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  • Writer's pictureJessica Feinstein

Mary Ayres from Church Knowle

Mary was one of Ari’s 6x great-grandmothers. She was born in Church Knowle in Dorset in 1787, and baptised at St Peter’s church in the spring of that year.

On Christmas Day, 1811, Mary married a labourer called William Orchard.

Dorset, England, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538–1812

Luckily for us, William was examined by two Justices of the Peace on 12 July 1817 because he had asked for parish support. The record of this examination gives us some wonderful evidence. He tells us that he had hired himself out to work for a Mr Voss of Orchard in Church Knowle for eleven months for nine guineas in wages. (The Voss family were landowners and farmers.) He served his time and received his wages, signing on again for four more years. He says that about four years ago he married Mary, his present wife, “by whom he has three children now living, viz. John aged about four years, William aged about 3 years and Robert aged about a year”. He states that “he has done no further Act or thing whereby to gain a Settlement to the best of his knowledge and belief – and that he has asked for relief of the Overseers of Swanage but has been refused.” The record does not show what happened next, so we don't know whether he got any help.

After this, they had at least another six children.

In the 1841 census they are living in West Street, Corfe Castle. William and Mary are both fifty, and their sons George (20) and James (9) are at home.

The 1851 census shows that William is a pauper working in the clay pits, and the record says “Ditto” for Mary. James is also a labourer in the clay pits. They may have been the recipients of some seasonal benevolence in the form of rice and figs:

Poole & Dorset Herald, 27 December 1855. Image © The British Library Board.

An article in the London Evening Mail in July 1846 describes a visit to experience the “condition of the peasantry in Dorsetshire”. The author says that “the clay pits in the neighbourhood afford occupation and means of subsistence to a great body of the working classes, and the men employed in them usually earn from 9s up to 15s weekly. The want of sufficient house accommodation is most severely felt in Corfe. I found a man occupying a garret in the ‘poor-house’, where, in a single room in which I could barely stand upright, himself and his family, numbering eight individuals, are herded together.” The writer complains about the “impure and loathsome atmosphere” of this home, and asks the man why he does not find a more suitable dwelling for his family. The man tells him that houses are scarce and difficult to come by. The writer finishes his report by noting the “many cases of personal deformity, as well as natural defects, such as deafness, dumbness and idiocy, the causes of which I think may be traced to the want of proper and sufficient food, and the general mode of life which prevails among the lower classes”. He then went off to visit Beaminster, where he noted frail and miserable cottages with mud floors and “the usual heap of squalid half-clothed children rolling upon [them]”. He then no doubt rode back to London with his prejudices safely confirmed.

Mary died just a few weeks after the 1851 census, and was buried on 27 May.

Ari, this is how you are related to Mary:

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