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Mrs Bligdon’s Bakery and the Birth of the Dorset Knob

This is the story of a Dorset woman who owned and ran the bakery where the first Dorset Knobs were baked. Maria Bligdon could not claim to have conceived the recipe for the delicacy but she was certainly instrumental in its birth and growth in popularity, particularly in West Dorset, where it is still produced.
In 1815, Fordington was a densely populated parish on the edge of the county town of Dorchester. Living conditions there were filthy and squalid, so it is difficult to imagine what could have brought William Pitcher to this place from Powerstock, where he would have enjoyed a rural lifestyle with fresh air in abundance. The same could be said of Maria Longman who came from Rimpton Mill near Yeovil, just over the county border in Somerset. It is possible these two young people knew each other previously or may even have travelled there together because on the 22nd of March 1815 they were married at St. Georges Church.

After marrying they didn’t linger in Fordington; they travelled through Dorchester they headed west, settling in the parish of Litton Cheney. Here, they would have been more at home. The stone and thatched cottages, many dating back to the 17th century at ease beside the twisting lanes and busy streams, would have been much more to their liking than the over-crowded tenements of the Dorchester suburb.
William and Maria would have worshipped here at the original church dedicated to St. Mary; what we see today is the result of an extensive restoration completed in 1878. It is at St. Mary’s their children were all baptised: Jesse on 11th of August 1816; Mary Brown on 31st of May 1818; John on 5th of March 1820; Nimshi on 13th of October 1822; Levi on 26th of March 1824; Daniel on 9th of September 1826; Maria Brown on 11th of August 1828; Elizabeth Martha Longman on 25th of July 1830 (Buried on 10th of May 1836); William Longman Brown on 19th of May 1833; and Jane on 18th of December 1834 (Buried on 4th of January 1835.) Brown is a reference to grandmother Pitcher’s maiden name.

William Pitcher was born at Powerstock, where he was baptised on Christmas Day 1789. William was the first son of Samuel and Mary Pitcher and he was a miller. Maria Longman, his wife, was born in 1795 at Rimpton Mill, which is near Yeovil and not so very far away from the Dorset town of Sherborne.
William handed down his knowledge of milling and baking to his children. In 1851 we find his eldest son, Jesse, working as a journeyman miller at Malassie Mill, St. Savior, Jersey; Levi was working as a miller at Notton Mills, Maiden Newton and William was a Journeyman Baker still living with his parents. One son, William, was a tailor by trade and lived at Portesham.

But it is their daughter Maria who is of particular interest to us. By all accounts she was a formidable woman with striking looks and great strength; reputedly she could handle a sack of flour as well as any man and was known for having her own way.

Early in 1852 Maria married John Bligdon, a man born and brought-up in Litton Cheney, where he was a boot and shoe maker. Soon after their marriage, Maria, who until then had been working as a servant, was able to persuade her husband to let her start a bakery business in the village, which became known as White Cross Bakers and later as White Cross Grocer and Baker Shop.

The business started in a small way with one assistant but quickly grew. Bakery products were delivered by horse and cart to villages with in a radius of about ten miles. In 1881 many villages in Dorset were cut off for days because of deep snow. To meet the pressing need of some of the villages her horses were shod with special nails that prevented slipping, the bread was packed into panniers slung on each side of the horses and a convoy set off on its difficult journey to reach some of the more distant customers.

In 1881 Maria Bligdon employed three bakers and two servants, all living on the premises. Her husband continued his business as a cordwainer. One of these bakers, a Mr Moores, brought with him a recipe for Dorset Knobs, a round savoury biscuit that quickly became a favourite with the customers. It is named after the Dorset knob button. The recipe consists of bread dough to which extra sugar and butter are added. The dough is then shaped by hand and baked three times; the result is very crumbly and similar to a rusk.
Nellie Titterington, Thomas Hardy’s, parlour maid, revealed that the author “would most enjoy a cup of soup, followed by two boiled eggs. He finished his meal with Dorset knobs and Stilton cheese, both favourites of Mr Hardy, Dorset knobs especially.”

With fat bacon the Dorset Knob formed the main diet of the men employed by Maria Bligdon at her Litton Cheney bake house and the biscuits were despatched to Dorset soldiers fighting in Africa during the Boer Wars.

