The Spirit of Dorset

Pageant type

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Place: Lulworth Castle (East Lulworth) (East Lulworth, Dorset, England)

Year: 1939

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 4


12–13 July 1939, 2.30pm and 6.30pm

1 public dress rehearsal

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Producer [Pageant Master]: Shaw, Barbara
  • Colonel Dawes and Mrs Dawes arranged the music and microphones
  • Episode I Producer: Mrs. Hownam-Meek
  • Episode II Producer: Mrs. R. Burgess
  • Episode III Producer: Mrs Lochhead
  • Episode IV Producer: Mrs Maddison
  • Episode V Producer: Miss Jeanette Dru-Drury
  • Episode VI Producer: Miss Barbara Shaw

Names of executive committee or equivalent


Patrons: 9 of 11 are women, with people such as Francis Viscountess Portman; Lady Hanham; Lady Glyn; Lady Debenham; Lady Pinney.

Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)

  • Ramsden, Mrs. E.A.
  • Barnes, William


  • Mrs. E.A. Ramsden contributed to all episodes
  • William Barnes, ‘In Praise of Dorset’ in Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect.

Names of composers

  • Dowland, John
  • Le Fleming, Christopher

Numbers of performers


The figure of 650 is an estimate; there were between 600 and 700 performers.

Animals included hounds, sheep, horses.

Financial information

  • Car Park 1s.
  • Charabanc Park 2s. 6d.

Object of any funds raised

Women’s Institutes in Dorset


‘The main purpose of Women’s Institutes is to improve and develop the conditions of rural life. The Dorset Federation present this Pageant in the hopes that it will raise funds that can be used for furthering these aims within our County.' (The Spirit of Dorset: Book of Words and Programme, Dorchester, 1929, 4.)

Linked occasion

Exactly 400 years since the demolishing of Shaftesbury Abbey, the subject of Episode III.

Audience information

  • Grandstand: Yes
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: n/a

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

7s. 7d.–1s.

  • 7s. 7d. and 5s., raised covered stands. 
  • 2s. 6d. chairs
  • 1s. benches.

‘If the 7s. 6d. seats are reserved and paid for before May 30th, 1939, a slight reduction will be made, in that it will be possible to buy a “family ticket” that is three seats at 7s. 6d. for only 21s.’ (‘The Spirit of Dorset’, Western Gazette, 20 January 1939, 11).

Associated events


Pageant outline


The Rev. W. Barnes enters with a notepad and pencil, sits down and reads aloud a poem he has just written, which describes how the present day environment was due to the care and thought of ‘our forefathers’. Barnes converses with a variety of local passers-by—a shepherd and his dog enter, herding sheep; a Furze-cutter; two milkmaids; a Purbeck Marbler, who flirts with and kisses the milkmaids as a Shrove Tuesday tradition; and, finally, a boy, who tells Barnes he is leaving Dorset for the seas. This provokes Barnes to tell him of what he is leaving behind, taking the boy and other children to sit under a tree to hear the story of Dorset.

Episode I. The Conquerors, AD 45

Takes place in a Celtic village on the Dorset highland. Women are talking and working, spinning and scraping hides, while men are practicing slinging stones and throwing spears. A huntsman enters carrying a dead stag, met by a Druid and two assistants. The stag is placed on the altar stone as two huntsmen argue over who killed the stag and thus deserves the offering. The chief of the village declares that both men killed the beast, and that they should offer it together. The Druid offers it to the gods, accompanied by a hunting dance and drum beats, and a garland dance from local girls. Suddenly a war trumpet is heard. The men rush for arms. The villagers throw sling-stones and spears; some fall and are dragged away by the women. Eventually the body of the Chief is brought down and laid upon the altar. Suddenly a Centurion and a party of Roman soldiers creep in, helped by one of the former quarrelling huntsmen. They attack the defenders at the gate, and win. A Roman General enters, carrying a Roman eagle. He announces that the village must submit to Rome and live as her children, to ‘learn new ways of life that bring prosperity and happiness.’ The Druid and a few others pick up some earth and offer it to the General. The General accepts, and then allows the villagers to ‘take up your brave dead and bury them beside the gate they have so gallantly defended.’ The villagers do so, as the General lifts his sword in salute. After all but a couple of villagers leave in a funeral procession there is a short pause, before Saxons enter and stand over the villagers for a moment; Danes, who do the same; and finally Normans, who mingle with the villagers before all marching out.

