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The Ploughman Poet

Thomas Hardy once observed that:  “…here in Dorset, there are so many poets.”  Many of them, however, more deserving of recognition have drifted into the shadows created by the spotlight being on the likes of Barnes and Hardy.

Albert Charles Bailey was born at Osmington in 1859. He was the son of Thomas and Angelina Bailey, being one of eight children. The family was poor and Albert had to teach himself to read and write; growing-up he studied the works of all the literary giants of the time. His first book of poems was published in 1896 and sold very well.

The Bailey family moved from Osmington to Sutton Poyntz. Albert married Mary Cox of Puncknowle in 1886 and we learn from the 1891 census that the couple lived at Prospect Cottage, Preston, with their four children and one of Albert’s sisters, Evangelina. The census  describes Albert as a Poulterer, Egg Dealer and Market Gardener.

Ten years on the family had grown: Albert and Mary then had four sons and three daughters and the census return suggests that his literary work was being recognised: he is described in the 1901  census as an Author and Market Gardener.  However, in 1911 he is again described simply as a Market Gardener but we should not conclude he had abandoned his literary career.

In 1911 he became known as ‘The Ploughman Poet’ following a chance meeting with a special correspondent from a national daily newspaper who was on his way to Dorchester.  The journalist was so impressed with Albert’s work that when he arrived in Dorchester he sought out Thomas Hardy to ask if he knew him. Hardy replied “Yes, I have met him,” and added that had Albert Bailey been born in any county other than Dorset, he would have been acclaimed a prodigy.

Albert died in 1914 at the age of 55.

Mr Russell’s Weymouth Holiday – 1840

In the summer of 1840 Mr T.P. Russell decided to spend a month at the seaside resort of Weymouth. He brought with him from Gloucester, where he was a banker, his wife, two daughters, brother-in-law and a maid. Mr Russell was 65 and suffered from rheumatism; his wife was 56 and his two daughters were in their early thirties. He kept a diary of their month-long holiday at the seaside resort made popular by George III.

They departed from Gloucester in their own carriage. Along the way a small repair to the carriage was necessary and they spent a night at Bath, after sending their maid on separately with luggage. In the morning the family was on the road again, stopping at Frome to change horses, then onto Bruton and Sherborne, passing through many cloth manufacturing villages on the way. Mr Russell thought Sherborne “large but ill-built.” By 5 o’clock the family group had arrived at Luce’s Hotel in Augusta Place, Weymouth, having passed through Dorchester, which Mr Russell decided was “better constructed” than Sherborne.

The family had dinner at the Hotel at a cost of one guinea, including tip. Then followed a stroll along the Esplanade to the Alexandra Gardens where they listened to a band of fourteen Fusiliers.

Lodgings for their stay were found at 6 York Buildings; “clean and sufficient Commodious but dear at fifty shillings a week” thought Mr Russell. The family spent the morning buying supplies with help from Mr Thomas, who kept a library on the Esplanade. He had been recommended to Mr Russell and “proved most helpful”. Mr Russell commented “We found the town larger than we expected, with very good shops and a good market, fish plentiful and at a low price. The baths, however, were a disappointment, being poor.”

The next day Mr Russell took his first warm sea bath. The rest of the family walked along the beach and watched the yachts in the bay. The weather was showery and blustery but this did not deter the family taking a trip in a rowing boat followed by a walk to Radipole Spa where they could smell the Sulphur Spring. The family made an expedition to Wyke, “a pretty rural village with a handsome church”. It was mid-August and corn was being cut.

The family expressed satisfaction with their lodgings and the “cheerful” situation but there was some disappointment as Mr Russell commented: “the place does not fill as much as we expected, the fashion of it has partly gone”.

Mr Russell was suffering from rheumatic pain and did not accompany the family to church on Sunday. The weather was stormy and Mr Russell chose instead to write letters and visit Mr Thomas’ library. The next day the family could have gone to the local races but decided to sail out to Portland, where they saw a large ship bound for Sydney and a brig en route for America.

A few days later they again set off for Portland and found that no work was being done in the quarries as the men were on strike for higher wages. Mr Russell thought the sheep on Portland were “poor”. He was very interested in the modern castle, probably Pennsylvannia, but he found the island generally desolate: “a few miserable villages, scattered on sterile land”, was how he summed up Portland.

Mr Russell continued to take warm sea baths but they did nothing to improve the rheumatic pain. One of his daughters swam in the sea and the family visited Osmington about which Mr Russell said: “a very beautiful retired village very neat, rural and clean, with roses in full bloom”. The church (which one of his daughters sketched) was “remarkably clean and neat”. The family saw the hillside chalk image of King George on his horse. On another trip to Osmington Mills, prawns and lobsters were sampled. At dinner one evening they tried a fish called “pipers, ugly with a large head”; it was eaten baked and stuffed.

The maid joined them on their next boat trip and they all watched men unloading stone for an extension to the pier. Other days passed with them taking walks but because of his rheumatism Mr Russell had to travel by bath chair, which cost him one shilling and sixpence a time; his baths cost three shillings.

The family returned home to Gloucester on the 8th of September by way of Sherborne, Castle Cary and Clifton. On the whole they had enjoyed their stay by the sea and left with some regret.

