The Dorset Ooser

Dorset County Museum

This monstrous wooden mask, a bull’s hair and horns mounted on its low brow, was used to scare people at midwinter gatherings. Another was reported at Shillingstone and there may have been many more throughout Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire.  The Rev. William Barnes defines Ooser, oose or wu’se, as ‘a mask…with grim jaws, put on with a cow’s skin to frighten folk. “Wurse” … is a name of the arch-fiend.’

The replica Dorset Ooser mask that hangs in the Writer’s Gallery of the Dorset County Museum was carved by John Byfleet in 1975 for the Wessex Morris Men and is often used in May Day celebrations at Cerne Abbas and in dance performances.  DCM © 2015The replica Dorset Ooser mask that hangs in the Writer’s Gallery of the Dorset County Museum was carved by John Byfleet in 1975 for the Wessex Morris Men and is still used in May Day celebrations at Cerne Abbas and in dance performances. DCM © 2015

From the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 84, 1962, an article written by the H. S. L. Dewar. entitled ‘The Dorset Ooser

This extraordinary object, portrayed in…

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19th century New Years Eve

This New Year’s Eve musing takes on a slightly different tone.

Maybe not quite so light a subject as I would normally cover, but it’s a subject that I feel strongly about and that I think often gets brushed under the carpet .

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(The words used, though not nowadays politically correct, are ones that were used during the Victorian period. I did struggle to know whether to change them or to keep them, but decided in the end that to stay true to the Victorian values they should stay, after all, they had already been spoken and written so my evading them wouldn’t make them or the subject disappear.)

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New Year’s Eve means many different things to different people.

For some it’s time to pull out all the stops and party long and hard.

For others it’s a time for quiet reflection. A time to assess what has been and gone and that yet to come.

My main New Year’s Eve tales isn’t strictly purely Weymouth and Portland, but no doubt many of it’s recipients were of a local nature. Folk who through no fault of their own, had ended up somewhere they probably never thought they might.

The headlines of the lengthy penned article proclaim

                                                      ‘New Year’s Eve at a Lunatic Asylum.’

It is 31st December of 1866, a reporter from the Sherbourne Journal has been invited to attend the evening’s festivities at the Dorset Lunatic Asylum.

I have rewritten it in my own words but taking quotes from the article.

(This was the newly opened (1863) and much enlarged institute of  what became Herrison Hospital built upon Charlton Downs. A place where my own mother was taken in the 50’s when she suffered deep post natal depression.)

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It is 11 o’clock in the evening, the final night of the year 1866.

I am sat in the great hall of the new Hospital, a place that is generally referred to as the County Lunatic Asylum. I have been invited here to partake in the evening’s festivities along with the staff and inmates.

I suspect there is a hidden agenda perhaps. These great monuments of incarceration have received nothing but bad press in the newspapers recently.

First to enter the hall are the men of the brass band who step up on the stage and take their places. Most are artists who give their time freely, but a couple of the band’s members, so I’m told, are inmates of the asylum, one being an accomplished musician who plays the cornopean.

Then from the side enters another musician, the leader of the band. He is a man who has to be physically carried in on another patient’s back, because of paralysis of his feet he is unable to walk.

So his story goes, he was a sailor, who, whilst on board his ship in the West Indies fell from the rigging and seriously injured his back. Arriving back in Weymouth some time later, he settled there, set up a school and “being a man of good abilities, did very well until until he began to feel the effects of his accident, and it became necessary to send him where, kindly and humanely cared for, he might pass his days in peace.”

Not only did the poor fellow suffer from the unfortunate physical affliction caused by his accident but his mind has ultimately been affected also, “his chief delusion, I understood,was that he was chief heir to some immense estates; beyond that he was harmless.”

Once he is sat comfortably at the front of the band, the man is handed his violin. Hesitantly at first, he passes his bow across the strings a few times, eliciting discordant notes, but as he plays on so the sounds slowly begins to smooth out to more harmonious tones.

Then the double doors to the room swing open and in file the male patients.“some staring vacantly upon the ground, others strutting in with all the swagger of ‘my lord,’ but all looking, clean, happy and contented.”