Procession of the Seasons

Episode II. Thersytes, AD 1390

[This is taken from Alfred W. Pollard, English Miracle Plays, Moralities, and Interludes: Specimens of the pre-Elizabethan Drama (Oxford, 1904)]

A priest and a monk enter. Passing three beggars they reluctantly throw some money, before going on to the Church where the bell is tolling for mass. A housewife enters, followed by a little boy; when she ignores the beggars they curse her. Other townsfolk enter. Master Geoffrey Chaucer enters and meets a company of Pilgrims. They chat about where the Pilgrim has been, before Chaucer announces he is here on King’s business to obtain some marble pillars from the Purbeck Marblers. He bids farewell. Heralds announce that a Pageant will arrive shortly ‘to play before all ye good Citizens an Interlude yclept ‘Thersytes’’ Actors set a stage as the townsfolk bring out benches to watch. The Play of Thersytes takes place—a morality play about how the greatest boasters are not the greatest doers, in which Thersytes is left looking embarrassed for not fulfilling his boasts of military prowess, instead hiding from his enemies and behind his mother. After the play the heralds go round with hats, as do the beggars, before all depart.

Procession of the Seasons

Episode III. The Abbess Departs Shaston, AD 1539

A Captain and soldiers enter and ask a Furze-cutter the way to Palladore; not understanding his answer, they carry on their way. All exit. Out of the Abbey come the Abbess and some Benedictine Nuns. One of the Lady’s sings a song. As the song ends the captain and soldiers enter, sent by the King. The Captain asks to speak to the Abbess in the Chapter House, which is granted. The Captain announces he is here to take possession of all the furnishings of the Abbey on behalf of the King. The Abbess assents, reluctantly. A young nun, who has been hiding, emerges, and unfolds a leaden casket from her robe; she has hidden the sacred relics of the Abbey’s patron saint Edward the Martyr. She asks the Abbess for leave to hide them, which is granted. Townsfolk stand and watch as the furnishings of the Abbey are taken away. The Prize Bezant was an ancient ceremony through which the people of Shaston paid their water rates. Enter the ‘Lord and Lady’ of the Prize Bezant; a calf’s head on a dish followed by people carrying loaves and beer; the Mayor and councillors; the Steward of the Manor of Enmore. The Mayor reads a declaration proclaiming the Prize Bezant, and the continuance of the Borough’s ancient water rights. Following the ceremony there is dancing and singing. At this point the Abbess and nuns come from the Abbey; the crowd gathers round to say goodbye. The Captain angrily tells the crowd to leave, before accusing the Abbess of hiding the relics of Edward the Martyr. The Abbes feigns ignorance, swearing on the bones of Saint Edward himself. The Captain bids the Abbess farewell, with ‘and may God go with you’ to which the Abbes replies ‘Farewell, Sir, and may God forgive you.’ All exit.

Procession of the Seasons.

Episode IV. King James Goes Hunting at Lulworth and Encounters a Witch, AD 1615

Enter horses and hounds and huntsmen. Enter ladies and children, standing on the dais—representing the doorstep of Lulworth Castle. Enter King James with the Countess of Suffolk and Earl of Suffolk with other gentlemen. The King mounts a horse, followed by the Earl; as they ride off to hunt, the ladies wave farewell. Enter a group of young men and maidens, cavorting. Enter the Dorset Ousser, who is chasing shrieking girls. A Miz-Maze Dance is given. The Witch and her servant are seen approaching; the crowd begins to chant ‘Witch!’, to her evident pleasure. The children dance round the Witch, before seizing a bag from the witch’s servant and holding aloft the black cat from inside. The Witch curses a girl in the crowd, which causes the girl to fling herself to the ground in a fit, until she is dragged away by her mother. The crowd first recoils in horror, before surrounding the witch chanting ‘Kill ‘er’. At this moment the hunting part re-enters. The King, perturbed by the witch, orders his men to take her to be guarded. The Earl explains it is just an old woman, and that only the common people fear her, but the King listens to the townsfolk and orders the witch to be brought to trial. As the King gallops away the witch curses him and his children. A court is assembled on the platform. A trial takes place, and the witch is eventually found guilty, and sentenced to hanging. She is taken out in a wagon as the crowd jeers. Enter Tom O’Bedlam, an inmate of Bedlam, who asks the Judge for silver for his fees there. The Earl of Suffolk tells him to be off before calling him back to recite one of his ‘mad verses’—which he does. Eventually he loses inspiration, and leaves. Suffolk invites the Judge to his house to ‘quaff a toast against the devil and dementedness.’ All leave.

