There has never been a good time to be born poor but the early to mid nineteenth century was one of the worst. Conditions in Dorset were particularly bad. In 1843 the Reverend Sydney Godolphin Osborne wrote of conditions in Stourpain [sic], “Within this last year I saw in a room about 13 feet square, three beds: on the first lay the mother, a widow, dying of consumption; on the second two unmarried daughters, one 18 years of age, the other 12; on the third a young married couple, whom I had married two days before….It was in these cottages that a malignant typhus fever broke out about two years ago which afterwards spread through the village” A Commissioner into the “Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture” found, again in Stourpain, “a cottage in which eleven persons slept in three beds without curtains in a room ten feet square; the father and mother with two infants, in one bed; two twin daughters of 20 and a third of 7 years old in another; and four sons, aged 17,15,14 and 10 in the third.” Behind the cottages “there are shallow excavations, the receptacles, apparently of all the dirt of the families. The matter constantly escaping from the pigsties privies etc is allowed to find its way through the passages between the cottages…It was in these cottages that a malignant typhus fever broke out about two years ago, which afterwards spread through the village.”
It had not always been thus, the golden age of the village had been in the 1750’s but a doubling of the population between 1700 and 1800 and the resultant increased availability of labouring men had driven down wages. The enclosure of open fields and the common meant that the poor could no longer keep a cow or collect wood for firewood. The poor just kept on getting poorer until in 1795 the Justices of the Peace in a small Berkshire village, Speenhamland, introduced a system of poor relief which, although well intentioned, was to have disastrous effects for the poor. They agreed to supplement the wages of the poor to ensure they would not starve. The system spread rapidly through the country but it had one fatal flaw, the government declined to establish a minimum wage. As a consequence there was simply no incentive for the farmers to pay a living wage.1 Wages went down, the cost to the local rate payers shot up and widened the divide between the haves and have nots in the village.
The terror in revolutionary France, Luddites breaking machines in the north, the Peterloo massacre and the rise in Chartism all led to a climate of fear; the final straw came with the “Captain Swing” riots that broke out in the south of England in 1830. Starting in Kent and spreading via Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire and Wiltshire rioting arrived in Dorset in November. The poor, previously just a nuisance and expense, had become a threat.
In the same year five members of parliament met in the rooms of the Horticultural society in Regent street to form the National Colonization society. The London Evening Standard reported “the Chairman read the resolution: they were to the effect that there was a redundant population of the country [ie the poor] which tended to increase crime and increase the burthens [burdens] of those able to pay rates….one of the soundest principles to remove the evils of pauperism is a sound practical system of colonization.” In short the poor and all the problems they caused, were to be exported, the preferred destination was Australia.
Gradually the idea took root and the perceived benefits of colonization grew, the Salisbury and Winchester Journal 1833 reported that “the poor will be better provided for and will become useful members of society….in time the number of rogues and vagabonds robbers, thieves and pickpockets will be materially lessened, and juvenile offenders will in the course of time disappear” and of course most importantly “The poor rates will be lessened and in time will be entirely extinguished.”
For it to be successful the Colonization society needed a local presence but it wasn’t until 1848 that one was set up in Dorset with meetings being held at Poole, Blandford Sherborne and Dorchester. The first meeting of the Blandford society took place on 2 3rd January 1849 when the “Marquess of Westminster in the Chair. The hall was filled with the principal families of the town and neighbourhood.”
Indeed they were, the local MP’s George Bankes [owner of Kingston Lacey] and Henry Ker Seymer [owner of Hanford House and extensive lands in Child Okeford] were joined by Sir Edward Baker [whose family gave the name to the Baker Arms], George Peach [owner of Millbrook House] three local clergymen and a host of other worthies. The only people missing were the poor, although it is unlikely they would have been admitted if they had turned up. This point however was a concern for “The Atlas” newspaper which adopted a rather tongue in cheek attitude to the society.
The occasion, we are told was “most important” the hall “very numerously and respectably attended by the gentry and ladies of the, town and neighbourhood.” The Most Noble the Marquis
of WESTMINSTER presided, and around his grace were grouped upon the platform honourable M.P.’s and gallant Colonels, worshipful justices and reverend incumbents and all these were met by one common impulse to devise some good for the labouring man. But the presence of even one of those labouring men whose benefit was designed, the local reporter was either unable to detect, or has omitted to chronicle. This absence is much to he regretted. It is no reflection upon the excellent intentions of the society, or the truly benevolent cause in which its members are engaged, to say that the proceedings at the Blandford meeting were only works of supererogation. To the well-dressed and well-read company assembled in the Town Hall, the graphic pictures of comfort and plenty in our Australian colonies were already sufficiently familiar…….It is upon the poor man’s mind that this lesson should have been impressed.”
In fact the poor had been suitably impressed for on Monday 5th March “the first party of emigrants who have gone out under the auspices of this society started en route for Plymouth, to embark in the “Emigrant” Capt. Kemp bound to Sydney. The number of emigrants comprising this party was 134, more than half the number being from the parishes of Stourpaine and Durweston, about thirty from Child Okeford and the remainder from different villages in the vicinity of Blandford.”
Next month we will join them on their journey.
1A bit like tax credit in this century until a minimum wage [no matter how ineffective] was introduced.
It has been published on a non-commercial basis to further historical interest and knowledge about our village. No part may be reproduced without acknowledgement of the sources above from which it has been compiled and never for commercial reasons.