A Description of the town of Dorchester, Dorset, England as described by Samuel Lewis in A Topographical Dictionary of England, Published in London in 1831.
DORCHESTER, a borough and market town, having separate jurisdiction, locally in the hundred of Uggscombe, Dorchester division of the county of DORSET, on the southern bank of the river Frome, 120 miles (S.W. by W.) from London, containing 2743 inhabitants.
The early existence of this town is evident from the etymology of its Roman names Durnovaria and Durinum, “a place on or near the Faria”, which was the old British appellation of the Frome. Ptolemy describes it as the chief town of the Durotriges, and calls it Dunium; it was named by the Saxons Dornceasler, whence the modern Dorchester is derived. In Athelstan’s charter to Milton abbey, dated at this place, Dorchester, which then belonged to the crown, is called Villa Regalis, to distinguish it from Dorchester in Oxfordshire, which was styled Villa Episcopalis. The Roman station stood on the Via Iceniana, and the remains of its ancient walls, the several vicinal roads leading from it, and the discovery of coins and other relics of antiquity evince it to have been a place of great importance.
In the Saxon age, two mints were granted to this place by Athelstan. In 1003, it was besieged and burnt, and its walls thrown down, by Sweyn, King of Denmark, in revenge for the attempt of Ethelred to extirpate the Danes by a general massacre.
In the reign of Elizabeth, several Roman Catholic priests were executed here; and, in 1595, the ravages of the plague were very extensive.
In 1613, a fire consumed several houses, together with the churches of the Holy Trinity and All Saints: the damage amounted to £200,000. A second conflagration took place in 1662, and a third in 1775.
During the civil wars, according to Lord Clarendon, Dorchester was considered one of the strongest holds of the parliament; it was fortified for this purpose in 1642-3; but, on the approach of the Earl of Caernarvon, with two thousand men, the town was immediately relinquished, and the governor fled by sea to Southampton: the Earl of Essex afterwards took possession of it. In 1645, an action took place here between General Goring at the head of fifteen hundred cavalry, and about four thousand of the parliamentary troops under Cromwell, in which the latter sustained a defeat, but kept possession of the town.
In 1685, on the occasion of the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion, the assizes were held here, before Judge Jefferies, when twenty-nine out of thirty persons tried in one day, were found guilty and condemned: on the following day, two hundred and ninety-two pleaded guilty and were condemned, of whom eighty were executed: on the morning of trial, Jefferies ordered the court to be hung with scarlet.
The town, is pleasantly situated on elevated ground, the river Frome, flowing on the north-western side; it occupies an area of about eighty acres, and consists principally of three spacious streets, the union of which, in the centre of the town, where the corn-market is held, is called Cornhill: these streets severally terminate in the roads to London, Weymouth, and Exeter; and from West-street, in a northerly direction, is the road to Bath: they are kept remarkably clean, well paved, and lighted. A small theatre was erected in 1828: races are held annually in September. The town is environed for two-thirds of its extent by a fine promenade, overshadowed with lofty trees; and the surrounding scenery, which consists of extensive downs, sloping hills, and fertile enclosures, watered by branches of the Frome, forms a picturesque and beautiful landscape. It is also surrounded by a tract called Fordington Field, partly meadow-land, and partly in tillage, without any enclosure, seven miles in circumference; it belongs to the duchy of Cornwall, and is held by the owners on lives, with a widowhood. Six hundred thousand sheep were formerly computed to have been constantly fed within a circuit of six miles, and that number is now exceeded: the high estimation of Dorchester mutton is attributable to the sweet herbage of the soil; and the water, which springs from a chalky bed, is particularly favourable for brewing beer, which is here made to a great extent, and of a superior quality. During the reigns of Elizabeth, Charles I., and James I., there was a flourishing cloth manufactory; but this branch of business has greatly declined, there being only a little blanketting and linsey now manufactured, in addition to the spinning of worsted-yarn. The principal market day is Saturday, and there is an inferior market on Wednesday. The fairs are on Candlemas-day, Trinity-Monday, St. John the Baptist’s and St. James’s days; the three last being principally for sheep and lambs.
