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MARKET TOWNS OF DORSET (from SDUK Penny Cyclopedia)

Dorchester in 1837

DORCHESTER, a borough and market-town, having separate jurisdiction, in the division of Dorchester and county of Dorset, 120 miles south-west by west from London.

Dorchester was called by the Romans ‘Durnovaria,’ and ‘Durinum.’ Hutchins, in his history of Dorsetshire, says that the first part of the name Dorchester is from Dur, or Dwr, in ancient British, water, which seems the best opinion. By the Saxons it was called ‘Dornceaster,’ from whence we have the modern name Dorchester. It has also been called ‘Villa Regalis,’ to distinguish it from Dorchester in Oxfordshire, called ‘Villa Episcopalis.’

Placed on the ‘Via Icenia’ (the Icknield street), it must have been a place of some importance in the time of the Saxons, as two mints were established here by King Athelstan. The town was nearly destroyed by fire in 1613 : 300 houses, and the churches of the Holy Trinity and All Saints, were totally consumed ; and the loss is estimated by Hutchins at the enormous sum of £200,000.

Many severe battles were fought in the vicinity of Dorchester between the king’s and the parliamentary forces during the civil war. At the assizes held here on the 3rd of September, 1685, by Judge Jefferies and four other judges, out of 30 persons tried on a charge of being implicated in Monmouth’s rebellion, 29 were found guilty and sentenced to death. The following day 292 persons pleaded guilty, and 80 were ordered for execution. John Tutchin, who wrote the ‘Observator’ in Queen Anne’s time, was sentenced to be whipped in every town in the county once a year, but on his petitioning to be hanged as a mitigation of his punishment, he was reprieved, and subsequently pardoned.

The manor of Dorchester has passed through the hands of a great many families, and in the 11th year of the reign of King Henry IV appears to have been the king’s demesne borough. In the 1st of Henry V the profits of the borough were confirmed to the burgesses at a fee-farm rent of £20. The rent was subsequently granted, and is now paid, to the Hardwicke family.

The corporation claim a prescriptive right, but they have charters of Edward III, Charles I, and of other reigns : the governing charter is that of the 5th Charles I. The assizes and courts of quarter-sessions for the county and for the borough are held here ; as well as a court of record and, a court leet. A high steward is appointed for life.

The borough has returned two members to parliament since the 23rd year of the reign of King Edward I, but, by the Boundary Act, the boundaries are considerably extended, and include Fordington, Colleton Row, and part of Trinity parish, and include a population of 4,940 inhabitants. The population of the town itself is 3,033, of whom 1,552 are females.

The town of Dorchester is pleasantly situated on a slight elevation near the river Frome, and consists principally of three spacious streets, which are well paved and lighted. A delightful walk, well shaded, surrounds two-thirds of the town. Races are annually held here in September ; and a theatre was erected in 1828. The shire hall is a plain building of Portland stone, and is commodiously fitted up. The gaol, built in 1795, contains the county gaol, the house of correction, and the penitentiary : the interior is divided into four wings, communicating by cast-iron bridges.

The trade is now very trifling, but in the reigns of King Charles I and James I the manufacturing of cloth was carried on to some extent : the market-days are Saturday and Wednesday. There are fairs on Trinity Monday, St. John the Baptist’s, and on St. James’s days ; the three last are principally for sheep and lambs, for which Dorchester is celebrated. A tract of land, called Fordington Field, partly meadow, partly arable, surrounds a portion of the town : its soil is particularly adapted for the feeding of cattle, and it extends over a surface seven miles in circumference, without any inclosures.

The town is divided into three parishes, All Saints (commonly called All Hallows), St. Peter’s, and the Holy Trinity, and is in the archdeaconry of Dorset and diocese of Bristol. St. Peter’s church contains some curious monuments, is spacious, well built, and consists of a chancel, nave, aisles, and an embattled tower, 90 feet in height. The living of Trinity is by far the best, being now worth £439 a year. There are also places of worship for Baptists, Independents, Wesleyan Methodists, and Unitarians.

A free grammar-school was founded and endowed by Mr. Thomas Hardy in the year 1579, the government of which is vested in trustees. It has two exhibitions, of £10 per annum, to St. John’s College, Cambridge, and one of £5 per annum to any college of either University. A second school, founded prior to the grammar-school, was refounded in 1623 by the corporation, the master of which instructs five boys gratuitously in reading, writing, and arithmetic. There are almshouses, founded by Sir Robert Napier in 1615, by Matthew Chubb in 1619 ; and the Whetstone almshouses, for the support of four couples, or four single persons.

The town was strongly fortified and entirely surrounded by a wall, when in possession of the Romans ; and the site where an ancient castle stood is still called Castle Green. The building itself was totally demolished, and a priory for Franciscan monks was constructed out of the materials by one of the Chidiock family, in the reign of Edward III, near the site of the old castle. The church of the priory was pulled down at the Reformation, and the house became the residence of Sir Francis Ashley, and was subsequently converted into a Presbyterian meeting-house.

Tesselated pavements, Roman urns, and a quantity of coins of Antoninus Pius, Vespasian, Constantine, and other Roman emperors, have been dug up in the vicinity of Dorchester.