Pound Cake was another speciality of the bakery and sold for sixpence a pound; her gooseberry tart was also very popular. A custom from the old days was the making of dough cake; the dough was supplied by the bakery to the villagers who made it into cakes which were baked at the bake house.
Those less fortunate, living off parish relief and seeking employment, were given penny bread tickets, which the bakery accepted towards the cost of a loaf of bread, at that time about four pence. The bakery would accept about £5 worth of tickets every month. Given that in those days there were two hundred and forty pence to the pound we can see Mrs Bligdon’s bakery was very busy.

Maria Bligdon was buried at Litton Cheney on 8th of January 1891 aged 63. Her husband, John, died in 1896. It is said that one of their sons took over the business and closed it in 1916. We have found no record of any children and believe it was a nephew who took over the business.

When Mr Moores left the bakery he went to Morcombelake where his sons started a business and produced Dorset Knobs. That business is still in existence today and during January and February the firm continues to bake Dorset Knobs, which are retailed mainly through smaller grocery outlets and exported.

The Prisoner a Padre Befriended

In the autumn of 1862 a 21-year-old man went to the rope in Dorchester jail, a final enactment of 19th century justice for the crime of murder. The condemned man was Edwin Preedy, but perhaps it cannot be said that he was entirely in control of the depressive and violent nature that had driven him to vow he would stab a warder at the prison where he was being held for an earlier offence. For it was the fate of Preedy to suffer an unloved and cruelly deprived childhood.

Born in Leamington, Warwickshire around 1841 Edwin Alfred Preedy was the illegitimate son of a man who never knew how to bring up a child with due care and affection. His mother too, seems to have been a rather detached person who had no influence over her son. As a result of the cruelties and abuse inflicted upon him by his stepfather, seeds of anti-social rebellion and resentment were sown in Edwin’s maturing mind. Until he was eleven he attended a national school where, although he was quite clever he was also a proud, passionate and idle boy. When he was thirteen however, his mother and an aunt conspired to have the boy institutionalised in a reformatory but Edwin decamped from the school after just ten months.

There then followed a string of incarcerations for petty offences. Upon release from the last of these sentences Preedy ran away to join the Army’s 85th Regiment, even rising to the rank of corporal, but then in the company of three others deserted after stealing some clothes. When caught, Preedy was sentenced to penal servitude for three years. From his first prison he was moved, first to Millbank then to Portland. It was while serving his sentence here that Preedy, in a fit of murderous ire, vowed to a fellow inmate that he would take a knife to a warder who removed his soiled dinner plate.

So in September 1862 Preedy was transferred to Dorchester jail to await trial for murder. Personally he saw no hope of a pardon, and in his despair he frequently became violent, such that on two occasions he had to be restrained in irons respectively for 14 and 28 days.

Yet fate it seemed had not entirely given up granting Edwin Preedy an opportunity to repent and receive absolution. He told the prison chaplain that he could only foresee his “dread end.” But at this point a remarkable Anglican minister entered his life, as if sent by a redeeming angel of mercy from on high. The cleric was the then vicar of nearby Fordington, The Reverend Henry Moule BA, and his visits to the cell-bound Preedy throughout the last weeks of his life made history as perhaps the most protracted, challenging and tragic case of a priest’s attempt to save a condemned man’s soul ever recorded.

Henry Moule was a luminary among 19th century Anglicans. Early in his priestly career he boldly tackled moral laxity, ecclesiastical rectitude and the injustices of squalor and the powers that be. He was chaplain to Dorset Barracks and Vicar of Fordington and is best known for his invention of the earth-closet. But his dealings with Preedy introduced him to an altogether new dimension in human nature and pastoral experience.

Moule’s strategy was to entice Preedy into making a confession or admission of guilt, expressing remorse for what he had done. He implored the prisoner to repent of the murder and all his earlier sins. At times the vicar found the prisoner in a conciliatory and receptive mood, but at other times Moule had to endure a barrage of insolence and even physical assault. When his temper was aroused Preedy no longer wanted to be visited. One day, in Moule’s presence, he broke down: “here I am with one foot in the grave; I cannot break down this temper” he sobbed. On another occasion he alluded to other inmates in his position who said they had found peace. It is recorded that, when free in the prison yard he caught and tamed sparrows, but would then vindictively kill them.

Two weeks before his trial Preedy received a letter from his mother, in which she offered to raise money for his counsel. He told Moule he had decided to plead guilty. Surprisingly, at his trial his mother and aunt appeared as witnesses for the defence, but Preedy became abusive to all except the judge, jury and Sydney Osborne. Moule however, could not induce Preedy to see his mother and aunt after being found guilty and sentenced to death; Fordington’s vicar was even warned that the prisoner was too dangerous and unpredictable to approach! It seemed at first that Moule’s consolation of religion had fallen short of extracting from his client full and lasting contrition for his wrongdoing.

