Rural Poverty in Dorsetshire

Rural poverty here and now

Rural poverty in the south west was identified by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in 2018 as being a real challenge. The TUC reported that 600,000 working age people in the south west were living in poverty. Regional Secretary for the area, Nigel Costley, said: “If you work hard, you shouldn’t have to worry about making ends meet. Yet despite rising employment, lots of working families in the south west are still living in poverty.” (1)

Food bank donation trolleys – a common sight in supermarkets nowadays

In 2019, Channel 4 featured West Dorset in its “Breadline Britain” programmes. The programme showed families living precarious lives, with cuts to bus services leaving many unable to access Job Centres to access Universal Credit. (2)  Similarly, the BBC “Countryfile” programme, in March of this year, highlighted the issue of food poverty in Dorset and Somerset. (3)

Official figures and reports underline the fact that rural poverty blights the lives of too many families in Dorset. One in four children, in West Dorset, live in poverty. (4) Weymouth, less than half an hour’s drive from Tolpuddle, home of the famous festival, is amongst the 10% most deprived communities on the UK. (5) Yet rural poverty in Dorset is not new, as the following article will show.

Rural poverty in the past, a shocking verdict from The Times and Illustrated London News

In the 1840’s, not long after the return of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a series of “graphic letters” was printed in The Times about the “condition of the labouring population of Dorsetshire”

The Illustrated London News included extracts from these letters within its pages, and sent an artist out to visit the places reported on by The Times (6)

The reporter from The Times was unsparing in his account of the poverty he witnessed

The first thing which would strike a visitor to the village of Stourpaine, he writes, is “the total want of cleanliness which pervades it. A stream, composed of the matter which constantly escapes from pigsties and other receptacles of filth, meanders down each street … here and there collected into standing pools, which lie festering and rotting in the sun”

The health of the villagers is poor – “the worst malignant fevers have raged here at different times”

Wages are low, “in very few instances exceeding seven shillings per week”. (The Tolpuddle Martyrs formed their Union in 1834 when their wages were reduced from nine shillings per week to six)

The cottages are woefully overcrowded – “the atmosphere, especially of the sleeping apartments, to an unpractised nose is almost insupportable”

“Dishes, plates, and other articles of crockery, seem almost unknown”, furniture consisting of only “a rickety table and two or three foundered chairs”

“Want, famine and misery are the features of the village”

Landowners and farmers show no sense of social responsibility towards their labourers

“Apathy and indifference on the part of the landed proprietor, and the grasping and closefisted policy of the farmer, are the causes of the prevailing distress”

In Corfe, the reporter from The Times finds that conditions are just as grim, if not worse

The walls of cottages there were black with age and dirt. The village had “a comfortless and wretched appearance”

These conditions took their toll of the labouring population

“I may here observe, that nowhere … have I met with so many cases of personal deformity, as well as … deafness, dumbness and idiocy, the causes of which … may be clearly traced to the want of proper and sufficient food, and the general mode of life which prevails amongst (the labouring classes)”

It was hard, indeed, for the reporter from The Times, to avoid casting Dorset in a severe and testing light:

“In passing through the different villages which lie scattered along the road, the attention is often arrested by the … miserable appearance of the cottages, many of which are supported by props … and occasionally by an open door, which reveals a mud floor and the usual heap of squalid half clothed children rolling upon it, (which) serves to remind you that you are in Dorsetshire”

Sources for this article

(1) TUC News, 1 April 2019

(2) Channel 4, 10 June 2019, Trapped on the breadline in rural Britain

(3) BBC Countryfile, 1 March 2020

(4) Rural Services Network, 17 June 2019, Families Trapped in Poverty in Rural Britain

(5) Weymouth and Portland Amongst Deprived Areas In UK, Dorset Echo, 4 October 2019

(6) The Illustrated London News, September 5 1846, British Newspaper Archive