The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Which one would you choose?

Christchurch had a range of occupations to offer in the 18th and 19th centuries,Maggie Sherrington examines the options.

The Hart Family Tomb
The Hart family tomb in the Priory churchyard reflects the wealth they had acquired through making fusee chains

Imagine: you’re in Georgian Christchurch and you have to make a meagre living in a town where, according to commissioners investigating Christchurch’s parliamentary situation for the 1832 Reform Act, ‘no trade or manufacture is carried on…. The town presents no symptoms of activity or industry.’ However, despite such pronouncements, your employment opportunities in industries legal and otherwise offer variable security and pay, but significant benefits and drawbacks. Would you be a poor unfortunate doing the humblest of work, or an entrepreneur engaged in activities with rich rewards? What were the choices open to you?

Despite its diminutive size, Christchurch was home from the late 1700s to the manufacture of fusee chains for watch movements, a highly specialised industry that extended to three manufactories, and employed over a hundred women and girls. The first fusee manufacturer to set up was Robert Harvey Cox, in a house next to the Ship Inn. He employed nearly half of the workhouse paupers, thereby removing the financial burden of their upkeep, at the rate of approximately 1s 2d a week each. Fusee chains were extremely fine, some as thin as button thread, and a magnifying glass and candle or large window were essential for this precision work: William Hart’s fusee factory in Bargates was purpose-built with enormous windows. Henry Jenkins of Rotten Row, now part of Bridge Street, was Christchurch’s third major fusee manufacturer.

William Hart's factory in Bargates, where fusee chains were made<
W illiam Hart’s factory in Bargates, where fusee chains were made

Fusee chain making might have been a good choice, as Cox gradually improved workers’ pay and conditions, increasing children’s wages to between 1s 6d and 2s 6d a week and extending their reading instruction time (by a teacher of ‘good moral character’) and breaks for sustenance, air and exercise. Once the skills were learned, it was possible to set up a fusee cottage industry in your own home: many of Cox’s workers did so and sold chains to him on piecework.

There were other benefits, too. The spring at Purewell appeared to be particularly beneficial for eye ailments, providing much-needed relief for the workers’ painful eyes. If you were a fusee factory owner, wealth and status were yours as was, in the case of the Cox family, a large tomb in Christchurch Priory yard. Best of all, you might enjoy returning as a ghost: at Hart’s former factory, The Fusee at Bargates, ghostly footsteps can reputedly be heard crossing the first floor late at night after everyone from this world has gone home.

The huge disincentive to making fusee chains was that, despite the curative properties of Purewell spring, the chance of going blind undertaking such excruciatingly precise work was high. Many understandably tried to avoid this by escaping to domestic service, marriage or anything else.

The Universal British Directory (1792) states that Christchurch ‘is thought the first place in England for knit silk stockings’. This was a craft-based industry that engaged mainly women and children working at home or in small workshops. The market for stockings until as late as the 1800s included men, who wore them with breeches until trousers took over, and worsted stockings were also exported to Newfoundland. Christchurch hosiers included Henry Preston, who lowered his sights to legs having previously been a peruke (wig) maker, John Reynolds, Moses Slate and John Randle. However, by the mid 1800s these names had disappeared from town directories along, apparently, with the knit stocking industry. Hosiers were in abundance in the town in Georgian times but, like many other cottage industries, this one was susceptible to industrialisation and new mass-production techniques. You would have had to find something else to do by the mid-1800s.

Smuggling was a staple industry in Christchurch for many generations over roughly 150 years. To be an ‘owler’ you would have needed smuggling transport – maybe a lugger, which could be easily beached for unloading. You might have been a fisherman, too, as smuggling was rarely a full-time occupation, generally being undertaken by men (and sometimes women) with other work. Your job would involve ‘shopping’ trips to France or the Channel Islands and the illegal import of large quantities of tea, tobacco, brandy and just about anything else you could get hold of. In 1787 there were over 1400 items of merchandise liable for duty at many times their market value, so the smuggler’s range of goods was exceptional.

