For most people born in the late 18th and early 19th centuries only the essential dates of their lives, their baptism, marriage and burial, were recorded. Devoid of any other information a genealogist might add them to a family tree and would then move on. But John Martin is unusual for he had a long life , recorded in an incomplete set of thirteen diaries, covering the period 1810 to 1861.Nine of the diaries are held at the Dorset History Centre whilst four are in private hands. We are fortunate that his family’s story can be traced through other fragments surviving in the Dorset History Centre as well as in the newspapers of the time. It is a story of gradual ascent followed by an equally gradual decline .
Whilst other diaries of Dorset people exist from this era Martin’s diaries are probably unique in giving an account of a 19th century land surveyors world, certainly in Dorset. Martin was however no Samuel Pepys and the diaries are no great works of literature, indeed the average entry might be described as laconic. Taken alone without any other background information they would not be particularly interesting, but context is all and that we have in abundance, for Martin lived during a time of great change in the countryside. Today few people have heard of inclosure, even fewer of the tithe and even knowledge of the poor law is limited to ideas about ‘the workhouse’.
The change that has most interested historians is also the one that had the most visual impact on the countryside. Parishes whose inhabitants had for centuries farmed multiple small strips of land, located in large open fields, decided, or, all to often, had it decided for them, to abandon communal farming and go it alone by inclosing the land. The second great change was, in its own way, equally as revolutionary for, by parliamentary act, the method of paying the tithe  was to be replaced. That a secular parliament should dictate to the church, the terms of its principle source of revenue, was unheard of; a precedent that many in the church strove to resist.
Martin’s career may be roughly divided into three unequal sections. Until 1837 it was dominated by inclosure work. Then for a brief spell, less than a decade, he was concerned with the commutation of tithes in the parishes. Finally from 1845 onwards he found himself engaged in a new area of work – the railways, which altered the country more fundamentally than either inclosure or tithe reform could ever do. All of this however was set against something far deeper and enduring, for in addition to his work and his family life he was part of an agrarian society in which every man of substance had his duties to perform and which, realistically, he could not escape. He became a farmer, church warden, juror, land steward and overseer of the poor. All of which took up considerable amounts of his time.
History concerns itself with the past and usually it is a distant past, but the agrarian reforms that occurred in the hundred years between 1750 and 1850  were so profound that many late Victorian and Edwardian historians took an interest in the period. Some, realising that they had lived through a period of ‘history in the making’ began to write about the reforms, even before the 19th century had ended. Since then an extensive body of work has evolved dealing with the history of this period and I draw on this heavily. Martin’s diaries do not cause us to rewrite the history of this period. They contain nothing revolutionary that could lead historians to different conclusions about the period. Their value lies not in any deep insightful thoughts about the changes that were occurring, but in the fact that they contain exemplars of those changes. These men and women did not live ‘history’ they simply ‘lived’; the diaries do not discuss the value, purpose or consequences of inclosure but illustrate how it was done. Of themselves the entries seem banal but when put into context, his world becomes alive, an example of this will be seen in a later section.
My interest in John Martin began when, in the absence of ‘proper’ title deeds, I attempted to find out how old the house was that we now live in. Having a subscription to Ancestry it was not long before I discovered that they have a complete collection of Dorset Tithe Maps and lo and behold there, on the map of Child Okeford was my house. Inexorably became sucked in to the world of local history as one thing led to another. Further research showed that Martin was also responsible for the final inclosure of the parish in 1845 and that he valued the parish for the purposes of the Poor law in the 1850’s. Then I discovered the diaries at Dorset History Centre and one thing led to another. Knowing little about inclosure, the tithe commutation act or the poor law and nothing at all about surveying, I embarked on a steep learning curve with the intention of presenting as complete an account of John Martin’s life, as possible.
As I went on several things impressed me. First was the man himself; when I considered what he did and where he did it my admiration grew. It is only when actually visiting the parishes, with their narrow roads, high hedges, thick woods and rolling landscape that the practical difficulties of land surveying can be appreciated. To do this in all weathers where the highest viewpoint is from the back of a horse, where the only help you have are usually untrained labourers and where, at the end of the day, you have to return to plot the map in an office lit only by natural or candle light – well as I say my admiration grew.
Secondly I found that I was not alone in my interest in local history. Much of this work has been researched using the internet and I was astounded to find so many people who have written on so many diverse topics. From closed railway stations to the uniforms of the yeomanry the range of interests is staggering. Most of those writing did so with no expectation of any reward or acknowledgement or knowing if anyone would even read their work. People in Abbotsbury, for example, published a transcription of the notes and accounts that Martin submitted when he was involved in that inclosure. The website on which I found this does not seem to be actively maintained, one of those ghost websites created by enthusiasts who in one way or another have moved on. But nothing ever truly dies on the internet and the information is still out there and it was helpful to one person, me, at least.
Finally I discovered that although I knew something of the big events in English history, I knew less about what historians would deem the minor ones and virtually nothing about the rural history of the country. I knew for example plenty about the six wives of Henry VIII but nothing about the first tentative steps he made in introducing laws which, under his daughter Elizabeth I, would be codified into the first national law for looking after those who could not look after themselves.
I was tempted at the outset to write a simple transcription of the diaries but, having realised fairly quickly that the entries he made were at best laconic, I decided to use them to form a framework on which I could hang the history of the first part of the 19th century. In order to do this though I needed a decree of contextual knowledge that I lacked and had to acquire. This has resulted in a website that is a combination of biography, historical research and exposition.
Whether the reader considers this a worthwhile project I leave to them. I have a vain hope that someone may find it interesting or useful but admit that it’s primary purpose has helped satisfy a need in me. The work is what it is – a desire to promulgate a little more knowledge in the world.
1 He was baptised in 1780. He was probably born in that year but there were often long delays between birth and baptism. He died in 1863 aged 83.
2 It is only later historians who use the term enclosure. I see no reason to depart from the term that was used by those who undertook the work.
3 That tenth part of the annual increase of the produce of the earth payable by each farmer to the rector of the parish.
4 Dates such as this are by their nature imprecise and are given only as a guide.