F. J. Harvey (Frederick Joseph Harvey) Darton.

The marches of Wessex, a chronicle of England online

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Online LibraryF. J. Harvey (Frederick Joseph Harvey) DartonThe marches of Wessex, a chronicle of England → online text (page 16 of 28)
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secure her virtue " he sent her to Wimborne, " where she
was a blazmg star for some time." " But it proved too late ;
one Grey of Yorkshire," says Conyers Place, " called then,
I remember, the Great Grey, followed her, and attended her
here with his coach and six, whence ho carried her off."

I wonder if the report of that " blazing star " had any-
thing to do with the wretched career of Mary Channing,
Her parents took the opposite course to Arthm- Prior's, at
any rate. They bred her at Dorchester in the usual way as
regards education, and had her taught to read and write
with " a proficiency suitable enough to one of her sex " ; but
they added the accomplishment of dancing, and sent her to
London and Exeter to see the world. When she came back
she went to many jovial parties with her neighbours, and at
one of them met an unnamed gallant, on whom she speedily
" doated," giving him presents, entertaining him to wine at
inns, even contriving to hold a ball in his honour : she
robbed her parents for the money for this happiness. They
took action at length, and tried to make her ma,rry Thomas
Channing, a respectable young man of Maiden Newton.
She refused. But she found that her lover would not marry
her, and at last she yielded and married Channing. She
spent thirteen weeks of more or less riotous living as his wife,
and then poisoned him. She was tried and found guilty :
li r execution was deferred to let her give birth to a child.
In 1706 came the end, which can best be given from the
placid contemporary record. " After the under-sheriff had
taken some refreshment, she was brought out of prison, and
dragged by her Father's and her Husband's Houses, to the
Place of Execution [Maumbury Rings.] She manifested
nothing of Alteration when fixed to the Stake, but justified
her Innocence to the very last, and left the World with a
Courage seldom found in her Sex. She being first strangled,
the Fire was kindled about five in the Afternoon, and in the
sight of many thousands of Spectators she was consumed to

A pleasanter picture of the county is given by Defoe, who


traversed it in his jouiney to Land's End. He entered it,
in 1705, from the New Forest, by way of Wiraborne, thenco
to Poole, notable for " the best and biggest oysters in all
this part of England," and so on to Weymouth. From
Weymouth ho went to Dorchester, which i)leased him, in
spito of his being summoned before the Mayor as a " dis-
affected person." He found men of all religions dwelling
together in unity, " thinking tea together, and conversing
with civility and good neighbourhood. There is good
company, and a good deal of it ; and a man that coveted a
retreat in this world might as agreeably spend his time as
well in Dorchester as in any town I know in England." An
old resident has told me that precisely the same amiablo
intercourse existed there in the mid- Victorian era.

He was immensely struck by the richness of the down
soil and the admirable sheep. " The grass or herbage of
these downs is full f)f the sweetest and most aromatic plants,
such as nourish the sheep to a strange degree." They " arc
all fine carpet-ground, soft as velvet, and the herbage sweet
as garden herbs, wliich makes their sheep be the best in
England, if not in the world, and their wool fine to an
extreme." He was told that within six miles every way of
Dorchester tiierc were 600,000 sheep ; and he was fain to
believe it. (Fielding, in his last journey, touched at Port-
land and wanted to l)uy a whole sheep, so sweet was the
mutton. Portland had and has its own breed of sheeii — a
small, very perfect species.*)

Defoe visited also Portland and Abbotsbury (" a town
anciently famous for a great monastery, and eminent for
nothing but itt' ruins ") and went on to Pridport — " a pretty
large corporation town on the seashore, though without a

• MHcrcmly, wlio liaU a hotiHc at Sliorlx)rno for mftny j'earu, and con-
ducted an ovoning B<hool tlioro, foiuid tlio Portland mutton cxp-nsive
at ono tinio. " WV dinf<l," lio wrilcH in lSir>, "at (lu« Knyal Jlotol — a
dinn<>r whicti, fr<jin tlic itiipiidi-tit cxtraviigancc of itn c-liiirgc, woidd cuium?
iw to renicnilMT WVynioiitli, if all «1k<< \vcn< to Imi forgotu-n. In u dull
dingy room, looking out cjn tlu« hack of tho prt'nuHOH, with ordinary tahlo
Hcrvifo, for a haddock, leg of r<jrtlan<l nuitton. ajjplc tart, hottlo of Madoira
(cluirgfd 8h.), Ixjttlc of port ((>h.), a hill wan presented nio of i2 I' a." lint
tlio samo meal (wino apart) oidy cost him 3a. in 18'/U I


harbour." He describes the method of mackerel fishing :
it is still in use. Mackerel were bought and sold on the shore
" a hundred for a penny." Something like that price still
prevails at rare intervals. And thence he passed out of the
county by way of Lyme, whose Cobb impressed him
mightily. He notes that pilchard fishing began there —
the first stage on the western grounds for that fish.

