Local History

The Reddlewoman | Looking Back

Roger Guttridge recalls a colourful character from old Dorset

Thomas Hardy fans will remember a character in The Return of the Native called Diggory Venn, the Reddleman.

This Victorian travelling salesman made his living by selling reddle or raddle, a red powder widely used by shepherds.

Long before Hardy’s death in 1928, Dorset’s Reddleman had been succeeded by the Reddlewoman.

The Reddlewoman

And Mary Ann Bull was every bit as colourful as Venn, whom Hardy described as ‘completely red’ with dye covering ‘his clothes, the cap upon his head, his boots, his face and his hands’.

Dorset writer Olive Knott remembered the Reddlewoman’s visits to Sturminster Newton before the First World War.

‘Year after year this woman pitched her tent on the same spot in the grassy lane,’ Olive wrote.

‘To the children of the neighbourhood, she was wrapt in mystery.

‘A fire of sticks usually burned outside her tent. Nearby was her dark brown pony tethered to a four-wheeled open van. Even the van was bright red in colour.’

In this picture the Reddlewoman has a two-wheeled cart pulled by a pair of donkeys.

The late Roy Adam, of Pimperne, once told me that Mary Ann actually came from Somerset and her reddle from Cornwall.

‘At sheep-dipping time she would peddle her wares, also selling brickdust for cleaning harness,’ he said.

‘According to my late mother, she had a weather-beaten countenance and wore layers of petticoats, which made a good hiding place for her money.

‘She trusted her monies to various publicans and collected on the return journey. They included my grandfather, Joe Dowling, a horse dealer and licensee of the Farquharson Arms, Pimperne.

‘Mary Ann smoked a pipe and had a bad temper, like the lurcher that was tied to her cart.

‘She knew the value of herbs and prescribed cures for many ailments.’

The Reddlewoman was a regular at events such as Shroton Fair and Woodbury Hill Fair, Bere Regis.

She slept under bags and canvas beneath the cart, guarded by the lurcher.

The dog took its duties so seriously that when its mistress fell ill at Stourpaine chalk pit, it had to be put down before she could be helped.

Mary Ann was taken to Cerne Abbas Union and died on waste ground at Cerne, according to information given to me many years ago by Doris Allen, of Dorchester.

The late Larry Skeats, a former Dorset shepherd and landlord of the Deer Park at Lydlinch and the Trooper at Stourton Caundle, explained to me how reddle was used either side of World War Two.

‘Reddle was a very fine powder which came in three colours,’ he said.

‘It was mixed to a paste with oil to make it waterproof.

‘It was used to age-mark the flock and was also put on the ram’s brisket so the ewes were marked when served at tupping-time.

‘The shepherd used the colours in the order of yellow, red and blue and changed every 14 to 17 days.

‘So if the ewes returned, the lighter colour was obliterated by the second colour and in turn by the third.

‘This enabled the shepherd to bring the ewes into the lambing yard in their respective colours without overcrowding the yard.’

Ewes that returned a third time were usually barren but not always.

Roger Guttridge

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