A Description of the towns of Weymouth and Melcombe-Regis, Dorset, England as described by Samuel Lewis in A Topographical Dictionary of England, Published in London in 1831.
Weymouth and Melcombe-Regis
WEYMOUTH and MELCOMBE – REGIS, a sea-port, borough, and market town, having separate jurisdiction, in the Dorchester division of the county of DORSET, 8 miles (S. by W.) from Dorchester, and 130 (S.W. by W.) from London, containing 6622 inhabitants.
This borough comprises the towns of Weymouth and Melcombe-Regis, forming opposite boundaries of the harbour, in the conveniences of which they had their origin; and to terminate their mutual rivalry for the exclusive possession of which, they were united into one borough, in the reign of Elizabeth. Weymouth, which derives its name from its situation at the mouth of the river Wey, is the more ancient, and was probably known to the Romans; as, in the immediate neighbourhood, there are evident traces of a vicinal way, leading from one of the principal landing stations connected with their camp at Maiden Castle to the via Iceniana, where the town of Melcombe-Regis now stands. The earliest authentic notice of it occurs in a grant by Athelstan, in 938, wherein he gives to the abbey of Milton “all that water within the shore of Waymouth, and half the stream of that Waymouth out at sea, a saltern, &c.” It is also noticed in the Norman survey, with several other places, under the common name of Wai, or Waia; among which it is clearly identified by the mention of the salterns exclusively belonging to it.
The ports of Weymouth and Melcombe, with their dependencies, were, by the charters of Henry I. and II., granted to the monks of St. Swithin, in Winchester; from whom, by exchange, Weymouth passed into the possession of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, who, in the reigns of Henry III. and Edward I., held it with view of frankpledge and other immunities. His successor, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, obtained many privileges for the town, which he made a borough, and which, through his heir, Edward IV., subsequently reverted to the crown, and formed part of the dowry of several queens of England. In the reign of Edward II. it received the staple of wine, and collectors were appointed, in the 4th and 6th years of that reign, to receive the duties. Weymouth, in the 10th of Edward III., had become a place of some importance, and, with Melcombe and Lyme, contributed several ships towards the equipment of that monarch’s expedition to Gascony.
In the year 1347, it furnished twenty ships and two hundred and sixty-four mariners towards the fleet destined for the siege of Calais: in this subsidy, Melcombe, though not mentioned, was probably included. In 1471, Margaret of Anjou, with her son, Prince Edward, landed at this port from France, to assist in restoring her husband, Henry VI., to the throne of England; and, in the 20th of Henry VII., Philip, King of Castille, on his voyage from Zealand to Spain, with a fleet of eighty ships, on board of which was his queen, being driven by a storm on the English coast, put into it for safety, intending to re-embark, after having refreshed himself from his toils, before his arrival could be known to the English monarch; but Sir Thomas Trenchard and Sir John Carew, who, fearing some hostile attack, had marched with their forces to the town, detained him till he might have an interview with the king, and for that purpose conducted him to Woolverton, the seat of Sir Thomas Trenchard.
This port, in 1588, contributed six ships to oppose the armada of Spain, and one of the enemy’s vessels, having been taken in the English channel, was brought into Weymouth harbour. Melcombe-Regis, on the north side of the harbour, derived its name from being situated in a valley, in which was an ancient mill; and its adjunct from its having formed part of the demesnes of the crown. It is not mentioned in Domesday-book, being included in the parish of Radipole, which at that time belonged to Cerne abbey; but it passed from the monks into the possession of the crown at an earlier period than Weymouth, and, in the reign of Edward I., became the dowry of Queen Eleanor, on which account it obtained many valuable and extensive privileges. In the reign of Edward III., it was made one of the staple towns for wool, and flourished considerably; but, in the following reign, having been burnt by the French, it became so greatly impoverished, that the inhabitants petitioned the king to be excused from the payment of their customs. Edward IV., in order to afford relief, granted them a new charter, conferring the same privileges as were enjoyed by the citizens of London.
In the reign of Elizabeth, the lords of the council, wearied by the continual disputes of these two towns, which were both boroughs, and endowed with extensive privileges, by the advice of Cecil, Lord Treasurer, united them into one borough by an act of parliament, which was afterwards confirmed by James I., under the designation of “The United Borough and Town of Weymouth and Melcombe-Regis,” from which time their history becomes identified.
