The Dunn Family Tragedy at Charmouth in 1856
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Dunn family of Charmouth

Whilst inputting the burials of Charmouth I came cross these very sad entries.

Emily Dunn buried 12 th September 1852 aged 10
Angelina Dunn buried 15 th September 1852 aged 9
Albert Dunn buried 16 th September 1852 aged 7
Amanda Dunn buried 18 th September 1852 aged 2
Emma Dunn buried 19 th September 1852 aged 16
Absalom Dunn buried 23 rd September 1852 aged 13
Robert S. Andrew Dunn buried 24 th September 1852 aged 13
Adelaide Dunn buried 29 th September 1852 aged 4
I did not know if they were siblings or part of a wider Dunn family so I looked up the family on findmypast and found them on the 1851 census living at Lower Sea Lane, Charmouth and they were indeed all from the same family. With all these deaths it meant that there was only one child remaining Cornelius who was 10 at the time of his sibling's deaths. He died in 1861 aged 19. I found the marriage of the parents Andrew Dunn to Miriam Spurel at Whitchurch Canonicorum on 24 th May 1836 at which time Andrew was a widower and a carpenter. I can find no other trace of Andrew or Miriam, not on the 1861 census or burials. There was a Miriam buried in Charmouth on 21 st June 1885 but her age is given as 87 which makes her 16 years older, though of course this could be her.
I wonder what caused all these deaths, there was no evidence of an epidemic sweeping through the village as there were not any other great number of people dying at the same time. Perhaps it was a fire? Unless I pay for a death certificate or somebody from Charmouth knows about this I will never know what happened to these 8 children.
I could not find the parents anywhere on the 1861 census and I even looked for the neighbours from the 1851 census but could find no trace after 1851 of Lower Sea Lane on any census.

It came as rather a shock to read about the terrible tragedy that occurred in a village within the space of just 1 month when 8 young children died. I had never read about it before, as there was no reference in Reginald Pavey's comprehensive notes on Charmouth or in any books that I was aware of. I did of course check the Church records for St. Andrews and it confirmed the events. I was fortunate, as recently the British Library has been digitising their vast collection of Newspapers and after awhile was able to locate a small piece regarding the catastrophe in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette for 6th November 1852. It was mainly to do with the area as a whole but made a specific reference to our village as follows:
"In the parish of Charmouth malignant scarltina has proved fatal in the family of a mechanic (consisting of himself, wife and 10 children). Within 3 weeks 7 of the children died, and today I have notice of another death in the same family. The medical attendant informs me the children were all predisposed to malignant disease, having but little stamina and being ill fed and not properly attended to in the first instance. I cannot trace the disease to malaria or any atmospheric agency, as the disease is confined to the above family, and has not spread at all". Scarlitina is the old name for Scarlet fever, which is an infectious disease that most commonly affects young children. Symptoms include sore throat, fever and a characteristic red rash and it is usually spread by inhalation. Today it would be treated with antibiotics.
I then checked the earlier Census for 1851, which confirmed them living in Lower Sea Lane in that year. There were very few buildings there and the only place I could see where they would be living is one of the squalid thatched cottages that had been built by Mathew Lock in 1823. The ground was known as "Stocking and Charity Land" as the rent from it was originally for the benefit of seaman and seamen's wives given in stockings and shoes. They were subsequently burnt down and the land sold off in 1921 and "Greengates" and "Way Along" were built there.
The 1851 Census shows the Dunn's neighbours as William and Ann Bradford who had 6 children and the last of these is 4 month Charlotte. Two years later she is shown as being buried the month before the deaths of the Dunn's children and may well have been the originator of the Scarlet Fever.
The records show Andrew Dunn, already widowed at the age of 30, when he married Miriam Spurel at Whitchurch Canonicorum on 24th May 1836. He had previously married Martha Cozens just 6 years before in Charmouth. He is always described as a Carpenter and no doubt worked for his brother Samuel who employed a number of his family and workmen in the village on his many jobs, which included building houses. His detailed Daybooks have survived and can still be seen at Dorset Record Office and give a window on the village at that time. He lived and worked in a group of buildings on the Axminster Road. But his business went into decline and in 1848 he went bankrupt and his house was auctioned in July of that year. His brother Andrew's fortunes must have suffered and he moves from Axminster Road to the small cottage in Lower Sea Lane. His must have been a tragic life after losing all but one of his children and his first wife, and his was an early death in 1859.
His wife, Miriam appears on the 1881 Census for Charmouth aged 77, formerly a nurse living in a thatched cottage, which was lost in a fire in 1894, near where the Post Office is today. She is described as lodging with a Maria Darke, who herself is shown as a Pauper. Her lonely life finally ends in Charmouth in 1885.
I find it astonishing that all this was going on during a period in village history when a number of fine houses were being built along The Street for the wealthy families who were moving into it at the time. It was from the poorer classes that the servants and agricultural workers came, and they must have led impoverished lives. This is bought home by an article in the Illustrated London News of that time which describes the poverty existing in Dorset and has a number of revealing engravings of the terrible conditions they found. Neil Mattingly