The work was often strictly organised: on your return to Christchurch you would be met by a large gang, whose job it was to remove the cargo to safe holdings, or distribute the goods to customers. Alternatively, you might be met by customs and excise, your cargo confiscated, yourself imprisoned.

'Rigging out a smuggler' by Rowlandson
‘Rigging out a smuggler’ by Rowlandson: smuggling was important to Christchurch’s economy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries

The benefits of smuggling were substantial. Financial rewards were handsome and, as most of the town was involved, sympathetic or intimidated, there was little chance of loose talk. Your chances of being caught by the vastly outnumbered excise men were slim and, even if you were, local juries were not in the habit of finding smugglers guilty and judges weren’t keen to convict. On the odd occasion that a smuggler was convicted, the sentence might be temporary transportation to the Americas or Australia, where many flourished and stayed on to become wealthy, respectable citizens.

Fame, notoriety, a place in history and romantic tales about you and your trade were assured. Local examples of such heroes were Samuel Hookey, John Streeter and the prolific but gentle Isaac Gulliver, whose turf covered Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire. Even in his lifetime his fame was such that he enjoyed followers known as ‘white wigs’, who imitated his choice of head apparel. He was reputed to be importing £20,000 worth of contraband a year at one time.

The disadvantages of smuggling were constantly looking over your shoulder for the ‘preventive men’, and being out at sea in all weathers. This job was definitely not for the faint-hearted. Punishments could be harsh and included not only transportation but imprisonment, execution and the hated impressment into the Royal Navy.

Perhaps the brewing trade was less risky. Breweries associated with 18th- and 19th-century Christchurch included the Avon, Christchurch, Christchurch Steam, Mansion, Old London, Old Malt House, Stanpit, Wick Lane and the Duke of Wellington public house, whose stable yard housed a malthouse and brewery. That’s some association with brewing for a small town, but these brewers were not all operating at the same time. By the end of the 19th century most local breweries had closed due to transport costs, the increasing price of coal, which was used for drying the malt, and fierce competition from large concerns. Small- scale brewing was coming to an end.

Benefits of this work included lots of beer to drink. In the early days beer was often given to workers as part of their pay and was generally safer to drink than the water. Brewing was a county and countrywide industry so it was possible to find similar work elsewhere if you were laid off at Christchurch, or fancied broadening your horizons. Ironically, the main drawback was also lots of beer to drink, a fuzzy head and, presumably, a beer belly. Breweries changed hands frequently, so there were variable bosses, and the risk of being laid off with a change of ownership.

The Stour
The Stour (here flowing past the Quomps), the Avon, the harbour and the open sea were all sources of fish

The Universal British Directory states that Christchurch was ‘famous for a fine salmon fishery’. Salmon swam alongside turbot, soles, whiting, mullet, herring, mackerel, shrimps and prawns. However, the fishery was not reliable enough to make the town wealthy: in the early 18th century catches were plentiful, but by the 1800s they were scant. For a few, salmon fishing was particularly lucrative as in 1800 it fetched 10d a pound, about twice as much as good meat. So the benefits and disadvantages of fishing, particularly for salmon, are quite straightforward: if you could catch any, rewards were good, but there often weren’t any to be caught.

Millers were aplenty in Christchurch and, as everybody ate milled comestibles, Place and Knapp Mills no doubt enjoyed regular demand. Domestic service and agricultural labouring were also common, along with a cottage glove-making industry and a diminishing boat-building industry.

Place Mill
Place Mill

So which one? Being a smuggler is a most compelling idea, so long as one was a gentle Isaac Gulliver disallowing the use of violence, and not the stereotypical sword-wielding, murderous owler. Rewards and excitement were far in excess of any other vocation and, while punishment was severe, catching you was no easy task for the meagre resources of the excise men –many disadvantages to that job in a hostile town! So, the odds on an unpleasant meeting with the lawmen were low, and you were probably at greater risk of drowning than of a court appearance, the Royal Navy, prison or Australia. Smuggling was also longer-lasting than many other Christchurch industries, and you might even be your own boss and lead the gang. As for the fame for hundreds of years to come – it’s practically irresistible.

Dorset Directory