Village Life 140 Years ago

Sir Richard Glyn
Sir Richard Glyn

Visitors to Fontmell Magna are often lavish in their praise of its beautiful setting, of its pretty cottages, of its peaceful church yard, its crystal-clear stream and its comfortable history of long-established farms, mills and local tradesmen. The self-sufficient village of the mid-19th century is compared favourably with all the hustle-and-bustle of modern life. Less noise, less pollution, fewer regulations. More fresh food, milk straight from the cow, cider made from local orchards. Everything you need from its three grocers, its butcher, its baker and its two blacksmiths. Bliss.
It almost seems unfair to shatter such illusions, but cold realism must replace such idealistic romanticism if we are to understand our village heritage. In 1812 W. Stevenson’s ‘General View of the Agriculture of Dorset’ made it very clear that agricultural labourers and their families (who formed over three quarters of the rural population) led an extremely tough life, often in appalling conditions. Just how bad it was became the subject of parliamentary debate for several decades, but it was not until 1869 that the true position became clear when the ‘Second Report from the Commission on the Employment of Children, Young Persons and Women in Agriculture’ was published. This massive report covered the whole of England and included a very extensive and lucid account of Dorset. It makes for very grim reading.


Shaftesbury workhouse
Shaftesbury workhouse

The report found that boys were used at the age of 7 or 8 to work with horses pulling the cart or the plough, often from 5am to 7pm. This involved them walking at least 10 miles a day over ploughed land. The commissioners even found boys of only 6 at work near Wimborne. In general they felt that ‘the percentage of boy labour is excessive, and it seems probable that this cause, next to insufficiency of food, is partly traceable to the stunted condition and early decrepitude of the adult population in Dorset’. This early employment leads to the ‘prevention of proper muscular development, and very often the production of tuberculous diseases … the sameness and over-harshness of toil mars the young and yielding muscles. It is seen in their later life that there is a want of physical energy, deadening the mind and body … The effect of this early work makes the boys bow-legged.’ The proportion of boys regularly used in agriculture in Dorset was higher than in any other county.
The protest of a local clergyman, the Rev Sidney Osborne, Rector of Durweston parish, was included in the commissioners’ report. Concerning the employment of boys he said that ‘Taking them away from home so early, and giving them that sort of independence which a boy soon assumes who has entered the labour field, their early association with adults of all ages and characters, all this is prejudicial to them. What they there hear and see goes to destroy many of the valuable natural dispositions of their age. They are boys before they have ceased to be mere children, act and speak as men before they have ceased to be boys.’

The Fontmell area contained a lot of small farms. In many cases they were cultivated by the family with little or no hired labour.  In the bigger farms the tenant farmer would usually

Moore's Farm
Moore’s Farm with farmer’s family and staff

hire a whole family. When a labourer was engaged by the year, the size of his family and the health of his wife and sons became an important factor, as they were expected to work in the fields when required. If the wife was prevented from carrying out such work, she was expected to provide a daughter. The commissioners regarded this arrangement as ‘clearly a bad one’ which lead to the family ‘being virtually treated as part of the father’s remuneration … as the children grow up they continue to lodge at home and receive two or three shillings a week below the ordinary wages of a man.’
In the 1861 census for Fontmell there were several examples of this. Typical was the family of Jeremiah and Mary Still which included five sons between the age of 6 and 22. Only the 6-year-old was not employed in agriculture. Their only daughter was then only 4 so she was perhaps not yet ready to replace her mother at harvest time. By contrast, Joseph and Unity Polden had five daughters and three sons. The daughters aged 20 and 18 were working as farm servants and the sons aged 16 and 12 were farm labourers. The three younger daughters (aged 5 to 10) were at school, while the youngest son was still in his cradle.

The commissioners found that throughout Dorset women were largely employed in the field, especially digging turnips and mangels and picking stones at very low wages. Some were also used on the thrashing machines and in the barns and dairies. Nationally, women were increasingly disinclined to undertake any but light and occasional out-door work, but in Dorset regular and constant labour was still expected of them. However many woman found alternative ways of supplementing the family income by taking up button- and glove-making, and in the Blandford area, lace-making. It was also assumed that a wife would feed the family but as one shepherd’s wife pointed out, ‘We don’t have a bit of butcher’s meat, not for half a year, we live on potatoes, bread and pig-meat, we often sit down to dry bread.’


Pipers Mill
Pipers Mill

The commissioners were robust in their criticism of the state of dwellings. ‘The cottages of Dorset are more ruinous and contain worse accommodation than those in any other county except Shropshire’. In some villages many cottages were described as ‘unfit for human habitation’. The commissioners saw evidence of the ‘neglect of the most obvious sanitary precautions’, and were clearly alarmed about ‘the state of filth in which many parishes are left’, and strongly urged active intervention. Such action was slow to develop and it was not until the establishment of the Dorset County Council some 25 years later that real progress was made. In 1893 there was an outbreak of diphtheria in Fontmell and a very critical report from the sanitary inspector about conditions in the school was followed by an equally unfavourable report from Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools requiring that the inadequate earth closets be replaced. Even later, when most of the village cottages were put up for sale in 1926 by the Glyn family, most of the dwellings still had earth closets.


Fontmell school class
A Fontmell school class

Fontmell Magna had benefited from a village school since 1843. The original building was replaced in 1864 by the present one. It was originally designed to provide for 140 children in two classes, taught at different ends of the single school hall. Just after the commissioners’ report was published the 1870 Education Act introduced compulsory schooling throughout England. This was to have a profound effect upon child labour in the long run, but there was some early opposition from farmers who were worried that schooling deprived them of cheap child labour and, as one minority correspondent put it, schooling was thought to be ‘an unnecessary luxury for a boy that is to be a farm labourer’. Farmers were also concerned that an educated work force was liable to move elsewhere or emigrate. They were certainly right about the movement of labour: Fontmell’s population dropped rapidly from 875 in 1861 to 566 in 1901.

Reading Room

Reading Room

The children who went to the village school in 1870 often came from families in which illiteracy was common place. A survey shows that from 1754 to 1837, there were 350 marriages or 700 people of whom 330 from Fontmell Magna were illiterate. These included the parents and grand-parents of the new generation of pupils. It is not surprising, therefore, that only slow progress could be made towards a fully-literate population. Eight years after the Education Act, continued absenteeism from school lead to the introduction of a bye-law in the Fontmell area demanding full attendance, with fines for parents who did not comply. However, the commissioners were impressed with the number of night schools for adults that were active in Dorset, and Fontmell certainly could be proud to possess one of them. It operated three nights a week during the winter months in the village’s Reading Room which provide the beginnings of a library service.

It is difficult to judge the overall consequences of the report. Parliament would not have called for such a wide-ranging investigation had there not been an already mounting level of public criticism. We can safely say that the later Victorian period did at least try to alleviate some of the poverty in rural areas. However, the picture painted of Dorset is one of degradation, poverty, exploitation, and deprivation. Not quite the picture-postcard village of our imagination.

Author: Ian Lawrence