Procession of the Seasons.

Episode V. Benjamin Jesty, AD 1805

[Benjamin Jesty was a Dorset Yeoman who in 1774 managed to inoculate his wife and sons from a cow with cow-pox. Though provoking the wrath of the surrounding country-side, it seemingly worked] — A table is set in front of an inn, as villagers stand and watch. The Hostess hurries out and fussily instructs the maids. A beadle enters and orders crowd about. The Host enters in his apron, and pressures the band to be ready for the gentry. Other doctors and squires enter. Eventually Jesty enters with his wife and son to cheers of ‘Good old Jesty!’. The band strikes up and plays ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’. Jesty and his family take their place on the stage. Jesty tells the crowd of his reception in London following his inoculation experiment, but how he is now glad to be home. Dr Bell announces that Jesty is too modest to talk of his doing, and so reads a paper signed by physicians surgeons and treasurers from London which confirms the success of Jesty’s experiment, thus deserving the respect of the public. The crowd responds with shouts of ‘hear hear’. Dr Bell now announces that Jesty is to be painted, the portrait to be preserved at the Vaccine Pock Institute in London, further stating that ‘I am proud to see that Dorset people at last know how to appreciate him! He has lived up to our Dorset motto, “Who’s Afeard?”’ The crowd responds with cheers. A toast is given, after which Jesty thanks the assembled gentleman and the crowd. All exit to dance.

Procession of the Seasons.

Episode VI. Woodbury Fair, AD 1860

As a fair is set up William Barnes rises from beneath the tree he sat under in the prologue, again conversing with the various locals around him. The boy who had been looking forward to leaving Dorset now proclaims ‘I’ll always remember that I’m part o’ dear Dorset when I’m sailen in the other ends o’ the world.’ Two farmers chat and joke. As they do a pickpocket tries to steal from one. Spotted he tries to escape as the crowd cries ‘Stop thief!’ A policeman catches the pickpocket and arrests him. Various transactions take place between sellers and buyers. Two drunk gentleman sing ‘for he’s a jolly good fellow’. A Bower buys some tape from a Pedlar Woman, who asks him ‘Have a bunch o’ Bloody-Warriors, zur?’ To which he replies ‘no, no, Mother. There’s enough real bloody warriors about since these yer wars.’ [This is the last dialogue]. The noise increases as the band plays Polka, and people dance. At this point the Procession of the Seasons enters, and groups itself around the Rev. William Barnes in the centre of the arena. The whole pageant then enters with the banners of the WIs which have taken part. The whole company sings ‘Praise o’ Dorset’ by William Barnes, which is essentially a poem about the charms and character of Dorset, and the goodness of its people. The pageant ends with ‘God Save the King’.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Barnes, William (1801–1886) poet and philologist
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey (c.1340–1400) poet and administrator
  • James VI and I (1566–1625) king of Scotland, England, and Ireland
  • Howard, Thomas, first earl of Suffolk (1561–1626) naval officer and administrator The Howard [née Knyvett; other married name Rich], Katherine, countess of Suffolk (b. in or after 1564, d. 1638) courtier
  • Jesty, Benjamin (bap. 1736, d. 1816) farmer and vaccinator
  • Bell, Andrew (1753–1832) Church of England clergyman and educationist

Musical production

  • John Dowland. Song (sung by the Waiting Woman in Episode III).
  • ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’ (Episode V).
  • Christopher Le Fleming. Composed the special setting for the final song and conducted the singing. 
  • ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’. (Episode VI)
  • ‘Praise o’ Dorset’ poem by William Barnes, (Episode VI)
  • ‘The National Anthem. (Episode VI)

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Western Gazette
Dorset Daily Echo
Dorset County Chronicle

Book of words

The Spirit of Dorset: Book of Words and Programme. Dorchester, 1939.

