquired settlement in the parish and were thus entitled to poor relief. Not for the first time the rate payer had to pick up the tab for changes made by the rich.

The Necessities of Life.


In January 1841 a man named Whittle living with his wife and three children in Weymouth fell on hard times. As a maltster employment tended to be erratic and in the coldest part of the year he found himself out of work and destitute. He applied to the local Poor Union and was rewarded with four loaves with which he had to support himself and his family for a week. Under the new Poor Law it was forbidden to provide what was known as outdoor relief [care in the community] and when the next week he applied for help he was given just two loaves and told that he and his family must enter the workhouse. If he did this he would of course be unable to work and he would be separated from his wife and children. He declined saying that rather than be separated ‘he would lie down and die to the disgrace of the town’. Which he did.

The representative of the Workhouse visited the family, found the man dead and his wife ‘in such a state of exhaustion that the stomach would not sustain even liquid food.’ [5] Having been denied food the Union agreed to pay 11s for the man’s funeral.

Denied food and the means to warm his house he proved the point that there are only four absolute necessities in life, food, air, water and shelter. It is curious fact that a newspaper search for the term ‘malnutrition’ reveals only 5 reports until 1849, 10 between 1850 and 1859, 30 between 1860-1869, 365 between 1869 and 1870, 804 between 1880 and 1889 and 2266 between 1890 and 1899. In other words apart from starvation little or nothing was know about the need for adequate nutrition and it is doubtful if it would have attracted much attention even then if the condition of recruits to fight the Boer war had not given rise to concern.

Poverty it seems is not always recognisable as the medical attendant in Whittle’s case could not positively assert that the man had died actually from starvation’. The best he could say was that the want of nourishment for such a length of time had greatly accelerated the man’s death.’

The diet for most agricultural labourers in the 18th and 19th centuries was monotonous in the extreme and resulted in chronic malnutrition. “In the South of England, the poorest labourers [have] an unvarying meal of dry bread and cheese from week’s end to week’s end.” All of this was washed down by “the deleterious produce of China” or in other words tea.

Some Dorset parishes were so poor that even this meagre diet was reduced. Davies found that in Affpuddle “Many working men breakfast and dine on dry bread alone without either cheese or drink of any kind.” Their main meal was supper, and that generally no better than unpealed [sic] potatoes and salt or barley cake fried, and water.”

Robert Miller spent 6s out of his 8s weekly income on bread and flour, 10d on tea and sugar, 8d on meat, 3d on cheese, 2d on beer and 2d on potatoes. The balance went on household items such as soap, candles and thread. Bread then was the most important food for the poor but it had to be the right kind of bread.

Eden lamented that in Kent, “Labourers buy the finest wheaten bread, and declare, (what I much doubt,) that brown bread disorders their bowels.” This was of course in the days before the laxative effect of fibre was recognised and it is of course doubtful that he had ever spent a day in the fields, miles from any privy or that he had indeed eaten brown bread himself.

Eden noted that in Kent, and one suspects elsewhere, the diet of the poor had deteriorated in the previous ten years. Meat, which had at one time been common was now a rarity and, surprisingly was more common in workhouses. If this was the case then the diet given to the inmates at the workhouse in Blandford [1797]is of interest. Breakfast can only be described as monotonous. Each day of the week, 365 days of the year, a broth made of flour, onions and water was given. Dinner was bread and cheese, although on Sunday and Wednesday they were given meat and vegetables and each evening supper was the same, consisting of more bread and cheese. As such a diet was not intended to be markedly better than the diet outside the workhouse, and could not, safely, be worse, we may assume that this represents the sort of diet the poor were used to.

When the Board of Agriculture report was published in 1812 little had changed. William Stevenson reported that,

“The food of the poor is wheaten bread, skimmed milk cheese, puddings, potatoes, and other vegetables, with a small quantity of pickled pork and bacon. In some parts of the Vale of Blackmoor, the peasantry eat very little besides bread and skimmed milk cheese”

To this may be added a supply of small beer and the wheat was at least subsidised by the local farmers-their way of avoiding paying higher wages.

