The Peasantry of Dorsetshire.
(From The London Illustrated News, 5th September 1846, page 156-158).

    The attention of the public has of late been drawn to the condition of the labouring population of Dorsetshire by a series of graphic letters which have appeared within the last three or four months in the Times journal The inquiry is a subject of paramount interest at a time when the increase of the comfort of the labouring classes is largely occupying the consideration of philanthropists; and the careful collection of such information as is contained in these documents must, doubtless prove of beneficial aid towards this great work of social improvement.

    Several passages in these letters promised fit opportunities for the Artist's skill; and the illustrations which we now submit to the reader are the result of a short journey in one of the districts visited by the Times' Correspondent, and described, though rather fiscally than as to the precise localities, in his communications.

    The first of our Illustrations is a fair specimen of a village in Dorset - Whitchurch, on the road from Blandford to Dorchester and, as an inscription upon one of the cottages states "109 miles from Hyde Park Corner." The scene has attracted our Artist by its picturesqueness. The cottages are built with mud walls' composed of road scrapings, chalk and straw: the inundation is of stone or brick, and on this the mud wall is built in regular Layers, each of which is allowed to dry and harden before another is put oven it, Every dwelling is thatched, as are also the garden walls: these are frequently built of the above cheap materials, the top being protected from the weather by the small roof of thatch, which extends. a few inches over each side. A specimen of the thatched wall not entirely peculiarly to Dorset is shown in the left-hand corner of the Engraving.

    The exterior view of the Cottage, upon the adjoining page. is sketched from the same locality as the preceding - the village of East Morden, in the neighbour-hood of Blandford. This is a charmingly picturesque bit for the painter; though its propped-up walls and decaying thatched roof, but too closely indicate the privation and suffering of the inmates.

    Of one of the villages, Stourpain, about midway between Blandford and Sturminster Newton, the Times Correspondent gives this lamentable account:--
"The first feature which attracts the attention of a stranger on entering 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 each street, being here and there collected into standing Pools, which lie festering and rotting in the sun so as to create wonder that the place is not the continual abode of pestilence-indeed the worst malignant fevers have raged here at different times. 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. The wages here in very few instances exceed seven shillings per week.

   "Another fruitful source of misery, as well as immorality, is the great in-adequacy of the number and size of the houses to the number of the population. and the consequently crowded state of their habitations, which in Dorsetshire generally, and in Stourpain particularly, afford the most limited accommodation.

   "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. It is, perhaps, worthy of remark that dishes, plates, and other articles of crockery, seem almost unknown; there is, however, the less need for them, as grist bread forms the principal, and I believe only kind of food which falls to the labourer's lot. In no single instance did I observe meat of any kind during my progress through the parish. The furniture is such as may be expected from the description I have given of the place - rickety table and two or three foundered chairs generally forming the extent of the upholstery. Want, famine, and misery, are the features of the village, and yet I am credibly informed that 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 Stourpain.

    "From this picture of a Dorsetshire parish, it may be readily gathered that apathy and indifference on the part of the landed proprietor, and the grasping and closefisted policy of the farmer, are the causes of the prevailing distress. The default of the one is apparent in his neglect to provide proper habitations in which the labourer may bring up his family in comfort and decency. In no county, notwithstanding the universal increase of population, is the want of new cottages so apparent, and the neglect of the landlord, in this point at least, so conspicuous. The latter, in withholding from the man who serves him a just and reasonable reward for his services, is acting neither wisely nor honourably. Both seem to have forgotten, or at least to have shut their eyes to the undoubted fact, that one of the surest methods of consulting the public advantage, is to secure to the lower class comfort and competence."

