Every parish had its Overseers of the Poor who were responsible for raising the ‘poor rates’ and for the payments to the poor. The agricultural labourers (ag labs) in Dorset at this time were some of the poorest in the country on very low wages. There were many who had been injured at work, or who were too old to work or had died, leaving their families with hardly any income. There may not have been work available every week of the year either, and hence fluctuating income. As well as the Almshouses for ‘six poor widows’, there were many people in temporary or permanent need and there had been a system in place for centuries to help them. This relief of who and how much individuals were to receive was decided on at the Vestry meetings, and there were two different payments: one ‘monthly pay to the poor’ was fixed, and every four weeks the individual would receive so many shillings, the other ‘disbursement’ was for extra needs, when work was unavailable, or injury prevented work, or the winter was hard, or any other case considered worthy. ‘Disbursements’ were also paid by the Overseers for other expenses, such as going to Petty Sessions, buying paper for the accounts, getting the JP to sign the accounts, removing paupers to other parishes, and many other ad hoc items. The Overseers of the Poor Account books for Milton Abbas cover the period 1771 – 1836 without a break, and are an excellent resource for local and family historians. We have transcribed all these records so that they can be searched, a total of 60 000 records. Just a few entries in these accounts mention grist for the years 1800 and 1801. Nevertheless these entries help us understand what was going on at a local level in these very disturbed times, and how people were affected. 

We have researched the use of grist for feeding the poor in Milton Abbas. We would love to know how other parishes managed these very difficult times. Of course, we know that the Speenhamland system began in some parishes which tied the cost of bread to the poor relief, but this was not used in Milton Abbas.

Do get in touch here if you have looked at the Overseers of the Poor records for your parish around 1800.

We will be publishing our research in due course.

Posted in Dorset, family history, local history, Overseers of the Poor, social history | Leave a comment

St Samson of Dol

Also spelled St Sampson.

In a recent article in Current Archaeology (373, April 2021), Chris Catling has written an article on the evidence of early Christianity in western Britain.

St Samson was extremely important for Milton Abbey, or at least his relics were, because they were one of the founding gifts given by King Athelstan in 934 along with 120 hides of land (perhaps 14 000 acres) across Dorset. These relics are alleged to have included an arm and his crozier. The land was a very magnificent gift indeed, and one that kept Milton Abbey going as a Benedictine monastery until its surrender at the Dissolution in 1539. St Samson is one of the better know early British saints due to a biography – Vita Sancti Samsonis – being written sometime between 610 and 820. He was born in Wales to noble parents around 485, they place him when he was young with Saint Illtud, abbot of Llantwit Fawr, where he was raised and educated. He became abbot of the monastery at Caldey Island, Wales, and later a bishop. He travelled widely in Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Scilly Isles, Guernsey and Brittany.  

Interestingly, Milton Abbas has another connection with Caldey Island, albeit a much more recent one. Around 1900 a group of monks formed a community under Father Aelred Carlyle and lived at The Retreat. They then moved to Caldey Island. See our blog.

He became bishop of Dol, Brittany, and was later buried there. King Athelstan had good contacts with Brittany and it was the then Bishop of Dol who gave Athelstan the relics.

St Samson’s feast day was on 28 July and this date would have been celebrated in the Abbey of Milton and its estates. The relics would likely have formed part of a procession around the fields of Milton Abbas. A three day fair was granted in 1280 by King Edward I to the Abbey on the feast of St Samson. This became a very important fair and yielded the second highest subsidy (tax) in Dorset in 1337. We continue the tradition with the Milton Abbas biennial Street Fair today. Over one thousand years of history!

For more information on St Samson there is an article on wikipedia, a biography in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and more in The Catholic Encyclopedia. For a comprehensive history of Christianity see Diarmaid MacCulloch History of Christianity.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mount Pleasant, Dorchester

Not Milton Abbas, but some news which may be of interest to those interested in prehistory and archaeology is a new study of Mount Pleasant, Dorchester. I have found this enigmatic henge the most interesting of all prehistoric monuments since I first learned of it twenty years ago. It is one of only five mega-henges, and is about 350m across, it is the only one of these built on top of a hill and it had a complete inner palisade of 1300 tree trunks up to 1.6 m diameter and standing 5m above ground. It must have looked stunning in the landscape, but what its purpose was no one now knows. It is now a ploughed field near The Trumpet Major, Dorchester, and was excavated in the 1970s by Geoffrey Wainwright. The artefacts which were uncovered are stored in the Dorset County Museum and it is these which have provided the new radiocarbon dates which shows that it was built around 2500BC in just 100 years. There is also an article in Current Archaeology Feb 2021. For more information and reports, contact us.