Weymouth afterwards gradually fell into decay, and suffered greatly during the parliamentary war, having been alternately garrisoned for both parties. In 1644, it was evacuated by the royalists, on which occasion several ships, and a great quantity of arms, fell into the hands of the parliament, who obtained possession of it. The royalists soon afterwards attempted to recover it, but the garrison sustained the attack for eighteen days, and finally obliged them to raise the siege. An additional fort was built, in 1645, on the Weymouth side of the harbour, to defend it from the incursions of the Portlanders; and, four years after, the corporation petitioned for an indemnification for the destruction of their bridge and chapel (the latter, from its commanding situation, having been converted into a fort), and for assistance in the maintenance of the garrison, which application appears to have been disregarded; but, in 1666, a brief was granted to repair the damage; and, in 1673, another was bestowed for the collection of £3000, to repair the injury which the town had received from an accidental fire, whereby a considerable portion of it was destroyed.
The rise of the town of Poole, which was rapidly growing into importance, the decay of the haven, and the loss of its trade, with various other causes, contributed powerfully to the decline of the town, which, from an opulent and commercial port, had almost sunk into a mere fishing town, when Ralph Allen, Esq., of Bath, in 1763, first brought it into notice as a bathing-place; and the subsequent visits of George III. and the royal family, with whom it was a favourite place of resort, laid the foundation of its present prosperity.
The town is beautifully situated on the western shore of a fine open bay in the English channel, and separated into two parts by the river Wey, which, expanding to a considerable breadth, in its progress to the bay, forms a small, but secure and commodious, harbour, on the south side of which is Weymouth, at the foot of a high hill near the mouth of the river; and, on the north side, Melcombe-Regis, on a peninsula, connected with the main land by a narrow isthmus, which separates the waters of the bay from those formed by the æstuary of the river, called the Backwater.
A long and handsome stone bridge of two arches, with a swivel in the centre, to admit small vessels into the upper part of the harbour, has been erected, by act of parliament in the 1st of George IV., and connects the two parts of the town. In building it, the workmen, on clearing the foundation of some ancient premises, discovered an urn, covered with a thin piece of sheet iron, containing a great number of crowns, half-crowns, shillings, and sixpences, of the reigns of Elizabeth, James I., and Charles I.; and, in taking down an old house, nearly opposite the bridge, a richly-gilt crucifix in brass, about four inches in length, was found, which, with the exception of a part of the gilding, was in a very perfect state.
Since the town has become a place of fashionable resort for sea-bathing, various handsome ranges of building, and a theatre, assembly-rooms, and other places of public entertainment have been erected. Among the former, Belvidere, the Crescent, Gloucester-Row, Royal-Terrace, Chesterfield-Place, York-Buildings, Charlotte-Row, Augusta-Place, and Clarence, Pulteney, and Devonshire Buildings, are conspicuous; to which may be added, Brunswick-Buildings, a handsome range of houses at the entrance of the town. From the windows of these buildings, which front the sea, a most extensive and delightful view is obtained, comprehending, on the left, a noble range of hills and cliffs extending, for many miles, in a direction from west to east, and of the sea in front, with the numerous vessels, yachts, and pleasure-boats, which are continually entering and leaving the harbour.
The town, especially on the Melcombe side of the harbour, is regularly built, and consists partly of two principal streets, parallel with each other, intersected by others at right angles; it is well paved and lighted, under the provisions of an act passed in the year 1776, and is supplied, by a public company incorporated by another act, with pure water, conveyed by pipes from the Boiling Rock, at some distance, in the parish of Sutton. The houses, excepting such as have been erected for the accommodation of visitors, are in general built of stone and roofed with tiles, and are low and of indifferent appearance.
About half a mile to the south-west are the remains of Weymouth, or Sandsfoot, castle, erected by Henry VIII., in the year 1539, and described, by Leland, as “a right goodly and warlyke castle, having one open barbicane.” It is quadrangular in form: the north front has been nearly destroyed, the masonry with which it was faced having been removed; the apartments on this side are all vaulted, and appear to have been the governor’s residence; at the extremity is a tower, on the front of which were the arms of England, having a wyvern and unicorn for supporters. The south front is circular, and was defended by a platform of cannon, the wall of which now overhangs the precipice on which it was raised: on this side is a low building, broader than the càstle, and flanking its east and west sides, in which are embrasures for great guns, and loop-holes for small arms: the walls, in some parts, are seven yards in thickness, but in a very dilapidated state, and rapidly falling to decay. On the west of the town are the barracks, a neat and commodious range of building.