What struck him most forcibly, however, was the be-
haviour of the gentry in Dorset — " some of the most polite
and well-bred people in the isle of Britain." " They seem
to have a mutual confidence in and friendship with one
another, as if they were all relations." (Coker put it a little
more strongly in 1732 ; he said they ivere all relations,
through countless intermarriages ; and the pedigrees given
in Hutchins bear this out.) As for the ladies of Dorset, they
" do not sesm to stick on hand " — tliey " are equal in beauty
and may be superior in reputation " to all the ladies who go
to the play or the assembly elsewhere.

He noticed also the great local industry of knitting stock-
ings, and the fine bone lace of Blandford (he apparently
went on expeditions from time to time off his main route),
and cloth-making at Shaftesbury and Sherborne. But the
stocking trade was " much decayed by the increase of the
knitting-stocking engine or frame, which has destroyed the
hand-knitting trade for fine stockings through the whole

A somewhat similar pictm^e of an established and com-
placent gentry is given in the unpublished diaries of John
Richards of Warmwell, which are quoted in the Proceedings
of the Dorset Field Club. They cover the years from 1697
to 1701. Richards com'sed with greyhounds — he had a
great match with Mi-. Gundry in Fordington Field — bred
fighting-cocks, and betted at the Antelo'pe in Dorchester
on the races. He kept ferrets, grew corn, bred sheep, drank
punch, visited his neighbours, had the gout ; and on one
occasion he warned a huntsman with a pack of hounds off
his wheat land, " asking him by what authority he presumed


to enter upon my ground, disturbing my sheep, and l^reak
down my fences. ... I scolded liim very passionately,
whipped off lii.s dogs and forbade him coming any more in
that circuit on pain of having all his dogs killed, and himself
soundly banged."

Richards was indeed rather an irascible person. The
Retrospective BeviewioT 1852 gives other extracts which make
him a little more than a touchy landlord. He quarrelled
bitterly with his wife, and his brief diaries — the more
personal entries in Italian, not English — hint at a good
reason. On Juno 29, 1701, " I kissed Mary Lillington for
the first time." His wife was frequently " mad." On a day
in December, 17(M», "she was mad all tho afternoon, and
roared all the while all night when I shut her up hi the
dining-room." He may or may not have been a good
" housekeeper " ; ho was not above operating on his wifo
if need be — " I cut ye flesh from her gum with my pen-

For a domestic contrast read this simple inscription on a
woven ring : " Betty Porter of Henstridge this and tho
giver is yours for ever and so pray God bless us both to-
gether. I am your humble servant, James Huson, 1721."

Dorset certainly enjoyed its sports. Blandford Races,
on the downs, were a great county event : they go back
to Elizabeth's reign. Thomas Fownes, of Winterbourne
Steepleton, set up a pack of foxhounds as early as 1730, and
the great Peter Beckford was his successor. There was even
falconry in Cranborne Chase, where the deor-stealers were
only a little more obnoxious to its owner than his neighbours.
Dodington had a rather absurd quarrel over the deer. Like
other owners of land in or adjoining the outer walks of
the Cha«e, he wa.« in a quandary — whetiier to kill trespassing
deer or to fence them out. Finally ho appointed a game-
keeper on his estate — a novelt3\ Such a thing had never
bocrn done. It so happened that tho head ranger, Mr.
Chafin — last of his office— met this keep<'i' in Bussey Stool
W'alU, and wain*'(| lijrn off. He met him again a few days


later, and this time took the law into his own hands : he
" shot three dogs at one shot." " This of course caused a
serious rupture between Mr. Dodington and the Ranger " ;
and Dodington issued a challenge, which Chafin accepted.
Chafin " was at the expense of buying a sword, which was
never made use of, but is still [1818] in being, and of blood
guiltless " — for Jacob Bancks of Milton — Hutchins' bene-
factor — intervened, and " found Mr. Dodington peaceably
inclined." " He acknowledged his error, and instead of
fighting, invited both gentlemen to dine with him ; and
they spent a very jovial day together."