Posted in archaeology | 1 Comment

Your family history!

Tired of reading books about kings and queens, the rich and famous? Fed up with Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn? The lives of ordinary people are just as tragic, difficult, triumphant and revelationary. How your ancestors survived the traumas and difficulties that life threw at them is surely more interesting. The diseases, doctors and treatments, their toil, their brushes with authority and justice, their rights and freedoms, their food and cooking, their clothes and washing, shopping, entertainment and every other aspect of their lives must be compared with our lives today.

A troll through the 100 or so books mentioned in the Christmas edition of BBC History magazine would tell you otherwise – no social history whatsoever – unless you are black. From Byron to Chaucer from Richard III to Hitler, the books of 2020 are all about the people who are NOT in your family tree!

Overseers of the Poor

For a totally different take on history we are exploring the lives of ordinary people. Using documents and the surviving buildings we are telling their stories – what offences they committed, how the courts dealt with them, how their houses were destroyed and moved, how they were paid, how they worked, teenage pregnancy, what the doctor could do for them, what taxes they paid, how those in need were treated, how they cooked and ate, how they tried to improve their conditions, how their children were treated, what the church meant to them, what they were paid for catching vermin…. and the thousand other affects on how they lived. 

There can be no doubt that the ordinary people have been oppressed at least since the Norman conquest by their masters and the political system, how they fought for improvements is an enlightening story for us today 

Why not join us to find out more. If you are not hooked on history already, you may be soon. Be warned – the excitement of research is addictive!

Posted in family history, local history, Overseers of the Poor, social history | Leave a comment

Dorchester Gaol

In the Dorset History Centre and available on Ancestry is the Criminal process register. 1782-1808, Catalogue Reference NG-PR/1/D/1/1. This gives much information, such as the prisoner’s name, the magistrate who committed them, their place of residence, their description, age, date of committal, charge and sentence. It makes for harrowing reading to see the incredibly harsh penalties for minor crimes such as stealing turnips, stealing some ash poles, vagrancy. All sentenced to at least one month’s hard labour, sometimes more. 

There is much to be learnt from these records and much research could be done. For example what was a typical sentence for poaching? Did it change with time? Who were the magistrates? What is their record of convictions? How frequent are poaching offences? Are some estates more prone than others to bring poachers to justice?- so many questions.

The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 (repealed in 1824) were used against trade unions, or combinations of workmen, when the government feared unrest and even revolution. Combinations were in fact already illegal under both common law and statute; the Acts were intended to simplify and speed up prosecution by summary trial. We now know that the Milton Abbas Martyrs were the first men in Dorset, March 1803, to be convicted of ‘conspiring with others to increase wages’. So they were very important to Dorset History.

Were they the first in England?

Why are the Combination Acts so little studied today? Surely they are important to English social history. They were introduced by the well known William Pitt. 

At least they were well known to the Webbs – History of Trade Unionism 1907 “The general Combination Act of 1799, re-affirmed and amended by that of 1800 (39 and 40 Geo. III. c. 60), which added some abortive arbitration clauses, was not merely the codification of existing laws, or their extension from particular trades to the whole field of industry. It represented a new and momentous departure.” And to E P Thomson – The Making of the English Working Class, 1980. Classic books which are so little studied today.

Posted in Dorset, family history, local history, Old Town of Milton Abbas, records, social history | Leave a comment

Milton Abbas Martyrs

Help us research these important people, they may be part of your family tree. They were pioneers, victims of oppressive laws and their story should be as well known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

William Vatcher 1753-1818

John Bennett, alias Vatcher 1775? – ?

James Vatcher 1774 – 1816

John Chaffey 1784-1855 

John Scott 1764-1837

Charles Best 1733-1825

On 5 March 1803 William Vatcher age 48 was convicted for leaving his work before the expiration of his agreement. He was sentenced to 1 month hard labour.

John Bennet alias Vatcher 28 with James Vatcher 29. John Chaffey 19. John Scott 39 and Charles Best 71 (charged the following day) with Combining with others to increase wages.

