It bain’t just in Darzit! | Looking Back

After kindly mentioning my previous column in the opening lines of his February contribution, Andy Palmer noted that when his family moved the 20 miles from Stalbridge to Weymouth in 1973, he discovered a different dialect.

Down on the sophisticated south coast, familiar phrases like ‘Where be you to?’ bain’t yeard at all.

Strangely, if Andy had instead moved the best part of 3,000 miles to the north coast of Newfoundland, he’d have heard something much closer to the vernacular of his Stalbridge roots.

In remoter parts of Canada’s most easterly province, the Dorset dialect survives in better shape that than it does in its native county.


The only known picture of a swanskin garment dates from 1712 and shows a Newfoundland fishing station. The person far right is wearing a swanskin ‘habit’, as it was described 300 years ago

This was brought home to me in 1997 following the second of my two visits to Newfoundland.

‘Arrh, ’tis very beautiful down drew ’ere, you,’ I heard one person say in Twillingate.

A week later I was back in Blighty having lunch in the Red Rose at Sturminster Newton and overheard a couple of locals at another table.

At that moment I realised the people I’d met in Twillingate spoke not just with a Dorset accent but a Blackmore Vale one. It was that specific.

The reason is simple. Twillingate and several other fishing communities were founded by Sturminster merchants in the early 1800s after the bottom dropped out of the swanskin trade.

The manufacture of swanskin – a coarse, wool-based cloth that has nothing to do with swans except in its colour – was a major Blackmore Vale industry for 250 years or so.

The cloth was hammered out at a water-powered fulling mill adjoining Sturminster’s corn mill and as many as 1,200 people were employed in the trade.

Most of the finished cloth was carted to Poole and shipped to Newfoundland, where it protected fishermen from the harsher North Atlantic climate.

When competition from the industrialising North and Midlands brought about the collapse of the swanskin trade, Sturminster merchants filled the economic void by founding new fishing communities and sending their employees to Newfoundland to man them.

The economic migrants took many things with them including their customs, their surnames – and their accents.

Twillingate’s remoteness ensured that these things were preserved.

Two hundred years later, 92 per cent of the ancestors of present-day Twillingate folk are reckoned to have been from Dorset, about half of those from the Blackmore Vale.


Roger Guttridge gets a Twillingate welcome in 1997

During that same 1997 visit, I whiled away a good hour reading the Twillingate phone book.

It read like the register at Sturminster Primary School in the 1950s. Most of the old North Dorset names were represented.

After I gave a talk about the connections between Wessex and Canada’s most easterly province, an audience member told me: ‘Until I heard your talk, I thought that Newfoundland was the only place in the world that didn’t recognise the word “me”.’

The man explained: ‘Old Newfoundlanders don’t say, “Are you coming with me?” They say, “Are you coming wi’ I?” Now I realise where that comes from.’

The man hailed from a community called Hermitage, which was probably founded by migrants from Hermitage, near Sherborne.

At a Twillingate hamlet called Hart’s Cove, I was introduced to Jack Troake, who asked if I’d like to ‘stand on a little piece of old England’.

I accepted the invitation and he led me to a spot of ground that sported a healthy crop of grass and weeds, in contrast to the rocky, less fertile terrain all around.

Jack picked up a handful of soil from a freshly dug area and ran it through his fingers.

It was best quality dirt – rich, dark soil that reminded me of my own garden at home in Dorset.

‘Slade and Duder had big fishing premises here at Hart’s Cove,’ said Jack, referring to the days when the Poole-Newfoundland cod trade was at its height.


Roger’s picture of Jack Troake sifting Dorset soil, as printed in the Downhomer

‘The sailing schooners left Poole empty and needed ballast.’

That ballast consisted of best Dorset topsoil, which on arrival at Hart’s Cove was tipped on a certain spot to form a fertile garden.

‘They grew vegetables in it – it was good for carrots and spuds,’ he said. (Yes, he really did say ‘spuds’.)

‘People also used to go there to dig for worms for fishing.’

The freshly dug patch indicated that they still did – and I’d wager that these worms, like the human inhabitants, have Dorset ancestors.

When I told this story to my mother following my return, she said: ‘I went to school with Troakes at Blandford.’

Another local surname, then. I fancy I’ve also heard the surname ‘Hart’ in Stur at some point.

Jack Troake’s story was one of dozens relating to the Dorset-Newfoundland connection that I uncovered during the nine years that I wrote a column for the province’s leading monthly magazine, The Downhomer.

The Downhomer’s founder Ron Young came from Twillingate and is probably descended from Dorset namesakes.

• Talks are underway to restore Sturminster Newton’s 200-year-old link with Twillingate by launching some kind of twinning arrangement between the communities.

Roger Guttridge

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