Price 1s. Copy in Dorset History Centre.

Other primary published materials


References in secondary literature

  • Stout, Adam. Creating Prehistory: Druids, Ley Hunters and Archaeologists in Pre-War Britain. Oxford, 2008.
  • Wright, Patrick. The Village that Died for England: The Strange Story of Tyneham. London, 2002.

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Book of words is in the Dorset History Centre.

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • Alfred W. Pollard, English Miracle Plays, Moralities, and Interludes: Specimens of the pre-Elizabethan Drama (Oxford, 1904) [Thersytes, the Play from Episode II].


The ‘Spirit of Dorset’ Pageant took place in July 1939 in the grounds of the Lulworth Castle ruins. It was organized by the Dorset Federation of Women’s Institutes, described before the event by the WI county president as ‘the biggest thing they had done’.1 Episodes were allocated and produced by different collections of village institutions and rehearsed locally, before being brought together for a final dress rehearsal—a common method of organisation for WI pageants in the interwar years. In charge of coordinating the overall pageant, as well as producing the final episode, was Mrs Barbara Shaw—‘well known’ in Dorset for her work with the Barbarians amateur dramatics organisation, based in Wimborne.2 In the foreword to the book of words, the Rev Cannon Galpin declared the pageant as ‘no mere fairy tale’ but ‘the historic Past living once more’, reminding the reader that ‘placed as we are in an age of hurry and anticipation, the years that are gone are too easily forgotten if even they are not disparaged. Yet it is the Past which has made us what we are to-day.’3 That it was women who were responsible seemed to be of particular note to the Reverend, who specified that ‘the very fact that the scenes represented are portrayed by members of the Dorset Federation of Women’s Institutes is buoyant with wide hopes and fraught with noble opportunities.’4 Indeed the nature of women’s citizenship in the interwar period, especially in organisations like the WI, was mostly one of non-contentious citizenship—presenting an acceptable face of feminism following enfranchisement in 1918 and 1928. The WI, which rapidly expanded both in number and purpose after its formation in 1915, took the countryside as its key site of activity, aiming to halt rural decline and provide a sense of community.5 The ‘Spirit of Dorset’ pageant was thus created in these terms; as the Dorset Daily Echo argued, ‘the pageant symbolised one of the important aspects of Women’s Institute ideals in fostering love of the countryside and of the country as a whole.’6

The aim of the pageant was thus simple: to arouse ‘keen interest’ and kindle ‘personal enthusiasm’ and ‘memories which will be handed down to generations’, and, above all, to encourage ‘the Spirit of Old Dorset’.7 To the author of the Pageant the best way to do this was to use the memory and work of the reverend and ‘much loved Dorset poet’ William Barnes, who wrote ‘so many beautiful poems in the Dorset dialect’ and represented ‘the Spirit of Dorset in its simplest and best sense.’8 He thus appeared in the prologue, heralding the beginning of the pageant, and also as a character in the final fair, before his poem ‘Praise o’ Dorset’—essentially a commendation of the charm and character of the county—was sang by the whole company.

The attempt to grasp the quirks and customs of Dorset people was clear in the use of vernacular, and also in small details. In the final fair episode, for example, one character wore a ‘Dorset Oozer’—a ‘mask with grim jaws put on with a cow’s skin to frighten folk.’9 In the third episode the ancient custom of the Bezant, or Byzant, Ceremony was re-enacted—an annual ritual in which the mayor and other civic figures of Shaftesbury would present gifts and the Prize Bezant (a ceremonial mace) to the steward of the manor of Enmore, in exchange for the continued use of the manor’s water wells. This tradition ended after over four hundred years, in 1830, when Shaftesbury discovered its own well.10 These traditions, along with famous or interesting characters from Dorset, were explained in prefaces to the episodic text in the book of words. While the pageant therefore did join national narratives, such as the visitations of royalty or the Roman invasion, it was decidedly local, ‘re-enacting not so much the county’s wonderfully storied history, as the customs, the trials, the tribulations, the progress of its people’ as the Dorset County Chronicle stated.11