Two staples were missing from the diet of many. The first is milk. There was of course a long tradition of dairy farming in the north of the county but most of the milk produced was turned into what was generally regarded as a poor quality cheese. In the days before inclosure no doubt many cottagers kept a cow. Inclosure killed this practice off since the poor cottager no longer had access to the common for grazing and could not afford to rent pasture or buy in hay. They turned instead to pigs.

Davies is just about the only commentator to comment on keeping pigs. It was a practice so common that few remarked on it. How much of the pig the family used for itself can only be guessed at. Keeping a pig was an expensive business, at Affpuddle the annual cost varied between 14s and £1 5s the price depending on how small it was when it was bought. The purchase cost would have to be recouped and it could not have been from savings. In accounts of the diet of the poor bacon is occasionally mentioned, but a pig is no small animal and most of that which was retained by the family would have had to have been pickled. Even then storage must have been problematic and it is probable that the majority of the animal would have been sold on to neighbours or even made it onto the open market through the butchers. Eden found the price of pickled pork in Blandford to be 8d in 1797 although he does not say how many pounds that would buy you.

The other staple that was missing in the 18th century, at least for part of the year, were potatoes. Their value as a food was widely recognised and in the coming century their growth would become widespread but two factors mitigated their use in the earlier period. Firstly was the necessity to possess the land on which they were to be grown. Even the odd strip in the open fields was of some use but these had by and large disappeared as the pace of inclosures increased. Some of the cottagers at Affpuddle had enough land to grow potatoes but in most cases the small size of the gardens did not allow them to grow enough to support the family.

The answer came in the 19th century with the large scale renting of ‘potatoe’ lands to the poor [6] but even that development had to wait on a far more practical one. How to store them. Eden had the following to say “As few of them have the art of preserving potatoes in small quantities, after the growing season comes in, their store of that article is generally exhausted by the month of March, when they become too dear to be purchased by labourers for food..A contrivance, for, preserving potatoes in small quantities, is much wanted.”

Even the great Adam Smith had something to say “it is difficult to preserve potatoes through the year, and impossible to store them, like corn, for two or three years together. The fear of not being able to fell them before they rot, discourages their cultivation, and is, perhaps, the chief obstacle to their ever becoming, in any great country, like bread, the principal vegetable food of all the different ranks of the people.”

Large farmers who had the land could store potatoes in large pits [7] but it wasn’t until the next century that what Loudon’s [8] Encyclopedia called the potatoe pie. This was a long thin shallow trench about 18 inches deep lined with straw or bracken. The potatoes were laid in the bottom and built up so that in cross section they were in a triangle. They were then covered with straw on top of which was laid the soil with a chimney allowing ventilation. These worked well for cottagers but they had to have land to grow them on and these did not come cheap. In fact they were exorbitantly expensive. At Batcombe the daughter of an elderly couple paid 12s a year for an area just 15 square feet. This equated to a rate of £8 an acre at a time when even the best arable land might be rented at 25s per acre. Worse still if the rent wasn’t paid on time the potatoes were confiscated depriving the poor of their main source of winter food.


Depending on the local geology many villages were placed on ‘the spring line’ where shallow wells could be dug. The frequency of these varied. The 6” OS maps At Rampisham from the late 1800’s shows that there were more than nine wells scattered through out the village, which was itself, a very dispersed settlement. On top of this there a number of springs and numerous streams that ran through the village from which one imagines that water could be drawn. A cow and calf might need 35 -40 gallons of water a day and it is no coincidence that most pasture or meadow lands had a stream running through them. This would have been impossible to supply by drawing water from a well. At Evershot there only two wells are shown at opposite ends of the village but instead there were two village pumps. Here too there was a stream running behind the town from which water could be drawn.

This is well preserved pump at Shroton. To call it ‘the’ village pump is a bit of a misnomer as there were originally eight pumps in the village together with four wells.

All such water sources were of course prone to contamination if scrupulous hygiene was not practised. The consequences of this will be seen.