As they file past, a few turn their heads and nod at us, the guests seated at the front of the auditorium.  Though one rather surly fellow “got behind his attendant’s back, and did what is vulgarly known as taking a sight at me, all the time keeping his face as grave as a parson’s.” I hasten to add, somewhat disconcerted, I do not acknowledge his sour greeting.

Now that the men are seated and settled quietly, it is the turn of the women to enter the hall.

Like their fellow patients, as they pass by, their feminine faces reveal a variety of emotions and merely hint at their mental states. A couple of rather grand ladies make their particularly stately entrances, their full skirts sweeping the floor as they stroll imperiously across the hall to take their seats.

One believed herself to be a grand Duchess, the other no less a person than Her Majesty, the ex-Queen of Spain.

Seated in the front row with us is Dr Symes, the Superintendent in charge of the institute and his family and friends.

Of course, there are the hospital staff present, those men and women who’s duty it is to  care for their charges.

Not “beetle browed men or women with iron wills and arms to match such as the sensation writers of late have rejoiced to put before their readers,” these are “young men and women, neatly and modestly dressed, with good-tempered looking faces, laughing and joking with the rest.”

During the evening’s celebrations, I witness not the “slightest manifestation of violence” the patients behave impeccably,“indeed, the assembly would have set a good example to some where there is supposed to be more sense.”

One or two of the more animated inmates catch my attention and I enquire as to their means of being admitted.

Watching a man who dances in a very queer manner, “always on the hop,”  I ask why he had ended up in the asylum.

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His tale is a sad one.

Life for him, like many of us, had started out so good, full of promise. He married a young, pretty lass and in their first few years they were happy. Then disaster struck the family, “the breath of the seducer coming over this like a cloud, a deserted home and the end-disgrace for the wife; for the husband a lunatic asylum.”

A valuable lesson to be learnt maybe, one never quite knows what life has in store for any of us really.

Another man, small in stature, catches my eye. He enters the room “with an appearance of being thoroughly pleased with himself.”

His thick head of hair is styled in the most elaborate of fashions, “it being parted in the middle, and evidently curled with great care.” Upon his delicately featured face he wears his carefully manicured moustache with great aplomb.

This man of distinction, imaginary or not,  passes through the hall, only stopping briefly while he nods to the chaplain.  Upon that nod, “something was thrown across to him, which he eagerly caught at.” Looking closer I can see the item being a pair of “white kid gloves,” though they are far too large for his delicate hands and of a rather tatty state,“ventilation was amply provided for  by sundry slits and holes.” This does not bother the man at all, in fact “they evidently gave the wearer the greatest satisfaction.”

Once  his hands are firmly ensconced  within his gloves, he is convinced that he is complete in his full evening attire, then “he paraded up and down the room several times in great pomp.”

He passes me several times, and each time he stops before me, he elegantly stretches out one of his feet, keen to reveal his dancing pumps, which he admires himself so greatly, carefully turning his foot from one side to the other to enable a full view of their  styling.

Intrigued, I cross the room to talk to him. First, I take great pains to “complement him on his general appearance.” Something that obviously gives him great pleasure indeed as the widest of smiles stretches across his face.

“Ah” he replies proudly, “we Blandford people can do it.”

With that social exchange having being successfully concluded in his eyes, off he lightly steps to impress some other person.

The music ceases, we are all requested to take our seats while members of the staff and some of the inmates give a musical recital.

Having listened to a series of harmonious renditions from the singers and applauded their valiant efforts, the band strikes up once more.

I am now introduced to my new dance partner, a delightful young lady, “I believe she came from Cerne.”

As we waltz around the dance floor she proceeds to tell me that she is the “Duchess of Sherbourne Castle” and that she owns “various estates around the country.”

Pressing her gently, I remark that the “last time I was there a gentleman named Digby was in possession.”

That phases her not the slightest, with the merest upward tilt of her chin, she simply decrees that the man is merely “an impostor.”

