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Maumbury Rings

The Fifth of November and Christmas in the Workhouse 1860

A report in the Dorset County Chronicle of 8th November 1860 comments “Just as the legislature appears determined to suppress the commemoration of ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ the custom has revived in spirit so far as Dorchester is concerned.”

Under the dateline “The Fifth of November” readers were told that “not for some time have the streets of Dorchester witnessed such scenes” squibs and crackers flying about in all directions, and several large tar-barrels and fireballs being rolled along amidst crowds of small boys and “children of larger growth.”

The main event, however, was a torchlight procession, in the midst of which a large effigy of the Pope was borne along, suspended from a gallows. The scene reminded the Chronicle’s reporter of Carnival: people dressed in a variety of “outlandish” costumes including representations of Victor Emmanuel and Garibaldi escorting a youth in women’s attire as “Young Italy,” at the head of the procession.

The large crowd paraded along High West Street and South Street during which the liberator of Italy was loudly cheered. Then onto the Maumbury Rings where the effigy was burnt surrounded by the revellers whose faces were eerily lit by the light of the torches and all the while squibs were being thrown about.

“Young Italy” was borne triumphantly back into the town “the streets of which resumed their ordinary quiet aspect after the assemblage had exhausted their store of fireworks.”

Around the 19th December 1860 the weather turned: promising Dorset a white Christmas, heralded by a severe frost. ‘The Chronicle’ reported that a gentleman had written to ‘The Times’ telling that the temperature in his garden had reached 8 degrees below freezing.

The cold spell ended over the New Year. “There was a heavy fall of rain and the snow, which had covered the ground to a depth of several inches, disappeared on Sunday with a rapidity that was truly astonishing and must have caused considerable inconvenience by flooding the land in various localities.”

At Wool the pressure of water was so great it damaged a culvert near the railway station making the line dangerous to trains. A telegraph message was sent to Dorchester and a “body of men were set to work so as to temporarily make the line good.” The newspaper’s report continued “W.Meare, Esq., the able superintendent, made arrangements for engines to meet at the spot, so that the traffic was conducted with only a short delay, and the trains were able to run as usual on Monday.”

At Bridport a building that was being erected was blown down. The building some 400-feet in length had been constructed to a height of two storeys and roofed, but the “ends were open and thus the wind found play and the place was rendered a complete wreck.”

The unusually severe weather brought plenty of wild fowl into the extensive waters between Wareham and Poole and many fell to the guns of the locals living along the shore.

The weather did not stop those more fortunate from providing some Christmas cheer for their poorer neighbours. On Christmas Day all the inmates of the Dorchester Union workhouse had roast beef, plum pudding, with beer and tobacco for the men. A round of festivities continued ’till New Years day.

Mrs. Herbert Williams of Stinsford who was of the habit of having the children from the Dorchester Union house visit her residence at Stinsford for a feast had instead to take liberal amounts of plum pudding, sweet cakes and tea to the workhouse.

The old folk of the union house were entertained to dinner by the Rev. T. R. Maskew where they “thoroughly enjoyed themselves over plenty of roast beef and plum pudding with plenty of other delicacies.” The following day it was the turn of Captain and Mrs. Kindersley, of Syward Lodge who treated all the inmates with cakes, the women with tea and sugar, the men with tobacco and a variety of toys for the children. On the Monday after Christmas the Misses Campbell gave the children cakes and toys and the women tea and cake.

On New Years day Dorchester’s mayor J. F. Hodges Esq., provided a substantial dinner and tea for the workhouse inmates. He granted the women a store of tea and the men a quantity of tobacco. He also gave to the residents of the Almshouses tea, sugar and a quantity of beef, “with which to enjoy themselves at this festive season.” The Chronicle commented “The care shown by Mr Hodges for the poor, and his solicitude for their comfort and welfare, are most praiseworthy…”

Elsewhere around the county there were similar acts of kindness. At Gussage All Saints the better off parishioners, at their own expense, provided for the carriage from Poole of coal for the poor. The coal paid for by The Earl of Shaftesbury and The Provost and Fellows of Queen’s College, Oxford.

On Christmas Eve, Colonel Lutterell, “the proprietor of the valuable and much admired Wootton Manor” gave to the deserving poor of the parish of Wootton Fitzpaine, a large quantity of good beef.

At Wimborne Minster a Special Offertory was given on Christmas Day for distribution amongst the poor. At Charmouth after Christmas a large quantity of bread was given to the poor families of the parish and this was made possible by means of a bequest by the late John Bullen Esq. Good warm clothing was distributed to the poor by the charity of the late Mrs Marker.

