19th Century Lyme Regis, Part I

Mill Green, the working class part of town. On Whit Sunday 1890 a flash flood swept down the Lym Valley damaging and flooding many dwellings. It also swept away the top part of Gosling Bridge, as shown in the photograph

ROSE tinted accounts of the time came from the pens of the upper-classes whose perceptions were witnessed from a privileged perspective.

The writers moved within a society considered to be of their equals and as a consequence had minimal contact outside it. Their world involved social visits, parties, dining out, dances and balls.

The Assembly Rooms was the focal point of their social activity; it was situated in what is now the Cobb Gate car park.

Membership was, of course, restricted to those who met the criteria of being acceptable in polite society.

Lyme was reported to be “a town where the resident gentry make every effort to ensure that respectable families and those of distinction will find their visit most agreeable”.

However, when Jane Austen, accompanied by her maid, visited the town in the summer of 1804 she complained about her lodgings in Pyne House.

She wrote: “Nothing can exceed the inconvenience of the offices (toilets) except the general dirtiness of the house, its furniture and all its inhabitants.”

That she held strong views on the status quo is illustrated when she commented on a family related to an Irish Viscount as being “just fit to be quality at Lyme”.

Income very much determined quality of life and, to some degree, status.

In 1825 a married gentleman with two or three children could run his household and afford to employ two maids on £300 a year. In comparison, a general labourer’s income was at a subsistence level of £39 a year; a skilled worker might earn £60; while agriculture workers were fortunate if they earned £30 a year.

Most of the poor lived in the lower part of the town in the Sherborne Lane and Mill Green area. For the most part, it was low lying and adjacent to the river, which at times was little more than an open sewer.

It was a situation that harked back to earlier centuries. Living conditions for the poor were wretched, over-crowded dwellings that were little more than slums.

Poor sanitation only increased the risk of disease and death; it is not surprising that cholera was an ongoing problem. The year 1849 marked the onset of a cholera epidemic, the working-class suffered the most.

It was not just poor living conditions that the poor had to contend with; bread prices throughout the century was a contentious issue, at one time the cost of a loaf had been as high as two shillings – almost two days’ pay for a labourer!

Working-class families were spending much of their weekly income on bread, flour or oatmeal, it being a major part of their diet. Meat was an expensive luxury so the town’s butchers were kept busy on a Sunday morning when they sold off their scrap meat.

Although there was a daily fish market prices were often beyond the poor. However, large shoals of sprats did at times provide a cheap alternative.

It was said “that many a poor man had something savoury to eat with his dry bread”.

To be continued…

Peter Lacey
Local author and historian 

Woodmead Halls

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