Dorchester, Dorset 1872

The following description and brief history of Dorchester, Dorset, England is taken from ‘Black’s Guide to Dorsetshire’ By Adam and Charles Black Published in 1872

Dorchester is the county-town of Dorsetshire, and a parliamentary borough, returning two representatives (R. B. Sheridan, Esq., and Captain Street).

“It is one of those nice comely old towns,” says Mr. Thorne, “with a goodly avenue (South Street) running through them from north to south, and another (High Street) from east to west, the two meeting in the centre of the town, near the town-hall, the principal church, and other buildings. These four approaches to Dorchester are among the finest kind of our public roads, lined with trees on both sides to a great distance from the town, and thereby forming lines of communication which catch the eye from afar, when the roads themselves would not otherwise be visible.” The town is situated on a hill, which declines greatly to the bank of the Frome, and stretches southward into a fair and open country. On the south and west sides runs a rampart, now planted with limes, sycamores, and chestnuts. To the southwest lies the suburb of FORDINGHAM, the property of the Duchy of Cornwall, and consisting of 3400 acres, which anciently formed one wide and unenclosed tract of arable land. “West of the town, overhanging the railway, rises the entrenched height of Poundbury, and beyond Fordington Field, the remarkable fortification of Maiden Castle. A direct line of road runs from Weymouth, in the line of the Icknield Street, or Via Jceniana, through the town, to Sherborne, whence it pushed onward to Bristol.

Such is a general outline of the plan and position of Dorchester. In interesting public edifices it is by no means rich. It has three churches : 1. ST PETER’S, with a turreted and battlemented tower, 90 feet high; a brass to Joan de St. Omer, d. 1436, and memorials to two mailed Crusaders — Lord Holies of Ifield, and Sir John Williams of Harrington, d. 1628. Its Norman porch is worth examination; the whole building has been well restored. 2. ALL SAINTS’, Early Decorated, rebuilt in 1845, has some good painted glass, and a richly blazoned eastern window, the gift of the late Bishop of Salisbury. 3. HOLT TRINITY Church was rebuilt in 1824. — Of its municipal buildings, the GUILDHALL, Elizabethan in style, is the most important. It was erected, in 1847, from the designs of Mr. B. Ferrey, and has a timber roof of remarkable pitch. The SHIRE-HALL was built by Hardwick; the HOSPITAL established in 1840. In the COUNTY MUSEUM, founded 1845, there is exhibited a choice cabinet of British and Roman relics. The GAOL was erected, from Blackburn’s designs, in 1795, at an expense of £l6,000. A geometrical tesselated pavement, discovered within the walls, now forms the floor of the prison chapel.

The history of Dorchester is briefly told. It is probably the Celtic Dunium, or Durnorvaria, the principal settlement of the

Durotriges, which in due time became one of the most important Roman towns in the south of England. Its Eoman conquerors fortified it, made a fine road through it, and built around it numerous goodly villas. During the troubles of the Saxon and Danish periods, it suffered terribly; and, in 1003, was burnt to the ground. Still it had recovered so far as to possess 162 houses in the reign of Edward the Confessor, when another storm broke over it — that of the Norman Conquest — and only 88 houses survived its violence. It once more sprang up from its ruins; a rich priory was founded within its walls, and a strong castle erected, which served either for its defence or intimidation, and of which many notable soldiers at different times held the governorship.

In 1595 the town was desolated by the plague; in 1613, by a terrible fire. When the civil war broke out, the Parliament fortified it, but it was surrendered without a struggle to the Royalists, under the Earl of Carnarvon. It was then dismantled of its defences, and occupied in turn by Roundhead and Cavalier. Cromwell was forced to retire from it on the approach of ” Dissolute Goring” (A.D. 1645). On September 3d and 4th 1685, Judge Jeffreys held here a ” Bloody Assize,” and sentenced without mercy the unfortunate adherents of Monmouth. ” The court was hung, by his order, with scarlet; and this innovation seemed to the multitude to indicate a bloody purpose. It was also rumoured that, when the clergyman who preached the assize sermon enforced the duty of mercy, the ferocious mouth of the judge was disturbed by an ominous grin. These things made men augur ill of what was to follow. More than 300 prisoners were to be tried. The work seemed heavy; but Jeffreys had a contrivance for making it light. He let it be understood that the only chance of obtaining pardon or respite was to plead guilty. Twenty-nine persons, who put themselves on their country and were convicted, were ordered to be tied up without delay. The remaining prisoners pleaded guilty by scores. Two hundred and ninety-two received sentence of death. The whole number hanged in Dorsetshire amounted to seventy.four ” — (Macaulay).