After food and water the next necessity was clothing. Eden notes that in the midlands and south clothes were generally purchased from a shop keeper. In the north most of the clothes were made at home with the exception of hats. This was a relatively recent change. He comments “yet there are many respectable persons at this day who never wore a bought pair of stockings, coat, nor waistcoat in their lives; within these twenty years a coat bought at shop was considered as a mark of extravagance”

Good quality clothing was expensive. John Martin spent 18s [£41] on a waistcoat in 1810 and on 4th May 1821 he “Pd Mr Shepherd of Bridport for Black Cloth for a Coat & W[aist] Coat £3 11s 0d”. This was, at 2017 prices, over £200 and on the 7th May he “Pd Daniell & Beachem Bill for Grt Coat £3 16s 9d” – over £220. Business must have been good in 1821.

Eden was of course generalising when he said that clothing was shop bought in the southern counties and indeed it is difficult to see how this could be so when so many parishes were so remote. The suspicion must remain that amongst the poorer classes they still had to make their own clothes. And not only their own clothes. Eden notes that many spun their own woollen yarn and linen thread before sending it to the weaver, who, in any case might have been their neighbour since weaving at home was widespread.

Davies in his study of the six Affpuddle families makes some comment on clothing. Of all the families he notes “Clothes they get as they can, and the children go nearly naked.” Oddly the richest family in the village, the Miller’s spent virtually nothing on clothes or soap! “The charge for soap is very low, for they are almost naked; and thread for the same reason.” On the other hand “The wife and children knit at home”. This would have been where their extra income came from but presumably what clothes they did have were at least able to made at home. Matthew and Ann Lawrence the poorest in the parish spent nothing on clothing but he was already in receipt of poor relief and it may be that he could turn to the parish for clothing which as will see occurred at Evershot.

Another family, William and Jane Reason, were luckier for although they had six children and were the second poorest in the parish they were able to spend £2 6s on clothes. Their future was bleak though as they had started the year with a good stock of cloth which was now ‘quite reduced’. Widow Chilcott could not afford clothes; the children wore their dead fathers clothes and ‘the parish had promised further assistance in linen’. She had at one time been used to ‘harn’ [sic] which was a by-product of flax but there was no call for this and she did not have the machinery to spin worstead.

The handing down of clothes was common. In January 1861 John Martin gave his nephew Frederick Earl some of Edwin’s clothing – seven years after Edwin had died. Other mechanisms were available to help the poor – at least at Evershot as the following entries in John Martin’s diaries show. For many years he contributed to the Rector’s Coal and Clothing Club. He was particularly flush in 1845 but thereafter his contributions reduced and failed to take account of inflation.

30th April 1827

Paid Clothing at the Association which I paid twice before 5s

1st December 1845

Pd Mr Collins 2 yrs Evershot Poor Clothing Money £1

Do. Do. Coal Club £1

12th November 1852

Paid Mr Collins a Yrs Coal & Clothing Club due Xmas 1851 £1

5th June 1854

Pd Mr Collins Coal and Clothing Club £1


From ‘Remarks on Rural Scenery’ by John Thomas Smith digitised by Microsoft foundation for

It looks quaint. A cosy thatched cottage albeit in this case in Middlesex. In the foreground a man and his dog bring home the fallen wood that will fuel the fire that will heat his home, cook his food and probably provide the only source of light in the cottage once darkness falls. In reality it’s proximity to the stream will make it damp, the pump will provide an inconvenient source of water and unless the outdoor privy has been properly sighted a source of disease as well.

Contributing to Mr Whittle’s demise was the fact he could no afford to heat his tenement in winter. If the labourers wages were dire, and their food monotonous what about their living accommodation? Rather surprisingly there were a number of upper class commentators who took up the cause of the poor particularly in the 1840’s. One of these was Lord Sidney Godolphin Osborne.

Lord Sidney Godolphin Osborne by John & Charles Watkins albumen carte-de-visite, 1865-1870 NPG Ax7490 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Osborne was educated at Rugby and as a second son went into the church. After an appointment at Stoke Poges in 1832 he went on to take up the Rectorship at Durweston in 1841 where he stayed until 1875 when he retired. Writing under the initials S.O.G he was a prolific exponent of the plight of the poor. We may not always agree with what he propounded as the answer to their poverty, he was for example a founding member of the Blandford Colonisation Society which advocated emigration to Australia, but there is no doubt he raised their profile. He pulled no punches and was ready to lay the blame, particularly on the landlords, when it was necessary to do so. In 1843 he had occasion to write of conditions in the nearby parish of Stourpaine,

“Within this last year I saw in a room about 13 feet square, three beds: on the first lay the mother, a widow, dying of consumption; on the second two unmarried daughters, one 18 years of age, the other 12; on the third a young married couple, whom I had married two days before”

Such articles as this provoked considerable interest amongst the chattering classes. In the same year a Commissioner into the “Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture” [9] visited Stourpaine and found,

“a cottage in which eleven persons slept in three beds without curtains in a room ten feet square; the father and mother with two infants, in one bed; two twin daughters of 20 and a third of 7 years old in another; and four sons, aged 17,15,14 and 10 in the third.”

