Rats, fleas and Black Death (the shaping of north Dorset)


Why are so many north Dorset parish churches outside their villages? The answer is the Black Death, argues Paul Birbeck

Across the Vale, there are examples of parish churches found in isolated positions. These include Holnest, Hilfield and, particularly, Hazelbury Bryan, where the church and Manor House are 1km from today’s main village.

Local historian Maurice Beresford in his 1954 study, ‘The Lost Villages of England,’ cited 19 places in Dorset where a village had existed in the middle ages, but was later abandoned.
There are a number of possible explanations for these fascinating anomalies, each demanding research.
Most medieval village desertions are linked to the Black Death (bubonic plague) which arrived on a trading ship docked at Weymouth in 1348 (there’s a moderately hilarious plaque on the north quay ‘celebrating’ Weymouth’s place in history for this honour). The acutely fatal disease quickly spread across the country by fleas living on rats, causing one of the worst catastrophes in recorded history – a deadly plague that ravaged communities across Europe.
Over three or four years, as many as 50 million people died in Europe. The population was reduced from some 80 million to 30 million. Breaking out in Asia (some believe not too far from Wuhan province, from where Covid 19 is believed to have spread) the Black Death came to Britain from the eastern Mediterranean, Italy, Spain and France. A familiar spread to today’s pandemic!

Hazelbury Bryan aflame!

The parish of Hazelbury Bryan, near Sturminster Newton, includes the hamlets of Droop, Kingston, Parkgate, Pidney, Pleck, Wonston and Woodrow. In 1201 the village name was Hasebere, a name derived from the Old English meaning a hazel grove or wood.
Bryan is the manorial name of Sir Guy de Bryan, of Woodsford Castle, who gave his surname to the village in the 14th century when he married the daughter of the First Earl of Salisbury.
The original settlement is the hamlet of Droop, which is the location of the parish church and Manor House.
The church dates mostly from the 15th century, though it is likely that earlier buildings existed on the site. The other hamlets in the village are believed to have originated as a result of the Black Death which twice struck the original settlement, causing the villagers to respond by burning it and rebuilding several smaller settlements on higher ground nearby. It is presumed that most villagers houses were wood, wattle and thatch (which burns easily) but the manor houses and churches were stone. So they stayed put.

Farms grow, crofters leave

After the Black Death, labour shortages forced traditional Lords of the Manor and monastic owners, to change from being lord of men (lordship) to being landlords who rented out their land. This resulted in fundamental changes to the landscape across the Vale. Traditional open field arable land was converted to pastoral farming which required fewer workers. Isolated family dairy farms surrounded by hedged and ditched fields became common.

Change continued as agricultural techniques improved during the 17th and 18th centuries causing smaller tenancies to merge into fewer large ones leased to well-to-do tenants. Ancient landholding rights were overridden, causing rural poverty across the Vale. There are many examples of shrunken villages associated with depopulation and poverty during this period. For examble, Melbury Bubb had 33 houses in 1672 but only 28 residents by 1841. As opportunities for work diminished, families were forced by poverty to depart their homes in tears as they sought new livelihoods elsewhere.

Progress or social mayhem?

These changes are a common theme in Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Woodlanders,’ and ‘Tess of d’Urbervilles’ and local resident dialect poet, William Barnes wrote in ‘Two Farms in Woone’ (see image above for full poem)

“That’s it. In these here pleace there used to be Eight farms avore they were a-drwd together, An’ eight farm housen. Now how many be there? Why after this, you know there’ll be but dree.” Barnes deplored the changes in farming which increased output and profits through better organisation, mechanisation and more efficient use of labour, at the expense of the traditional rural community.
Rural depopulation is of course still going on today. Some may say that many villages still occupied are ‘lost’ or deserted in winter because of their high proportion of second homes owned by affluent townies who have priced local people out of their local housing. The present generation has therefore been forced out in search of employment and an affordable home.

The Vale is an area with a fascinating and complex history.

by Paul Birbeck


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