A “notorious” poacher named Dicker who lived at Milborne St. Andrew was arrested and taken before magistrates at Blandford charged with shooting at one of the county police while in the execution of his duty.

Dorchester – The Maumbury Rings

“The largest prehistoric monument of its kind in Britain” is how one early antiquarian observer described Maumbury Rings; just ten minutes walk from Dorchester town centre. It is said to have been able to accommodate ten thousand spectators and enclose an area equal to fifty football pitches, although these claims seem a little exaggerated. Certainly the class of monument to which the Rings belong is one found nowhere else in the world outside England, but many other examples of its kind have since been largely ploughed away, including others in Dorset.

Not so Maumbury Rings. This monument is the largest and most important structure of its kind in Britain and has survived intact simply because of its proximity to Durnovaria (Roman Dorchester) and because it has proved so useful for a range of different functions over the centuries. But Maumbury was originally constructed as a henge, one of those still somewhat enigmatic earthworks of England’s Neolithic people, and its origin can be traced back to about 2,500 BC.

It was Sir Christopher Wren who is said to have been responsible for first applying any archaeologically minded scrutiny to Maumbury Rings, though the great eighteenth century antiquarian William Stukeley also wrote about it at some length. Variously described as a “sun temple” or “a Neolithic dewpond,” others fancied the rays of the sun rising in the east passed through the north-east entrance to strike the rising ground at the opposite end, though this has since been shown to be a fallacy.

A large stone is said to have once stood near or across the south-west entrance, and which was long thought to have been the sighting-stone for solar and lunar observations. It is noted that in 1879 a minor excavation was made in the hope of locating this stone, but none was ever found.

Whatever Maumbury’s original purpose as a Neolithic enclosure was, it may well have suffered the same fate as other henges in the area had not the emperor Claudius resolved to bring Britain into the Roman Empire in 43 AD. When the town of Durovaria was founded it was soon appreciated by some engineers or planners that the Maumbury henge conveniently defined in its own outline an earthwork thought to be easily adaptable to serve as a small amphitheatre for gladiatorial or other entertainment without the extra labour and expense of having to start from scratch. Instead of what had probably been existing insubstantial embankments being levelled into oblivion by ploughing, they were re-inforced with rammed chalk and raised to their present day height.

It is believed that by the first millennium BC Maumbury Rings was in use as a Celtic earthwork, possibly some temple on the lines of Stonehenge. Following the departure of the Roman Legions in about 410 AD, the Rings probably continued in use as a meeting place, but no record exists from the Saxon period. During the Middle Ages the arena became the scene of jousts and other revels.

But it is not until the 17th century that we have a clear record of any major event connected with the monument. During the Civil War the Parliamentarians quickly saw the earthwork’s potential as a defensive site, and turned it into a gunnery emplacement to command the then exposed flank of the town from the direction of the Weymouth Road, up which the Roundheads expected the Royalists to advance. After the Civil War, the macabre rise in popularity of public executions by hanging led to the rings being used for this grizzly purpose. However executions at this locality ceased in 1705.

Rather through hearsay, a story has been handed down about the execution, probably in the late 17th century, notable for its particularly tragic circumstances. The details have apparently never been properly recorded, but a young unnamed woman was sentenced to death for some minor crime by hanging at Maumbury. However, at the time she was condemned she was expecting a child. Not wanting to condemn an unborn child to death as well, the magistrates deferred the mother’s execution until the child could be born in prison.

Following the birth the woman was duly hung, but has ever since left behind the unanswered question of who she was, who the child’s father was, and above all what became of the child. Was the child adopted? Did it die in infancy? Did it grow into adulthood and perhaps emigrate? The tragedy of this case is that it occurred a century too soon for the possible commutation of the sentence to transportation to be enacted. But clearly, this is a mystery, which can never be solved without intensive genealogical investigation.

In 1908 the archaeologist George Cary began the first systematic excavation of the earthwork to be conducted in modern times. Probably Cary hoped that the various romantic imaginings and speculations about the henge’s use in pre-Roman times could be laid to rest once the site’s history was set on a firm footing based upon the evidence of the stratigraphy and finds uncovered. Cary’s first excavation revealed that, as might be expected, sherds of recent pottery, ceramics, and other objects were abundant in the first foot or so of soil removed, and included a Victorian half-penny. But these and some older mediaeval pottery underlying them soon ceased.

By the end of the third season in 1910, two Romano-British graves had been discovered and opened, together with seven shafts approximately of the same age as the henge itself re-exposed in the arena floor. These shafts, which may have served a similar function to that of the comparable pits (Aubrey Holes) at Stonehenge, were found to contain a considerable number of tools made from deer antler, together with Neolithic pottery sherds and flint flakes. Interestingly, the existence of these shafts has led to the conclusion that the Romans experienced considerable difficulties in constructing parts of the arena floor and boundary walling of the amphitheatre.