With reference to the later history of Dorchester, it is only necessary to note that its cloth manufactures, for which it was once famous, have dwindled into nothingness, and that it is now principally maintained as the centre of a large sheep-breeding and agricultural district. About 750,000 sheep are fed on the neighbouring downs, and at its markets large quantities appear of Dorsetshire skim cheese and Dorset butter. It was once famous for its ale, and its inns still maintain their ancient reputation. It is also an important railway station, being the junction-point of the Great Western, and London and South-Western lines (Southampton and Dorchester, and Dorchester and Weymouth branches). The journey from London is now accomplished in four hours; in 1739 the Dorchester stage occupied two days and a night !

The great historical interest of Dorchester centres in its BRITO-EOMAN AMPHITHEATRE, south of the town; POUNDBTJRY, west; and MAIDEN CASTLE, 2£ miles south-west. A few details will probably be acceptable to the tourist.

The AMPHITHEATRE (called MAEN- or MAUMBURY), first introduced to the notice of the public by Sir Christopher Wren, is supposed by some to have been founded during the rule of Agricola; but Dr. Stukely considers it to have been formed by order of the Emperor Titus. On this point, however, there is no certain evidence. Both its slopes and area are now overgrown with long rank grass, but its outlines are plainly discernible. It is an oval, about 218 feet in its longest diameter, and 163 in its shortest. The centre is slightly sunk beneath the level of the surrounding plain; the sides or walls, of chalk, are raised 30 feet above it Externally, its dimensions are 343 feet by 339 feet, and so thick is its rampart on the east and west, that it is not improbable it there contained some secure receptacles for wild beasts —

“Butchered to make a Roman holiday.”

The entrance is placed at the north-east angle, and leads to a species of pathway which ascends to the top of the superstructure. Beneath it there appears to have been a cavern, or subterraneous chamber. A terrace or passage commences near the entrance, and gradually rises until it reaches the central tier of seats, whence it descends to the opposite end of the oval. ” On the top of (what were once) the row of seats is a terrace, about 12 feet broad, divided from the seats by a parapet. Between this upper terrace and the middle terrace were rows of seats, excavated in the chalk, and appropriated to the humbler spectators; while below the middle terrace were the seats for persons of higher rank; and on a podium, or broad platform, immediately contiguous to the arena, were the seats for the senators and nobles” — (Thorne).

Twelve thousand persons could, from their various tiers of Beats, have witnessed the savage sports enacted in the arena below —

“And here the buzz of eager nations ran,
In murmured pity, or loud-roared applause,
As man was slaughtered by his fellow-man.” — Byron.

Nearly as large a number thronged the grass-growm mounds when Mary Channing, in the centre of the area, was strangled and then burned for the murder of her husband (March 21, 1705). Once before a woman, one Jane Hall, had been cruelly put to death in the same manner, and on the same spot (December 31, 1660); but Mary Channing was the last person who underwent so barbarous a punishment in England.

From the Amphitheatre (past the BARRACKS, built by Fentiman, at a cost of .£24,000) to POUNDBURY, is neither a long nor an uninteresting wait. Poundbury rises on the south bank of the Frome, a lofty and grassy mound, 400 feet from north to south, and 1000 feet from east to west. A raised earthwork encircles it, or rather encloses an irregular oblong area, which is slightly rounded off at the south-east and south-west angles. There are three small entrances at different points, but the principal entrance is on the east side. Nature has flung over it a rich garniture of herb, grass, and wildling, and it seems to have borne unchanged the storms of centuries. What its uses, who shall say ? Camden says it is a camp constructed by the Danes when, under the leadership of King Sweyn, they besieged Dorchester (circa 1003). But would they have needed so massive and formidable an entrenchment? Enough for us that it is curious in its antiquity, and that it commands a very fine and extensive prospect.

To MAIDEN CASTLE — ” Mew Dun,” the great hill — the path lies across the fields, and there is no difficulty in finding it, so conspicuous is it from its elevation and unusual dimensions.

MAIDEN CASTLE is one of the largest earthworks in England. A double fosse and rampart — in some places treble, and the inner walls of remarkable height, even as much as 60 feet — enclose an area of 44 acres, while altogether the camp covers about 160. There are two entrances — one on the east, the other on the west, and both protected by numerous ditches and ramparts The inner area is divided by a low ditch, which runs across it from north to south, and near its southern extremity is the opening to a partially filled-up cave, which communicated, it is supposed, with the stream below.

Antiquarians and topographers differ respecting the origin of this remarkable camp. We may fairly assume that it is British in its origin, and formed by the partial excavation of a commanding height, but that it was used, at a later period, by the Romans, as the castra cestiva of the troops stationed at Dorchester.


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