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Sir James Stiff

Do you know who Sir James Stiff was and why he built his almshouses here?

200 years ago a Workhouse Master was a dreaded title especially in a rural area where work was often seasonal and housing dependant on employment. The workhouse was where you went when you had no other option for food and shelter. Robert Stiff was a Workhouse Master and also a local farmer so he was probably not a very popular man!!

Robert’s son was born in 1808 but did not follow his Father into farming or workhouse management, but worked as a plasterer’s assistant and at 18 went to London to be apprenticed to the Coade Stone factory (Coade Stone was a very durable artificial stone used in building and statuary). After four years he moved to Doulton and Watt’s Pottery as a mould maker and a further ten years later he set up his own business making water filters — Londoners were just beginning to ask for clean water — so this was very lucrative. The business grew with his sons and grandsons entering the business and in 1913 they sold out to Royal Doulton. James Stiff was noted as being retired in 1895 by the British Clayworker and he died in 1897 in Swanage.

James Stiff never forgot his home village and the poverty he saw. He was a keen non-conformist and active supporter of the Baptist Church, so gave generous gifts to the Baptist Chapel and 1876 built 6 almshouses, on land that the family owned, for non-conformist widows. As this is quite close to St Mary’s could it have been seen as provocative?