These men were given 2 months hard labour.                                                                

The severity of the last 5 men’s sentences was because they had broken the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 in which it was illegal to combine. William Vatcher had simply walked away from his employment therefore received a lesser sentence. 

We would also like to know more about the magistrate who sentenced these men, and thirty years later the six Tolpuddle Martyrs.

James Frampton 1769-1855

Please get in touch if you know of these men, or would like to research their lives.

If you are a descendant of one of these men, then you have a family history to be proud of.

Posted in social history | 1 Comment

Who built the new village of Milton Abbas?

It is not certain who was responsible for the design and building of the new “model” village of Milton Abbas. The names that have vied for credit are Sir William Chambers, one of Lord Milton’s architects, and Lancelot “Capability” Brown, the designer of Lord Milton’s park. Thanks to our recent research into Lord Milton’s account at Hoare’s Bank, it is now possible to add another two names to that list, that of William Bragg, Milton Abbas carpenter, and George Lillington, Milton Abbas mason. Clive Barnes explains in our latest blog.

Still in business today, C. Hoare & Co. describes itself as “the United Kingdom’s oldest privately owned bank”. Joseph Damer had an account there from 1768 until his death in 1798; and its record survives in the bank’s archive at its headquarters in Fleet Street.

As a historical source, bank accounts are not very revealing, just lists of names and sums of money, with rarely an indication of what the payments or receipts are for. When I visited the bank archives, I hoped that I might find some record of Damer’s payments for the leases that he bought from his tenants before clearing the Old Town, but there were no names of leaseholders that I knew. However, I did find a cluster of relatively substantial payments to two names that I recognised, mason George Lillington and carpenter William Bragg.

Most of these payments took place between late 1778 and early 1781, sometimes to the men separately, sometimes together, and usually in round sums of £100 or £200. Altogether the two men were paid nearly £1,500 in 12 payments between December 1778 and February 1782. An equivalent sum today would be well over a hundred times that amount. The payments suggest that Bragg and Lillington were being paid as leaders of work gangs rather than for their individual work. This is the period in which other sources place the building of the new village, so it is a fair assumption that it was Bragg and Lillington who were in charge of the building work.

This discovery adds a new dimension to the question of who was responsible for how the village looks today. Both William Chambers and Capability Brown submitted plans for the village: Chambers in 1773i and Brown a year laterii, after Chambers had resigned as Damer’s architect. Neither of these plans have survived but the plan of the houses and the shape of the street and its location seem to suggest that the vision of both men may have played a part in the final shape of the village and its houses. But the village’s most striking aspect, the traditional cob and thatch construction of the buildings, is typical of neither Chambers or Brown. Of the two men, Brown is thought to have been more likely, since he sometimes retained an example of older vernacular architecture within his parks. However, if cob and thatch was his idea, it seems it was left to two local men to carry out the work.

William Bragg was the fourth generation of a family of carpenters and wheelwrights working in villages around Milton Abbas. He served on the Milton Abbas parish vestry as churchwarden and overseer, as his father John had before him. George Lillington was the son of another George, also a mason in the Old Town. Both men brought generations of skill and experience to the task of building the new village. At this time, it appears to have been usual for carpenters and masons, who also counted bricklaying among their skills, to work together in this way on the erection and repair of traditional buildings, supported by other craftsmen like glaziers and thatchers and a team of labourers. Generally, there would be no need for supervision from master builders or architects, although in the case of the new village there was clearly some direction to the men’s work.

The memory of the role of these men in the building of the houses lived on in the village for a hundred years or more. Relying on what he was told by local families, Herbert Pentin, the antiquarian vicar of Milton Abbas, and a chronicler of village history, recorded in 1904 that “when Lord Milton built the “new town” of Milton he intended the houses to be of brick and tile, but he allowed Mr. W. Lillington to build the first two, on the north side, of cobb and thatch, which so pleased his Lordship that the whole of the houses were built of the same material.  The builder was paid £100 a house, with permission to use what materials he could get from the demolished buildings of the old town.” iii

The detail of this does not exactly match the evidence in Hoare’s bank account but the assertion that Damer engaged local men directly to build the village is entirely supported by the payments in the account; while the question of why Damer decided to have it built in this way remains open.

