Ashmore to Zig Zag Hill – New Book And Shaftesbury Talk Featuring Old Dorset Postcards

There is huge interest in old photos that reveal how our area has changed over time. David Burnett is coming to Shaftesbury to talk about his ‘Lost Dorset’ book, a selection of 350 rural Dorset postcards, picked from a collection of over 10,000.

David Burnett has gained the respect of academics, historians and Dorset-lovers for his work in documenting the county’s heritage through his Dovecote Press publishing company. “I started in 1974. I found a box of old photographs upstairs in the County Museum which hadn’t really seen the light of day. Nobody paid much attention to old photographs at that time. I looked at them and thought, ‘Blimey, there’s got to be a book here somewhere’,” David explained, as we chatted in Shaftesbury Arts Centre, the venue for his forthcoming evening of postcards, stories and Dorset nostalgia.

David Burnett

He followed his gut instinct that people would be interested if he published books featuring old Dorset pictures and, luckily, he was right. “We had absolutely no money. The bank manager wouldn’t lend us any to do it. We took out an overdraft and I set off in my Morris 1000 Traveller with all the books in the back. We got to Blandford and they took three copies of the book and then I got to Shaftesbury and they took five copies at ‘The Book in Hand’. It was in Bell Street,” recalled David, as he remembered the Shaftesbury of the mid-1970s.

“When I got home, my wife Sarah rushed down the drive and said, ‘Blandford have sold out. They want another ten’. Then the book got on the six o’clock news on Southern TV. We sold all two-and-a-half thousand in six weeks flat and Dovecote Press was born.”

David’s decision was quite a gamble back then. There wasn’t the yearning for nostalgic content that we know today. “At that point, local history had been largely overlooked. It was pamphlets by retired vicars about their churches. There were a lot of bookshops in the county. Printing technology was changing and suddenly they could do a book much easier than before. It just made the whole thing possible and people began to become curious about Dorset,” said David.

There are Facebook groups which feature old images of Dorset and plenty of online resource material for those interested in the Shaftesbury area’s pictorial heritage, but David says it’s wrong to assume that the internet has overtaken the desire to pick up a book. “If you make your book an attractive price and make it look good, there’s still a place for proper printed books,” he said.

David is pleased with his latest image-heavy release, ‘Lost Dorset’. He has filled the book with Dorset postcards produced between 1880 and 1920. During that period postcards were big business. “There were 9 million postcards a year being posted by 1900.”

David’s chosen pictures truly speak ‘a thousand words’ and, in many cases, remind readers of a long-forgotten rural way of life. Flicking through the pages, it was curious to see how busy some of the countryside locations, were. “All the ones in this book are rural. If you’re the Shaftesbury town photographer, you get in your pony and trap, and you go to Melbury Abbas. There are people everywhere,” said David.

“The countryside is a lonely place now,” he added. “Everybody goes out to work or they’re retired. There is one tractor driver doing all the farms, but in the 1890s, there were carters, woodmen and milkmaids. The village was a living organism. All the village primary schools and the shops were running. The photographer arrived there, and all those children were bound to rush out into the street to look at you as you set up your apparatus.”

There are a lot of pictures of Ashmore in David’s book. Apparently, a keen cameraman had a soft spot for Dorset’s highest village. “There was a very good photographer in Blandford who liked going out to Ashmore. The pond gave it a focus. There are six or seven postcards from Ashmore that were issued in the early days.”

‘Lost Dorset’ is a great book to curl up with and lose yourself in. Some of the photos will surprise you. The bleak and bare appearance of Zig Zag Hill, today a green, wooded space, is one example. “It’s so different now you just can’t believe it,” said David. “At that particular time, there was a big pond at the bottom of the hill where all the horses took water before beginning the great big climb. It was dual carriageway effectively as well, which you can’t even credit now. There were two long pulls, one up and one down. It was part of the turnpikes in the mid-19th century. The route was totally different prior to that,” he said.

As we are heading towards a general election, it is timely that David included some election pictures. A photograph of a vehicle plastered with snappy slogans warning of threats to British jobs, suggests that little has changed in a century. David explains that there has been major reform of the electoral system since that picture was taken. “The working man in the countryside only got the vote in 1885. And women weren’t going to get it until 1919, after the First World War. You had a much smaller suffrage.”

