From the ‘fat old woman at the toll-bridge’ to coins of ancient Dorset, the Thomas Rackett Papers have them all – Roger Guttridge reports
Have you heard the one about the ‘fat old woman at the toll-bridge’?
Not my words but those of Mrs E Pulteney when describing the impact of a major storm which swept across southern England in March 1818.
Writing from Lymington to Miss Dorothea Rackett, daughter of the Rector of Spetisbury and Charlton Marshall, Mrs Pulteney speaks of the ‘late tremendous weather’ and complains that ‘our house has been partly blown down, though without any serious injury to the inhabitants’.
She then tells the comical tale of ‘the fat old woman at the toll-bridge’, who found herself knee-deep in flood water and unable to walk to safety.
The woman’s son tried to carry her to a neighbour’s house but when the task proved too challenging, he ‘set her down in the water to get assistance’.
It appears the ‘fat old woman’ survived but was not the only one in trouble.
‘They had six pigs in the house, which in the darkness they could not attempt to rescue,’ Mrs Pulteney adds, ‘But in the morning, great was their surprise in finding them all alive and floating in the water.’
Irreplaceable fire loss
Mrs Pulteney’s letter is among more than 50 years’ worth of correspondence in the Thomas Rackett Papers, first published by the Dorset Record Society in 1965 and now reprinted, with additions, in hardback.
Other topics referred to in the letters range from Dorset land and grain prices to the freezing winter of 1829-30, from an 1833 flu epidemic at Blandford and Charlton Marshall to – perhaps most curiously – a ‘terrible depreciation’ in the value of books in 1830 and the related sale of many private libraries.
In 1808, the Rev Thomas Rackett wrote to a friend describing a disastrous fire at John Nichols’ Fleet Street printing office and warehouses which destroyed, among other things, the proofs for most of the second edition of Hutchins’ History of Dorset as well as ‘the whole impression’ of Nichols’ own four-volume History of Leicestershire.
Nichols was only insured for a small amount so his loss was ‘very considerable’.
A Roman Road
Many letters reflect Rackett’s lifelong passions for all things historical and scientific.
In 1815-16, Stourhead owner Sir Richard Hoare kept Rackett informed on his charting of ancient sites in Dorset and south Wiltshire.
In one letter he announced his plans to ‘trace the Roman road’ from Sarum to Woodyates and thence to Badbury Rings, where he intended to ‘examine the camp to see if our survey is correct’.
At Badbury Rings, he saw ‘two diverging causeways’, one heading for Dorchester, the other appearing to head towards Wareham.
This puzzled him as there was no evidence of a Roman road reaching Wareham.
He also noted a ‘great portion of another via’ leading from Hamworthy towards Vindogladia (by which he probably meant Wimborne or Badbury Rings) and on to Gussage Cow Down.
Sir Richard was on the money with this speculation. We now know that the Romans built a road from their port at Hamworthy to Lake Gates, Wimborne, where they set up their 40-acre base camp for the conquest of South West England.
Another road led from Lake Gates to Badbury Rings, where it split into three routes, one leading to Dorchester [the Roman Durnovaria], another into North Dorset and a third to Old Sarum.
Coins of kings
Being a wealthy antiquarian, Sir Richard employed his own surveyor, Mr Crocker, to record details of Badbury Rings, Hambledon Hill, Hod Hill, Maiden Castle and other sites.
He described Hambledon – which he called ‘Hamilton’ – as ‘one of the grandest earthworks I ever beheld’.
In 1832, a parishioner’s discovery of ancient Greek coins in a field at Charlton Marshall prompted Rackett to make further inquiries in the general area.
Within six months he had collected more than 100 coins from the kings of ‘Syria, Macedon, Bythinia, Syrmium and Egypt’ and from ‘states and colonies of Antioch, Carthage, Cos, Mamertini, Rhegium, Syracuse, Neapolis etc’.
Rackett also refers to 70 to 80 silver coins found at Okeford Fitzpaine some years earlier.
In a report to Henry Ellis, secretary of the Society of Antiquities, he says coins plus the glass beads and gold ornaments found in Dorset barrows suggested ‘commercial intercourse’ between the local Britons and people from the East, and perhaps even that ‘a colony was formed in this part of the Island’.
Copies of the Thomas Rackett Papers are available by post from the Hon General Secretary, Dorset History Centre, Dorchester DT1 1RP (£14.95 + £2 p&p – cheques only) or in person from the Dorset History Centre.