It makes a ciu^iously diverse yet familiar picture : a
picture, really, in which, on the whole, the figures differ
from those in earlier pageants only because they have
changed their clothes. Things go on much as usual. The
well-to-do enjoy themselves in much the same way ; the
middle-classes remain well in the middle : the underlying
English brutality, which Fielding " contemplated with
concern," and from which he suffered, seems to be neither
mitigated nor even concealed. You have only to glance
at Swift's more obscene poems to realize how utterly
nasty elegant society could be and was. I suggest an
excursion into low life as an antidote to the contes des fees of
an artificial age. The most famous trial of the eighteenth
century had Dorset for one of its scenes. The wits and fine
ladies of London were all excitement over a parcel of gipsies
wandering through Dorset villages.

The case is that of Elizabeth Canning. There is only one
really certain fact in it, and that is that she disappeared on
New Year's Day, 1752. She was a servant girl in Alderman-
bury in the City of London, and she set out that morning
to visit an uncle at Moorfields. She retm'ned late at night
on January 29th, dishevelled and completely worn out ;
very near death, in fact.

I am not much concerned with the London end of the
tale ; but I believe I have solved in Dorset a mystery which
has baffled, among others, Andrew Lang. Canning said she


had been kidnapped and impiisoned in a house near Enfiehl,
kept by one Mother Wells, and inhabit<xl also by certain
gipsies, especially an old woman called Mary tSquires, who
was preternatiually ugly ; tall and dark, with a stoop, of a
complexion remarkably swarthy, she had also an underlip
" of a prodigious size " — " as big almost aa a little child's

The gipsy and Susannah Wells were arrested on Canning's
information, and tried for assault and putting in bodily
fear. Mary Squires' defence, produced immediately she was
accused, and mamtained consistently for fifteen months,
was that at the time of the alleged assault she, with her son
George and her daughter Lucy, were tramping in Doiset
and Hampshii'o and Wiltshire ; two witnesses from Abbots-
bury, in Dorset, one from Coombe Bissett, in Wiltslure,
supported this alibi at her trial.

Before theii- trial, however. Canning swore a fuller
information — to no less a person than Henry Fielding,
who published a famous pamphlet about her. The splendid
quack, John Hill, answered it. Essays and flyleaves began
to fly to and fro. Subscription lists for Canning were opened
at the coffee houses. She and Wells and the formidable
gipsy were the talk of the town.

In due course Wells and Squires were tried, found guilty,
and sentenced : tiie former to branding, which was carried
out at once, the latter to death. Happily for Squires, a
public-spirited Lord Mayor, Sir Crisp Gascoyno (who was
mobbed for his pains), was uneasy about the verdict,
scoured Dorset for further evidence, petitioned the King,
and finally g(jt Caiming herself tried — for perjury : of which
she in turn was found guilty, and for which she was sentenced
to seven years' transportation — oirep k(u eytvero. Mary
Squires was first respited, and then received a free pardon.
They could not unbrand Susannah Wells ; and anyhow she
was an undesirablo person.

After the conviction of Squires the tiirce country witnesses
were indicted for jx-rjury : l)Mt wlieii they e.nne up for


trial, opinion had flowed against Canning, and, no evidence
being offered against them, they were acquitted. It is
curious that when they gave evidence at Squires' trial, a
member of a well-known Dorset family was one of the judges
— Mr. Justice Gundry. He took their part in a vigorous
cross-examination, and did not believe they were perjured.
But it did not occur to him to ask, from his own local
knowledge, certain questions about the gipsy's alleged
movements which have not been asked to this day.

At Canning's trial thirty-seven witnesses swore to seeing
the gipsies in the West during the disputed period. Of
these thirty-seven, eleven came from Abbotsbury, and only
three of the eleven had not seen the Squires before : the
three comprised a temporary exciseman (afterwards dis-
charged for neglect of duty), a schoolmaster, and a carpenter
whose attitude towards life appears later. " Abbotsbury
evidence " became a temporary proverb. Four other
witnesse3 (pre- Abbotsbury) were from places farther north
and had not seen the Squires before : one was a little
doubtful in her evidence. Four witnesses out of five from
places near Abbotsbury knew the gipsies well ; the fifth
was apparently quite young. The witnesses from places
outside the Abbotsbury district, with three exceptions,
had positively not seen previously the singular figure of
Mary Squires. These details are important.

