I was a choirboy and bell ringer in our village church, but when our venerable old priest retired he was replaced by a younger man. I found the new Vicar’s sermons boring, as they were rather like some politician’s speeches, full of words and no content, mainly consisting of the repetition of “Paaarh” (Power). When I started work, studying for a qualification was a contractual requirement and I used the three evening classes each week as an excuse to stay at home on Sunday to complete the homework. The Vicar asked my Father why I was no longer attending and when told that I was studying he asked why and Father replied with the old cliché “to better himself”. The Vicar retorted that I should remember the words of the hymn, implying “knowing my place”. Hardly likely to make me return to the fold! He obviously was unaware of Samuel Smiles, who published “Self-Help” in the mid 1800s. The Vicar was later promoted to another living (as they used to say – perhaps promoted beyond his competence!) and we heard little more about him.
In the past people often not only knew their place, they had no expectation of changing it. In the village we had several large houses, each occupied by a single elderly spinster, with perhaps a maidservant “living in”. If we went to one of the houses on an errand, the door was opened by the maid, dressed in black, with lace edged pinafore and mob cap – she knew her place and so did we when we encountered the lady of the house. But “knowing one’s place” goes back to time immemorial. I was given an excellent book last Christmas, The Land of Lettice Sweetapple, by Peter Fowler and Ian Blackwell. It describes the archaeology and history of West Overton in Wiltshire, on the Marlborough Downs, not far from Avebury. (Lettice Sweetapple does not really appear until the last chapter). We have no documentary evidence about the people living there before the Romans arrived, but some hierarchy must have existed for the building of Avebury and the large burial chambers of the Neolithic period. Fowler and Blackwell suggest that the Romans forced the local population to build a fort and then build their roads, as slaves. During the later stages of their occupation some locals became farm owners and others had to work for them, the produce being passed on to the Romans. Then came the Saxons and about 630 AD they became Christian, so the original locals had to provide free labour and pay rent to a new lord and also pay the priests too. The Church marked out and owned estates on land which had originally belonged to everyone. The Normans required new stone churches to be built by the local populace.
In the mid twelfth century the Knights Templar were imposed as absentee landlords, planning a new village. When they left, the economy began to collapse, coinciding with poor harvests and then there was plague, in the 1350s. By the middle of the 16th century land was taken over by the Crown, with Lords of the Manor as deputies, but the peasants still worked at the ‘bottom of the heap’. Quarrying and brick making commenced, with more labour required. Around 1800 Lettice Sweetapple appears, renting and cultivating a number of scattered land strips, but in 1802 rents increased, creating difficulties for the villagers. In 1818 a local landowner bought out some of their land and enclosed it. The villagers could no longer collect firewood freely and Lettice ended her life old and poor.
Here, there was a bread riot in Bridport in 1816 because the poor could not afford to buy it and in 1865-66 the Children’s Employment Commission reported that (in Bridport) “turners were boys or girls who might begin work at six but were on average 8 – 14 years old. Wages were from 1s 9d to 2s 6d per week, often for a working day of 6am to 8pm. In winter time…spinners fastened small lanterns to their bodies whilst the turners, who did not require light, often sat in darkness in the sheds.”
Bonny Sartin has told us of the plight of the Dorset Labourer. No wonder they turned to poaching or smuggling to help feed their families. In the 1830s Tolpuddle farmers promised to pay their labourers 10s (50p) a week, but then reduced them to 8, then 7s. Local labourers decided to form a trade union and we all know the result – the “Tolpuddle Martyrs” were taken to court by Squire Frampton and deported.
In historical novels we often find a rather different, one sided view of life. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion they all go to Lyme in Mr Musgrove’s coach and Charles’s curricle. Other characters include Captain Wentworth and Lady Russell. The book covers from 1760 to 1810 and their servants do not deserve a mention, so plenty of “high“, but no “lowly”!
Bridport History Society will learn about life in Lyme Regis, both high and lowly, in the late 17th century from the will and inventory of Sarah Bowdidge, relating to an early coffee house and Post Office. Dr Judith Ford will talk about “Mrs Bowdidge’s Coffee House” on Tuesday 8th September at 2.30 pm in the Main Hall of Bridport United Church. Visitors welcome £2, including tea and biscuits. Details from 01308 488034 or 456876.
Cecil Amor, Chairman, Bridport History Society, telephone 01308 456876.