Behind the cottages,

“there are shallow excavations, the receptacles, apparently of all the dirt of the families. The matter constantly escaping from the pigsties privies etc is allowed to find its way through the passages between the cottages…It was in these cottages that a malignant typhus fever broke out about two years ago, which afterwards spread through the village.”

In these circumstances the water course soon became contaminated and disease could spread uncontrollably. The best known example of this is the famous Broad Street pump cholera epidemic in London in 1854 terminated eventually by Robert Snow who simply removed the pump handle. However this was less easy to do when wells were involved or where there was only one pump in a village and outbreaks of cholera were to occur at Bridport & Dorchester in 1849 and at Dorchester again in 1854.

This interest in the state of the poor was maintained, at least for a few years and Stourpaine attracted considerable attention and appeared in a special feature in the Illustrated London News of 5th May 1846. It’s correspondent, apparently recycling old news, was not impressed,

“The first feature which attracts the attention of a stranger to the village is the total want of cleanliness which pervades it. A stream composed of the matter which constantly escapes from pigsties and other receptacles of filth meanders down the street being here and there collected into standing pools which lie festering and rotting in the sun. It may be sufficient to add for the present that the inside of the cottages in every respect corresponds with the external appearance of the place”.[10]

The News helpfully illustrated conditions with two engravings. The first at Whitchurch was chosen because of its picturesqueness and shows the main street. It appears a hive of activity. A covered wagon comes down the street towards us whilst a smaller cart heads up the hill to what appears to be an inn. Numerous villagers, mostly women and children stand around in the street. All the cottages are thatched and built “with mud walls composed of road scrapings chalk and straw.” Picturesque it may be but there can be seen large cracks in the cobb, the windows are few in number and tiny. The result was that “The want of proper ventilation in these houses must be to the last degree detrimental to the health of the inhabitants; the atmosphere especially of the sleeping apartments, to an unpractised nose is almost insupportable.”

The artist went on to engrave the interior of a cottage ‘near Blandford’. A mother and her four children are in the only downstairs room. One of the children plays on the mud floor whilst a fire laid directly on to the earth provides the only form of lighting. The baby is in a cradle of “rough boards, clumsily nailed together”. A small window in the back wall is rendered water tight not by glass but by a solid wooden shutter. There are large cracks in the wall and the rendering has come away as it has in the ceiling where there is a large hole. The author of the article noted,“It is perhaps worthy of remark that dishes plates and other articles of crockery, seem almost unknown”. He was it seems always liable to look on the bright side of things as he then went on “there is however less need for them, as grist bread forms the principal, and I believe the only kind of food which falls to the labourers lot. In no single instance did I observe meat of any kind during my progress through the parish.”

Lest anyone think that ‘Want, famine and misery’ were features of Stourpaine alone he goes on “the peasant of the Vale of Blackmore and the western parts of the country is as hungry, emaciated and squalid a being as the denizen of Stourpaine.” In fact as he notes conditions were worse in Corfe.

I suppose that anyone writing about a character from the past wants them to be a hero. John Martin was no hero however. He was simply a man of his times who accepted the mores of the society in which he lived. Martin had mapped Corfe in 1838 when assessing the parish for the poor rate and he cannot have failed to notice the “filthy appearance of the walls, which are black with age and dirt…Here and there the bare laths of the partitions which have been long denuded of their coat of plaster..and contribute to the comfortless and wretched appearance of the place.”