Taking place with the spectre of international war hanging over the pageant, declared several weeks later, it is not surprising that there were several references to the impending conflict. The final dialogue of the pageant was one poignant, if subtle, reminder. Approaching a pedlar woman at a country fair in 1860, a bower bought some tape. During the sale the pedlar asked him if he would also ‘Have a bunch o’ Bloody-Warriors, zur?’ To which he replied, ‘no, no, Mother. There’s enough real bloody warriors about since these yer wars.’12 Bloody Warrior was, in this period, a regional term for the red wallflower, yet it also acted here as a prescient pun.13 Perhaps more obvious were the mild disruptions to the dress rehearsal, when, according to a reporter from the Dorset County Chronicle, there was ‘a jarring note to our left in the banging of six-pounders and the rattling of machine guns on the tank range, but one turns a deaf ear to them and the show goes on’, presumably coming from the nearby West Lulworth Gunnery School.14

Indeed, the Gunnery School had an important role in the actual pageant; in the first episode the Roman soldiers were all from the Royal Tank Corps.15 Their actions and behaviour in this episode, in which they respectfully allowed the Celts to bury their dead, were informed by recent archaeological analysis. Following their victory, the Roman General told a deferential crowd that the village must submit to Rome and live as her children, to ‘learn new ways of life that bring prosperity and happiness.’16 This idea of the Romans as a civilising force in the region was drawn from Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s discoveries at Maiden Castle between 1934 and 1937. A popular public historian/archaeologist, Wheeler put into action a huge publicity machine consisting of press releases, interviews, public lectures, and visitations to the actual site—of which there were as many as fifty thousand during 1936.17 Adopting contemporary language of the rise of fascism in Germany, Wheeler characterized the leader of the Celtic Durotriges settlement as ‘a megalomaniac’ and a ‘prehistoric Fuhrer’, with Maiden Castle being built by an ‘enslaved population’, and having ‘nothing democratic about it’.18 The Romans could thus be painted as the bringers of democracy and ending the rule of a tyrant. In his last season of excavation, Wheeler discovered the ‘war-cemetery’ of the defenders’ last stand, the event of ‘the fall of this primitive fortress before the might of Rome’. Printed in the Times, and alongside the evident popularity of his work in Dorset, it is likely this formed the basis for the defence of the Celtic settlement in the Spirit of Dorset pageant.19 For Wheeler, such archaeology played a crucial role in promoting and defending civilization in the modern world, providing a sense of social inheritance; it would seem that these ideals filtered down into the pageant.20

More generally the Earl of Shaftesbury, Lord-Lieutenant of the county, in a speech to the annual dinner in London of the Society of Dorset Men in April 1939, seemed to link the essence of the pageant with the march to war. Describing the ‘response made by residents in Dorset to the National Service appeal’, he stated ‘The Spirit of Dorset… remains unchanged and is unchangeable; the motto ‘Who’s A-Feared’ is still carried on a burnished shield’; while it is not possible to ascertain whether he had been influenced by the forthcoming pageant, both these phrases were common in its advertising and episodes.21

If the narrative was one of pride, the actual site of the pageant, Lulworth Park, did not provide much of which to be boastful. In 1929 the castle had been gutted by a fire, and, in the 1930s depression, many estate workers lost their jobs and moved on, leaving the park to become increasingly shabby.22 Upon viewing the dress rehearsal, the Dorset County Chronicle commented on how ‘Only a few years ago the Castle was a magnificent private residence; now it is an empty shell, its towers dangerously cracked, the floors gone, and heaps of debris right down to cellar level with shrubs growing out of it.’23 Yet this seemingly did not affect the success of the event. The Western Gazette was hyperbolic in its praise, gushing that ‘a more effective means… for fostering the county spirit could not have been devised’ and describing the crowd’s response to the opening performance as being one of ‘unstinted enthusiasm.’24 The Dorset Daily Echo was equally enthusiastic, declaring the episodes as ‘always full of life and action’, filling ‘Dorset folk with pride in their heritage’, and without any ‘awkward moments’.25 Following the pageant the Dorset County Chronicle described it as ‘the talk of the town bus and every other bus to-day, the talk of every Institute, of every home, of every school’, as well as ‘a gigantic and triumphant spectacle.’26