Mr Russell’s diary concludes with a breakdown of costs; after all he was a banker. The journey to Weymouth cost fourteen pounds, eight shillings and ten pence, the return journey seventeen pounds, one shilling and sixpence. The subscription to the rooms for the month was ten shillings; the boatmen charged four shillings a trip. Four weeks lodgings with linen came to twenty-two pounds and a piano was hired at a cost of thirteen shillings and nine shillings was spent on wine. The total cost for the month was almost eighty three pounds and the diary makes clear this includes the maid, although how much of a holiday the trip was for her, we can only speculate about.

Christopher Bishop – a Dorset Shepherd

“My father used to say he’d been at it so long. Fifty-two years, including Sundays he’d a-call it, as shepherd. No holidaying in those days. But he loved it. His family, his dog, and his sheep and lambs, were life to Christopher Bishop.”

The words of Gertrude Burt, talking in 1970 to journalist Maynard Whyte about her father, four years before she died at the age of 91 years.
Our story starts and ends just a couple of miles or so from the border with Somerset in the north west of the county where the villages are small and picturesque. It is here that Christopher Bishop was born two years into the reign of Queen Victoria and it is where he grew-up and worked all his life save for a short sojourn at Osmington,  a parish by the sea near to Weymouth and where he buried two of his sons.

Melbury Bubb is a little village of a few cottages, an Elizabethan manor house and a farm. It is here on the 24th of July 1791 that Benjamin Bishop was baptised in the church dedicated to St. Mary. We will have more to say about this delightful church with its interesting old tower, ancient font and windows telling the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins but that is for another time. Benjamin was destined to become an agricultural labourer and along the way, on June 5th in 1815, he married a Somerset girl, Caroline Gard, at St. James church at East Chelborough. There is more to say about this little church as well; here we will just note that it is difficult to find but well worth the seeking out just to see the unusual round east window.

Benjamin and Caroline Bishop had nine children, the last being Christopher, who was born in the early half of 1839 at East Chelborough. Leaving school at the age of ten he probably didn’t have a lot of choice but to become an agricultural labourer. He started his working life scaring birds off the crops on Jericho field at Ryme Intriniseca. The 1851 census tells us this was his lot in life. But things were looking up for him and ten years on, the census records him  being a shepherd at Melbury Osmond,  where he was employed by Mr Thomas Watts, a farmer of 260 acres employing four men, three boys and two women. It is here that Christopher met Jane Hallet, his wife to be.
Christopher and Jane married in 1862 and their first child, George, was born at Halstock in 1863. Two more boys, Benjamin and William, arrived while the couple were back at Melbury Osmond in 1870 and 1873; their daughter Gertrude was born at Osmington in 1884. That year the shepherd and his wife were to lose their eldest son. He followed his father into farm work and later he joined the railway and was employed at Nine Elms in London where he contracted typhus and died. George was buried at St. Osmond’s church, Osmington, on the 11th of December 1884.

In 1891 Christopher, his wife Jane and daughter Gertrude were back in the north west of the county at Ryme Intrinseca and visiting them was their son Benjamin then 21 years-old he was a stoker on a ship in the Navy.
Gertrude’s brother William was in the Marines. One day he was working on a gun and accidentally thrown backwards into the sea and drowned; it was thought that a chain held him under the water.  He was Gertrude’s favourite. She told Maynard Whyte: “he was so kind and used to pick me up and carry me home if he met me in the village. He was just twenty, I was nine at the time. When the letter came, my mother, who could not read, had to get someone from the village to read it to her. Then she said to me ‘Go down, Gertrude, and tell your father’…I could go again to that spot where I told him and know it. He took it bad as he was the one who could never shed a tear…It’s always worse for them kind, isn’t it?”

At the time of William’s death the family was at Ryme Intrinseca but William was buried on the 9th of November 1892 in St. Osmond’s churchyard at Osmington, where his elder brother lay. His death was a great sorrow to their mother. Jane Bishop passed away in 1895 aged 52 years. Gertrude, then just eleven years old, was left to comfort her father and she “kept house” for him recalling  “no mod-cons for them, a bucket dipped into the well brought up the water.”

Lambing was always in the open field in her father’s day. Gertrude recalled: “they used to thatch the hurdles and put them up for shelter. When we had been up all night with the sheep  in the lambing season, and tired out, I used to see to the lambs and sheep, I used to walk out among them and see they were all right, but they always were all right. Father would not have gone to bed if he’d not have known that. …you get many more sheep lambing on a rough, wet and windy night than on a still, cold frosty one.” The lambs were fat by Easter and the shepherd with his dog would drive them along to Yetminster Station.

Christopher Bishop died in 1908. He would have been 69 and for 52 of those years he had been a shepherd. He spent his last few years living with Gertrude and her husband, who was a gamekeeper. As in the beginning so it was at the end – he liked to sit in the fields and scare the crows away from the young pheasant birds.

Up to the end of his working days he earned no more than eleven shillings a week, but his daughter observed “…you could get a nice big piece of beef for one and six and we had plenty of our own vegetables. Coal was a shilling a hundredweight.” Thinking back, Gertrude said “They were good days..You didn’t have the money…You didn’t have the clothes, but you were far happier…They days were better than they be now, I fancy.”

In paintings and novels the role of shepherd is sometimes romanticised as an idyllic life. True, a shepherd might have commanded a couple of shillings more for his labour than an ordinary agricultural labourer but as Thomas Hardy observed, the shepherd is “a lonely man of which the battle of life had always been sharp with him.”