"In the parish of Charmouth malignant scarltina has proved fatal in the family of a mechanic (consisting of himself, wife and 10 children). Within 3 weeks 7 of the children died, and today I have notice of another death in the same family. The medical attendant informs me the children were all predisposed to malignant disease, having but little stamina and being ill fed and not properly attended to in the first instance. I cannot trace the disease to malaria or any atmospheric agency, as the disease is confined to the above family, and has not spread at all".Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 6th November 1852 An extract from the Registrars Quarterly Returns for Axminster

London Daily News 3rd November 1852

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 6th November 1852
1851 Census for Charmoutrh showing Dunn family living in Lower Sea Lane
Andrew had previously married Martha Cozens in 1830 in Charmouth
Scarlet fever (also called scarlatina in older literature) [ 1 ] is an infectious disease which most commonly affects 4-8 year old children. Symptoms include sore throat, fever and a characteristic red rash. Scarlet fever is usually spread by inhalation. There is no vaccine, but the disease is effectively treated with antibiotics .
from the Western Times ,17th June 1848 15th July 1848.
Albert Dunn`s Burial in Charmouth Parish Records for the year 1859
1881 Census for Miriam Dunn showing her aged 77, formerly a nurse living in a building, where the Post Office is today, but lost in a fire in 1894. She is desribed as Lodger living with a Maria Darke, who is shown as a Pauper,
The photograph was taken by James Harrison from the Rectory. In the foreground is the Rectory garden and the field belongiing to the Elms, beyond that is Single Common. The Thatched cottages where "Greengates" and "Way Along" stand were built on "Stocking and Charity Land", they were subsequently burnt down and the land sold off in 1921.
East of 'The Court' in the early part of the nineteenth century Samuel Dunn (born 1791)occupied a house and workshop, owned by Robert Knight. Dunn built the cholera house in 1834 which cost £24. I have already mentioned in Part I that ho made a shower bath for Miss Haycock. I wish he had told us more about her and where she lived. However she kept bees as Dunn made a new patent hive for her. I gather the shower bath was a success as he also made one for Mrs. Hawtree, the cost of which was 3/-.Mr. Burnard, well known in the village in the 1830s and a great supporter of the chapel, apparently had an unpleasant smell in his house and on November 1st. 1834 Dunn had to take down cosings, whatever that was, and found a dead rat. His charge was 1/4 and 6d for nails and tax. Which I think he meant tacks. (What curious items you can find in a builder's Day Book). He did a great deal of work at Catherston for Mr. and Mrs. Rose, throwing Timber. He repainted the chapel in May of that year, and spent many hours in the church which was beginning to show signs, of decay. He was also an undertaker. His wife was Charlotte Jefford of Uplyme and they had a, daughter - Eliza - who married his carpenter William Hoare. You can't miss their tomb as you walk up the Street, it is against the wall by the stump of the tree outside ''The Elms". His workmen were many, amongst them were Andrew, Phillip, his brothers I presume, and his father, also William Hoare and Wheaton. Andrew lived in a house owned by Smith and Fellows in 1839- Hoare was a clever carpenter and made the model of the old church. He lived, if he did not build it, in "Portland Cottage" and was a great friend of Thomas Tarr. Dunn afterwards went to live in the Axminster Road, and his workshop was owned by John Alwood. His chief work was being clerk of the works when the church was being built.
1841 Tithe Map showing
1880 Ordnance Survey Map
The Peasantry of Dorsetshire.
(From The London Illustrated News, 5th September 1846,)