Dorchester is a borough by prescription and charter, and, in the reign of Edward II., was under the government of two bailiffs and burgesses. In 1610, James I. appointed fifteen burgesses and two bailiffs, with power to choose a recorder and other officers. By charter of Charles I., the borough was incorporated under a mayor, two bailiffs, six aldermen, six capital burgesses, a governor, and twenty-four common council-men, with a recorder, town clerk, and other officers, of whom the mayor, the late mayor, the recorder, two bailiffs, and one capital burgess, are justices of the peace within the borough. The mayor and the two bailiffs are chosen annually by the corporate body, from among the capital burgesses, from whom the aldermen are also appointed by the same mode. A court of record is held “every Monday, from three weeks to three weeks,” for the recovery of debts not amounting to £40. The town-hall was erected by the corporation in 1791; underneath is the market-house. The shire-hall is a plain and commodious edifice of Portland stone, containing court-rooms wherein the assizes and quarter sessions for the county are held: by a right vested in the corporation the sessions for the borough are also held in this edifice. The new county gaol was erected on the site of the old castle, between 1789 and 1795, at the expense of £16,179. 10. 6., on the plan of the benevolent Howard, and comprises the county gaol, penitentiary, and house of correction: the exterior is handsome, and the interior is divided into various departments for the classification of prisoners, having four wings, which, though detached, communicate with the central building by cast-iron bridges. This borough has returned two members to parliament from the 23rd of Edward I., who are elected by about four hundred voters: the franchise was formerly in the inhabitants paying scot and lot, but is now equally vested in nonresidents having real estates within the borough, and paying church and poor rates, which arrangement has led to a very minute division of the portion of land so entitled, to feoffees in trust, in order to produce a preponderance in the number of electors. The primary title to this property has long been vested in the noble family of Cooper, Earls of Shaftesbury, whose influence is necessarily paramount. The ancient family of Williams has also considerable weight. The mayor is the returning officer. During the usurpation, Cromwell, in 1653, appointed one member for the borough.
The town is divided into three parishes, viz., All Saints’, commonly called All Hallows, or the lower parish, St. Peter’s, and the Holy Trinity, in the archdeaconry of Dorset and diocese of Bristol. The living of All Saints’ is a discharged rectory, rated in the king’s books at £4. 4. 7., endowed with £200 private benefaction, £400 royal bounty, and £400 parliamentary grant, and in the patronage of the Mayor and Corporation. The church was rebuilt after the great fire. The living of Trinity parish is a rectory, to which the rectory of St. Peter’s was united by act of parliament in 1610, rated in the king’s books at £17. 8. 6½., and in the patronage of the Mayor and Corporation. The church, erected nearly on the site of an ancient edifice pulled down in 1821, in consequence of its dilapidated state and its protruding so far into the street, is an elegant and commodious structure, ornamented with beautifully painted glass, and containing a marble tablet to the memory of Dr. Cuming, who, according to the epitaph, was buried in the church-yard, rather than in the church, “lest he who studied, while living, to promote the health of his fellow citizens, should prove detrimental to it when dead.” The living of St. Peter’s, formerly a rectory, has for ages been considered only a curacy to the rectory of the Holy Trinity parish, to which it was united by act of parliament in the 7th of James I., the church having been used as a chapel of ease since that period: St. Peter’s is, however, for all legal purposes, a distinct parish, having its own officers, maintaining its own poor, and the inhabitants contributing only to the repairs of their own church: the living is now a perpetual curacy, having been endowed in 1823 with £1200 private benefaction, £1500 royal bounty, and £2000 parliamentary grant, under the provisions of an act passed in the sixth year of Queen Anne’s reign. The church is ancient, spacious, and well built, and consists of a chancel, nave, and side aisles, and an embattled tower with pinnacles, ninety feet in height: it contains several ancient and curious monuments, one to the memory of Denzil, Lord Holles, of white marble, which represents that nobleman in a recumbent posture, and bears a