Duke’s Gallery are delighted to be showing an exhibition by the, Mill Street Memories project detailing life from the turn of the century Dorchester. Featuring a fantastic archive of recently discovered photos of local Dorchester life alongside the voices from the past, the exhibition preserves an important and historic part of days gone by in Dorset’s county town.
The Mill Street Mission was founded in 1905 by Alfred Harman Edwards in the poorest part of the town where slum landlords let overcrowded, tumbled down, unsanitary housing. The need for good housing led him to set up the Mill Street Housing Society in 1931 to provide affordable housing in this poorest area of Dorchester; Mill Street in Fordington. Today, the Society still provides sheltered housing for the over 60s and affordable family homes. The Mill Street Memories project aims to collect memories, stories, photographs and record oral local history about this distinctive part of Dorchester, to preserve this history for generations to come.
At the turn of the 20th century, Dorset was described by some as still moving to the pace of the 18th. Thomas Hardy had immortalised the rural charm and beauty of the south-west with his mystical ‘Wessex’ taking centre stage in his world-famous novels. Dorchester held a particular place in his heart, but the quaintness of rural life didn’t come without its problems. Hardy renamed Mill Street ‘Mixen Lane’ in The Mayor of Casterbridge. The gathering of dark and damp dwellings set at the outskirts of Dorchester, ‘commanding a view across the moor of airy uplands and corn-fields, and mansions of the great’, is described as a ‘hiding-place of those who were in distress, and in debt and trouble of every kind’. Mill Street Housing Society’s secretary, Judith Dearlove, describes the area as ‘where the poorest families lived in crumbling cob cottages and tenements with few comforts – no piped water and outside toilets often shared by many different residents’.
Many residents of the area would struggle to get by with low wages and high rents – families and their lodgers would live up to nine in a room. In 1905 Alfred Edwards started the Mill Street Mission – with a pair of thatched cottages on Mill Street, offering a mission hall with a Sunday School for children. This became the centre of a flourishing community. A Youth Fellowship, Men’s Club, Women’s meeting and a Scout troop flourished. A soup kitchen, bath house and clothes washing facilities were provided. He was thought to be an avid photographer of his project, and more than 300 photographic plates have been discovered from his estate, detailing the daily lives of the residents of Mill Street and the beneficiaries of the project.
In the 1960’s the town council’s slum clearance project swept away the ancient, worn-in, twisting lanes, whilst the two-room buildings were replaced by houses and blocks of flats with a communal open space. The Mill Street Housing Society continues Edward’s values of affordable housing. The Mill Street Memories project could see that this vital and colourful history of Dorset life would disappear with the generation who lived there, and set out to prevent these memories from being lost.
Unearthing a forgotten local history, they have already developed two interactive information boards on Mill Street, created a “Mill Street Trail”, restored a coloured glass window from the now derelict mission hall and organised an exhibition. Members have also recorded the crucial oral history of the area – meeting up with residents of the project to have conversations about their early lives. These important words capture a unique perspective of the mission, and bring alive the voice of the past for us and future generations to appreciate.
These memories, photos and artefacts from the Mill Street Mission will be displayed at Duke’s Gallery from Monday 16th to Friday 20th January. Entry to the event will be free of charge, and the public of all ages are welcome to come and experience Dorchester in the early 20th century. The exhibition will be opened by Sir Philip Williams. His family have been involved with the Mill Street Housing Association since the beginning, and he is currently President of the Mill Street Housing Society and High Sheriff of Dorset for the ‘shreival year’ of 2016/17.