The Esplanade, a beautiful terrace, thirty feet broad, rising from the sands, and secured by a strong wall extending in a circular direction, parallel with the bay, for nearly a mile, and commanding an extensive and beautiful view of the sea and the mountainous range of cliffs by which the bay is enclosed, is one of the finest marine promenades in the kingdom. Among the buildings that adorn it is the Royal Lodge, where George III. and the royal family resided while visiting this place, comprising several houses of handsome, though not of uniform, appearance: opposite is a noble flight of steps, of Portland stone, leading to the sands, to which also is a gently sloping descent from one extremity of the Esplanade to the other: in the centre is the principal public library, elegantly furnished. The assembly and card rooms, a handsome range of building, comprising also an hotel, with commodious stabling and other appendages, and occupying an area six hundred feet in length, and two hundred and fifty in breadth, were erected at an expense of £6000, advanced on shares of £100 each: they are in every respect well adapted to the meetings which are held there during the season, under the superintendence of a master of the ceremonies. The theatre, of which the box entrance is in Augusta Place, is a neat and well-arranged edifice, handsomely fitted up; it will accommodate three hundred persons in the boxes, and is open four nights in the week during the season.
Races were established in 1821, which are generally well attended; they take place in August, and among the prizes contended for are the king’s plate of one hundred guineas, the mayor’s of fifty guineas, the members of fifty guineas, the Gordon of £50, and the ladies’ and tradesmen’s plates: the course, adjoining the town, is conveniently adapted to the purpose. During the time of the races, a splendid regatta is celebrated in the bay, which has a fine circular sweep of nearly two miles, and, being sheltered from the north and north-east winds by a continuous range of hills, the water is generally calm and transparent.
The sands are smooth, firm, and level; and so gradual is the descent towards the sea, that, at the distance of three hundred feet, the water is not more than two feet deep. Numerous bathing machines are in constant attendance, and on the South Parade is an establishment of hot salt-water baths, furnished with dressing-rooms and every requisite accommodation. At the south entrance of the harbour are the Higher and Lower jetties, the latter of which is a little to the east of the former. The sea has for some years been retiring from the eastern side of the harbour, and part of the ground over which it formerly flowed is now covered with buildings, other parts being enclosed with iron railings, which form a prominent feature on the Esplanade. On the Weymouth side are the Look-out and the Nothe, affording extensive and interesting prospects: on the latter is a battery, formerly mounted with six pieces of ordnance, which, on the dismantling of the fort, were removed into Portland castle: within the walls a signal post has been established, which communicates with several other stations, and apartments have been built for the accommodation of a lieutenant and a party of men. The bay almost at all times affords ample facilities for aquatic excursions, its tranquil surface being never disturbed, except by violent storms from the south or south-west; yachts and pleasure-boats are always in readiness, the fares of which are under strict regulations. The air is so mild and pure, that the town is not only frequented during the summer, but has been selected, by many opulent families, as a permanent residence; and the advantages which it possesses in the excellence of its bay, the beauty of its scenery, and the healthfulness of its climate, have contributed to raise it from the low state into which it had fallen, from the depression of its commerce, to one of the most flourishing towns in the kingdom.
The port formerly carried on an extensive trade with France, Spain, Norway, and Newfoundland, in the fishery of which last place it employed eighty vessels; but the war with France, after the Revolution, put an end to its commerce with that country; the trade with Newfoundland was, in a great measure, transferred to Poole; and the accumulation of sand in the harbour, operating with other causes, considerably diminished its importance as a port. A few vessels are still employed in the Mediterranean trade and in the Newfoundland fishery; in addition to which, it carries on a tolerable coasting trade. The principal imports are coal, timber, wine, brandy, geneva, tobacco, and rice, for which it was made a bonding port by an order of council, in 1817: the chief exports are Portland-stone, pipe-clay, Roman cement, bricks, tiles, slates, corn, and flour. The number of vessels belonging to the port, in 1829, was eighty-seven, of the aggregate burden of seven thousand one hundred and seventy-five tons; and in the course of the year 1828, four hundred and twenty vessels cleared outwards, and four hundred and four entered inwards. Ship-building is carried on to some extent; and many persons are employed in the manufacture of ropes, twine, and cordage, and in the making of sails. The quay, on which is the customhouse, a neat and commodious building, is well adapted to the loading and unloading of goods, but, from the accumulation of sand in the harbour, it is not accessible to ships of large burden. Three steam-packets sail regularly, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, for Guernsey, Jersey, and the neighbouring islands; and a cutter once a week, which is neatly fitted up for the accommodation of passengers, and the conveyance of merchandize. The market days are Tuesday and Friday: the town is abundantly supplied with fish of every description, with the small mutton from the isle of Portland, and with provisions of all kinds.
