History of Dorchester
The Jurassic Era
Dorset’s Jurassic Coast has been given World Heritage status in recognition of its importance as a geological site.
The spectacular nature of the scenery reflects its origins in the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous eras. Charmouth is one of the best known Jurassic sites famous for Mary Anning and the amazing fossils she uncovered there.
Dinosaurs first appeared during the Triassic period, continued through the Jurassic period and died out during the “youngest” of these periods, The Cretaceous from approximately 145 million years ago until 65 million years ago.
As you can see from the links we have provided you can discover much more about this era and its creatures in The Dinosaur Museum and Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.
The Great Henge
Archaeological excavation when the Waitrose supermarket was built in the 1980s revealed the presence of an enormous henge from the centre of the current town right to the outskirts. The area covered is much larger than Stonehenge.
Enormous timber post holes were discovered, under laying the Roman and medieval finds.
These have now been identified as an extensive henge monument which appears to have covered a large part of old Dorchester from the High Street to South Walks and extending downhill across the river – the first settlement in what we now call Dorchester. Since that time other post holes have been found in curious places in the town. Take a guided tour and find out more about these exciting finds, you can still see where the posts holes were found: see the large red circles painted on the concrete of the lower floor of the Waitrose car park, come and see!
Maiden Castle, one of the best preserved Iron Age hill forts in Europe overlooks the town.
For countless years before its full story emerged the impressive ramparts leant an air of mystery to the site. It was only too easy to imagine ancient battles for possession of the fort long before the town of Dorchester existed.
The site was home to hundreds of people in the Iron Age (800BC to 43AD). The end date of the Iron Age coincides with the Roman invasion of England and Vespasian’s conquest of Maiden Castle must have been bloody and one of the sterner tests he faced.
Recent excavations have uncovered the remains of nearly 40 Iron Age warriors, buried with food and drink for their journey into the afterlife.
The site is open to the public and makes a popular walk for local inhabitants and visitors.
Maumbury Rings, just off the Weymouth Road, was originally a Neolithic Henge monument from around 2500 BC.
It was the Romans who lowered the central area and built up the banks to create an amphitheatre capable of holding 10,000 people. It was used as a cannon emplacement during the Civil War, guarding the town’s southern approaches. Mary Channing was executed here in 1705 for poisoning her husband. She was strangled and burnt.
It seems so peaceful now when the only disturbance is the occasional concert or performance, but its long bloody history fascinated Thomas Hardy who witnessed excavations on this site when he was in his sixties. The site is mentioned in his novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge.
The Dorchester Roman Town House was discovered during excavations in the 1930s prior to the building of County Hall.
Tony Robinson describes it as the only example of a fully exposed Roman Town House in the country and the best preserved.
The Town House dates from the first part of the 4th Century. It was probably the home of a Romano-British family who were very likely involved in the governing council of Durnovaria (Dorchester).
A selection of artist reconstructions on the Town House website lets you see how it would probably have looked at the time.
Judge Jeffreys’ “Bloody Assize”
Along High West Street on the south side there is a very attractive black and white Tudor style building, now a restaurant.
In this building the hated Judge Jeffreys, a supporter of James II, lodged when he came to Dorchester to hear the trials of men who took part in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, now known as the “Bloody Assize”.
Tradition tells us that these trials took place in the Oak Room just behind the lodging house (also now a cafe/restaurant entered from Antelope Walk). The trials were of men who had supported James Duke of Monmouth (illegitimate, protestant son of Charles I) in his attempt to overthrow his Catholic uncle King James II. Hear details of the punishments given to these poor men, 312 were accused and sentenced, learn some more of the darker side of Dorchester’s history, book a guided tour now!
Behind the three imposing green doors, the entrance to a Georgian Portland Stone building on the north side of High West Street, lies the harrowing story of six Dorset farm workers.
They were sent, in 1834, to penal servitude in Australia, when all they had done was try to obtain a decent living wage with which to feed their families.
These six men, with the help of the press, amassed nationwide support for their plight when they formed a Trade Union for agriculture workers, to further their cause for a fair wage.
Come and hear the story of their struggle, see where they were tried and view the cells which were used to house prisoners, from 1797 until 1955 while they awaited their fate in the dock. Take a guided tour, the court is open during office hours but a guided tour gives access to the cells and the dock, which are the highlight of the tour.
Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
The later history of Dorchester features several prominent literary figures. Thomas Hardy is undoubtedly the best known figure associated with Dorchester.
However, in his day the poet William Barnes who lived in Dorchester from 1837 to 1886 was also a national figure.
T.E Lawrence was a frequent visitor at Max Gate, the home that Thomas Hardy built for himself on the outskirts of Dorchester.
John Cowper Powys was another towering literary figure in the 1930s and he took a flat in High East Street whilst writing his novel, Maiden Castle.