During the evening’s proceedings, this sweet lady takes to the stage and performs a couple of songs and “a sweeter voice I never heard.” So pure and clear was its tone that “it sounded more like a silver bell than anything else I can compare it to.” Her “highest notes were given with an ease and clearness that was astonishing.”

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That reporter from the Sherbourne Journal wrote his sensitively drafted piece about the institution with a positive slant. It was a lengthy article which appeared in it’s shortened version in numerous  local and national papers.

A report created by “The Commissioners in Lunacy” from earlier that year reveals what exactly what and who this hospital served.

(Dorset County Chronicle 28 June 1866)

(I visibly cringe writing some of these words.)

“Three of the inmates suffered from religious monomania and one from over-study. But notwithstanding the large number of patients that have been admitted it appears that there are in this county no less than 12 lunatics, 156 idiots and 13 imbeciles…

 “13 idiots and 9 lunatics in the Weymouth Union.” 

Out of the 397 patients at the start of that year, 41 belonged to the Weymouth Union.

During 1866 the asylum employed 14 attendants, 10 nurses, 3 laundry maids and 3 kitchen maids.

No one was on the wards to supervise patients overnight.

http://www.charltondownvillagehall.info/about-us/our-history/

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On a lighter note, the years end of 1857 was not such a good one for one Weymouth fellow, a certain Mr John Jenkins Rolls. He was employed as the “Inspector of Nuisances.” I say ‘was’ because come the 31st December he suddenly found himself out on his ear!

Now, it wasn’t that good old Mr Rolls hadn’t been doing his work…oh no, in fact the reverse was true. Seemingly “his reports were as voluminous as a Parliamentary Blue Book.”

His role was that of being in control of those unruly Weymouthians and their suspect habits, such as Caroline Norris of Franchise Street, who “kept a pig at the rear of her house,” one which was “in a very dirty state, so as to be a nuisance to several cottagers near.”

Or digging unauthorised holes in the roads, that was the case against builder Stephen Brown. John Rolls had been sent to check  out the sorry state of South Parade, where he came upon “a hole, and the earth thrown in the middle of the street.” Might not have been any H&S in those days, but Rolls, wasn’t standing for it. He brought the case before the courts where he gave evidence to the fact that “There was no fence to prevent anyone falling in it nor any light during the night.”

Blighted by his constant reports of nuisances in the borough, the good old Victorian Weymouth Council employed a very 21st century tactic to dispose of him and his role.

“With the close of this year, the duties of the present Inspector of Nuisances are terminated. The appointment of the Town Surveyor and Inspector of Nuisances-blended into one office-will take place on the 31st inst.”

The author of the article declared that “had his reports been attended to by the Council there would not have been a removable nuisance left in Weymouth.” He then went on to point out that “they were thrown aside by the Council, and the Inspector was looked upon as a troublesome man.”

Upon being asked about the matter, the council replied “We are no respecters of persons; we only wish to see ‘the right man in the right place,”

HHHmmm………….

augusta-place

Never mind, it was only his prestige put out of joint, because John Rolls just returned to running his own successful business, a glover, tea and cigar stockist, situated in Augusta Place where he lived with his wife Ann.

(Dorset County Chronicle 31 Dec 1857)

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If Weymouth’s military history is more you cuppa…pop on over to Nothe Fort and Beyond…

https://nothefortandbeyond.wordpress.com/blog/

What were your Weymouth ancestors doing in December of 1888?

Christmas is nearly upon us, its that time of year when we think about absent family and friends and especially those no longer here to celebrate with us.

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Our long departed ancestors knew how to celebrate Christmas too, albeit sometimes in a very different way, their life often mirrored ours of today, with the same old trials and tribulations.

Come on in and have a peek at the lives of Weymouth folk of  days gone past.

The year is 1888, it’s the 13th December and young Albert Rolls and his pals were making their way along a packed Weymouth esplanade. It might have been nearly Christmas, but the weather was set fair and the warm sun had brought out the crowds.

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In the distance Albert could hear the lively notes of organ music and the raised voices of happy revellers. A big grin spread across his face as he and his pals quickened their pace, pushing through the throng, most of whom seemed to be heading for where the action was.

