Rural Dorset social history

18th Century

What were people wearing to work and on Sundays? What did they eat? How long did they work? What were their illnesses and how were they treated? How crowded were their homes? What were their possessions such as furniture, pots and pans? What was the local inn like – how often did they go there? How did the weather affect their lives? How far did they travel? How did they meet partners and family? Were there stocks and pillories for public punishment? And a thousand other questions about their daily lives which are quite unknown to us.

What was life like for women and children?

So many questions and so few answers!

An important point to realise is that until the twentieth century the vast majority of the land of England was owned by a very few of the aristocrats. Dorset was one of the worst examples of this, with landed estates of 6000 – 20000 acres. The Pitt-Rivers held 27000 acres across Dorset and Wiltshire! These same people were also MPs, Justices of the Peace, sheriffs, they sat in the House of Lords and were strongly supported at all times by the royalty. They could and did also call out the Militia in cases of disorder. Hence taking any action against them, legal or otherwise, did not have much chance of success.

It is surprising that with the terrible poverty, especially in rural Dorset, that the poor did not rise up and revolt at the time of the French Revolution, 1789. Perhaps the French aristos were even more tyrannical than the English ones!

Milton Abbas workers were some of the first to air their grievances, in 1803 six men were sentenced to 2 months hard labour in Dorchester gaol for “Combining with others to increase wages”. We are researching these “Milton Abbas Martyrs”

It was not until the massacre at Peterloo 1819, that northern industrial workers rebelled, 1830 the Swing Riots, and 1834 when the Tolpuddle Martyrs tried to do something about the poverty of agricultural labourers in the south of England.

In our research we are making use of the Parish Registers, Overseers of the Poor Account Books, Churchwardens Account Books, Settlement Examinations, Wills, and everything we can lay our hands on to tell the stories of individuals and communities.

It is clear that there was a much greater community spirit before recent times. Everyone in a village knew everyone else, people helped each other much more, for example by passing on clothes, tending the sick and injured. They met each other going to and from the church every Sunday, the agricultural labourers (who were the great majority of the men) worked together, everyone went to the weekly markets  and annual fairs to chat, buy and sell, and be entertained. The local inns were also busy as we can tell from the number of them and the number of maltsters and brewers. Of course, the downside of this was that there were no secrets and plenty of gossip.