TABOO Theatre company gave an indoor performance of their originally-site-specific show The Miller’s Daughter at the Exchange at Sturminster Newton, and it may be the precursor to further development of the play for a tour.
First performed at Sturminster Mill in the heat of the summer, Tony Benge and Sue Ashby’s play deals with the effects of poverty on the rural poor in North Dorset in Victorian times. Three children – the oldest of them only 12 years old – were imprisoned for taking dead wood from a hedgerow. Labourers were hired daily on the Victorian equivalent of zero hours contracts, a landlord could enclose his estate for hunting, depriving farmworkers of grazing for their cow or pig and a scrap of land to grow vegetables.
The play’s characters include the Rev Harry Farr Yeatman, owner of Stock Gaylard, chairman of the Dorset and Somerset Magistrates, a man with no compassion for or indeed in the plight of the poor, many of whom were starving. This paragon of Victorian virtues was played by Robert Cowley.
At the mill, the ill tempered father (Craig White) and his wife Sarah (Tania White) tried to dominate their spirited daughter Mary Baverstock, beautifully played and sung by Jess Mash. As Mary locks up the mill for the night, a young boy limps up, his leg raw and bleeding, shaking and almost incoherent. Robert Pike (Matt Rawson) was one of a group of young men arrested at Stour Provost for smashing machinery and taken to the Shaftesbury lock-up, from where they escaped.
The story draws on true events – the riot at Stour Provost, the arrival of the dragoons, the imprisonment of the three children of Eliza Sweetman (Rosie Stonier in a lovely performance by Annie Henschel, who joined the company for the Exchange), and the support given to poor labourers by the philanthropic vicar’s wife, Mrs Michel (Linda Cowley).
Four years later the Tolpuddle Martyrs were convicted of swearing a secret oath as members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers and transported to Australia.
Tony, Sue and the company are hoping to develop the play and tour the expanded version around Dorset during 2020. Look out for it. It’s a fascinating look at local history in a time when the rural life is once again under threat from an urban-centric society.