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History & CommunitySweet Be’mi’ster

Sweet Be’mi’ster

Our Dorset dialect poet William Barnes wrote of  Beaminster –

‘Sweet Be’mi’ster, that bist a-bound – By green an’ woody hills all round , ..

..Noo bigger pleace, noo gayer town, beyond thy sweet bells’ dyen soun’, ..

But was Beaminster really so sweet then? Last month we saw that before piped water and improved sewage, Bridport was anything but sweet.

Our late friend Marie Eedle in her “A History of Beaminster” tells us that the Board of Guardians noted an outbreak of cholera and in 1853 requested parish officers to appoint a board of health. However, a vestry meeting two months later, including a doctor, resolved that such a board was unnecessary. But another cholera scare in 1866 decided them to form a local board and visit house to house, to remove nuisances. In 1872 the Beaminster Rural Sanitary Authority was created and took over the cleansing of waterways and commenced covering some. By 1878 the District MOH reported that drainage was very bad, for example St Mary Well Street, where the water was stagnant and unhealthy and he thought the slaughter houses were a source of trouble and should be moved outside the town. In 1901 the Local Government Board asked the council about the town drainage and the Clerk replied that improved drainage and water supply were ‘hand in hand’. Again, in 1906 the Local Government Board asked for a report after cases of diptheria, proposing water-closets and removing river pollution. A  parish meeting in 1907 was told that drainage would cost £4,000 to £5,000. Of 400 occupied houses less than 100 had water-closets, so the others would have the expense of fitting them and connecting to the sewer. The owner of Parnham opposed a sewage works near his grounds and the local MOH proposed a conservancy system, employing cesspools. A vote was taken after many had left and 10 voted for and one against. The Local Government Board rejected such a proposal and proposed that a competent engineer should advise. Nothing happened for 20 years! Then in 1927 the owners of Parnham complained about river pollution and offered financial assistance for a sewerage system. A plan was considered, which would cost £11,000 plus land purchase, but Parnham then changed hands. In 1929 the new owners objected to the proposed purification works site and by 1931 the proposal was ‘in abeyance’. It remained so until the 1960s !

The supply of piped water actually preceded the sewerage system. There had been a town pump near the market house from which people carried away buckets, but it failed by 1871 and was removed in 1886. Water was then obtained from ‘Flatter Chute’ in St Mary Well Street and there were ‘dipping wells’ in other streets. In 1897 the Council Clerk advised that Beaminster was ‘one of the healthiest towns in England’, but this did not satisfy the Local Government Board. Eventually in 1908 a water supply was provided from a spring at Little West Woods. There were ten standpipes, one within 200 feet of each house and some taps within houses, providing good pure water. All of these would pay a water rate, but anyone within 200 feet of  existing pumps or the ‘Flatter Chute’ was not liable for the water rate, provided these supplies were not condemned. (By 1946 some households continued to use these, although they were condemned). Some areas were not included and by the 1920s supply was insufficient, because of greater demand. The MOH pointed out that in 1908 the town could only boast two bathrooms and by 1928 these had increased to 100. It became necessary to shut the water off at night on occasions. In 1931 the supply was extended. Inevitably provision of household water supply and so water closets, created more sewage passing into the river, until the sewerage system was installed. The MOH said that the sewage plus the Milk factory effluent had turned the River Brit into a sewer.

So it seems that Be’mi’ster was not always sweet ? In “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” Thomas Hardy wrote of it as ‘Emminster’ and as Tess approached the Church its square tower ‘had a severe look, in her eyes’. Perhaps it was how Tess viewed life at that moment, for Beaminster has many attractive buildings. In her history Marie Eedle describes 22 ‘gentlemen’s houses’ in a walk around the town, three of which Hutchins described as ‘neat houses’ of 17 to 18th Century and no doubt there are many more now. Maybe we should walk around the ‘now sweet Be’mi’ster’ ?

However, on Tuesday 12th May Bridport History Society will hear from Peter Bellamy, who last summer led a walk around Bridport. At 2.30 pm in the United Church Main Hall Peter will talk about ‘The Historic Towns Survey of Bridport’, part of a project recording the historic aspects of 23 of the major towns in Dorset. Visitors £2. Details from 01308 488034 or 456876.

Cecil Amor, Chairman, Bridport History Society. Tel: 01308 456876.

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