It may have been his choice simply because it was cheap. Most of the material for the walls and roof, mainly earth and straw, were to hand, only sand had to be imported; lime for the render was in constant production on the estate, which may also have been able to produce bricks for the chimney stacks. There was timber growing on the estate, but typically carpenters would re-use sound salvaged timbers if these were available, and, as suggested by Pentin’s account, there was a wealth of reusable demolition material from the Old Town site.

While the cottages were no doubt meant to enhance Damer’s reputation as an estate improver, the people who lived there were, after all, only craftsmen and labourers, and the traditional style of the cottages suited their lowly status. Damer gave Bragg and Lillington leases in the new village and they lived and worked in the village they had built until their deaths, William in 1792 and George in 1809.

It was Joseph Damer’s money and ambition that made the village possible, and it was almost certainly both Chambers and Brown who had a hand in shaping it. Now the entries in Hoare’s bank account provide convincing evidence of the role of the villagers themselves. It was the traditional skills of Bragg and Lillington and their fellow workers, now largely forgotten men, that contributed so much to the picturesque quality of the village and which have excited the admiration of visitors for over two hundred years.

i Letter from Chambers to Milton April 3 1773 quoted in Arthur Oswald, Market Town to Model Village, Country Life September 29 1966, p. 764

ii Lancelot Brown Account Book, Royal Horticultural Society, Lord Milton’s Account, p 25

iii Handwritten notes on an article in Milton Abbas Parish Magazine May 1904, supplied as a photocopy to the Milton Abbas Local History Group by Peter Traskey and transcribed by Pamela Phillips. Record 1284 in the History Group database.

Posted in local history, Milton Abbas, Old Town of Milton Abbas | Leave a comment


It has to be admitted that women in England have had a very poor deal since the time of William the Conqueror. It is only in the late twentieth century that they have regained the rights they had in Anglo-Saxon times. That is 900 years of oppression.

It seems outrageous to us today that by law all women’s property and estate automatically became that of her husband’s when she married. This law persisted up until 1882. It is equally outrageous that universal women’s suffrage did not become law until 1928. I am ashamed that Britain was one of the last countries in Europe to grant women full voting rights with the Equal Franchise Act.

We know that from the 15th century women competently ran large estates, and defended them. The letters of Margeret Paston of Norfolk to her husband, who was in London for many years, testify to this.

Looking at the wills of local people of the 17th and 18th century it is clear that the men who left wills (and it was mostly men, occasionally widows) referred to their ‘much beloved wives’, these men bear witness in their wording and bequests which shows how much they appreciated their wives. The men loved their wives and children every bit as much as today.

Many widows continued to run the family business after their husband’s decease, especially, but by no means exclusively, inns and brewing. They could also take over the farms and manage them successfully.

In the 18th and 19th centuries almost every male in the country, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the local Overseers of the poor, believed that women should be married. Single women were stigmatised socially and economically. Women were paid generally only half the man’s wage for an equivalent job and employers before the industrial revolution preferred married women over single women.

In Dorset by-work for women such as spinning, button, lace and glove making had their boom and bust times. They each went bust with the introduction of machinery. Even in the boom times women could earn only between 6d and 1s 6d per day – and that was a dawn to dusk job, six days a week. This could supplement the family’s income, but with weekly rents at around 2s, and food and clothing to find, this left very little over.

Single women could not afford accommodation unless it was really bad. Of course, for single women and widows in rural areas, they had the parish to fall back on. The Overseers of the Poor had to raise and collect ‘Poor Rates’ to distribute to the needy. Most of the occurrences of payments to the poor which we have studied concern payments to single women, widows and those too infirm to work.

The Overseers were under great pressure from the rate payers to reduce their payments, with the result that they worked hard to get children apprenticed from the age of seven, families forcibly removed to other parishes and young women into service.

Posted in social history | Leave a comment

Pleydell v Earl of Dorchester 1795

This document is a note book of 60 hand written pages by one hand. It is held by Dorset History Centre, catalogue reference D-PLR/L/15. It contains transcripts of letters, opinions and memoranda of proceedings in the case of Pleydell v Earl of Dorchester concerning the latter’s damming of the Milborne Brook to fill his lake. The documents are from1 Aug 1795 to 24 May 1798. Note that the 1st Earl of Dorchester, Joseph Damer, died on 12 Feb 1798.

