Social Welfare in Fontmell Magna during the 19th Century

July 29, 2005

In several important aspects of village life in the 19th century, Fontmell Magna experienced significant changes. Prominant among these were the establishment of the village school, the development of self-help welfare organizations and the impact of the legislation concerning the care of the poor. An article on the village school will appear later on our website, and our article on the Clothing Club (published in 2004) already touches upon one example of self-help. The mid-19th century was a time of increasing population in Fontmell Magna, reaching a peak of 875 residents in 1861, but this was soon reversed, falling to 566 in 1901.

FRIENDLY SOCIETIES

Insignia of the Fontmell Magna Friendly Society

Insignia of the Fontmell Magna Friendly Society

In 1803 there were 9,672 societies in England and Wales with 704,350 members. By the 1870s however, the number of societies had dropped nationally. But Fontmell still had its own Victoria Friendly Society (sometimes called the Fontmell Provident Society) with funds of £745 and 71 members in 1872. A report in the Parish Magazine for July 1878 records that ‘The Fontmell Provident Society held its Annual Festival on 24th May when there was a large muster of the members. There was Divine Service in the Church at 11am when the Sermon was preached by the Rector.’
At 2pm dinner was ready in the Schoolroom, where the Chair

Fontmell school class

Fontmell school class

was taken by Sir Richard George Glyn; and after the usual patriotic and other toasts had been happily given from the Chair, and had been received with enthusiasm, the company dispersed to spend the afternoon and evening right merrily, though we thankfully observed that merriment was not on this occasion, as it too often is, a synonym for a selfish and evil indulgence; the day passed away happily and well, and left behind it ‘nothing to regret’. Given the stiff tone of these closing remarks, it will come as no surprise that all the issues of the magazine of this period had regular reports on the monthly meetings of the village Temperance Society. Some Temperance Societies had benevolent functions similar to those of Friendly Societies, but we do not know if this was the case in Fontmell.

Map of Fontmell Magna district

Map of Fontmell Magna district

The more widely spread Dorset Friendly Society had £2,732 with 11,756 members at the same period, and there were also active societies in Shaftesbury, Melbury Abbas, Stourpaine, Gillingham and Blandford. Also important were the attempts to make the rural poor self-sufficient by means of providing allotments. Activists like Arthur Young (Board of Agriculture Reports for Dorset, Sussex and Essex. London 1807-15) had urged that every rural labourer with three or more children should have half an acre of land on which to grow potatoes or to graze cattle. In the 1840 Poor Law Rating Assessment for Fontmell, land allocated to allotments and to the poor was recorded. The 1837 Tithe Redemption map of the village shows a number of fields still retaining their strip-farming boundaries, despite the general move towards ‘inclosure’ in Dorset during the 1790s.

THE NEW POOR LAW

The Union Workhouse Shaftesbury

The Union Workhouse Shaftesbury


The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 had required magistrates and vestries (who had previously appointed overseers of the poor) should be replaced by Boards of Guardians elected every three years by ratepayers. The Guardians then appointed paid officials within the guidelines determined by the Central Poor Law Commission. The Shaftesbury Workhouse was erected on the western slopes of Shaftesbury at Alcester in 1837 to hold 100 inmates. It served a ‘Union’ comprising 22 parishes from Bourton in the north to Iwerne Minster in the south, and from West Stour in the west to Ashmore in the east. It was to this gaunt and intimidating institution that the poor and destitute of Fontmell Magna were taken when they could no longer support themselves.

Shaftesbury Town Hall

Shaftesbury Town Hall

The first meeting of the Board of Guardians took place in the Shaftesbury Town Hall on Wednesday 14th October, 1835. Those present were the appointed Guardians from each of the parishes. Fontmell Magna’s Guardian was Charles Mayo, a tenant farmer in Fontmell of 126 acres who was himself paying £51 Poor Law Rate in 1840, or roughly £2300 in today’s money. Mayo was in due course replaced by James Wright, a prosperous tenant farmer in Hartgrove. The Board was to meet weekly on Mondays at 11am and its immediate concern was where to build a new workhouse, large enough to serve the 22 parishes. Inevitably a committee was set up, comprising 3 ex-officio guardians, one of whom was the Rector of Fontmell, Robert Salkeld. After a few failed attempts, the Alcester site was agreed. In the intervening two years the inmates were sent to the Gillingham workhouse. The Shaftesbury Workhouse was still active until the 1920s.

OTHER FORMS OF SELF HELP
The issue of poverty crops up at other times in the 19th century. In November 1876 a Fontmell Parish Kitchen was established to provide daily hot food for the poor on a temporary basis. It was managed by a committee that included the President (GWC Skene, Rector), three Visitors, and a superintendent. There was a set of published rules:

1. The Kitchen will be open for distribution every weekday from 12 to 2 pm.
2. Dinners 2 pence per head
3. Bring your own plates
4. Special meals for the sick

A Coal Club was also operating in the 1890s and 1900s. This was subsidised by Lord Stalbridge and others but worked on the same basis as the Clothing Club by collecting subscriptions. The coal was purchased in bulk and the ‘carting’ from the railway depot to the village was often carried out by the farmers.
A Parish Library was established in the Reading Room next

Reading Room

Reading Room

to the village school. This service operated on Saturday afternoons, one evening for men, and one afternoon for women at a charge of one and a half pence per month. Later in 1921 a free library was financed by the Carnegie Trust. There are also some references to ‘The Night School’ in the 1870s in the Parish Magazine. It may have been operating on three evenings a week during the winter months at which efforts were being made to eradicate illiteracy in the village.

North end of Church Street

North end of Church Street

THE AGRICULTURAL LABOURER
In 1883 Thomas Hardy published an article in the Longman’s Magazine on ‘The Dorsetshire Labourer’ in which he described the annual change-over of dwellings that occurred on Lady Day, 6th April. On the previous Candlemas Fair Day, 2nd February, farm workers would have reached an agreement with their old or new employers about the following year’s contract. Hardy believed that, compared with the previous generation, there was widespread migration in the 1880s, often of between 10 and 15 miles. In 1851 510 persons out of 823 (62%) had been born in Fontmell. In 1891 the figures were 312 out of 637 (49%), so although there was increased migration in North Dorset, it was, perhaps, not as substantial as in Hardy’s West Dorset. Also, many of the migrations from and to Fontmell Magna involved very short distances to adjacent villages such as Compton Abbas, Sutton Waldron, Iwerne Minster, the Orchards and Margaret Marsh. Moreover, by 1891 there had been extensive migration to towns and abroad as the agricultural depression took its grip on village communities.
In Hardy’s words, ‘a result of this icreasing nomadic habit of the labourer is naturally a less intimate and kindly relation with the land he tills than existed before enlightenment enabled him to rise above the condition of serf who lived and died on a particular plot, like a tree. During the centuries of serfdom, or copyholding tenants, and down to twenty or thirty years ago, before the power of unlimited migration had been clearly realised, the husbandman had the interest of long personal association with his farm. The fields were those he had ploughed and sown from boyhood.’

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Author: Durotriges