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A glimpse of pre-Victorian Wimborne

Roger Guttridge has been reading the memoirs of James Druitt

A rare glimpse into everyday life in pre-Victorian Wimborne is provided by the unpublished memoirs of James Druitt, a member of the well-known Wimborne/Christchurch family of surgeons and lawyers. In a manuscript dictated to his daughter, Barbara, towards the end of his long life, Druitt looks back at his schooldays and describes Wimborne’s social side and some of the town’s characters – among them the famous smuggler, Isaac Gulliver.

James Druitt (1816-1904) in old age

James Druitt (1816-1904) in old age

Druitt, born in West Borough on 10 May 1816, was the second son of Robert Druitt, who ‘practised medicine in that very pleasant little town as had his fathers for several generations’. His mother, Jane, was a daughter of the Rev. James Mayo, Master of Wimborne Grammar School. In August 1821, after a year at a school run by a Wesleyan preacher called Peter Hawke, the five-year-old James became a pupil at the Grammar School, which he was to attend for the next ten years. This would have been the 18th century school building which preceded the mock-Elizabethan structure, built in 1849-51 and now converted to flats.

By modern standards, the school day was extraordinarily long, especially for a five-year-old. In summer the boys were woken at 5.45 am by the ringing of a bell in the Minster tower. Lessons were under way by 6.15 and continued until breakfast at 8 or 8.30 am. Lessons resumed from 9 am to 12 noon and 2 pm to 5 pm or later. Druitt explains: ‘In the winter the time grew gradually later to suit the light, and then an hour or an hour-and-a-half was spent in the evening in preparing lessons. This was done in the dining hall by a scanty light from candles.’

Breakfast consisted of bread and milk or, for those who preferred it, milk and water and bread and butter – ‘the latter being frequently scraped from the next boy’s slice by the boy who happened to get first to breakfast’! Dinner (lunch) usually consisted of roasted or boiled beef, mutton or veal ‘of good quality’ or, occasionally, legs of pork. Supper, served at 6 pm, consisted of bread and cheese ‘with perhaps salad from the boys’ own gardens’. To the approval of most, the boys were allowed two draughts of home-brewed ale at both dinner and supper time. ‘It was generally very good,’ says Druitt. ‘It was served in mugs holding half-a-pint or more. If a cup was broken, the boy who broke it had to provide another, and the boys showed their general liking for the ale by purposely breaking any small cup and buying a larger one.’ On Sundays, dinner also consisted of roast fillet and shoulder of veal, followed by baked plum pudding.

The Grammar School in Wimborne before it was re-built in the mid-18th century

The Grammar School in Wimborne before it was re-built in the mid-18th century

Druitt says that the playground seemed large to him, although it was later doubled in size. ‘We played a variety of games, the chief of which were fives, rounders, prisoner’s base and the like. The headmaster would sometimes come and play a game of fives with one of the older boys. The Usher or Second Master would stand and look on and talk to some of the boys while they were playing but I never knew him to join in a game.’ Mr Lyte, the French and writing master, who often wore breeches and gaiters, would join in the games, particularly hand-about, sometimes called ‘burn-the-ball’. ‘For this game we got the hardest balls we could, and when Mr Lyte played with us, the principal aim of all the boys was his calves, and I think he was often convinced of the accuracy of our aim.’

The Usher in Druitt’s later years at the school was Mr Philip Elsdon, who dressed in black with a white cravat and ‘took large quantities of snuff with which his cravat and waistcoat were generally sprinkled’. Elsdon was strict and ‘made some use of the cane’ but out of school was pleasant and good-natured and often took the boys for walks. ‘He was fond of spinning yarns and while three or four of the boys held him in talk, some of the others would fill his coat pockets with sticks, stones and other rubbish. He sometimes invited a good number of the boys to his rooms and set them to play cards for an hour or so, winding up with a supper.’ Elsdon, sadly, was ‘attacked by paralysis about 1833 and died very poor’.

Isaac Gulliver

Isaac Gulliver

And his wife, Elizabeth

And his wife, Elizabeth

In the summer holidays, Druitt and his friends spent much of their time enjoying the ‘variety of pleasant walks’ around Wimborne or bathing in the River Stour at The Lease or above or below Julian’s Bridge. Other holidays were often spent with relatives at Moordown or Winchester. Visits to Christchurch, Romsey, Southampton and London are also described. He recalls travelling home from London in 1832 in ‘the old Salisbury night coach – six inside, and a dismal journey it was’.

