The best of Dorset in words and pictures

A Nation of Shopkeepers

Lilian Ladle introduces a tantalising glimpse of Victorian Wareham

Looking up South Street in Victorian Wareham
Looking up South Street towards the old Town Hall in 1860. Today, the library is to the right and the TIC to the left in the foreground of the picture.

That life 150 years ago was very different from the frenetic existence we lead today is confirmed by the entry for Wareham in J.G. Harrod & Co’s Postal & Commercial Directory of Dorset and Wiltshire 1865. It gives a fascinating insight into life in one of Dorset’s small towns in the middle of the 19th century. Trade directories were developed in London in the 1670s and by this time were widely available, listing towns and villages, their principal inhabitants, businessmen and tradesmen. Issued several times each decade, they were the forerunners of the modern telephone directory. They are mines of information for local and family historians.
The Directory gives a short history of Wareham (which had about 3000 inhabitants), and then classifies information which was important to its readers and subscribers. The major public buildings are listed, together with the people who were associated with them. The spiritual well-being of the townsfolk was catered for by ministers of the established church (Lady St Mary), the Independent Chapel in Church Lane, the Unitarian Chapel in South Street and the Wesleyan Chapel in North Street. Educational needs were represented by six schoolmasters and mistresses who ran the two ‘church’ and three private schools.

The Town Hall photographed in 1860.
The Town Hall photographed in 1860. Built in 1768, it replaced the medieval church of St Peter, which had become municipal buildings in the 17th century. It was replaced ten years after this photograph was taken by the present Town Hall and Corn Exchange.

‘Postal Regulations’ had high priority. In 1865 there were six arrivals of mail each day and five dispatches to and from London, Purbeck, Dorchester and Weymouth. Mail was delivered twice a day, going out at 8 am and 4 pm. The Post Office was in South Street and Miss Jones, the postmistress, operated a savings bank and supplied money orders. Postage stamps, however, were distributed by bookseller George Best of North Street. The postal service, which had been introduced in 1840, was still relatively new and letter boxes had to be carved into front doors to allow the delivery of mail. Local horse-drawn carriers to Poole and Blandford are mentioned but the railway, which arrived in 1847, is omitted, although the station master is listed in the commercial entries.
Listings of the county magistrates included ten gentlemen of the local landed families, among them John Calcraft of Rempstone, Rev. George Pickard Cambridge of Bloxworth, Rev. Nathaniel Bond of Grange and Edward Weld of Lulworth. John Mowlem of Swanage had become a magistrate despite his humble beginnings; the fortune accrued through his building works in London made him acceptable to polite Dorset society! Wareham’s councillors are noted and of course not a single woman was involved in county or local activities. These were the days of ‘everyone knowing their place in society’ – the Directory reinforces this with 32 entries for ‘clergy and gentry’ which encompassed the ‘middle classes’ and those aspiring to be so – solicitors, doctors, established businessmen and their widows and daughters.

 The ornate letterhead of the versatile Cornelius Selby
The ornate letterhead of the versatile Cornelius Selby

In 1865 the town had fifteen pubs, of which only the Duke of Wellington (East Street), the Horse and Groom (St John’s Hill), the New Inn (on the Quay), the Antelope (West Street) and the King’s Arms (North Street) survive. Five of the publicans were women and were no doubt formidable characters. Two breweries (Bennetts on Abbots’ Quay and Pantons in Pound Lane) brewed the beer and William Burden, the cooper, made wooden tubs and casks. Many of these would have been in use in the pubs and hotels, which were larger, higher-class establishments. The Railway Hotel at Northport (formerly the Country House) was built in the early 1800s for mail coach trade on the turnpike road to Poole. Still trading today, this establishment shares premises with an Indian restaurant. The Red Lion, first documented in the 1600s, was located at the bottom of North Street. Considered to be the town’s finest hotel, it offered first-class accommodation and was famed for its seven-course dinners. Bizarrely, the Inland Revenue Office was based here. In South Street, the Black Bear provided similar facilities. Both were ‘posting houses’, where fresh horses could be hired.
The farrier, James Crumpler, was based in Stoborough. Coaches were built by John Elmes of North Street and three local carpenters and wheelwrights would have found plenty of work. The town also had three saddle and harness makers, illustrating the dependence on horse-drawn traffic. Some trade was still water-borne; the coal, salt and timber merchants on the Quay were dependent on the River Frome, as was Pike’s clay works at Furzebrook. Two marine store dealers ensured that the boats plied efficiently and were well-stocked.