While the suggestion of the Dorset County Chronicle that the ‘“SPIRIT OF DORSET” PAGEANT SHOULD GO ON TOUR!’ was likely consciously stated hyperbole, the event had clearly been viewed as successful at the local level.27 In terms of uniqueness the pageant is most important, in retrospect, as a clear example of the ways in which contemporary academic research, though of a very popular kind, crossed over into and informed the staging of historical episodes. In most respects however it was a classic example of a WI pageant in this era, similar in many ways to Arthur Bryant’s WI pageants in the mid-1920s. Firstly, celebrating rural and country life and cementing local solidarity were clearly the most important aspects; secondly, organisation was decentralised, giving a chance for a wide variety of small WIs to be involved and to also cement the county-wide network; and finally, despite its local and inward looking narrative, it was not oblivious to wider social upheaval like the impending world war.


  1. ^ ‘Dorset Women’s Institutes’, Western Gazette, 28 October 1938, 15.
  2. ^ ‘Dorset Women Re-enact County’s History in Lulworth Pageant’, Dorset County Chronicle, 13 July 1939, 3.
  3. ^ The Spirit of Dorset: Book of Words and Programme (Dorchester, 1939), 5.
  4. ^ Ibid., 5.
  5. ^ See M. Andrews, ‘For home and country’: Feminism and Englishness in the Women’s Institute Movement, 1930-1960’, in R. Weight and A. Beach, The Right to Belong: Citizenship and National Identity in Britain, 1930-1960 (London, 1988); M. Andrews, The Acceptable Face of Feminism: The Women’s Institute as a Social Movement (London, 1997); C. Beaumont, ‘Citizens not Feminists: The Boundary Negotiated between Citizenship and Feminism by Mainstream Women’s Organisations in England, 1928–39’, Women’s History Review 9 (2000), 411-429.
  6. ^ ‘Cast of over 600 in “Spirit of Dorset” Pageant’, Dorset Daily Echo, 13 July 1939, 4.
  7. ^ The Spirit of Dorset, 5.
  8. ^ The Spirit of Dorset, 7.
  9. ^ ‘”Dorset Oozer” in Lulworth pageant’, The Dorset County Chronicle and Swanage Times, 20 July, 1939, 3.
  10. ^ Dark Dorset. Accessed online 28/07/15.
  11. ^ ‘Dorset Women Re-enact County’s History in Lulworth Pageant’, Dorset County Chronicle, 13 July 1939, 3.
  12. ^ The Spirit of Dorset, 48.
  13. ^ A.S. Macmillan, Popular Names of Flowers, Fruits, &c., As Used in the County of Somerset and the Adjacent Parts of Devon, Dorset and Wilts (Yeovil, 1922), 29-30.
  14. ^ ‘Dorset Women Re-enact County’s History in Lulworth Pageant’, 3.
  15. ^ The Spirit of Dorset, 13.
  16. ^ The Spirit of Dorset, 16.
  17. ^ Adam Stout, Creating Prehistory: Druids, Ley Hunters and Archaeologists in Pre-War Britain (Oxford, 2008), 219-220.
  18. ^ Ibid., 220.
  19. ^  Ibid., 222-3.
  20. ^ Ibid., 223.
  21. ^ ‘Dorset Spirit Unchanged’, Western Gazette, 28 April 1939, 16.
  22. ^ Patrick Wright, The Village that Died for England: The Strange Story of Tyneham (London, 2002), chapter 9.
  23. ^ ‘In the town bus’, Dorset County Chronicle, 20 July 1939, 3.
  24. ^ ‘The Spirit of Dorset’, Western Gazette, 14 July 1939, 16.
  25. ^ ‘Cast of over 600 in “Spirit of Dorset” Pageant’, 4.
  26. ^ ‘Dorset Women Re-enact County’s History in Lulworth Pageant’, 3.
  27. ^ ‘In the Town Bus’, Dorset County Chronicle, 20 July 1939, 3.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘The Spirit of Dorset’, The Redress of the Past,