Weymouth and Melcombe – Regis, which had been distinct boroughs, and had returned members to parliament, the latter since the 8th, and the former since the 12th, of Edward II., were united into one borough by charter of Elizabeth, confirmed by James I., and upon its loss, in 1803, by neglect in filling up vacancies in the corporate body, renewed by George III. Under this charter, the government is vested in a mayor, recorder, two bailiffs, an indefinite number of aldermen (generally not less than eight), and twenty-four principal burgesses, assisted by a town clerk, two serjeants at mace, and subordinate officers. The mayor, who is also coroner and clerk of the market, and the bailiffs, are elected annually (the former by the inhabitants, and the latter by the corporation), on St. Matthew’s day; and the recorder and town clerk are appointed by the mayor and aldermen. The mayor, recorder, and two bailiffs, are justices of the peace, and are empowered to hold a court of session quarterly, for offences not capital, which court is held only at Michaelmas, and merely pro forma, no prisoners having been tried for many years; a court leet is held at the same period. The corporation also hold a court of record every Tuesday, under their charter, for the recovery of debts to any amount. The town hall, in which the courts are held, and the business of the corporation is transacted, is situated in the market-place, and under it is a small prison. The borough, since its union, has continued to return four members to parliament: the right of election is vested in the corporation and freeholders generally not receiving alms, of whom the number is about six hundred, every elector being entitled to vote for four candidates: the mayor is the returning officer.
The living of Weymouth is a perpetual curacy, annexed to the rectory of Wyke-Regis, in the archdeaconry of Dorset, and diocese of Bristol: the church, which was dedicated to St. Nicholas, is in ruins. Melcombe, previously to the reign of James I., was a chapel of ease to Radipole, from which it was separated in 1605, when a new church was built on the site of the former chapel, and made parochial in 1606: the living is a rectory, to which the living of Radipole, now a perpetual curacy, is annexed, in the archdeaconry of Dorset, and diocese of Bristol, rated in the king’s books at £11. 5. 5., and in the patronage of W. Wyndham, Esq. The church, dedicated to St. Mary, having become greatly dilapidated, an act of parliament was obtained, in the 55th of George III., for rebuilding it, which was completed in 1817; it is a spacious neat edifice, containing two thousand sittings, including eight hundred additional ones erected by grant of £800 from the Incorporated Society for the enlargement of churches and chapels, of which one half are free; it is appropriated to the use of the inhabitants of Weymouth and Melcombe-Regis: the interior is neatly fitted up, and the altarpiece is embellished with a painting of the Last Supper, by Sir James Thornhill. There are places of worship for Baptists, the Society of Friends, Independents, and Wesleyan Methodists.
The two National schools, in which six hundred, and the Lancasterian, in which about two hundred, children of both sexes are instructed, are supported by subscription; and there are several small bequests for the education of children, especially one amounting to £21. 10. per annum, by Mr. Harbin, in 1703; another of £70, for teaching eight boys, and a third of £28, for teaching two boys navigation, left by Mr. Taylor, in 1753. Sir James Thornhill built an almshouse, in St. Mary’s-street, for decayed seamen, but, having no endowment, it fell to decay; a small portion only is remaining, the greater part having been taken down.
At Nottington, about two miles and a half distant, on the Dorchester road, is a mineral spring, the water of which is considered efficacious in scrofula. In the centre of the town was a priory of Black canons, dedicated to St. Winifred, founded by some member of the family of Rogers of Bryanston: the buildings occupied a quadrangular area of nearly one acre, but they have been entirely removed, and several small houses erected on the site: in digging up the foundation, a great quantity of human bones was found. The burning cliff at Weymouth has long attracted the notice of naturalists, and is at present (1831) raging with greater fury than it has hitherto been known to display. Certain masses of blue lias, which, when sawn asunder, exhibit beautiful specimens of spar, cornua ammonis, &c., have recently been discovered in the rear of Melcombe.
Sir James Thornhill, the celebrated painter, was a native of Melcombe-Regis, and represented that borough in parliament in the reign of George I. Melcombe conferred the title of baron on Bubb Doddington, with whom it became extinct;
Weymouth gives that of baron to the family of Thynne.