Yet Edwin Purdy went to his death with the most admirable courage and calm resignation. On his last afternoon he even took communion in the presence of three or four other warders who were glad to join him. Out of gratitude he presented five men with five bibles given to him by Sydney Osborne. And then…he felt the noose and blindfold about his head, the drop beneath his feet…

What appears to be the only source for this story is Henry Moule’s own account, written some time after the prison assignment it describes and entitled Hope Against Hope. A rare copy of this book is in the County Museum collection, available for study only by special arrangement and a handling fee of £10.

Footnote added 7th Sept,2012. In the school log book for Bradford Peverell dated 27th March 1863 there is the following entry. “Some of the children went to Dorchester to see Mr Fooks and Mr Preedy hung.” Underneath that entry is a note apparently dated 28th July 1873, which reads: ” They should not have gone had I known it and been able to prevent them. H.B.W.”

Fordington – St. George’s Church

St. George's Church, Fordington

St. George's Church, Fordington

Fordington – St. George’s Church

Entrance to St. George's Church, Fordington.

Entrance to St. George's Church, Fordington.

Fordington – St. George’s Church

The Tympanum over the door is of great antiquity, and may have been given to the church by William Belet, who was rewarded with the manor of Fordington by William the Conqueror. It is recorded that Belet went on the first Crusade. It would seem he was being hard pressed by the Saracens at the Battle of Dorylaeum 1097, when St. George came to his aid. He and his Squire have fallen to their knees in thankfulness. There are some small differences in the armour of the two groups.

The Tympanum over the door is of great antiquity, and may have been given to the church by William Belet, who was rewarded with the manor of Fordington by William the Conqueror. It is recorded that Belet went on the first Crusade. It would seem he was being hard pressed by the Saracens at the Battle of Dorylaeum 1097, when St. George came to his aid. He and his Squire have fallen to their knees in thankfulness. There are some small differences in the armour of the two groups.

Fordington – St. George’s Church

St. George's Church at Fordington nr. Dorchester

St. George's Church at Fordington nr. Dorchester

Fordington – St. George’s Church

St. George's Church at Fordington

St. George's Church at Fordington

Henry Moule

With their accustomed inertia officials of the Duchy of Cornwall were unmoved by the letter of desperation they had just received, highlighting squalid living conditions in Fordington near Dorchester. The correspondent described how, in places, the floors of cottages lay beneath the level of the pond, how waste was being cast into drains or into the open street, and the fact that the population density in places was higher than that in Manchester.

The letter however, was not from a desperate councillor or villager, but from Fordington’s vicar, the Revd. Henry Moule, though his plea for action was never heeded. The Duchy had imposed a ban on development, so allowing the community to degenerate into a rural slum. But although he failed on this occasion many more examples of the energy and vision of this remarkable cleric have stood the test of time. But it was one innovation in particular, arising partially by accident in 1859, which made Moule’s name more widely known.

In the summer of that year something inspired Moule to fill his cesspool and instruct his family to use buckets instead. At first he buried the sewage in trenches but then noticed that after about a month no trace of the excrement remained. So he built a shed, sifted the dry earth beneath it and mixed the bucket waste with the dry earth. After ten minutes nothing offensive remained, and furthermore Moule found that the earth could be recycled about five times.

Equally interested in the composted waste’s effect on plant nutrition Moule, in collaboration with a farmer, fertilised one-half of a field with his closet earth while the other half was fertilised with conventional super-phosphate. Swedes planted in the manure grew a third larger than those grown in the phosphate. It was later said that Moule’s invention could be more effective in disease prevention than vaccination.

Such dynamism and passionate evangelical conviction on Henry Moule’s part was legendary. Born in Melksham, Wiltshire, on January 27th 1801, the sixth son of a solicitor, Henry attended Marlborough Grammar School then entered St. Johns College, Cambridge in 1817 to read classics, physics, astronomy and mathematics. After graduating with a BA in 1821 he accepted a position as a peripatetic tutor to the children of Admiral Sir William Hotham. In 1824 he was ordained a deacon, becoming a priest the following year. Appointed vicar of his native Melksham for some years he then took up the living at Gillingham in Dorset, where he was obliged to tighten up a lapse in discipline and standards found to be prevalent and in the conducting of services.

Just before his entry into St. Johns in 1817 Moule had been warned not to enter Trinity Church because of the tainted reputation of its fanatical minister. Theologically Moule was a follower of Charles Simeon, the Cambridge evangelical bulwark against liberal theology in the Church, and wrote several letters to The Times on theology. But Moule was also a great patriot and conservative in politics. In 1824, the year of his deaconcy, he married Mary Evans, a woman related to a London publisher.