Twenty-seven witnesses, on the other hand, swore to the
presence of Mary Squires at or near Mother Wells' house
at Enfield during the same period. The majority, however,
prevailed with the jury against Canning, as I have said, and
the alibi was believed.

That Dorset alibi has never yet been scrutinized closely
with reference to local conditions. The general opinion of
all who have written on the strange case tends definitely
to one side or the other — to the belief that one of the two
parties told practically the whole truth, and the other lied
like troopers. I believe they both lied and both told the


Follow now their singular trail in Dorset. Mary Squires,
her son George, and her daughter Lucy emerge into legal
history fiist at South Porrott near Crowkerne on the
Somerset border. But how they got to South Perrott they
did not know themselves. George said that before going
West they had been into " the wild " of Kent or Sussex —
he was not sui-o which county — to leave another daughter,
Mary, to help a sick relative, Mrs. Squires' sister. He could
remember little of the joiu-noy to Dorset. He thought he
went to Shaftesbury, but he did not even know whether he
stayed a night at Shaftesbury. He was ignorant of the name
of any place between Yeovil and South Perrott, though he
admitted there were several villages. In fact, the arrival
of the party at South Perrott resembled nothing so much as
that of the Apostle Philip at Azotus on a celebrated occasion :
they simply were '" found " there.

They were identified by two witnesses, previously un-
acquainted with them, as having been at the Bed Lion,
South Perrott, on the night of Friday, December 29th, 1751.
The next morning, " between eight and nine o'clock," they
were at the Three Horseshoes at Wynyard's Gap, a
mile and a half away on the Dorchester road — a steep
ascent rising from two hundred and twenty-one feet to
eight hundred and twenty-six feet a few hundred yards past
the Gap. At that inn, according to Alice Farnham, the
hostess's daughter, they had a quart of beer and some bread
and cheese and " stayed about an hour." They said they
would come back at " Old Christmas " (January Gtli).

The old woman, Alice thought, " was very unhealthy,
seemingly, coming up against the hill." Mary Scpiires was
seventy years old. She was clad in a drab-c(jloured cloak
and serge gown. Lucy was a personable (Iguic, " a very
clean sort of a body, and of a l)lack complexion, not like
a traveller or gipsy by her dress," neat in appearance,
wearing a white gown and a red cloak. (Jeorge, five feet
ten in height, wore a greatcoat with glass-black buttons,
over a blue coat and red waistcoat, and a dark brown bolj-


wig, and carried " a little fardle " — a bundle containing,
according to Alice, hardware, but according to George,
" aprons, worked gowns, nankeens, white waistcoats, and
hoUands and such things."

They were next seen at Litton Cheney, in the Bride
Valley. The Dorchester road, followed throughout, would
not take them thither, save deviously : and they certainly
were on the Dorchester road — if they were in Dorset at
all — till between nine and ten that morning, and set forth
from Wynyard's Gap along that same road, up the hill.
Two other roads run nearly parallel to it, to the south-east ;
the nearer, the "Roman" road over Eggardon Hill; the
farther, the present Bridport-Dorchester road. All three
converge on Dorchester. And if the gipsies were going
straight to Litton Cheney, they must abandon the first
road not far from Wynyard's Gap, follow the second for a
little distance, and cross the third.

The road-books of the period are not helpful as to cross-
country routes. But there is an excellent map of 1765
which indicates how thev could have reached their destina-
tion most quickly, if they were acquainted with the country
— and, as an old man in the neighbourhood said to me not
long ago, " the gippos do know the lie of the land."

From the standpoint of the cartographer this map and
its slightly later Wiltshire companion are very interesting.
They show the curious persistence of the most venerable
trackways. Between the first two roads to Dorchester there
were in 1763 very few links : the byroads running from
either towards the other are nearly all blind alleys. They
are precisely the same blind alleys to-day. The reason lies
in the natm^e of the country, which contains very high
downs alternating sharply with damp wooded valleys.
And the main through roads, at this and a later stage in
the gipsies' journey, often ran, not on the turnpike routes
just then in process of construction, but upon the still-
existing but now virtually deserted Celtic trackways.
This first stage in the Egyptian Hegira is important :


to anyone who knows the country, it is the fiist stage of
doubt of their veracity. By their own account, they walkeil
as if in a liurry : the ligure of one WilHam Clarke, now
looming near, may be a clue to their haste. Tliey must
have chosen the quickest route, because of their time-table.
They must, however, have followed roads, not mere foot-
paths ; because not only was George Squires taken later
over their route five times in a coach — his own counsel's
statement — but the season was exceptionally bad. Compare
1751 with that odious j'ear 1920, for rainy days : 1920's
rainy days are in brackets : May, 1731, 15 (12) ; June,
10 (II); July, 20 (IG) ; August, 17 (8); September, 12
(13); October, 9 (9): November, 11 (l(i) ; December,
10 (25) ; in January, 1752, it snowed, and, as will be seen,
the floods were out.

