A notice warning of ‘cudgeling, fighting and boxing’ hints at a violent past across the Blackmore Vale, says Roger Guttridge
My reference in the last issue to ‘cudgeling’ intrigued some readers, not least BV editor Laura Hitchcock, who was laughing all the way to the deadline.
The word, which appears on an old sign owned by Brian and Valerie Kelly of Wonston, Hazelbury Bryan, hints at tougher times, when gangs of ruffians ruled the Vale.
As Philip Taylor, the Collector of Customs at Weymouth around 1720, wrote in a report to London: ‘The Vale of Blackmore is abounding with great numbers of dangerous rogues.’
Some might suggest that not a lot has changed. I couldn’t possibly comment.
Brian and Valerie’s sign (above) is missing its top line, but the surviving section is clear enough:
‘…have been sworn in to apprehend any persons seen cudgeling, fighting or boxing.’
My guess is that the top line originally read: ‘Parish constables’ … but other guesses are available.
The phrase conjures up images of gangs of young men roaming the countryside, armed with cudgels and other primitive weapons, eager to exercise their labourers’ muscles by scrapping with rival groups.
Various sources suggest there was a territorial element to this, with village rivalries providing an excuse for violence.
Describing Marnhull’s annual bull-baiting event in the mid-18th century, historian John Hutchins wrote: ‘The practice occasioned dangerous riots and frequently bloodshed by the violent contentions of the inhabitants of the neighbouring parishes. In one of these frays, one Bartlett, of Morside, was actually killed.’
According to my own maternal grandfather, Jim Ridout of Fiddleford, there was intense rivalry between Okeford Fitzpaine and Sturminster Newton.
Our Okeford-based ancestor Roger Ridout (1736-1811), the leader of North Dorset’s main smuggling gang, knew he could expect a hot reception if he dared to set foot in ‘Stur’.
Arriving in Bridge Street on horseback on one occasion, he found himself surrounded by a mob, who tried to pull him from his horse. According to the family legend, Ridout said to the animal: ‘What would ’ee do ver thy king?’
At which the horse reared up and kicked in someone’s front door.
Another time, Ridout is said to have beaten up a revenue official who dared to challenge him as he walked from Fiddleford brewery (now the Fiddleford Inn) to Okeford.
Roger, his wife Mary, their eldest son William and another man were actually tried for murder at the Dorset Assizes in 1781, but acquitted. No other details of the case have come to light.
Beaten ‘to an unmerciful degree’
Smuggling was rife across Dorset in the 18th and early 19th centuries and directly triggered many violent incidents.
In 1719, Weymouth Customs Collector Philip Taylor described a running battle at Hermitage and Middlemarsh, near Sherborne. The episode began when Dorchester revenue man John Oldfield and informers Samuel and Edward Maber searched houses at Hermitage and were offered a guinea not to search Robert Williams’ house.
They declined the bribe and, along with parish constable George Fox, headed straight for the house in question and broke down the door.
Inside were several tubs of brandy – but before they could seize them, mayhem broke out. The lady of the house, Elizabeth Williams, attacked Fox with an axe, striking him several times. Robert and Thomas Williams and five other men laid into Oldfield and the Mabers, beating them and throwing them out.
The smugglers stove in one cask to make it worthless and fled to the woods with the rest.
Despite their injuries, Oldfield and his companions gave chase, only to be beaten up again ‘to an unmerciful degree’.
In 1779, one smuggler was shot dead and another lost an arm after a battle with dragoons from Blandford, at Hooks Wood, Farnham. In the same year, one of a ‘large and desperate’ gang of smugglers died and many others were desperately wounded in a clash with revenue officials and dragoons from Dorchester.
Shin hacking – the kickboxing of its day
For those who wanted it, organised fighting was available as a spectator sport, usually in the barns that served as the village halls and community centres of their day.
In the roof of an old barn a few feet from the Old Thorney Down – a farm and former pub beside the Blandford-Salisbury road – is a beam inscribed with the words ‘G West vs S Davis 2nd June 1837’ (image opposite).
This may have been a bare-knuckle fight, although research by a former neighbour suggests it was a kick-fight in which the protagonists placed their hands on each other’s shoulders and hacked at each other’s shins until one of them gave up or collapsed.
Eighteenth-century landlords of the Thorney Down (aka the Blacksmith’s Arms and the King’s Arms) included smugglers Isaac Gulliver and his father-in-law, William Beale.
Set in an outside door is a tiny window, measuring six inches by five inches, which lined up with other windows along the main passage and enabled the inhabitants to see who was at the door and make good their escape if necessary (see above).
The Old Thorney Down is in the midst of Cranborne Chase which, until it was de-forested in 1830, was a haven for smugglers, poachers and criminals of every kind.
Battles between gamekeepers and poachers were legion – but that’s another story …