Dorchester – a Brief HistoryFriday, October 16th, 2009
Dorchester is a beautiful English market town with a rich and varied past- here’s a brief history as a taster of what you might find when visiting the town.
The chalk hillside on which the county town now stands originally formed part of the complex prehistoric landscape. Impressive archaeological monuments in and around the town bear witness to some 6,000 years of human activity, the most famous being Maiden Castle, an Iron Age hill fort to the southwest.
Dorchester was first recognisable as a town (“Durnovaria”) in Roman times, mainly inhabited by Romanised members of the native “Durotriges” tribe. With its fine buildings, roads, town walls and a sophisticated piped water supply, Durnovaria is though to have been the regional administrative centre.
In medieval times the town generally prospered, trade being stimulated by the presence of a castle, friary, churches and mills, with regular fairs and market days.
In the 18th century beer replaced woollen cloth as Dorchester’s main product, and still holds that position. After numerous fires, most of the old timber and thatched buildings were rebuilt or refaced with local stone and the increasingly fashionable brick.
This gave Dorchester its mix of predominantly 18th and 19th century street fronts, so familiar to the famous Dorset Novelist Thomas Hardy who called the agricultural town “Casterbridge”. Today, Dorchester is an attractive tourist centre, with a population of around 15,000.
St Peter’s and Corn Exchange
Busy market stalls in front of the mainly 15th century church of St. Peter in High West Street formed the hub of medieval Dorchester. The clock turret was an 1864 addition to the Town Hall and the Corn Exchange was built during 1847-8.
Judge Jeffreys and No. 6 High West Street
Number 6 High West Street, built in the early 17th century, is one of the few timber-framed buildings to survive the town’s disastrous town fires. It is believed to have been the lodging of the notorious Lord Chief Justice Jeffrey, who tried 300 people at the “Bloody Assize” in Dorchester in 1685, after the Monmouth rebellion.
The Borough Gardens stand in the centre of the town. They were laid out in 1895 partly on the site of a large nursery. The cast iron clock tower, built in 1905 was donated by Charles Hansford, a magistrate and benefactor to the local hospital. The bandstand was erected in 1898 and is still used today.
Minutes from High East Street, this peaceful river walk skirts the hill on which the castle once stood. The river, an offshoot of the River Frome and one-time millstream, has long been the north-eastern boundary. A full circuit can be completed along the tree line “Walks”, laid out in the 18th century on the line of the defensive Roman town walls and ditches.
St George’s, Fordington
St George’s 15th century tower dominates Fordington,, once a separate farming village south-east of Dorchester and the site of numerous Roman extra-mural burials. The church contains a Roman tombstone and has an unusual stone carving dating from c.1100 over the south door.
Napper’s Mite in South Street, is a former almshouse founded by Sir Robert Napper in 1615. Built to house “ten aged men” after a town fire in which 300 houses were destroyed it now contains shops and a restaurant.
With its fascinating history and location in one of the finest parts of Dorset, we have a blend of modern and old, it’s well worth a visit.