Moule moved to Fordington in 1829 to take up his ministry there, though at first he was met by considerable hostility. His deliverance of feisty sermons denouncing local morality and the grievous structural and spiritual state of the church brought him into conflict with locals, who even jeered at his children in the street. Furthermore, Moule’s acceptance into the community was not helped by his demolition of the church’s musicians gallery on deciding to dispense with the orchestra, and by persuading the Morton-Pitt family to end the Dorchester Races on ethical grounds in the early 1830’s.

But on an initial stipend of £225 per annum the new minister made the vicarage a success and in 1840 he purchased adjoining land to create a garden. The year before he had sponsored winter relief work on a major archaeological excavation of over 50 complete skeletons from a Roman cemetery underlying Fordington High Street, even forensically examining some of the bones himself. For some years too, he served as Chaplain to Dorset Barracks, a position that inspired him to write his Barrack Sermons. From the royalties he received from the publication of this book Moule built the church at West Fordington.

In the autumn of 1862 Henry Moule was faced with perhaps the greatest of his pastorship when he undertook the religious counselling of Edwin Preedy, a 21-year-old man being held in Dorchester jail awaiting trial and execution for murder. During the final weeks of the prisoner’s life Moule struggled to force Preedy into an eleventh hour repentance in the face of the condemned man’s fits of despair and physical violence. Moule’s death-cell consultations with Preedy are recounted in his rare 94-page booklet Hope Against Hope*

Henry Moule finally won some approval from his parishioners when he brought their lamentable living standards to the notice of the Duchy of Cornwall. Though he was not successful, in 1861 he produced National Health & Wealth, a twenty-page pamphlet in response to the disease, nuisance, waste and expense caused by cesspools and water drainage. Following his development of the earth closet Moule took out a patent for it in partnership with James Bannehr, thus forming the Moule Patent Earth Closet Company, which made and sold earth closets in oak and mahogany.

In The Field of the 21st November 1868 it was said “…in towns and villages not exceeding 2000 or 3000, we believe the earth closet will be found not only more effective but far more economical than water drainage.” The August 1st 1868 edition of The Lancet reported that 148 dry earth closets were in use at the Volunteer encampment at Wimbledon by 2000 men without any odour being produced. At his death, Moule was still trying to persuade the government that the earth closet was the sanitation of the future. He wrote pamphlets including The Advantage of the Dry Earth System; The Science of Manure as the Food of Plants; Manure for the Million: a Letter to the Cottage Gardeners of England, and a paper on town refuse in 1872. In this paper Moule argued on the three principles of (1) “There can never be a National Sanitation Reform without active intervention by central government” (2) That active intervention can never take place under the water sewerage system without a large increase of local taxation (3) Let the dry-earth system be enforced, and with a vast improvement in health and comfort, local taxation may be entirely relieved.

One of Henry Moule’s proudest friends and admirers was Thomas Hardy, who recognised his worth and even considered himself one of the minister’s parishioners even though he (Hardy) had reverted to agnosticism. Moule was no less active in the affairs of Dorchester and was fervently involved with William Barnes and Canon Charles Bingham in founding the Dorset Museum in 1845, the forerunner of today’s County Museum in the High Street. Moule also founded, in 1850, the Institute of Adult Education and was involved in the foundation of the Dorchester Mutual Improvement Society.

The Revd. Henry Moule BA died in 1880, but five of Henry and Mary’s six children became eminent figures in their own right. Handley Carr Moule became Bishop of Durham and wrote a treatise on Simeon. George Moule became Bishop of mid-China and Arthur E Moule also served as a missionary in that country. Charles became President of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Henry J. Moule became an archaeologist and Dorset Museum’s first curator. But a sixth son, Horace, slit his throat in a fit of depression in Cambridge in 1871. Though gifted musically and academically, his life was blighted by depressive and alcoholic tendencies. But the most tragic aspect of Horace Moule’s wasted life and death was that he, like his father, was a friend and mentor to Hardy, his demise having a significant impact on Dorset literature, for through Hardy it inspired the author’s intemperate and failing hero Jude in Jude the Obscure. A grandson of one of these siblings occupied a chair as Professor of Divinity at Cambridge.

*available for examination only by special request at the County Museum (handling fee £10). We will be publishing an article about Edwin Preedy’s short life soon – it will be posted in Real Lives.