In 1843 a very public spat took place between Richard Brinsley Sheridan, son of the great actor/playwright, magistrate and substantial landowner at Frampton and various clergymen in the vicinity. He started his attack at Batcombe, where incidentally John Martin had commuted the tithes in 1839. In one of the cottages lived Ann Everett and her husband Thomas. Ann was 69 years old, and earned approximately 5s a week. During the harvest period she earned double this but had to work from 4am in the morning to 8pm in the evening. The cottage was owned by the parish but the couple had never had any money from the parish but the cottage was in such a poor state of repair that the vicar, the Revd. Charles Bingham, declared that it was not fit to let a dog live in. When it rained “water runs in under the walls of the house and we are obliged to dig holes in our floor to receive it; when it is very bad I am obliged to sit up at night to bucket out the water.” When she asked the Overseers to repair it she was told that she had to put up with it or go to the Union [workhouse].

In the next house Sheridan found a woman called Matthews who whilst herself sick was nursing a sick child who the doctor assured her that “the poor little thing’s illness proceeded from insufficiency of food”. This is hardly surprising given that the families yearly earning were just under £16. The family had not had any meat in the diet for weeks, the last occasion being thanks to the charity of the attending doctor. Needless to say the cottage suffered the same problem as the Everett’s next door. It is worth remembering that the rector of the parish, the Revd. William Lane, ‘earned’ £120 from the tithe commuted in the parish.

John Martin also commuted the tithes at the neighbouring parish of Hillfield where he found a ‘poor widow woman’ and her three children, two girls and a boy, who were at least healthy. One of the daughters sewed gloves for a man at Yeovil earning 1s 4d for a dozen. But it took a week to sew a dozen. This was a very close family, they had little choice indeed, for there was only a single bedroom with a single bed which the mother, the son aged 21, and the daughters [about 18] all had to share.

We hope that their house was dry but the next one was not; “the floor is not paved but of mud, in deep holes, and loose stones placed in the holes to fill them up….the rain comes in through the roof, sides and under the walls of the house; the windows are broken and the walls through in different parts.” The occupiers Thomas Edwards [82 yr’s] and his wife Grace [80yrs] were not well. Grace had been confined to bed for several years through illness and was considered to be dying. The Overseer had allowed them 3s a week together with four loaves. Unfortunately because the medical attendant had ordered them a little mutton broth for Grace one of the loaves had been stopped.

The couple were cared for by their daughter, who herself had a young child. She made a little money by teaching children in the parish at the rate of 2d a child. There were only two rooms in the house. Grace and Thomas lived in the room downstairs where “the children were taught to read at the foot of the[ir] bed, their meals were dressed and eat there; the washing of the house was done in this room, while the fumes and steam of the soap and hot water enveloped the bed of the old woman, paralysed and unable to move.” The daughter and her child slept upstairs “the room was not four feet high, without light, except from a hole in the roof which was filled with straw to keep the wind and rain out; the thatch almost touched the bed; no one could possibly stand upright in this wretched place.”

Thomas and Grace were allowed 3s a week plus bread, which came to approximately 5s a week or £13 a year; the parish was a relatively poor one and the tithe when commuted came to £60 payable to the Rector of Sydling St Nicholas. [11] No doubt the Warden and Scholars of St Mary’s College Winchester needed it more, despite the fact they netted £514 from that parish.

It is clear that throughout the county the housing of the poor was in a parlous state. The stories go on. At Hook, another of Martin’s commutations a labourer, his wife and five children lived in two room 12’ square. There was hole in the roof and ground floor, there were no ceilings in either room but the upstairs room had a store of turf with which to bock up the roof. The family had two beds. An 87 year old man at Hook lived with his son, daughter in law and their three children in two rooms 14’ square, access to the upper room was by ladder, and it was impossible to stand upright. A bag of straw was used to block up and close of an open hole in the wall which allowed light in. Thomas Davey his wife and six children were possibly at most risk. Apart from the usual leaking roof etc the front and back walls of their cottage were propped up by posts as was the main beam of the house without which the whole lot would have fallen down.

