Thursday 23 July 1987

West Wiltshire In Newspapers 200 Years Ago


Helen Rogers was the guest speaker at the July 1987 meeting of the Warminster History Society. The subject of Helen's talk was "West Wiltshire, 200 years ago, as seen through the newspapers," and this gave a fresh picture of how our ancestors lived and thought.

The Salisbury Journal covered the area in 1787, and came out every Monday. A large part of its contents was national news extracted from the London newspapers almost at random by the proprietors, the Collins family, although an item on Lord Weymouth's debts was obviously chosen to interest local readers.

Ideas of crime and punishment were inhuman to our eyes, and the reports of the Assizes, where petty criminals were hanged or transported, are distressing to read.

Humour was sometimes conveyed in the marriage columns - always the subject of much merriment was a young bridegroom marrying an older woman. The extistence of the bride's "genteel fortune" was usually mentioned in these cases!

Assemblies and balls provided a distraction in the long winter months, and were usually held on moonlit nights. Theatricals, comic operas and pantomimes also took place in all the Wiltshire towns.

In better weather feasts were held - the Carnation Feast at Trowbridge, the Auricula Feast at Salisbury, and the Cucumber Feast at Devizes.

Sports were always popular and Warminster boasted an excellent backthorn team.

Advertisements reveal as much as anything about life in 1787: stagecoach times and routes, houses to let (newly-built Job's Mill at Crockerton, the Manor at Norton Bavant, and Baynton House were three of these), and the twilight of the clothing industry before mechanisation took it into large mill buildings is to be seen in advertisements for clothier's houses with workshops attached.

The contents of shops, businesses changing hands and situations wanted and vacant reveal much; and twice a year the great number of small schools in the area advertised for pupils, giving details of their curriculum.

Mrs Helen Rogers suggested that if the clock was turned back 200 years, the first thing one would notice was that most people had some kind of physical disability. Descriptions of wanted people nearly always referred to some visible peculiarity, and disorders of the skin seemed widespread to judge from the number of lotions and potions for sale.

Surprisingly, the two most important changes to affect Wiltshire people at this time were not mentioned: the enclosure movement was radically altering the countryside, and the roads were coming under Turnpike Trusts and were being altered and improved. Reports of rumblings of revolution in France were also absent.

Mrs Rogers was thanked for her excellent lecture by Howard Freer.