 A bill for groceries supplied to Lulworth Castle
A bill for groceries supplied to Lulworth Castle. Note that it covers a full year: no doubt Mr Redman felt that the Welds’ credit was good enough!

It was Napoleon who famously called the English ‘a nation of shopkeepers’. The description was not meant to be flattering but in Wareham it was certainly true with the commercial directory having 161 entries. Businesses were generally clustered around North Street, South Street and West Street and varied from large establishments to tiny stores operating from the ground floors of family houses. The town was absolutely self-sufficient. For example, there were eleven grocers, seven bakers, five butchers and ten general shopkeepers selling provisions for every type of household. Of the four drapers in town, two were general outfitters and two specialised as silk mercers and woollen drapers, carrying high-class, expensive stock. Many people, however, when they needed new clothes would have visited one of the two dressmakers or five tailors. There were twelve boot or shoemakers who made footwear to order. Shoes were expensive but would last for many years and were handed down, particularly in large or poor families. No outfit was complete without a hat; men purchased theirs at one of the outfitters but the straw bonnet makers catered for the ladies. The single hairdresser, Mr Henry Maund, not only trimmed his gentlemen clients’ hair but also trimmed the beards and moustaches which were sported by nearly all adult males. Ladies had their hair ‘dressed’ at home by their maids.
Furniture and ironmongery were available from Selby’s in South Street; the shop also had gunsmithing and jewellery departments. Nearby, the Primavesi brothers from Geneva traded as watch manufacturers, jewellers, silversmiths and opticians. China and glassware could be purchased from James Spicer’s shop in West Street. Genteel leisure pursuits were also catered for: the Misses Fanny and Jane Green of North Street were classed as ‘bookseller, newsagent, fancy goods and Berlin wool repository’! The town had three stationers and a printers at a time when correspondence and the written word were as important as e-mail, internet and the telephone are today.
There was a general outdoor market on Saturdays and another on Tuesday for the sale of corn. This was held in the Corn Exchange, which occupied the ground floor of the Town Hall. Farming was still of great importance (five local farmers were noted) and pivotal to this industry were two corn merchants and two millers. Charles Hurlston of North Street was a tanner and fellmonger. His distinctly malodorous trade, dealing in pelts and skins, was allied to livestock farming and the local butchery businesses, who slaughtered stock themselves.
The building trade was well represented with builders, bricklayers, plumbers, painters, glaziers and decorators. There were even two ‘house estate agents’ and two valuers and appraisers/brokers. Generally, properties were sold through the auctioneers, Best and Spicer, in East Street.
The professional classes included seven solicitors and three bank managers who oversaw all the legal and financial requirements of the populace. Three surgeons were available for medical consultations (for those who could pay). Two of these were also medical officers for the Wareham and Purbeck Union, which ran the recently-built workhouse on the western outskirts of the town. Prescriptions and remedies could be purchased from the two dispensing chemists, Marshallsay in South Street and Randall in North Street. The latter also traded as a paint, varnish and colour manufacturer – a true chemist indeed! Randall moved to premises in West Street in the 1890s and both shops still operate as chemists today. Births and deaths were recorded by William Marshman, the town registrar. James Poynter in South Street ran two businesses; he was the sole undertaker as well as a silk mercer and linen and woollen draper. Death was ever-present and Mr Poynter was well-placed to advise and clothe the bereaved in the strict mourning code demanded at this time.
The Directory creates a vivid picture of Victorian Wareham, its entries testimony to a long-vanished way of life as well as the aspirations, hard work and endeavours of the population of a typical small country town.

Dorset Directory