All you never knew you wanted to know about Dorset

Dr Mark Forrest, Dorset editor of SDNQ

Those who wonder about the origins of Dorset Christmas carols, aspects of the county’s church architecture, the practice of wife selling, beheading posture, bewitched farm animals or giant hailstones in Sherborne in the nineteenth century will doubtless be all too aware of Notes & Queries for Somerset and Dorset.

For such subjects – and myriad others – are tackled in its pages by contributors that range from professional teaching academics and post-graduate students, to dedicated amateur historians and recreational antiquarians. The oldest continuously published periodical of its kind,Notes & Queries for Somerset and Dorset, ‘SDNQ’ for short, has appeared every March and September since 1888 and is concerned with any and all facets of Dorset, its people, places, landscape, literature, customs and culture.

‘It’s like Wikipedia before there was Wikipedia,’ says Dorset editor Dr Mark Forrest, collections manager at Dorset History Centre. ‘It has it all, the breadth of subject matter is staggering.’ 

The ‘SDNQ’ was conceived in the autumn of 1887 by a group of antiquarians from Somerset and Dorset and based on similar ‘Notes and Queries’ journals in other counties that were intended as a ‘repository for the preservation of facts’. Today, only the Devon and Cornwall version – launched after Somerset and Dorset – survives.

The content is user-generated, being added to and revised in a constant evolution. Topics can spark debates that run for several issues, or lie dormant for decades until a chance discovery of something new re-ignites interest.

For instance, in volume one there is an article providing eye witness accounts of the ‘Great Storm’ of 1703, some 185 years earlier. In volume nine, completed in 1905, notable Weymouth antiquarian W Bowles Barrett found further references to the storm in the Melcombe Regis parish registers and asked if readers could supply others. Later in the same volume FL Hughes supplied a reference from a baptismal register. Another great storm in 1824 was referenced twice in volume 29 and in the September 2018 edition there is an article on the great hailstorm of 1870, only 148 years after the event, but no doubt not yet considered historic when the first ‘SDNQ’ was published.

The journal has recently benefitted from the completion of a consolidated index of its thirty-seven volumes – a project that was first discussed after just ten volumes. Some issues had already been digitised for access through the Find My Past website, but the project was completed with the advanced technical input of retired computer programmer John Palmer, who had previously indexed the Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society. Mark, ‘SDNQ’ secretary Ann Smith and former web editor Judith Ford then edited each page by hand in an apposite marriage of cutting edge technology and time honoured methods.

‘Since the index was published and made available on our website we have noted a marked increase in traffic to the site and the number of people using archive copies and requesting back issues,’ says Mark. ‘We’ve also seen a substantial increase in subscribers – for the last couple of years we have gained more than we have lost.’

The boom in family history research has also brought forward new contributors – often broadening their searches having found family connections to subjects. 

‘The readership is essentially a research pool so as editor it helps to be aware of what people are looking at so that I might be able to suggest it as a suitable topic for an article. We try to achieve a balance of subject matter and in recent years have deliberately taken a lighter touch. Everything is properly researched but we offer a place where an anecdote can be shared in isolation and not have to frame a debate as it would in a longer piece.

Bound volumes at Dorset History Centre where a complete sequence of the journal is available

‘Sometimes a contributor submits a note for its amusement value – in volume seven the election expenses at Corfe Castle in 1784 included payments of 13s per head to the 45 voters and 2s 6d ‘to two persons to protect the beer’.’

Subjects such as weather, genealogy, dialect, customs and the county’s history remain consistently popular, as have the eccentric and the peculiar. The study of heraldry and armorial bearings has ebbed and flowed but never gone away, although Victorian interest in the extremes of human growth – the tallest, shortest, heaviest, lightest, fattest, thinnest – has disappeared.

‘Other subjects have declined because we understand the world better,’ explains Mark offering the example of watercolour artist Henry Joseph Moule, the first curator of Dorset County Museum, who in 1891 wondered why the wild fowl had left ‘temperate Iceland’ for an unusually ‘arctic Dorset’ the previous winter.

‘Perhaps the most interesting way in which the archive is used today though is by students of social history who look at the content as evidence of what people were interested at a particular time and what that might say about that era.’

Where once the ‘SDNQ’ published full transcripts of documents in the original abbreviated Latin – and Mark asserts a readership still exists – since the mid-twentieth century it has published translations: ‘The court rolls of Portisham and Kingston Lacy presented in volume eight in their original Latin are hardly more accessible to the modern reader than the originals.’

However, the intellectual rigour that underpins contributions remains undiminished.

‘Reports are multidisciplinary and properly footnoted,’ says Mark, ‘but today they are published with more casual readers in mind as well as the specialists. I like to think a short article in ‘SDNQ’ might save a thousand-word footnote in an academic paper. It is a way of entering information into the record without the need to be definitive. It fascinates me that subjects can be hot topics for a few issues, then nothing for years until something new comes to light.’

The obscure medieval payment of White Hart Silver made in the Blackmore Vale was first mentioned in Volume 20 (1930-1932), but resurfaced in 2017 in a different context. Equally Mark’s recent article about a woman elected to public office in Poole in the fifteenth century – a seemingly exceptional event – elicited a follow up from a contributor who had uncovered a similar election in Bridport.

‘These incidents are incredibly obscure and if you went looking for them with a view to collating them you’d probably never find them, but in ‘SDNQ’ it’s possible to publish the information then feed in a follow up that adds to our understanding.’

And what of the future, more of the same? It certainly looks that way.

‘We did ask the readership if the ‘SDNQ’ should be updated and give a new look – the answer was a definite ‘No’.’

First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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