During a much more recent excavation in the early 1970’s a deep cutting made into the chalk walling on the north east side showed that the Romans had to overlay the prehistoric shafts with rammed chalk in the arena’s western curve in order to stabilise the floor surface. It was therefore evident that the Legionary engineers found it harder than expected to adapt the earthwork to their requirements.

During this excavation another four shafts were exposed, bringing the total known to eleven. During an exploration of the outer part of the north entrance a third grave was discovered in the chalk, this time containing a skeleton of a well-built Romano-British man accompanied by a pottery vessel. But the work of this excavation was mainly concerned with determining the real purpose of the shafts. This was not proved, though it is thought likely that they were flint mines.

Today Maumbury is a tourist landmark and attraction, equally attractive to children and picnickers alike, with its own information board at the northern entrance.

Mary Channing – A Path to the Gallows

On January 15th 1705 an extraordinary marriage was solemnised in a Dorchester church. Extraordinary, because neither party to the union, especially the bride, was committed to the other out of mutual affection. Furthermore, the groom could scarcely have imagined that the ceremony would launch them both on a fateful journey that would end in capital crime and capital punishment. Neither could he have imagined that before spring turned to summer that year he would be dead.

The groom was Thomas Channing, a goodly tradesman of a Maiden Newton family, who had established his own successful grocery business in Dorchester; his bride was a reluctant, rebellious teenager called Mary Brooks. And they were wedded not out of love but purely out of convenience: in deference to the wish of the bride’s parents to see their daughter suitably placed with a respected, financially secure citizen.

The chain of events, which culminated in this peculiar tryst of fate, began some 18 years before with the birth of Mary Brooks in May 1687. Her father Richard and mother Elizabeth were keen to give their daughter the kind of education common to children of their social standing. Mary excelled in reading and writing, but her parents neglected to lend equal weight to the girl’s moral and religious instruction.

Whether or not this was a contributory factor, the girl manifested a latent sluttish disposition, which may have been aggravated by emotional depravation caused by her mother’s frequent absences. It was thought that the pastoral simplicity and rude country acumen of 18th century Dorset was no environment in which to equip a country girl for the niceties of high society, and so Mary was packed off to Exeter, London and elsewhere to gain experience of English higher society.

But this extraordinary degree of liberty was to exert further negative consequences on Mary Brook’s already weak character and tainted persona. Her sluttish manner gave way to vanity, promiscuity and riotous living. Every two weeks she would attend the local dance school, staying on for a night of frivolity and mirth with other young friends. She was ever at the homes of her neighbours, luring them into orgies of gluttony and intemperance while frittering the night away in gay abandon.

She was later to disown these “friends” when she began a loose affair with a local man. The pair would frequent public houses, where the wayward teenager would entertain her date with wine and shower him with gifts such as ruffles and cravats. Mary would willingly cover the expenses for these excesses, but her generosity cut deeply into her solvency. To financially support her highly social lifestyle Mary cajoled, or even conspired to rob, her parents of substantial sums, aided by some of her closest friends.

Naturally her cavorting and Jezebellian ways became the talk of Dorchester’s gossips, but Mary continued to drift from one extreme of pleasure-seeking to another. One citizen, who did not even know the Brooks family, even sent Mary’s parents a letter of complaint about their daughter’s wayward conduct. These correspondences would increase as Mary’s excesses increased. Clearly Dorchester’s busybodies had blown any hope the girl may have entertained of keeping her activities under wraps from her parents. Although Richard Brooks was shamed by his daughter’s behaviour and expressed his displeasure, Mary took scant notice.

Once the revelations of the extent of Mary’s conduct had come home to her parents they concluded that the best remedy lay in finding Mary an eligible husband – probably in the hope that she would knuckle down to the sober responsibilities of family life. To make the proposition more attractive they used the prospect of a considerable fortune as a carrot to dangle before several Dorchester bachelors. But of these only one would rise to the bait: Thomas Channing.

Although the grocer was an acceptable suitor in the eyes of the Brooks, their daughter’s affections lay elsewhere. Channing himself turned his attentions to another prospective bride for a time, but the iron will of Mrs Brooks proved to strong to countermand. As for Mary, her rejection of Thomas brought about confinement to her room for several days in punishment. Eventually, for the sake of her freedom, she grudgingly agreed to marry Channing.