The Christmas season  always brought a chance to enjoy a bit of fun  away from the drudgery of everyday toil.

Once they neared the  entrance to the pier they could see the steam fair in full swing on the quayside. it looked as if the whole of Weymouth had turned out to attend the festive revelries. Spiffily dressed stall holders bellowed their gaudy wares, “come buy…come buy” they cried as pretty maids crowded round, purses clutched tightly under their shawls. Dapper dandies stood perusing the assortment of side shows that lined the quay, their sight alighting upon somewhat scandalously dressed women whose dark eyes promised such delicious delights behind those beguiling curtains.

Albert and his mates though, headed straight for the steam rides, whose organs were churning out lively tunes that made toes tap, but even those were almost drowned out by the  screeches of nervous passengers and raucous laughter of dare devil riders.

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Their chosen ride slowed to a halt, men, women and children clambered down off their chain slung chairs, some still laughing and chattering happily while a few staggered off looking rather green around the gills.

Albert scrambled onto the nearest chair, he pushed his behind as far back onto the leather seat as he possibly could and held on tightly to the chain, excited but nervous at the same time.

Old tight me loverlies” bellowed the showman, “ere we’s goes.” 

The music started and so the ride began to turn, faster and faster. As the speed picked up its riders swung out, flying legs splayed above the heads of those watching below. Albert’s mates yelled cheerfully to each other above the din, “look ‘ere Rollsy” cried one daring chap as he casually loosed a hand and held it out sideways, “I be flying like they there birds do.” Albert chuckled to himself, Harry was always such a wag.

Despite almost being horizontal, flying round and round through the air, Albert was beginning to feel quite brave…and that was to be the undoing of him.

“Arry” he hollered, “bet you’s can’t do this,” and was on the point of loosening his grip on the straps, when he suddenly slid off the seat and flew, unaided by neither chain nor leather, through the air. Over the heads of stunned watchers he went, arms and legs aflailing, a startled expression on his face. Luckily for the crowd below, but not for Albert, he landed with an almighty crash on solid ground, in a small space void of any possible soft landing material and rolled to an ignominious stop besides a stunned lassie.

Albert never did visit the fair ever again!

(Bridport News 14 Dec 1888)

December of 1888 also witnessed a fairly farcical case held in the borough police court at the town’s Guildhall.

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Hauled before Messrs Robens was one Mary Jackson.

But the case before Robens was not quite that clear cut and took a bit of good old fashioned detective work by local Superintendent Vickery to sort out the mess.

He asked for it to be adjourned until a while later.

Mary Jackson it seems wasn’t actually Mary Jackson, she also went by the names of Pemberton, Roberts and Lee and no doubt many more besides.

Mary’s co-conspirator and partner in crime was one George Jackson. Not her husband at all, although he was married, just not to Mary.

George, a dentist by trade, had apparently deserted his wife and family elsewhere to set off for a life of crime roaming the country with his latest lady love.

Well, come December of 1888 and the Jackson’s arrived in good old sunny Weymouth.

The conniving couple took  advantage of the fair weather, and strolled along the seashore, their thoughts turned towards their next dastardly deed.

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The following morning, decked out in her best finery, Mary set out with a purpose, marching determinedly along St Thomas Street. She was heading straight for their next victim, 63-year-old Charles Hibbs, who owned shop premises at no 3 Frederick Place. Charles, along with his wife Susan and their family lived in the elegant Georgian rooms above them.

That fateful day,  behind the pretty bow fronted window, waiting patiently for his next customer, sat Charles. His beady eyes passed carefully over his stock, was it displayed at its best? Maybe he should move that piece over to the wall opposite the window where it would catch the light better. He frowned as he spotted something not quite to his liking. Being ever the perfectionist, he rose from his seat and walked across the room to straighten the offending item. His somewhat rather pretentiously named son, William Bond Edward,  also worked alongside his father, but as of yet,he didn’t yet have his father’s same exacting standards.

Charles was a well know businessman in Weymouth, the walls of his premises were hung with many pieces of valuable artwork.

