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A boyhood in Sturminster Newton

In his old age, Robert Young recorded his memories of growing up in his home town in the 1820s. Alan Chedzoy has been reading them and now tells the story of a remarkable Dorset figure.

Robert Young
Robert Young in his later years

The curious visitor to Sturminster Newton a hundred years ago might have glimpsed a bearded, vigorous old chap pushed about the streets in a basket chair. His appearance attracted a good deal of notice from his neighbours, for he was a local celebrity. This was not only because of his great age – he was 97 – but also because he had written a number of comic poems in the local dialect which had provided a good deal of local amusement.

Born on 30 September 1811 into a Methodist family, Robert Young was initially refused a place at the local church school, until his mother appealed directly to Rev. James Michel. He was eventually accepted, apparently on the condition that he should worship at St Mary’s from then onwards. Years later he remembered those services, during which the small boys sat on three-legged stools (to keep them awake) and tried to warm their feet in bitter weather, while the affluent dead slept beneath the flagstones along the aisle.

Few details are known about Young’s life immediately after he left school, but it is likely that he went into his father’s tailoring business, and then left Sturminster in his mid-teens to take up an apprenticeship and gain wider experience in the trade. It is said that he worked in London and Poole before returning to his native town to take over his father’s shop.

'The Hive', Robert Young's house in Sturminste
‘The Hive’, Robert Young’s house in Sturminster, as he would have known it

Back in Sturminster he became a prosperous businessman and property owner. By the 1880s he was affluent enough to build himself a rather grand house, ‘The Hive’, and also owned two semi-detached bay-windowed villas named ‘Riverside’ on the banks of the Stour. Among his tenants from 1876-78 was Thomas Hardy and his wife. The Return of the Native was written here. Young also became a friend and admirer of his fellow Blackmore poet, William Barnes.

It was the coming of the railway that first induced him to write his poems. Later he remembered that: ‘About the time that the Somerset and Dorset line… was opened [1861] some very amusing incidents occurred that induced me to record them in verse in the dialect’. His friends considered them so amusing that they persuaded him to print them privately. He did so, and a thousand copies were sold out in Sturminster very quickly, as were two reprints.

Much of the humour of these verses derives from the incomprehension with which the country people greeted the new technology. To exploit this vein, Young invented a fictional character, an argumentative, impetuous, short-tempered but good-hearted old farm worker named ‘Rabin Hill’, who was utterly perplexed by the railways. Especially popular among the poems was Rabin Hill’s Visit to the Railway; What he Zeed and Done and What he Zed About It. This was followed by Rabin Hill’s Excursion to Weston-Super-Mare to see the Opening of the New Pier.

Another source of humour was Rabin Hill’s liking for drink. Young himself, as a Methodist, was a strict teetotaller, and liked to show how his hero’s visits to the pub got him into scrapes. Once when Rab was fuddled he was tricked by his boozy companions into eating what he thought was a roasted hare, but which was actually his wife’s pet cat. When later confronted with what he had done, he was astounded and ashamed:

‘He zeed it arl, an’ he were dumb;

He never spoke no mwore dthick night.

He voun’ his wife had yeard the tale,

An’ what she zed, he knowed wer right.

‘An a’ter that, if he did come

Hwome crars, or drunk, or thengs like that,

Why she could arlus taime’n down

By zayen, ‘Ah! who ate my cat?’

(‘dthick’ – that; ‘crars’ – cross; ‘arlus’ – always; ‘taime’n’ – tame him)

Like old ballads or country tales, these simple verses and well-loved jokes merited frequent repetition and would have provoked repeated bursts of laughter in many a cottage round the hearth on winter nights.

 Robert Young in his bath chair
Robert Young in his bath chair at a flower show held in his honour as the oldest inhabitant of Sturminster Newton in 1907

Young had become the Blackmore sage. But it was not until he was 97 that he sat down to record his recollections of a Sturminster boyhood over eighty years before. His Early Years is written in an exercise book, with his memories dashed down higgledy-piggledy, just as they came into his mind. Here we glimpse Sturminster as it was in the 1820s. He describes the rustic celebrations at the fall of Napoleon; an eccentric grocer purveying his small stock of butter and sugar; tipsy pigs running through the town; a public whipping; the preparation of Stur’s famous swanskin cloth; forgotten industries such as patten- and button-making; rural magistrates sitting in judgement over a stable of steaming horses; well-digging; a ‘dead’ woman sitting up; a man walking through a tree, and many more such marvels.

His observations are full of humour and humanity. One story concerns ‘Mr. Wm. Sweet, generally called Billy Sweet': ‘He was a very witty & excentric man, very fond of gardening, & his front garden was pleasant to look upon for there he cultivated many choice flowers. He managed to keep a fine toad which he called Marier [Maria]. He found the toad useful in destroying slugs & other vermin. He used to take Marier in his pocket & start for the public house & place Marier on the table for the amusement of the bibbers & see her beautiful eyes.’ (Young’s spelling and grammar have not been altered here.)

Elsewhere he tells of times before a regular police force was formed, when unfortunate tradesmen were selected as ‘fit and proper persons’ to serve as town constables. They were entirely untrained and often ill-suited to the job. At the time of one of the October fairs, two such constables were passing one of the Sturminster pubs where a terrible row was going on. Foolishly, they decided to show themselves inside, when suddenly ‘the lights were blown out, the hat of one of them was beaten down over his eyes, the table was upset & cups & glasses smashed.’ The other constable, who was only just over five feet in height, was caught up in the arm of ‘a sturdy strong Blacksmith’ who remained standing over him while the fight lasted, saying: ‘They shan’t hurt you.’ ‘When the candles were lighted again, the kind blacksmith led him outside the door, where stood a big cattle-dealer. Looking down on the constable, he said: “Well my little man & what did you think you could do?” The fit & proper constable smilingly replied: “Not much”, but inwardly thought “I will never again interfere with drunken men”.’

Robert Young's bath chair
Robert Young’s bath chair is now in the Sturminster museum

Young had a kind heart. Any sort of suffering distressed him, whether it was that of the crying calves shipped out of Poole to Portsmouth; exhausted bullocks driven six days to London; a runaway cooper brought back and flogged on a wagon by the old town cross; or a young butcher beaten to death in a bare knuckle fight in Gough’s Close.

Always believing in the possibility of progress, his measure of it was the coming of greater humanity. Sturminster, when he was writing in 1907, was in his opinion a much better place than the same town when he was a boy. It was cleaner, and more lawful, orderly, and humane. Cheerful, straightforward and kindly to the end, Young died a hundred years ago, on the 7 April 1908, soon after Early Years was finished. He was buried at Sturminster Newton.

[Early Years by Robert Young: Recollections of Life in Sturminster Newton in the early 19th century, edited and with an introduction by Alan Chedzoy, is to be published by the Dorset Record Society in April, and will be obtainable from the Dorset County Museum and other outlets.]

The White Hart Inn in the 1860s
The White Hart Inn in the 1860s. Robert Young, a teetotaller, would have passed it by.

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