    Of the parish of Handley, in the same district, the Correspondent gives the following details :-
" Some of the cottages in the village, from continual neglect. and the total absence of repair, are rendered insecure to that degree, that the inmates must be in a continual state of 'fear and trembling. ' One of these tenements, the property of the parish deserves particular attention. A labourer and his family-in all, eight persons - are the occupiers of this hovel, in which there is but one bedroom for their accommodation. There is a small opening, about a foot square, in this apartment, which is unglazed and serves the purpose of a window. The numerous crack and fissures in the walls, which on every side present themselves, denote that at no very distant period this disgrace to the parish in which it stands will effectually remove itself The furniture in the lower room, which, in every respect, corresponds with the upper one, consists of one chair, of most antique and unsafe appearance; two tables, which may be referred to an equally remote period; and a rude wooden bench, about four feet long. The rents of most of the houses in this parish vary from ls. to ls.6d. per week."

    Our interior illustration is a specimen of a labourer's cottage, in the Blandford district, with somewhat nearer approach to comfort than the above. Still, the furniture is poor and scanty; and the cradle, in which the infant is asleep, consists of rough boards, clumsily nailed together. The walls and ceiling, too, have wide fissures. The little girl seated in the chair is a portrait, and the neatness with which her hair is arranged, is by no means singular, among the children of the poor in this county.

    The Blandford district is however, far from an unfavourable specimen of Dorsetshire and its labouring classes; and the Times Correspondent found Corfe in a much worse condition: he thus speaks of the cottages:-
"Judging from the filthy appearance of the walls, which are black with age and dirt, one feels disposed to imagine that the art of making whitewash, like that of staining glass, is lost. Here and there the bare laths of the partitions, which have been long denuded of their coat of plaster, are to be seen, and contribute to the comfortless and wretched appearance of the place. 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 life which prevails among the lower classes."

    Nor are the roadside characteristics more promising:-
"In passing through the different villages which lie scattered along the road the attention is often arrested by the frail and miserable appearance of the cottages, many of which are supported by props, and, in fact, 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."

    The Group of labourers in the annexed page is an average specimen of the Peasantry. We quote a few details;--
There is one custom which prevails among the farmers of this country which seems extraordinary. It is the repugnance they exhibit to regard a young and unmarried man (with respect to his wages) in any other light than that of a mere boy. Those who, to use the words of Bardolph, are not 'accommodated with a wife,' are usually paid at the rate of 5s. or sometimes 6s. per week. Not that there is any difference in the nature of the employment, or in the amount of exertion expected from him; in this respect, at least, he is on a par with his married competitor; he works as hard and as many hours in the day, and is at all times, and for all purposes, considered as a person of mature age, with the exception of the day on which he receives his wages. On that occasion he descends from man's estate, dwindles into a mere boy, and is paid accordingly.

    "The shepherds and carters generally, but by no means universally, enjoy some trifling privileges. In some instances, they live rent free, and have 8s. per week, which is more than the ordinary run of wages. This is intended as a compensation for their being debarred from the benefit of 'tut-work,' which the nature of their employment, and the additional time required for the performance of their duties, prevent their undertaking. 'Tut-work' is regarded as one of the principal advantages of the Dorsetshire labourer; and here it will be proper to enumerate the privileges he enjoys, first, however, premising that they are similar to those enjoyed by the labourer of other counties, where his exertions meet with a much more substantial reward in 'hard money.' 'Tut-work' is, in other words, working by the piece" or job, of which the labourer sometimes avails himself, when he has the opportunity, in order to increase his pittance of wages. In some instances the labourer is allowed a small piece of ground by his master, for the purpose of raising a crop of potatoes, etc., but this is far from an universal privilege."

    One of the county newspapers, however, lately cited a more "Arcadian picture" from Corfe Castle and its vicinity:-
"We thought it was a good opportunity to interrogate several of the working labourers as to the wages they received, &c. To satisfy ourselves we took three or four as an example, and were highly gratified and pleased at the happy and contented manner In which they answered the different questions put to them. 'They all said their earnings throughout the year were eight shillings per week, and that many in the villages earned extra wages in hay and corn harvest. They each had a good cottage to dwell in (wind and water tight), and always kept in good repair; added to this was a good sized piece of garden-ground well stocked; each had also a quarter of an acre of potato ground, and so much fuel as they could burn by going after it. For all these comforts they paid but 2 per annum, and expressed themselves as being perfectly happy and comfortable."

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Page last revised July 2001