Charles and William both traded as  fine art dealers.

As he was about to return to his comfortable chair, the shop bell rang. Straightening his shoulders and fixing a smile on his craggy face, Charles turned around to confront his customer.

Mary smiled sweetly at the dealer, little did he know it was more a smile of satisfaction and determination.

Before her stood her next victim.

The two chatted away while browsing the selection of artwork on offer. Charles advising and Mary nodding.

Having chosen the pieces she deemed suitable for what she wanted, Mary made her excuses and left the premises, leaving behind a very disappointed Charles. He was so sure that he had the sale in the bag…so to speak.

To his surprise, a few days later he received a letter from the lovely Mrs Mary Jackson, she wanted him to post a few pieces of artwork up to her, not just a few, but a dozen! Charles rubbed his hands with glee, he knew he had been right all along, when he first set eyes on the dear lady, he was so sure she was going to be a good customer. Mrs Jackson wanted the parcel to be carefully wrapped and personally addressed to her at Merriott Road in Crewkerne.

Paintings duly despatched, Charles waited.

First he received Mary’s letter to say that they had arrived safely…but then nothing!

Charles wrote again,  this time his missive was returned unopened with the dreaded words penned on its front cover, “gone, no address.”

By now, quite alarmed, Charles made his way to the police station where he reported the facts, but he knew in his heart that he had been well and truly duped by this damsel and in all probability would never see her, his money or his painting ever again.

Well, as luck would have it, Mary had been found residing at her Majesty’s pleasure in the Devonport jailhouse. When confronted by Weymouth’s PC Bartlett who had travelled to Devonport to question her, she held up her hands and spilled the beans on the whole kitten caboodle of their crime.

Seemingly the dishonest couple had left behind a trail of deception and debts. Two of Charles’ pictures had been pawned in Exeter during their travels down towards the West Country , and another three sold to a private dealer.

When Mary’s partner in crime, George, was brought to the police house later that day, he had no hesitation in throwing his supposed lady love to the lions. Denying anything to do with obtaining the pictures, though he had to admit to knowing she had received them. Upon his person though was found a selection of pawn tickets from various towns they had passed through. Each one bore a different name, Graham Jackson, Graham Johnson, Annie Jackson, Ellen Jackson…so the list of aliases went on.

This light fingered pair were no lightweights, they were wanted by constabularies all over the place.

Once back stood in the Weymouth dock, the defiant Mary Jackson alias Pemberton, (it turned out that her real name was actually Mary Stedman,)was charged with“unlawfully obtaining from Charles Hibbs of St Thomas Street, twelve unframed oil paintings valued at £12 6s”

At the Quarter Sessions the following Spring, Charles Hibbs sat patiently in the courtroom, he wanted to witness this dishonest couple get their just deserts. Imagine his surprise when the couple appeared before the judges, their case was thrown out, apparently it had been his own fault!  The Court Chairman decreed that“Hibbs had sent these twelve pictures to Crekerne without making any enquiries as to the applicant.”

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To compound matters even further, the couples crimes, including the theft from a now totally bewildered Charles, were brought before a second court, along with a list of other such cases. Surely they would pay for their trail of crimes this time?

Mary again stated that they had indeed sent for these goods and then pawned them, but, denied receiving the goods with any intention of fraud, “remarking the invoice sent in with the goods stated ‘accounts rendered every six months,’ and at the time they were too poor to meet the account.”

Due to lack of evidence, (apart from a string of pawn tickets in an assortment of names, and a fair number of complaints of their misdoings) the couple were found “not guilty” and released.

(Western Gazette 21 Dec 1888)

Even Weymouth’s famous swans made the news that December.

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An article described how “The good people of Weymouth have tried to induce the swans to live in the open sea-in the bay.” But it appears that the feathered flock of around 300 had their own views on such matters. Despite people feeding them on boiled Indian corn out in the bay to entice them away from their sheltered spot, they kept flying back to Radipole Lake. “They seem to dislike a strong wind” bemoaned one bewildered local.