The status of the two parties is clear, the Earl of Dorchester (both 1st and 2nd) address Edward Moreton Pleydell as ‘Pleydell’, or ‘Dear Pleydell’, whereas EMP addresses them as ‘My Lord’.

The document gives an insight into the mindset of Joseph Damer ‘this unmannerly, imperious lord’, (according to his architect, Sir William Chambers). Although an old man at this time, about 77 years of age at the beginning of this case, it is clear that he had lost none of his irascibility, refusal to compromise, nor manipulation of his privileges in the House of Lords and Court of King’s Bench to get his own way.

Note that the lake filling was not attempted until 1795, which was 12 years after the death of Capability Brown. It has been stated elsewhere that Capability Brown’s foreman was responsible for designing the lake. On the map related to this dispute a three arched bridge, typical of Capability Brown’s designs, was still in existence, and it is possible that this remains today under the dam or embankment made in 1795.

Certainly the damming of the watercourse caused great hardship and difficulty downstream at Milborne St Andrew, which was, at this time, in the ownership of Edmund Morton Pleydell who brought the action against Damer. With insufficient water at Milborne, the mill was inoperative, the meadows could not be watered and cattle could not be kept on his farm. Pleydell complained that the house could not be inhabited, and that he had to move to another of his properties, at Whatcombe.

After Joseph Damer died, the action continued with his son George, now the 2nd Earl of Dorchester, apparently in a more gentlemanly way, although this Lord took some time to agree to pay £1000 compensation, despite the judgement against his father for £3000. Whereas Joseph was living at Milton before his death, George was living in London. In the end, Caroline Damer paid the £1000 plus legal costs for the two cases, although it would be good to have this confirmed from the Damer bank accounts.

We also need to confirm that the water was restored, and exactly when.

Posted in Damer | Leave a comment

Bills and Receipts of the Overseers of the Poor of Milton Abbas 1787- 1823

In the Dorset History Centre there are some 140 pieces of paper catalogued at PE-MIL/OV/2. These are the bills and receipts of our Overseers of the Poor. We are in the process of transcribing them. They provide further information to the entries in the Overseers of the Poor Account Books, which we have already transcribed.

Just one example: 

It reads 

“May 5th 1787 Recev’d of Mr Ja’s Gregery & B Vacher Overseears of Abby Milton the Some of Seven pounds being the full Consideration from the Said Parish of Milton Abbas for Will’m Seagar bound out to Tho’s Pike of the Parish of Pimphorn Carpenter   T Pike”

So the Overseers of Milton Abbas sent William Seagar, a poor boy of Milton Abbas, to be an apprentice to Thomas Pike of Pimperne, Dorset, a carpenter. The Milton Abbas Overseers paid £7 to Thomas Pike to be an apprentice.

This William Seagar was born in Milton Abbas and baptised on 18 Mar 1772, hence he was aged 15 at the beginning of his apprenticeship.

His brother Richard was also sent as an apprentice to the same master on 9 Nov 1791, aged 16.

It was common in the 18th and 19th centuries to get the poor children of the parish apprenticed to a trade, and pay the master. Sometimes the Overseers provided the child with clothing too. Some parishes apprenticed their poor children as young as seven. The term of apprenticeship was seven years.

There is plenty to tell of the Seager, or Seagar family of Milton Abbas in the 18th century. Ann Seagar regularly received poor relief from the Overseers, and she had several illnesses. Here is an example from 20 Jul 1777

This says “Gave Elizabeth veacher for giting Kowis uern for ann Seager 6d”. Or, in modern English: “Gave Elizabeth Vacher for getting cow’s urine for Ann Seagar”. This is not the only mention of cow’s urine being used as a medical treatment in our Overseers of the Poor Books, although it does not occur in 18th century medical text’s, so must have been a folk remedy.

Cow’s urine is still considered useful in today’s medicines. This is from a 2017 review article: “Many researches have also be done, which shows its use for treatment of Skin diseases, Stomach diseases, kidney diseases, Heart diseases, Stones, Diabetes, Liver problem, Jaundice, Athletes feet, cyst, Hemorrhoid etc. and show its Immunostimulant, Bioenhencer, Anticonvulsant, Anticancerous, Wound healing, Antioxidant and Antimicrobial properties.”

Cow’s urine has been used recently for coronavirus, admittedly only by Hindu’s in India.

Posted in local history, Milton Abbas, social history | Leave a comment