The Nonconformist Preacher’s Tale

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Roger Guttridge recalls a minister who upset early women’s libbers, Marnhull’s bull-baiting habit and the legendary toad doctor of Pulham

Milborne Port’s Market Cross and King’s Head pub (now the Tippling Philosopher) in the early 1800s.
All images: Milborne Port History and Heritage Group

It’s not difficult to arouse feminist feelings today but nonconformist preacher the Rev John Sprint managed it 300 years ahead of schedule.
The colourful cleric regularly preached in towns and villages in Dorset and Somerset including Stalbridge, Sherborne, Milborne Port, Wimborne and Gussage All Saints. But his views were nothing if not controversial.
Way back in 1699, when Sprint was the Minister at Stalbridge, he succeeded in offending an early generation of women’s libbers.
At a wedding in Sherborne, he preached a sermon which he later had published under the title The Bride’s Woman Counsellor.
His biblical text for the sermon was I Corinthians 7:34, which speaks of the difference between married and unmarried women.
He claimed it was ‘the duty incumbent on all married women to be extraordinary careful to content and please their husbands’.
‘The sermon caused quite a stir,’ the Rev Anthony Jones, Minister of Bournemouth and Poole Unitarian Church, told me some years ago when he was writing a thesis on early Protestant dissent in Dorset. ‘Even in those days, such views were difficult to accept.’
The women hit back with a poem called The Ladies’ Defence: or a Bride Woman’s Counsellor Answered.
It was written as a dialogue between Sir John Brute, Sir William Loveall, Melissa and a parson, who, cast as the villain, speaks of teaching women ‘their husbands to obey and please, / And to their humours sacrifice their ease; / Give up their reason, and their wills resign, / And every look and thought confine.’
Melissa, on behalf of her sisters, replies: ‘Why are not husbands taught as well as we: / Must they from all restraints, all laws be free? / Passive obedience you’ve to us transferred, / And we must drudge in paths where you have err’d.’
But it was not only feminists that the Rev Sprint outraged. One contemporary document describes him as ‘a gentleman of too liberal principles for some pious and rigid Nonconformists’.
Such was the opposition he encountered at Stalbridge that in 1700 Sprint moved across the Dorset-Somerset border to Milborne Port.
There, at his daughter’s wedding, he preached another sermon called the Bridegroom’s Counsellor and the Bride’s Comforter.
‘It was a rebuff to the Ladies apologetic,’ said Mr Jones.
This time the chosen text was I Corinthians 7:33.
‘I shall prove that it is the duty of husbands to please their wives,’ Mr Sprint began.
Sprint went on to build up a large Presbyterian congregation in a hosier’s house at Milborne Port, where he continued his ministry until his death in 1715.
He also founded a grammar school in the village.*
Mr Jones described Sprint as a ‘great eccentric’.
‘He always wore a cassock when he took services and a rose in his hat,’ he said.

Milborne Port’s Church School (now The Clockspire Restaurant) was founded by vicar Robertus Hall in 1540.

Bull baiting at Marnhull
An event that prompted controversy and violence in Dorset 260 years ago was Marnhull’s annual bull-baiting, held on 3rd May each year until 1762 or 1763, when the rector, the Rev Conyers Place, managed to put a stop to it.
It was not, however, the welfare of the bulls that Place had in mind but the safety of the human spectators who converged on Marnhull from miles around.
‘The practice occasioned dangerous riots and bloodshed by the violent contentions of the inhabitants of the neighbouring parishes,’ wrote the 18th century historian John Hutchins.
‘In one of these frays, Bartlett of Morside was actually killed.’
Hutchins added: ‘It was suppressed for some years but revived again on Mr Windham’s patronising bull-baiting in the House of Commons.’
After a further campaign, the Marnhull rector managed again to suppress the event, this time for good.
Of the event, Hutchins wrote: ‘The bull was led in the morning into Valley Meadow (part of Marnhull Common), where the tenant of the estate, by giving a garland, appointed who should keep the bull next year.’

The Toad Doctor of Pulham
A curious quack from 19th century North Dorset was ‘Dr’ Buckland, the so-called ‘Toad Doctor’ of Pulham (although I doubt he was a real doctor).
During the 1830s a great gathering, called Dr Buckland’s Fair, took place in May, its exact date being determined by the phases of the moon.
‘The doctor, dressed in white, was assisted by his three daughters, also dressed in white, and they attended to his patients, who came from far and near,’ records the Women’s Institute book Dorset Up Along and Down Along, 1935.
‘His method was certainly unusual, for he kept toads which he used alive, hanging them under his patients’ clothes.
‘As long as the toads twitched and moved, the cure progressed. As to what happened if the toad died before the cure was complete, the story does not relate.’

Members of Milborne Port History and Heritage Group would welcome any information which might help to identify the sites of Sprint’s two major ventures in the village.

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