Latin and English inscription; also the handsome tomb of Sir John Williams, of Herringstone, Knt., and his lady. In the north aisle, on a stone coffin, lies the effigy of a knight, cross-legged, and completely armed in a coat of mail and helmet, with belt, spurs, and shield, but without armorial devices; there is a similar figure in the south window: they are supposed to represent two crusaders belonging to the family of the Chidiocks, founders of the neighbouring priory, and to have been removed hither on the demolition of the priory church. There are places of worship for Baptists, Independents, Wesleyan Methodists, and Unitarians. A free grammar school was founded and endowed in the year 1579, by Mr. Thomas Hardy, of Wyke, near Weymouth; the government is vested in trustees: it has a trifling exhibition of £5 per annum, arising from the profits of the markets, at any college in either University; in addition to which, there are two exhibitions, of £10 per annum each, at St. John’s College, Cambridge, for scholars either from St. Paul’s school, London, or from the free school of Dorchester. A second school was re-founded by the corporation, about 1623, having existed prior to the establishment of the grammar school, and intended as a subordinate institution: the master is appointed by the corporation, and instructs gratuitously five boys of their nomination, in reading, writing, and arithmetic. A handsome almshouse, called Napper’s or Napier’s Mite, adjoins the free school; it was founded by Sir Robert Napier, in 1615, for ten poor men: near the priory is another, founded and endowed previously to 1617, by Matthew Chubb, one of the representatives of this borough, for nine poor women; and in the vicinity of All Saints’ church, are Whetstone’s almshouses, for the maintenance of four persons, or four couple, at the discretion of the corporation. Dorchester hospital, erected in 1616, was originally a kind of work-house, and having been subsequently otherwise occupied, was again converted to its primary use, in 1744, for the poor of the three parishes: it is now used both as a workhouse and an hospital, cach of the parishes appointing three guardians, and partly for the boys of the National school also.
This town, when in the possession of the Romans, was entirely surrounded by a wall and a fosse, having two exterior ramparts visible on the south and west; on which side there are still remains of the old wall, sixty-five paces in length, six feet thick, and, in some places, twelve feet high: its foundation is on the solid chalk-rock, and the wall is built of rag-stone, laid obliquely and covered with mortar; every second course, in the Roman manner, running the reverse way, and having occasional horizontal ones for binding, intermixed with flint. A great part of these fortifications was levelled and destroyed in making the walks which partially surround the town, particularly in 1764, when eighty-seven feet of wall were pulled down, and only sixty-seven feet left standing. A castle, probably of Roman origin, formerly stood here, the site of which is placed, by tradition, in a large field near the county prison, still called Castle Green; but there are not the slightest traces of the building. A priory of the Franciscan order was constructed from the materials, a little eastward from the castle, by a member of the Chidiock family, some time previously to the 4th of Edward III. The church was pulled down at the Reformation, and the house altered by Sir Francis Ashley for his own residence; it contains muny of his armorial bearings and insignia. Here Denzil, the celebrated Lord Holles, died; after which the mansion was converted into a Presbyterian meeting-house, and so continued till 1722. Opposite to it, on the north, are the priory close and meadow. Several Danish burial places, or tumuli, are scattered round the town. In 1725, a large tesselated pavement was discovered, at the depth of three or four feet, in a garden near South-street; and, in 1747, a brazen image of some Roman deity, probably of Bacchus, was found at the depth of five feet. In preparing the foundations for the new gaol, a great number of Roman coins were dug up, including those of Antoninus Pius, Vespasian, Constantine, Carausius, Valerian, Valens, and Gallienus. In the immediate vicinity of the town are some interesting remains of a supposed Roman amphitheatre, of the Roman camp of Poundbury, and of the Roman or British one of Maiden castle. Henry Pierpoint, Earl of Kingston, was created Marquis of Dorchester, March 25th 1645, but the title, after having been revived on the 23rd of December, 1706, finally became extinct on the death of Evelyn Pierpoint, the last duke of Kingston.