On the social side, Druitt refers to a ‘small society’ that existed in Wimborne in the mid-1830s, whose members ‘used to entertain each other frequently at dinner and tea parties. In the winter few weeks passed without several parties. The amusements were chiefly whist and quadrille with sometimes a round game for the younger people. The play was moderate, long whist at six points, and quadrille at a penny a fish, not playing beyond Favourite. But even so the players would sometimes get very anxious.’ Refreshments at the parties included tea and coffee and a supper of sandwiches, cakes and sweets.

The Wimborne characters Druitt describes include Isaac Gulliver and his son-in-law, William Fryer, ‘the banker of Wimborne’. ‘William Fryer, before my time, had also a draper’s business and was engaged in the Poole shipping trade. His wife, a very fine handsome woman, was a daughter of Isaac Gulliver of whose exploits as a free trader much has been said with more or less of truth, and who has furnished, I believe, a model for some new works of fiction in which the contraband trade is introduced.’

West Borough in about 1840

West Borough in about 1840

Druitt was six when Gulliver died in 1822 but he remembers the ageing smuggler living in ‘the last house in West Borough before the turning to Redcotts’ and being wheeled around in a bath-chair. ‘It was said that his old practice of evading the revenue gave him a liking for evading small payments,’ he says. ‘It was reported that he had said to his man, “John, thee draw me up to the Harns [the Horns Inn in Burts Hill] and I’ll gi’ee a pint of beer,” but that when he got within 100 yards of the inn he said: “I be tired, John. Thee must turn about and get me whoam.”’

Another West Borough resident was the Rev. Edward Butt, who lived in ‘a curious old house on the south side of Luke’s Lane [now Prior’s Walk]. He was always kind to children and young men and generally popular in the place,’ says Druitt. ‘Mr Butt was a bachelor but he seems to have carried on flirtations with my Aunt Mary and also with Miss Ann Dean, whose premises adjoined his. It was said that he would occasionally take the morning paper, which reached Wimborne between 11 and 12 on the day after its publication, walk into Miss Dean’s sitting room, sit down and open the paper and read it, fold it up again and return it to his pocket, and leave the house without saying a word to its inmates.’ Butt was also a ‘great angler’ who fished at Wimborne and in the River Avon. ‘His house was adorned by full-sized portraits of Leviathan Jack, a huge trout which he had captured.’ Butt had a library of 1200 books, considered a ‘prodigious number’ then.

John Carnegie was an army surgeon who had served in the Peninsula wars before settling in Wimborne. Carnegie was ‘an eccentric but warm-hearted gentleman, skilful in his profession, very fond of talking politics, and of professing radical opinions’. These views included an ‘enthusiastic belief in the newly-born Spanish-American republics’ and Carnegie persuaded Druitt’s aunts to invest heavily in Mexican bonds – ‘an operation which straitened both of resources’.

In 1832, aged 16, Druitt was articled to Mr Henry Rowden, Clerk to the Wimborne Justices and steward to Sir James Hanham. He remembers, some years later, Sir James describing the new owner of Canford Manor and Estate as ‘kind of an ironmonger, Mr Druitt’. This was kind of a humorous understatement, the hugely wealthy Sir John Guest being the owner of the world’s biggest ironworks in South Wales!

William and Elizabeth Fryer, like Elizabeth's parents, the Gullivers, were well observed by James Druitt

William and Elizabeth Fryer, like Elizabeth

Mr Rowden had ‘a good solicitor’s business’ but told his new clerk that the legal profession would never again be what it had been, although with ‘diligence and good fortune a man might earn a crust at it’. When work was slack, Druitt played chess with two of his fellow clerks, Briant and Langer. He was admitted as an attorney in 1838 and subsequently, in partnership with Rowden, took over a solicitor’s business in Christchurch, where he lived and practised for the rest of his life – he died in 1904. In Christchurch, Druitt founded a family that included some of its leading citizens, such as James Druitt junior and the antiquarian, Herbert Druitt. The latter founded the Red House Museum where, appropriately, James senior’s dictated memories are lodged.

Interestingly, this document was begun in November 1888, just one month before the weighted body of James’s nephew, Montague John (Monty) Druitt, was pulled from the Thames in London. It then appears to have been abandoned for six years before being resumed in 1894. James makes no mention of Monty or his immediate family, stating simply that ‘now, alas, no representative of the family is to be found’ at Wimborne. At the time only a handful of people knew that Monty (who is buried at Wimborne) was a leading suspect for the Jack the Ripper murders – although James’s surgeon brother, William (Monty’s father), was one of them.

[James Druitt’s original memoirs are in the Red House Museum, Christchurch, but the Priest’s House Museum in Wimborne has a copy.]

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