Balson’s Gap and Malhala’s Fortune by Roy Martin
In her book, Tyneham, A Lost Heritage, Lillian Bond wrote: “The first of the Tyneham woodmen that I remember was a Balson … Old Balson was a little, wiry man as gnarled and woody looking as a tree root. His clothes, well weathered by long use, were the traditional corded leggings and a thick leather coat, topped by a round and ear-flapped headdress of brown fur.”
She goes on to describe him at some length, then says: “His home was in the heath at Povington and he walked to his work, taking as near as possible a bee line over the hill. The track worn by his daily journeys in the course of the years out lasted him for many more, and the place in the hedge where he climbed from the North Hill into Madmore continued, long after his death, to be known as Balson’s Gap.”
To learn about his cottage, which was in the hamlet of Whiteway, we need to go back to earlier William Balsons. The first recorded William Balson (1759–1835) was the son of a John Balson; he married Elizabeth Miller in January 1789. The Millers were, and still are, a fishing family. Their first child Thirza was born in the same year, and their second Mahala arrived in 1791. Their sons Henry and John were born in 1802 and 1804 respectively; there may have also been a William who died young. The next son, Robert, went on to farm at Creekmoor near Poole, where he was described as a Yeoman.
William II, William and Elizabeth’s last recorded son, was born in 1811. He seems to have remained in Purbeck. This William married Elizabeth Snelling (various spellings) on 23 May 1830. They were both nineteen and their first child, a daughter Kizah, was born four months later.
The first entry in Henry Roll’s Journal is: “Wm Balson began billding his house at Whiteway this spring of 1833, over the lake south of the road going to Povington. They went into it in the spring of 1834.” As William I was an old man by now, he died at Tyneham in 1835, the builder seems to have been William II. By this time William II and Elizabeth had a son, John.
William chose well; though the site was on the edge of the heath the chalk steam known as Luckford Lake flowed past. This not only gave a constant supply of clean water, it also neutralized the acid heathland soil. If needed more chalk could be wheeled down from the nearby pit.
How did William get to know of the site? It could be that he had a night job, guiding the smugglers and the landers through the lonely open country, to get their goods across the River Frome to Bere Regis and even on to the Capital? Early in the journey they would have had to cross Whiteway or Povington Hill. Could it have been this Balson, and his convoy, who first made Balson’s Gap? His Miller in-laws would probably been involved!
William’s sister Mahala was twenty years older than him, she had never married. An unnamed child of William and Elizabeth Balson was christened at Corfe Castle on 30 December 1791: as their other early children were also christened at Corfe, it is probable that this was Mahala.
In the 1841 Tyneham census Mahala and her mother Elizabeth are described as paupers; but ten years later she was recorded as an annuitant. By the time she made her will in February 1855 Mahala was living in Wareham. She bequeathed almost five hundred pounds to various members of the family. Her first, and worst, choice was her nephew James, the son of the yeoman Robert. She left this young man £300. Robert was obviously upset that James should have been chosen and only left him five shillings in his own will. James was, or became, a ne’er-do-well; he seems never to have owned a house or land and spent two spells in Dorchester prison. One of Mahala’s other bequests was fifty pounds to William III, who later took over the house at Whiteway; he is the Balson that Lillian Bond wrote about. He was my great grandfather.
How did an elderly spinster end up with a fortune deposited in the Dorchester Bank? Some have said that she was generous, though not free, with her favours. It is difficult to imagine that she amassed the equivalent of fifty years wages in that way! Others say that the money came from smuggling, but why then did she have it and not the others? It is difficult to imagine that she, or the men, would have taken £500 in cash to Dorchester or even to a Wareham branch; without the Magistrates, and the whole County, becoming aware.
The name Mahala is unusual, but not unknown in Dorset. It also occurs in many other languages, including Zulu, where, as Malhala, it means ‘free of charge’ or a gift.
Thank you to Anne Lyons for sending me copies of the wills of Mahala and Robert and my brother Eric Martin for pointing out the possible South African connection. Luckford Lake marks the western extremity of the Isle of Purbeck.
Roy V Martin, December 2014