As you might expect in a book of photographs of rural Dorset, the street scenes feature many images of thatched cottages. David explained that better communications threatened to alter the appearance of Dorset’s villages at this time. “Welsh slates are beginning to arrive. The railway had enabled goods to be imported. Everything was changing. You didn’t need to go and get your thatch from the River Stour any longer, you could get slate,” he said.

David has undertaken significant research in preparing his captions for his 350 pictures. “I went to the location of every single postcard that’s in here to see what is there now. That was fascinating because, in some cases, nothing has changed at all. There’s a postcard of Farnham, which shows that village on top of Cranborne Chase. The wooden railings are now iron but, apart from that, it’s completely identical.”

The book features postcards that present snapshots of everyday life, including village stores crammed with products. “The shop was the focal point because it was the Post Office as well. It sold absolutely everything, from paraffin for your lamps to candles.”

In communities like Enmore Green, the village school was at the centre of local life and David has included an image of it. “It’s an interior of a classroom with a little pot-bellied stove and little raised benches for the girls and for the boys. You think about those children growing up at that time and what lay ahead for them and the changes that were going to come over their lives,” said David.

Out of all the pictures in the book, David has a favourite. “The most curious is a photograph of a gypsy woman. She had just had a baby on Bulbarrow Hill in 1902,” said David, as he showed me a postcard of the family in a ‘bender’, a tent-like structure, with a rabbit hanging from the front and a crow sitting on the roof.

“The gypsy woman is holding her baby in her arms. The husband is standing by with his pipe in his mouth, looking proud. The doctor and the midwife are both there. The doctor has his medical cabinet wide open and the midwife is wearing her uniform. This is within a few hours of the baby having been born,” marvelled David. He wondered whether they notified the photographer, Mr Pottle from Blandford, to come out and photograph this great event.

“I found out a little bit more about this family,” added David. “This girl was one of sixteen children born to this couple. One of them, Caroline, went on to become a famous folk singer of gypsy songs in the 1950s and 1960s. Pete Seeger and Ewan MacColl collected her music. Thanks to the English Folk Song and Dance Society, they found me a CD of gypsy songs with her singing on it. There’s this wonderfully cracked broken voice singing a song recorded in 1955.”

The huge number of Dorset postcards that David has available to him makes his job of selecting images more difficult. “It is how much to leave out really. You’ve got to somehow use the caption to bring the picture to life, but you don’t want to say too much because the picture is the dominant thing. It’s a balancing act. The picture takes precedence.”

The latest release is about our county’s rural areas, but David’s next publication will feature many Shaftesbury images. “Next year, we’re doing the follow-up book, which is going to be ‘Lost Dorset – The Towns’,” he said. “Shaftesbury will play an important role. We’ve finally found a photograph of Gold Hill from about 1880, which is going to go on the cover. It’s a very early hand-coloured postcard. We’ve been through all the postcards and we’ve got 600 at the moment. We’ve now got to whittle them down to 350 to make sense of it all.”

David will talk at Shaftesbury Arts Centre at 7.30pm on Friday 22nd November. He intends using selected pictures to illustrate the immense upheaval and social change in rural Dorset during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. “I’m going to try and show about forty images from the book. When I started, I had a rather romantic view of Dorset in the late 19th century.”

David said Hardy influenced that notion. “Then I started reading about it and looking at the postcards more carefully. I began to realise this was a pretty dark time in Dorset’s history. There was a lot of emigration and people were leaving. American corn and wheat were coming in from the prairies, undercutting English wheat. Refrigeration was bringing in New Zealand and Australian lamb, which was having the same impact. Land prices were falling. Farm workers were losing their cottages and a lot were demolished. It’s not a happy time,” he said.

David is keen to uncover certain photographs from Shaftesbury’s past. “The ceremony of the Byzant and early photographs or postcards of that, for example. Or water coming up from Motcombe. The water carts bringing the water up the hill would be good to see,” said David.

And if you have postcard images of old Shaftesbury, he’d love to have a look at them as well. “Any postcards that show the town or the surrounding villages between the birth of the postcard in the 1880s, right up to the end of the First World War. I would be riveted to see any of them,” he said.