(Bridport News 14th Dec)

Of course, with a bustling quayside, there’s always a bit of nautical news to be had “At Weymouth on Tuesday, eight seamen belonging to the British barque Mabel, who refused to go to sea on the ground that the vessel was unseaworthy, were each sentenced to 28 days hard labour”

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Not much of a Christmas for those fine fellows of the sea then!

(Western Chronicle Fri 14 Dec)

We might think that cruise ships arriving in port is a new phenomenon to this area…but not so.

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In December of 1888 the magnificent Queen Marfisa steamed  into Weymouth. She was homeward bound for Southampton after having been on a Mediterranean cruise, one which took in 39 ports over a distance of 5183 miles,(having missed out Africa “on account of the time of the year.”) She had used 50lb of coal per mile steamed at an average speed of 9 knots.

The ships owner,  wealthy Mr George Beer, and his guests had set out from Southampton on May 16th on their epic voyage, calling in many ports along the way such as Gibraltar, Malaga, Valencia, Palma and Naples.

Well, here she was moored in Weymouth for a couple of days. I bet that gave the locals something to gawk at.

(Hants Advertiser 26 Dec)

And of course, what would Christmas be without a good old game of footie?

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Christmas of 1888 saw a football match between Dorset v Devon.

The match for some obscure reason was held at Wareham, much to the disgust of the Devonians, who declared it as an absolutely “absurd place selected for the match.”

They complained that the Devon men had to travel up on the Friday and stop over for the weekend. Going on to point out that the Dorset team consisted of men all who came from the South of the county, and didn’t have to travel far.

In fact the majority of the Dorset team were soldiers from the West Kent Regiment who were stationed here at the time, what with footie being one of their favourite past times.

Kick off was at 3 o’clock.

Now, call me cynical, but from what I know of men and football and a the rare opportunity of a weekend away, it’s not normally something that they would complain about, but then just maybe it was a case of sour grapes because the final result was…

Dorset won 3-2!

We’ll round off with a completely un-Christmassy snippet.

Poor old Mrs Warren had been very busy doing her humungous pile of weekly washing, one which had been added to by visitors who had suddenly arrived unannounced for Christmas.

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The  windows and door of her cosy little cottage in Hope Street were completely steamed up, so she decided it might be better if she opened them for a while.

“It might’n be the season of good will to all ee there men, but fo’ us women,” she muttered to herself as she went about her chores, “din’t have no good will season’s, ’tis nothing but work, work,work.”

Having passed the last of the wet linens through the old mangle and draped it over the wooden clothes horse, she moved it in front of the fire, where she hoped that some of it would dry before the day was out.

With that she left the room and settled down in her tiny kitchen to enjoy a quick tipple before she started on the bedroom upstairs.

Whilst she was sat sipping her snifter of sherry and ruminating the woes of women, a gentle breeze fluttered through the windows and front door, ruffling the clothes airing in the room. Then, horror upon horrors, one strong wayward gust saw Mrs Warren’s clothes horse with all her nice clean washing fall forwards onto the fire.

In the back room, the disgruntled housewife was still deep in thought, clutching her glass close to her ample bosom, she sat wondering what it would be like to have someone else to do all the work for you.

LONDON MAGAZINE 11 1906 LADY CHAIR

It wasn’t until cries of “Fire…fire” awoke the daydreaming dame, startling her from her flights of fancy.

“Heavens above…” she cried, “What’s to do? what do be going on out there?” all whilst rushing down the hallway towards the front door.

Mrs Warren suddenly realised that smoke was oozing from her front room, people were rushing to and fro outside her front door.

She realised the fire was in HER house…panic set in.

But she needn’t have worried, help was at hand,”a man who was passing extinguished the conflagration by the aid of a few buckets of water.”

Even Weymouth police force arrived with their hose, albeit a bit  late, the fire was already out.

Poor old Mrs Warren woefully surveyed the damage to her front room, the burnt washing, the scorched fire surround and the sea soaked sodden floor.

She certainly wished she had someone else to do her work for her now.

(Western Gazette 28 Dec)

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I would like to wish one and all A Very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Healthy New Year.