Work on the High Street history that Katie and I are writing is progressing – slowly. Katie is well advanced into the Victorian era and I am just embarking on the 18th century. If all goes well, we hope to meet up in the 1920s around Christmas time. It’s a strange and slightly obsessive activity. Recently I have been immersing myself in wills while Katie has been delving into drains and filth!
With a mushrooming population and very inadequate drainage and water supply, the Victorian High Street was a dirty place where infectious diseases lurked. Occasionally there was an outbreak such as the cholera epidemic of 1849 which Katie has been researching. The cause was not hard to find and even at the time, the local newspaper wrote about open cesspools that exuded ‘the breath of pestilence and the seeds of death.’ Church records of burials at St James and Skinner Street chapel tells the rest of the story.
On a lighter note, this was also the period of the first theatrical performances on High Street promising music, juggling, trapeze and other delights. The 19th century also saw the opening of other public buildings including the subscription library and the High Street’s first place of worship, St Paul’s church. This was described in the Dorset County Chronicle as an ‘elegant structure’ which ‘exhibits evidences of superior tastes’. The local press is a great source of information about these events and institutions, particularly after the Poole and Dorset Herald was started in 1846. Not only does the local newspaper give lots of facts but its style of writing is marvellous in conveying the feeling of the times.
For the earlier centuries, I’ve found wills and inventories good to supplement dry and meagre facts from official records. They usually give details of families and property and with luck, a bit of social history or a nugget of personal information as well. For instance it’s striking to see how the tone of wills changes from the early 16th century to the post reformation times at the end of the 1500s. In his will of 1506, William Mesurer leaves money to the almshouses, to the church and to the poor to say masses for the souls of himself, his parents and his friends. He also leaves money for masses to be said for him each year after his death for seven years. In later wills there is no mention of priests or masses and by the early 18th century the poor were being provided for by the official poor relief system.
Occasionally individual’s opinions emerge from the standard language of wills. William Williams sternly declares that if his eldest son John dies without heirs, the younger son Richard ‘shall not be his brother’s heir without he give good security not to depart from the religion now established in the Church of England’. On his deathbed, Miles Bownes, the landlord of the George Inn, leaves his brother, Humphrey ‘one Shilling to cutt him off from being troublesome to his wife after his Death’.
Inventories are brilliant in giving you a glimpse inside a Tudor merchant’s parlour or a 17th century bakehouse, although they can raise as many questions as they solve. What is a bunting mill or a raning knife? Why did Peter Hiley keep half a hundredweight of ordinary cheese in his study and a dozen new herring nets in the loft? Would the Concord and its cargo, worth £1000, return safely from its latest voyage to Newfoundland?
Our tricky task is to wrestle all these elements into a readable account of the High Street and its residents over the centuries. If all goes according to plan, you should be able to judge our degree of success next year.