Give the travellers the benefit of the doubt, and assume
that they went the shortest way by road ; not the easiest
way, but the shortest. If they did know the lie of the land,
they went along the main road to Toller Down Gate (called
Fair Down in 1703 : Fair Field to-day is close by) — three
miles (from Wynyard's Gap) at about the 800-feet level.
At the cross-roads by the milestone, they turned to the
right, went a quarter of a mile uphill (possibly a mile,
to a perhaps easier road) along the Beaminster road, and
took either a footpath or a byioad through Toller Whelme
to Warren Hill and Mount Pleasant. On their way they
would have to cross two streams, descend to 500 feet through
wooded country, and climb again to 074 feet.

Mount Pleasant, by this route, is eight and a quarter
miles from South Perrott, six and three-quarters from
Wynyards Gap. From there onwards to the summit of
Eggardon they would need all their knowledge of the " lie,"
for it is even now a bewildering region, in which the streams
and Huddrn small vallc^ys make short cuts dangerous.
They would follow the present road towards Tcjller Porcorum
for about 550 yards, downhill, and then bear south-south-
east, along a jjarish boundary (and that was an im])ortant


thing to know in 1752), still downhill, to cross another
stream at 411 feet, just where the railway runs to-day :
thence up to the 700 contour, and higher, to 828 feet on
Eggardon Hill. Here they would follow the very old track
eastwards for about a mile, past tumuli and cromlechs,
and then turn more nearly due south and go downhill,
over the ghostly earthen circle close to the third diagonal
track, the Dorchester-Bridport road— down, down, at last,
to Litton Cheney, with its two streams and the green
water-meadows beyond. And that adds another six miles
to their journey : fom'teen and a quarter from South
Perrott, twelve and three-quarters from Wynyard's Gap.

The interesting thing about this route is that it tallies
with George Squires' statement that the only " town "
between South Perrott and Litton was Wynyard's Gap.
By any other route, longer or shorter, they must have come
upon hamlets or villages more impressive than the Gap.
The route, moreover, is not at all far from a crow-flight
between the two places. George underestimated the total
distance by two miles or so in his evidence.

They left the Gap between 9 and 10 ; say, 9.30. They
reached the inn at Litton, twelve and three-quarter miles
away over bad country, in bad weather, at 2 o'clock, on the
testimony of the innkeeper ; four and a half hours — a very
old woman, " unhealthy, seomingly," a young girl nicely
dressed, and a man in an overcoat with a bundle of wares.
As the visitor to the Zoological Gardens said about the
giraffe, " I don't believe it." However, go with them all the

A plasterer of Litton Cheney, John Fry, who had known
" the old gipsy " for thirty years, and had often seen her
there, testifies that on that Saturday evening, December 30th,
1752, the party were sitting in the inn, in a new room. They
stayed there that night. The next day, Sunday, December
31st, George went to the house of Francis Gladman, a
gardener, and got shaved, and in the forenoon went on to
Abbotsbury to see one William Clarke.


Now William Clarke, one of the tliree witnesses called
at the tiist trial, and discharged of perjiuy afterwards,
is ail outstanding figure in this strange alYair. He was a
shoemaker or eordwainer of Abbotsbmy. By his own
account, he had met the gipsies before : fom' years before.
In 1751-2 he " was dear to " Lucy Squires, as his association
with her and her family from this point would suggest.
^Vhen and how he fiist became dear to her is an interesting
mystery. He had not met any of the gipsies — again by his
own account — between that encounter " four years before "
and the present occasion. His affection lasted well. Yet
his feelings for Lucy, as ho himself described them, were
hardlj' tumultuoiLs : " We were upon civil terms ; I never
saw anything by her but civil terms ; she is as honest a
girl as any in the world for what I know." Is a romance of
that nebulous character sufficient ground for this strange
cross-country sprint — sufficient to set the family rumiing,
like mating badgers, over hills and dales which lovesick

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Online LibraryF. J. Harvey (Frederick Joseph Harvey) DartonThe marches of Wessex, a chronicle of England → online text (page 16 of 28)