18th and 19th century Dorset

Hardship in 18th and 19th century Dorset

Dorset button making
Dorset button

The 18th and 19th centuries were characterized by intense economic hardship and the resulting social unrest. Most people in Dorset were waged laborers and small tenants with very few rights. Work was scarce and the first food riots took place as early as 1756 and 1764.

Some women were lucky enough to be involved in button-making, a primary industry in Dorset for over a century. Initially the buttons were made from a disk of horn from a Dorset sheep, covered with cloth and fine tracery. When metal rings were imported from Birmingham to use instead of horn this cottage industry began to bring in serious money. Women workers, often the sole breadwinners, averaged 2 shillings a day for making 6 or 7 dozen buttons, which was much better money and conditions than farm work. When Mr Robert Fisher opened a depot at his draper's shop in the market place at Blandford Forum, sales were boosted still further.

The end of militia service in 1815 led to the demobilization of 250,000 soldiers. This, combined with the beginnings of mechanization, led to a serious economic crisis across the entire country. Riots began in early June in Kent and by mid-November they had spread to Dorset. Laborers went around violently breaking machines in a bid to get farmers to raise wages. Although the riots achieved a measure of success, it was short-lived.

The government were ruthless in meting out punishment and appointed a special commission of three judges to try prisoners in five counties including Dorset. Of the 57 prisoners who were tried, twelve were sent to Australia and Tasmania. The threshing machine became a symbol of misery for the people of Dorset, as portrayed in Thomas Hardy's novel, 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles.', soon to be joined by the button-making machine. Near-starvation hit many families across the county, with hundreds either emigrating or ending up at the workhouse.

In direct response to the food riots of 1830 the men of Tolpuddle instigated a 'Friendly Society of Agricultural Laborers', vowing not to accept any work for less than ten shillings a week. Unfortunately six members were arrested on charge of making an unlawful oath (even at the time an outdated and irrelevant law) and sent to the new world for seven years. The actions of the 'Tolpuddle Martyrs', who garnered huge public support, directly led to the creation of the Trades Unions. In 1934 the Trades Union Congress, who meet every year in Tolpuddle, built six memorial cottages in their honour.