Getting closer to John Martin’s home Sheridan turned his attention to Rampisham which embarrassed the owner of the Manor, Arthur, Daniell Johnson, if not Martin himself. A labourer approached Sheridan because the Overseer of the Poor at Rampisham, would only pay him 6d a yard for breaking stones on the road whereas the normal rate was 9d. The Overseer also happened to be the Waywarden and the suspicion was that he was making money for himself. The labourer could not live on that amount and was threatened with the Workhouse if he did not accept. In investigating the case Sheridan obtained the following statement from an anonymous source [almost certainly the vicar] who wrote “Nothing here can be more wretched than the state of many of the poor here. In many of the cottages the rain comes through on to their beds. As far as I can see there is but little prospect of any amendment.”

Johnson’s defence was vigorous, interesting and exculpatory. The cottages concerned had been encroachments made on the common in the old days. This of course was illegal under a statute of Elizabeth 1 but was a widespread practice and pragmatically tolerated if the encroachment had not been made too recently. As such they were considered to be held freehold and it was down to the owner to repair them. The same applied to those who held tenancies for lives but as he said “to compel some of them to put their tenements in repair would be a project as hopeful as the scheme for extracting sunbeams from cucumbers.”[12]

This justification was roundly condemned by Sheridan and further public debate took place in which Johnson laid further blame for the lack of repair on a shortage of reed and the failure of tenants to complain. In replying though he gave further details of the condition of the poor in Rampisham. James and Eliza Gundry living in one of the four poor houses, “The greater part of the windows are broken and filled up with rags to keep the rain and wind out; there is a very small room below which has once been paved but is now in a most dilapidated state; the room above is of the same size with no possibility of keeping out the rain…in rough weather a candle cannot be kept alight in the room.”

Next door in a house, Jane Gundry and her three adult brothers were forced to sleep in one bedroom no bigger than 12 feet square. Again it was one of the poor houses. Poverty comes at a price; poor nutrition and poor housing took it’s toll as the reporter for the Illustrated London News noted,

“I may here observe and the remark will apply to every part of the county I have hitherto visited that nowhere especially among the younger part of the population have I met with so many cases of personal deformity, as well as other natural defects such as deafness, dumbness and idiocy, the causes of which I think may clearly be traced to the want of proper and sufficient food and the general mode of live which prevails among the lower classes.”

Why then did the poor put up with it? Johnson, with a considerable deal of insight gave a part of the reason; “The poor cleave to these joyless tenements, because they are their own; they prefer-deeply and decidedly prefer- the shelter of a roof which some of them can scarcely keep in tolerable repair to the stern though solid protection of the walls of ‘the union. Their associations cling like ivy to these rugged walls; it was around these they played in their infancy- it was among these banks they strolled as children- it was in the adjacent fields they toiled or played while life was fresh to them, and health unimpaired’.

But there was perhaps an even stronger force at work; we return to Hillfield where

“In a wretched room on the ground floor and old woman was lying in bed, she was 80 years of age and had been bedridden for years; she had suckled 12 children, and had always paid the house rent until last year; nothing could equal her resignation and religious state of mind; she smiled and thanked the surgeon [who was present] for his kindness; she prayed fervently during the time I was there, and said ‘His will be done, I am prepared to die and have nothing on mind”.


Next         John Martin and John Chubb Overseers of the Poor

Previous  The Old Poor Law

1 Davies David The Case of Labourers in Husbandry 1795

2 Eden F M The State of the Poor 1797

3 In 1820 £1 was worth about £60 in 2017; a shilling was worth about £3 and 1d about 25p.

4 Purdy F .On the Earnings of Agricultural Labourers in England and Wales 1860

5 Of the children there is no mention but the wife, unable to retain solid or liquid food had to be kept alive by injections. The doctor could find not find any physical disease other than want of sustenance.

6 Not to be confused to the widely found ‘Allotments to the poor’ which were let commercially with the rent being given to the overseers.

7 These were typically three to four feet deep and lined with straw. They were called potatoe camps but later became known as potatoe clamps.

8 Loudon J C An Encyclopedia of Agriculture 1825

9 There were several such commissions over the years. Perhaps most famously their moral outrage concerned the presence of young children and women in coal mines. Their outrage was not that children as young as six were employed or that women were working in tunnels 2’ square but that the children were naked and the women naked to the waist. One senses their outrage would have been less had it been possible to have single sex mines.

10 Illustrated London News 5th May 1846

11 £72 was actually paid but £12 went to the Vicar of Sydling St Nicholas.

12 A literary allusion to Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift