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Winterborne Whitchurch

Sturminster Newton in the 19th Century

A few weeks before his death in 1908 at the age of 97 years, Robert Young, a tailor of Sturminster Newton, decided to write down his memories of life in the town and we are fortunate that his manuscript has survived. Robert tells of trade with Newfoundland, of weavers and button makers, witchcraft and superstitions, education, law and order and, furthermore, mention of William Barnes’ father.

Robert Young was born on the 30th of September 1810 and baptised in St. Mary’s church at Sturminster Newton on the 2nd of November 1810. He was the son of a Marnhull man, James Young, and a Sturminster woman, Mary Collins, who were married in 1799. We know Robert had three brothers and a sister all baptised at Sturminster Newton.  Robert married Charlotte Foot at Okeford Fitzpaine on the 28th of May 1834, where the couple lived with their four children at the time of the 1841 census.  By 1851 we know from the census the couple were living at Bridge Street, Sturminster Newton and Robert Young was a Master Tailor. We think Charlotte died in 1858 and Robert married again sometime between 1871 and 1881; his second wife was ten years his junior and named Caroline.  In 1861 Robert Young was described in the census as a “tailor and woollen draper employing two men.”

Robert’s earliest memory was of a public dinner held in Gough’s Field to celebrate the peace of 1815. It was followed by sports and later marksmen shot at an effigy of Napoleon which was then burned on a bonfire.

Robert went to a school run by Sarah Adams in a cottage next door to the old Methodist chapel. Her husband Abel was a preacher whose activities were not appreciated by all members of the local clergy. On one occasion Abel was summoned by the Vicar of Marnhull for preaching in an unlicensed cottage. Abel attended court wearing his best Sunday coat and told the chairman of the bench that his authority for preaching was the Bible. The Vicar of Sturminster supported him and the case was dismissed. When permission was withheld for Methodist boys to enter the school the same Vicar of Sturminster declared that it was a free school for the children of the poor, Methodist or not. This, we think, would have been a reference to the National school built in 1817. We notice that in 1891 Robert and his wife Caroline had a widower, James Adams, living with them.

According to Robert many of the young men of the town worked for two local merchants, ship owners engaged in the Poole Newfoundland trade. There were wool dyers in the town, probably engaged with the production of broad cloth of which Hutchins comments: “Mr Thomas Colbourne, banker and merchant, financed spinners and weavers who made a cloth known as swan skin used by the Newfoundlanders. The cloth was stretched on racks in the open fields. Buttons, the ring button and the sugar loaf, were also made by numbers of women and children in Sturminster.” A Mr. Mitchel had a soap and tallow candle factory and each year made large Christmas candles for his customers.
Near the old Market House stood two rows of butchers’ stalls and Robert tells us that many of the butchers also attended Poole market, starting off on Wednesday evening and arriving in Poole in the early hours of Thursday. Having sold their meat to the ship captains they set off for home at 10 o’clock at night trusting their horses to carry them safely home, while they slept. Butter was also sent to Poole as well as young calves to be shipped on to Portsmouth. Others were driven for six days on the road to London.

We learn a lot from Robert about wages and the cost of commodities. Labourers toiled from six in the morning ‘till six at night for 6/- (six shillings) a week; a married man got an extra 1/-. Butter was 7/6 for a dozen pounds. Tea was 6/- a pound but roasted and pounded beans were used as a drink. Bread was mixed wheat and barley.

Goods were transported in broad-wheeled wagons drawn by a team of horses  often bearing a frame of bells;  the carter sat on a smaller horse with a brass-mounted whip. Other goods were moved on pack-horses over roads which were rough and uneven.

Fights were frequent, particularly on market and fair days. Robert recalls one occasion when a “corpulent young farmer fought with a tall wiry butcher. Both had stripped to the waist in Gough’s Close. The young farmer died and the butcher was sentenced to a year’s hard labour for manslaughter.” At that time the Sturminster Magistrates Court was at the back of the Swan Stable yard in a long room over the stabling.

While they awaited trial, the town constables had to take the prisoners to a public house and keep guard over them or take them home with them to their own homes, much to the discomfort of their families. Robert comments “it is not pleasant work to sit with a handcuffed man at night, or to turn your children out of their beds to make room for a burglar…” Robert continues: “I know of a case where a small tradesman had a prisoner in his charge for eight days and nights; an extra man was employed to guard him at night so that the tradesman had a little rest.”

In his manuscript Robert includes a description of a public flogging:  “it was a degrading spectacle to witness the poor man stripped to the waist, his hands fashioned to a frame fixed on a wagon, his naked back streaming with blood, whilst amongst the crowd of witnesses were women fainting and screaming.”

Witchcraft was still a potent force in the minds of many people who were known to have sent or even walked to Shepton Mallet (in Somerset) to consult a cunning man in whom they had faith, when they believed they had been “overlooked;”  so strong was the belief in some people it would unbalance their minds. Robert comments: “Thanks to more enlightened education, to many valuable lectures, to the railways, to a better knowledge of the world…the nightmare of witchcraft has died out.”

Robert paints a sorry picture of the Sturminster Workhouse near the churchyard, “the business of the parish was conducted in a large kitchen” he tells us. It seems the Overseers were kept very busy providing relieve to the poor.

About St. Mary’s Church we learn that in the early part of the 19th century it had two galleries that were removed during Robert’s lifetime. The violins and bass viol and the bass singers sat in front, behind them the tenors and, in a corner at the back, the two women trebles. An old singer used to give out the psalm to be sung and in a “loud flourish pitch the key of the time.”  The boys used to sit each side of the middle aisle on small stools which, when not in use, were hooked up outside the pews. “In winter we found it very cold, especially for the feet, since there was neither matting nor warming flues”.
Among the mixed congregation that sat in the lower gallery of the church was an individual “remarkable for his venerable appearance in his old fashioned brown coat that had done good service for many years”. He was talking about an old labourer who lived in a humble cottage, the father of our Dorset poet – William Barnes.

This first hand memory of fighting, public punishment, long hours of work for little pay, charity and poor relief all formed part of life here as everywhere in the countryside. Particular to Sturminster Newton was its cider mill, where pigs gathered to eat the refuse and the ditch running behind the Rows into which all kind of slops were thrown. When the refuse from the old tan pits was emptied it was sold off in large cakes for a penny to be burnt on the fire.

We can take from Robert Young’s manuscript that at the end of his life he was encouraged by the rising standard of living and the growing humanity.  In particular he comments on the greater kindness shown to horses and the benefits of transport of animals by rail. In the place of five or six dens of ruin “we have a savings bank, two highly respectable commercial banks, and two good schools. In place of three deliveries of letters a week, we now have three daily.”

Seemingly out of place, Robert Young’s manuscript sits at the Dorset History Centre in a box containing personal and business papers relating to the Mansel-Pleydell family of Whatcombe House in the parish of Winterborne Whitchurch.  John Clavell Mansel-Pleydell Esq.  B.A., J.P., and D.L., F.G.S., F.L.S., (1817-1902) of Whatcombe,  was President of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club. The manuscript is in a bundle of documents concerning the Revd. James Mitchel, who married Margaretta Morton-Pleydell. Possibly our Master Tailor was a friend of Mitchel or perhaps he was the family tailor.

William Holloway – Poet

William Holloway - poet (see article in Biographies.)

William Holloway - poet (see article in Biographies.)

William Holloway – the forgotten poet

Ask any Dorset native to name their two most pre-eminent literary figures and most likely they would reply: “Thomas Hardy and William Barnes.” Less well known however is another William who seems to have slipped into the position of becoming the County’s forgotten third poet: William Holloway.

Holloway was born at Whatcombe, a manor in the parish of Winterborne Whitchurch about four miles from Blandford, presumably early in 1761 as there is a record of his baptism at Whitchurch on June 23rd of that year. William was the last child of Lawrence and Frances Kains Holloway, whose other children were another son, Thomas and a daughter, Elizabeth. His great-uncle, also called William, was serving as Whitchurch’s Churchwarden at the time of the poet’s birth.

Few details of William Holloway’s earliest years were recorded, other than that he was orphaned in early childhood, his father dying before William was two years old. Following the death of his mother not many years after, William was adopted by his grandmother. His years at school however, were happy ones, during which time he acquired some grounding in Greek and French, and came to admire and inwardly digest the works of Milton, Gray, Shakespeare and James Thompson.

While still a young man, William Holloway left his grandmother’s home and care to settle in Weymouth. He took up an apprenticeship with a local printer, eventually being put in charge of the printing shop attached to Weymouth’s Circulating and Musical Library owned by the obese larger-than-life public figure of John Love. It is thought that from an early age William had already begun to write verse, though his first published work, a eulogy on the local Halsewell shipwreck disaster, did not appear until 1788, when he would have been about 37. A small book of verse under the title of The Cottager appeared the following year, these early works being published by his employer John Love.

On November 1st in the year before his poem about the Halsewell was published, Holloway married a spinster of Melcombe Regis, Christian Jackson, at St. Mary’s Church in that parish. They had four children, all girls: Elizabeth, Lucy, Mary and Hannah, of which only Elizabeth appears never to have married. By this time Holloway had matured into a tall, dark quite handsome man. A contemporary print shows him as having a long swarthy face, dark eyes and a pronounced aquiline nose.

In 1798 George III and his entourage paid their first visit to Weymouth, an occasion which spurred Holloway and several local amateur poets to contribute odes on the event to the Salisbury-based Western Country Magazine. During 1790 and 1791 Holloway contributed five of the descriptive verses for twelve Weymouth views, originally published by Love in collaboration with the engraver James Fittler but subsequently collected together and re-issued as a single volume.

By 1792 The Halsewell and The Cottager had been sufficiently well received by the public to cover Holloway’s expenses, such that Love could proceed with publishing The Fate of Glencoe, a historical ballad. In his preface to this work Holloway exemplified much of the half-veiled modesty that characterised this unprepossessing bard throughout his life. He made it plain that the work was penned amid “the hurry of business” and “interruptions of active life.” Though essentially a studious and serious thinker, Holloway also relished the dramatic arts and theatrical life, once composing a short epilogue for a play staged at Weymouth’s Theatre Royal as well as the lyrics for a song to open a new theatre at Dartmouth.

But in October 1793 Love suddenly died, pitching his respectable partner Holloway into one of those dramatic life-course shifts that so many people experience. Under probate Love’s business stock went up for sale and in his will Holloway inherited his printing equipment and materials for a fee of ten guineas a year, in effect inheriting his employer’s works and library. But for various reasons Holloway was not able to avail himself of this opportunity for proprietorship. Instead he then entered upon a phase of his life which he was later to recall as a time “when fortune frowned.”

In an attempt to break free of what he felt had become a professional blind alley Holloway threw up his Weymouth associations and moved with his wife and daughters to Leadenhall Street in London. In June 1798 he landed a job as a clerk at the office of the East India Company in the same street. His position was well-paid and to all accounts not burdensome, since the clerks had privileges such as free breakfasts and postage as well as enough spare time to read papers. But it is likely that Holloway owed his position to Weymouth’s Steward family, who had close associations with the EIC, and Holloway did dedicate two poems to Francis Steward, a former mayor of the town.

Over the 33 years Holloway was in the service of the EIC the greater part and culmination of his poetry was written. Thematically he was soon reverting to nostalgic elegies on his native county such as The Rustic Farewell: a Fragment in the Dorset Dialect; The Peasants Fate (reprinted four times) and Scenes of Youth. Years later he entered into partnership with another poet, John Branch, to produce a small four-volume work on natural history.

Holloway honourably retired from the EIC at the age of 60 in 1821, though it was another ten years before the company would grant him a pension. The poet did not, as might have been expected, retire to Dorset, but to Hackney, then just a village about three miles from Leadenhall Street. Personally and domestically he was cared for by his eldest daughter Elizabeth, his wife Christian having died some years before. Holloway’s other three daughters all married London men and settled in the capital. Rock Place, his home on Tottenham Road in the Hackney hamlet of Kingsland was even then becoming enclosed by the town-house developments that would eventually absorb the village into the greater metropolis. But when he moved in, Holloway could still look back towards the fringes of London across fields of waving corn.

In 1852 Holloway had to undergo the intense emotional pain of watching his beloved Elizabeth descending into an early grave, even as he himself had begun inevitable decline. After his own end came on July 21st 1854, Holloway was buried in Stoke Newington Cemetery beneath a memorial stone mistakenly inscribed with his age as 96 instead of 93, though today almost illegible from erosion. In his will Holloway left £100 to be shared out between his surviving daughters and grandchildren. Although his obituary in The Times acknowledged his work at East India House, it did not commend, or even name a single one of his volumes of verse.

And perhaps it is this, added to the fact of his early departure from his home county that explains why William Holloway was fated to become a forgotten poet. It has been Holloway the print-shop manager and mercantile clerk the press and public had remembered – not Holloway the author of a considerable literary output. But through his poems he has kept alive such poignant vignettes of rural life in Regency and Victorian Dorset: its hay-making, dairying, crafts, maypole dancing, village weddings; the schoolboys fishing a stream or truanting to watch the village blacksmith.

Besides the aforementioned, Holloway’s other anthologies are Poems on Various Occasions (1798); The Baron of Lauderbrook (1800); The Chimney Sweepers Complaint (1806); The Minor Minstrel (1808) and the Country Pastor (1812).