    The attention of the public has of late been drawn to the condition of the labouring population of Dorsetshire by a series of graphic letters which have appeared within the last three or four months in the Times journal The inquiry is a subject of paramount interest at a time when the increase of the comfort of the labouring classes is largely occupying the consideration of philanthropists; and the careful collection of such information as is contained in these documents must, doubtless prove of beneficial aid towards this great work of social improvement.     Several passages in these letters promised fit opportunities for the Artist's skill; and the illustrations which we now submit to the reader are the result of a short journey in one of the districts visited by the Times' Correspondent, and described, though rather fiscally than as to the precise localities, in his communications.     The first of our Illustrations is a fair specimen of a village in Dorset - Whitchurch, on the road from Blandford to Dorchester and, as an inscription upon one of the cottages states "109 miles from Hyde Park Corner." The scene has attracted our Artist by its picturesqueness. The cottages are built with mud walls' composed of road scrapings, chalk and straw: the inundation is of stone or brick, and on this the mud wall is built in regular Layers, each of which is allowed to dry and harden before another is put oven it, Every dwelling is thatched, as are also the garden walls: these are frequently built of the above cheap materials, the top being protected from the weather by the small roof of thatch, which extends. a few inches over each side. A specimen of the thatched wall not entirely peculiarly to Dorset is shown in the left-hand corner of the Engraving.

   "Another fruitful source of misery, as well as immorality, is the great in-adequacy of the number and size of the houses to the number of the population. and the consequently crowded state of their habitations, which in Dorsetshire generally, and in Stourpain particularly, afford the most limited accommodation.

   "The want of proper ventilation in these houses must be to the last degree detrimental to the health of the inhabitants; the atmosphere, especially of the sleeping apartments. to an unpractised nose is almost insupportable. It is, perhaps, worthy of remark that dishes, plates, and other articles of crockery, seem almost unknown; there is, however, the less need for them, as grist bread forms the principal, and I believe only kind of food which falls to the labourer's lot. In no single instance did I observe meat of any kind during my progress through the parish. The furniture is such as may be expected from the description I have given of the place - rickety table and two or three foundered chairs generally forming the extent of the upholstery. Want, famine, and misery, are the features of the village, and yet I am credibly informed that the peasant of the Vale of Blackmore and the western parts of the country is as hungry, emaciated, and squalid a being as the denizen of Stourpain.

    "From this picture of a Dorsetshire parish, it may be readily gathered that apathy and indifference on the part of the landed proprietor, and the grasping and closefisted policy of the farmer, are the causes of the prevailing distress. The default of the one is apparent in his neglect to provide proper habitations in which the labourer may bring up his family in comfort and decency. In no county, notwithstanding the universal increase of population, is the want of new cottages so apparent, and the neglect of the landlord, in this point at least, so conspicuous. The latter, in withholding from the man who serves him a just and reasonable reward for his services, is acting neither wisely nor honourably. Both seem to have forgotten, or at least to have shut their eyes to the undoubted fact, that one of the surest methods of consulting the public advantage, is to secure to the lower class comfort and competence."

    Of the parish of Handley, in the same district, the Correspondent gives the following details :-
" Some of the cottages in the village, from continual neglect. and the total absence of repair, are rendered insecure to that degree, that the inmates must be in a continual state of 'fear and trembling. ' One of these tenements, the property of the parish deserves particular attention. A labourer and his family-in all, eight persons - are the occupiers of this hovel, in which there is but one bedroom for their accommodation. There is a small opening, about a foot square, in this apartment, which is unglazed and serves the purpose of a window. The numerous crack and fissures in the walls, which on every side present themselves, denote that at no very distant period this disgrace to the parish in which it stands will effectually remove itself The furniture in the lower room, which, in every respect, corresponds with the upper one, consists of one chair, of most antique and unsafe appearance; two tables, which may be referred to an equally remote period; and a rude wooden bench, about four feet long. The rents of most of the houses in this parish vary from ls. to ls.6d. per week."

