AS I drove over to Sturminster Newton on Saturday afternoon to see Taboo Theatre’s new site-specific play, The Miller’s Daughter, a caller on Any Answers was responding to President Putin’s derogatory comments about liberalism.
The caller claimed that he didn’t know anybody who didn’t agree that liberalism was obsolete, that immigration and gay marriage were bad things, that caning should be brought back to schools and that capital punishment should be reintroduced. Asked when he thought things were right, he replied: “the Victorian period.”
Sitting outside the ancient Sturminster Mill, in the glorious June sunshine, enjoying a thought-provoking dramatisation of a slice of social history in Victorian Dorset, I wondered how that caller would have felt if he was transported back to his dream-time … to a time when three children – the oldest just 12 – could be imprisoned for taking dead wood from a hedgerow, when labourers were hired daily (the Victorian equivalent of zero hours contracts), when the landlord could enclose his estates for hunting, and deprive farmworkers of grazing for their cow or pig and a scrap of land to grow vegetables.
The Rev Harry Farr Yeatman, who owned Stock Gaylard, a couple of miles from Sturminster Mill, was chairman of the Dorset and Somerset Magistrates, a man doubtless of the highest moral rectitude, but with no compassion, empathy or indeed interest in the plight of the poor, many of whom were starving. If they couldn’t cope, there was always the workhouse.
But unlike the wicked squires in novels by Charles Dickens or Mrs Gaskell, Yeatman was a real person, and as evoked by Tony Benge and Sue Ashby, and portrayed by Robert Cowley, was a paragon of Victorian virtues.
The setting for The Miller’s Daughter was the mill, and the central character, in a story that was entirely drawn from local history, was Mary Baverstock, beautifully played (and sung) by Jess Mash. She is the daughter of the bad-tempered miller (Craig White) and his wife Sarah (Tania White).
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.
Later a group of angry locals come to the mill, and pin up a notice protesting about poor wages and the impact of mechanisation. The notice is signed by “Captain Swing” – the fictitious name of the mythical leader of the Swing Riots, which began in Kent in the summer of 1830 and by late autumn had spread across much of the country, including Dorset’s Blackmore Vale.
The play draws on real events – the riot at Stour Provost, the arrival of the dragoons, the imprisonment of the three children of Eliza Sweetman (Rosie Stonier), and the support given to poor labourers by the philanthropic vicar’s wife, Mrs Michel (Linda Cowley).
It was only four years later that the Tolpuddle Martyrs were convicted of swearing a secret oath as members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers and transported to Australia. The charge resulted from the actions of local landowner and magistrate James Frampton. You could see a brother-in-heartlessness in the character of the Rev Yeatman.
Congratulations to writers Tony and Sue and to the versatile and talented cast of Taboo Theatre for bringing this powerful and sadly still relevant story to vivid life.
A return to Victorian values? No, thank you.
Pictured: Jess Mash as Mary Baverstock; Craig White as Baverstock the Miller, with Robert Cowley as the local constable; the Rev Harry Yeatman (Robert Cowley) confronts Mrs Michel (Linda Cowley), watched by Mary and Sarah Baverstock.