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John White and Dorchester

Dorchester was a small and not very distinguished market town at the start of the 17th century. It was, however, the richest place in Dorset, partly due to the three summer fairs and a winter fair that attracted traders and purchasers from miles around.

Dorchester attracted people of all types. Some lived on the wrong side of the law. Some lived in poverty, through no fault of their own or through drink or vice (or one caused by the other). There were local worthies who made their money from trade, whose status and fortune depended on the status quo. And then there were the middle-of-the-road types who just wanted to earn a living, live a quiet life and enjoy themselves.

Into this mix in 1606 walked the Reverend John White, Minister of God, Puritan and preacher.

John White's sermons made it very clear where he stood. Anti-puritan feeling surfaced, supporters of the 'old religion' were hostile, some people felt their prosperity threatened if Dorchester followed this Puritan. Matthew Chubb, a wealthy local worthy, bailiff of the town and Member of Parliament, was said to have offered one hundred pounds to get White away from Dorchester. None of this affected John White. He was a man of God on a mission - and he did have supporters in the town.

Far left:- List of incumbents of Holy Trinity Church, Dorchester, Dorset given by the people of Massachusetts

Above:- entry for Revd. John White

Then, on 6 August 1613, there was a fire. By good fortune - or a miracle - only one person died, but a lot of damage was done. John White, and others, saw this as a sign from God : a 'fire from heaven'. It was punishment for Dorchester's ungodly way of life. John White preached repentance from sin, a Puritan faith and compassion for other people. The obvious misery of so many people made homeless by the fire reinforced the sermons. And people (albeit not everyone) said 'Amen' and responded. Some of the town leaders met with their Rector and planned a path to turn Dorchester into a godly, charitable and sober place, an example to all. John White soon became a dominant figure in the town. 

Within a few years, there were great reforms in Dorchester. Local government and law enforcement was much improved, with benefits to all. But the biggest improvements were in social welfare. These included :

  • A huge increase in poor relief
  • A new Hospital 'for the setting of poor children to work' (i.e. training in a trade)
  • Improved care for the sick and elderly
  • Greater educational opportunity
  • Almshouses opened (Nappers Mite for men, Whetstone's for married couples) or re-endowed (Margaret Chubb's for women).

Dorchester was 300 years ahead of its time in its social welfare programme. 

All this cost money, of course. However, the money was found. Parish rates were doubled. There was a huge rise in private charitable giving. Collections at church services on 6 August (to celebrate Dorchester's deliverance from the great fire) and 5 November (to celebrate England's deliverance from the Gunpowder Plot) produced large sums for worthy causes. And then there was the Brewhouse ....

A municipal brewery was the answer to the problem of what to do with the money raised for social welfare until it was needed. Traditionally, it would have been lent to local businessmen as an investment. However, this did not have the security that the town leaders wanted. So the money was used to build a brewery. Beer was drunk for pleasure and health - water was often unhealthy in those days. It was a good investment. Profits from the Brewhouse funded the charitable institutions, poor relief and public works. 

St Peter's Church

John White is buried in the Porch

Dorchester soon became the most benevolent town in England. Large sums of money were given to other towns in distress. Bridport, Cambridge, Bere Regis, Shaftsbury, Taunton and Yeovil are just examples of places that benefited from the generosity of the people of Dorchester. Even a second fire in 1623 did not reduce charitable giving. Indeed, the funds set up in the previous 10 years were now so well managed that relief for people made homeless or impoverished by the fire was quick and effective.

The Civil War inevitably disrupted life in Dorchester. In spite of its Puritan support for Parliament, morale fell and Dorchester surrendered without a fight to Royalists troops in 1643. John White fled to London where he took care of a parish and took part in the Westminster Assembly of Divines. However, Dorchester's Puritan ideals resurfaced. John White returned in 1648, although with less influence. The Brewhouse was rebuilt. Social welfare projects were restarted. Some even went beyond the pre-war programmes - from 1646, Dorchester had a rudimentary local health service when it paid local medical practitioners to treat poor patients. 

John White died in 1648. However, the reforms that he instituted lived on for a while. Dorchester remained a godly town, giving generously to social welfare, until after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Some of John White's changes lasted until nearly the end of the century. But by then, inertia, complacency, conformity, ambition and the lure of the world had snuffed out the reforming flame lit by the fire from heaven. Even the Brewhouse had run down and could not support social welfare. 

Dorchester had returned to being a small and not very distinguished market town. 

See a timeline of the main events in Dorchester during John White's time.