After an initial postponement of 24 hours the unhappy union of Thomas Channing and Mary Brooks was consummated. Yet after a while Mary, who before and after was plotting how to rid herself of parental control, came to look on her marriage as the way to achieve this. Shortly before she had also been roused to anger when her current fancy had refused to marry her.

Amazingly the wedding party lasted for two days with the full knowledge of the Brooks, but apparently the total ignorance of the Channings. Only weeks earlier their son had told them he had relinquished all thought of marrying Mary, but after the wedding he changed his mind. By now though, a fateful dye had been cast. When the marriage was barely three months old Mary began an affair with yet another man, a visitor to Dorchester recorded only as Mr Naile, upon which she lavished her accustomed costly entertainment. She even persuaded Thomas to let Mr Naile take his place in their bed. That he did so most likely occasioned the illegitimate conception that added the drop of gall to Mary’s cup of tragedy.

By now, poor Thomas had become an inconvenient hindrance to his wife’s nuptial preferences. On April 17th she administered to her husband a dose of mercury purchased from the maid of the apothecary the previous day. After eating the dish of rice milk Thomas was violently ill and began vomiting. The following day, prompted possibly by the suspicion that he was being poisoned, he made out a last will and testament entirely disinheriting his wife. Following another three days of agony and unremitting pain the grocer died on April 21st. Following the post-mortem sixty to eighty people attended Channing’s funeral at St. Mary’s back in Maiden Newton.

Even before Channing died however, Mary had decamped. She went into hiding for 30 hours, first to a safe house in Dorchester, then into a wood four miles away. From there, with the aid of a friend’s employee, she made it to the home of a relation of her sister-in-law who lived in Charlton Worthorn in Somerset. Once he had learnt of Mary’s purchase of the mercury, Thomas’s father then organised a wide search. On Sunday Mary’s accomplice, following the offer of a reward and out of fear of being charged as an accessory, brought her back. That night Mary learnt of her husband’s death, but showed no emotion or concern.

In the morning she was brought before the justices at Dorchester for questioning. During the trial Mary had the opportunity to defend herself, but against the weight of two barristers and many prosecution witnesses the jury took only half-an-hour to find her guilty. On pronouncement of the death sentence Mary pleaded “her belly” (postponement on account of her pregnancy.) Until her baby had been born the sentence could not be carried out.

This pregnancy, of course, was a critical, if unintended artefact in the Channing case, providing an 8-month window of opportunity for appeals against the sentence to be lodged. Richard Brooks lost no time in petitioning Queen Anne and Mary’s eldest brother presented a petition signed by several Dorchester citizens to the judge at Wells. Mary’s mother sought the help of a lady, but all these efforts were to no avail. Multifarious deaf ears could not save a sinful teenager from the terror and humiliation of a public hanging.

While in prison much pressure was put on Mary to confess and repent, but she would maintain her innocence to the end. At first the Brooks were able to pay for respectable accommodation for their fecund daughter, but later seemed to lose concern for her welfare. Their support payments lapsed, so that Mary had to be relocated to a much more spartan cell with a bed made from only canvas tilting of an old wagon. It was in here on December 19th that Mary delivered a son that was immediately baptised at her request. The mother refused to have the baby withdrawn from her care.

But the opportunity for maternal care almost never arose. Soon after the birth Mary was smitten with fever and nursing the baby greatly weakened her. In these last tragic days Elizabeth Brooks was at Mary’s side constantly. On March 8th 1706 Mary was again summoned to the bar and asked if she could show just reason why the death sentence should not be passed. She could not, and so was told to prepare for death. Various clergy began a campaign to persuade Mary to repent of her sins, but without success. Yet Mary asked to be baptised (the Brooks were Baptists, who did not believe in infant baptism.) But how could the chaplain baptise one who wouldn’t repent? After a special dispensation from the Bishop of Bristol however, Mary was baptised on the 17th of March.

Only four days later on March 21st 1706 Mary Channing’s time had come. From the prison she was brought to her place of execution at Maumbury Rings on the outskirts of Dorchester, where a crowd of over three thousand had gathered for the macabre ordeal. Burning at the stake was the customary execution for women until the end of the 18th century. At 5 o’clock in the afternoon Mary was bound by the neck to a post while faggots piled up around her were lit. But the 19 year-old was already dead from strangulation by the noose. Then, with no sense of shock or revulsion, the multitude dispersed as Mary Channing’s mortal existence was consumed by fire.

As to the fate of her son, this seems to have been lost to history. Did he die in infancy? Was he perhaps brought up in a workhouse or even adopted by his grandparents or another family? Did he stay in Britain or emigrate to seek his fortune overseas? We may never know.