    Our interior illustration is a specimen of a labourer's cottage, in the Blandford district, with somewhat nearer approach to comfort than the above. Still, the furniture is poor and scanty; and the cradle, in which the infant is asleep, consists of rough boards, clumsily nailed together. The walls and ceiling, too, have wide fissures. The little girl seated in the chair is a portrait, and the neatness with which her hair is arranged, is by no means singular, among the children of the poor in this county.

    The Blandford district is however, far from an unfavourable specimen of Dorsetshire and its labouring classes; and the Times Correspondent found Corfe in a much worse condition: he thus speaks of the cottages:-
"Judging from the filthy appearance of the walls, which are black with age and dirt, one feels disposed to imagine that the art of making whitewash, like that of staining glass, is lost. Here and there the bare laths of the partitions, which have been long denuded of their coat of plaster, are to be seen, and contribute to the comfortless and wretched appearance of the place. I may here observe, and the remark will apply to every part of the county I have hitherto visited, that nowhere, especially among the younger part of the population, have I met with so many cases of personal deformity, as well as other natural defects, such as deafness, dumbness, and idiocy, the causes of which I think may clearly be traced to the want of proper and sufficient food, and the general mode of life which prevails among the lower classes."

    Nor are the roadside characteristics more promising:-
"In passing through the different villages which lie scattered along the road the attention is often arrested by the frail and miserable appearance of the cottages, many of which are supported by props, and, in fact, every contrivance for keeping falling and tottering walls together seems to be resorted to; and occasionally an open door, which reveals a mud floor and the usual heap of squalid half clothed children rolling upon it, serves to remind you that you are in Dorsetshire."

    The Group of labourers in the annexed page is an average specimen of the Peasantry. We quote a few details;--
There is one custom which prevails among the farmers of this country which seems extraordinary. It is the repugnance they exhibit to regard a young and unmarried man (with respect to his wages) in any other light than that of a mere boy. Those who, to use the words of Bardolph, are not 'accommodated with a wife,' are usually paid at the rate of 5s. or sometimes 6s. per week. Not that there is any difference in the nature of the employment, or in the amount of exertion expected from him; in this respect, at least, he is on a par with his married competitor; he works as hard and as many hours in the day, and is at all times, and for all purposes, considered as a person of mature age, with the exception of the day on which he receives his wages. On that occasion he descends from man's estate, dwindles into a mere boy, and is paid accordingly.

    "The shepherds and carters generally, but by no means universally, enjoy some trifling privileges. In some instances, they live rent free, and have 8s. per week, which is more than the ordinary run of wages. This is intended as a compensation for their being debarred from the benefit of 'tut-work,' which the nature of their employment, and the additional time required for the performance of their duties, prevent their undertaking. 'Tut-work' is regarded as one of the principal advantages of the Dorsetshire labourer; and here it will be proper to enumerate the privileges he enjoys, first, however, premising that they are similar to those enjoyed by the labourer of other counties, where his exertions meet with a much more substantial reward in 'hard money.' 'Tut-work' is, in other words, working by the piece" or job, of which the labourer sometimes avails himself, when he has the opportunity, in order to increase his pittance of wages. In some instances the labourer is allowed a small piece of ground by his master, for the purpose of raising a crop of potatoes, etc., but this is far from an universal privilege."

    One of the county newspapers, however, lately cited a more "Arcadian picture" from Corfe Castle and its vicinity:-
"We thought it was a good opportunity to interrogate several of the working labourers as to the wages they received, &c. To satisfy ourselves we took three or four as an example, and were highly gratified and pleased at the happy and contented manner In which they answered the different questions put to them. 'They all said their earnings throughout the year were eight shillings per week, and that many in the villages earned extra wages in hay and corn harvest. They each had a good cottage to dwell in (wind and water tight), and always kept in good repair; added to this was a good sized piece of garden-ground well stocked; each had also a quarter of an acre of potato ground, and so much fuel as they could burn by going after it. For all these comforts they paid but £2 per annum, and expressed themselves as being perfectly happy and comfortable."