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Town Pump and the Corn Exchange - - 32709.jpg
Town Pump and the Corn Exchange, Dorchester
Grid reference: SY690906
Location: 50°42’0"N, 2°25’60"W
Population: 16,171  (2001)
Post town: Dorchester
Postcode: DT1
Dialling code: 01305
Local Government
Council: Dorset
West Dorset

Dorchester is the county town of Dorset. A historic market town, Dorchester stands on the banks of the River Frome, in the Frome Valley. It is a modest town; in 2001, the town had a population of 16,171.

To the north of Dorchester are the Dorset Downs and to the south runs the South Dorset Ridgeway which separates the area from the coastal region and Weymouth, which lies 8 miles to the south.

Dorchester's literary heritage is worn openly. It was the home of the author Thomas Hardy, whose famous Wessex novels were based in and around his familiar Dorset home, and in which Dorchester's fictional counterpart is "Casterbridge". Tess of the d'Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge were both based on the town. The town also celebrates the Rev William Barnes, the poet of the Dorset dialect. Statues of both are found in Dorchester.


Prehistory and Roman

Roman town house ruins in Dorchester

Prehistoric settlements have been found around Maiden Castle, a large Iron Age hill fort that was one of the most powerful settlements in pre-Roman Britain, with varying tribes having existed there since 4000BC. The Roman writers record that the tribe in these parts were the Durotriges.

The Romans finally defeated the local tribes by 70 AD after a major battle at Maiden Castle. The Roman town of Durnovaria was founded, possibly ono the site of a garrison, and this town became Dorchester. The name Duronvaria if from the British language word for "fist", whether referring to the shape of a hill or, as others have suggested, fist-sized pebbles, but its name is similar to that of the Durotriges tribe who inhabited the area. Durnovaria was first recorded in the 4th century Antonine Itinerary and became a market centre for the surrounding countryside, and an important road junction and staging post.

The Romans walled the town and the remains can still be seen today. The walls were largely replaced with walks that form a square inside modern Dorchester. Known as 'The Walks' a small segment of the original Roman wall still exists today near the Top 'o Town roundabout.

The town still has some Roman features, including part of the town walls and the foundations of a Roman town house, which are freely accessible near the County Hall. There are many Roman finds in the County Museum. The Romans built an 8-mile long aqueduct to supply the town with water, lengths of the terrace on which it was constructed still remain in parts. Near the town centre is Maumbury Rings, an ancient British henge earthwork converted by the Romans for use as an amphitheatre, and to the northwest is Poundbury Hill, another pre-Roman fortification.

Little evidence exists to suggest continued occupation after the withdrawal of the Roman administration from Britain. Historians have suggested that the town became known as Caer Durnac to be recorded by Nennius as Caer Urnac. Continuity of use at the Roman cemetery at nearby Poundbury suggests continued occupation by the Britons until the 6th century.[1]

The Middle Ages

By the time the West Saxons held the area, the people of Dorset were known as the Dorsætas and their chief town was Dornwaraceaster (Dorn-men's city). The name was later shortened to Dornceaster, becoming today's "Dorchester".

In this period and throughout the Middle Ages, Dorchester was a thriving commercial and political centre for Dorset with a textile trading and manufacturing industry continuing until the 17th century.[2]

Modern period

Dorchester town centre
High West Street
"The town is populous, tho' not large, the streets broad, but the buildings old, and low; however, there is good company and a good deal of it; and a man that coveted a retreat in this world might as agreeably spend his time, and as well in Dorchester, as in any town I know in England". -- Daniel Defoe, in his A tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-1726).[3]

In 1613 and 1725 great fires destroyed large parts of the town, but some of the mediæval buildings, including the Judge's Lodgings and the Tudor almshouse survive in the town centre, amongst the replacement Georgian buildings, many of which are built in Portland stone.

In the 17th century the town was at the centre of the Puritan emigration to America, and the local rector, John White, organised the settlement of Dorchester, Massachusetts. For his efforts on behalf of Puritan dissenters, White has been called the unheralded founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, although White, unlike John Winthrop, never went to America.[4]

Dorchester was for Parliament in the Civil War and has a strong Puritan faction. The town was heavily defended against the Royalists. In 1651 though Prince Charles, the future King Charles II, on his hasty escape to France, narrowly escaped capture on his way to Bridport by hiding in Lee Lane. A plaque erected on the spot in 1991 commemorates the event.[5]

In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion against James II failed, his army defeated at Westonzoyland in the Battle of Sedgmoor and the captured survivors were brought to trial. Almost 300 of his men were condemned to death or transportation in the "Bloody Assizes", held in the Oak Room of the Antelope Hotel, Dorchester and presided over by Judge Jeffreys.

Nineteenth and twentieth centuries

In 1833, a group of farm labourers formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. For swearing an unauthorised oath, they were arrested and tried in the Shire Hall in Dorchester, and senetenced to transportation. They became known as the "Tolpuddle Martyrs". This building still remains and is preserved as it was at the time. Under the court are the cells where the prisoners were held while waiting for their court appearance. Dorchester Prison was constructed in the town during the 19th century and the prison is still in use today, holding convicted and remanded inmates from the local courts.

Dorchester remained a compact town within the boundaries of the old town walls until the latter part of the 19th century due to the ownership of all land immediately adjacent to the west, south and east by the Duchy of Cornwall. This land composed the Manor of Fordington, and a select few developments had encroached onto it:

  • The Marabout Barracks, to the north of Bridport Road, in 1794
  • The Dorchester Union Workhouse, to the north of Damer's Road, in 1835
  • The Southampton & Dorchester Railway and its station east of Weymouth Avenue, in 1847
  • The Great Western Railway and its station to the south of Damer's Road, in 1857
  • The Waterworks, to the north of Bridport Road, in 1854
  • A new cemetery, to the west of the new railway and east of Weymouth Avenue, in 1856
  • The Dorset County Constabulary police station in 1860, west of the Southampton railway, east of Weymouth Avenue and north of Maumbury Rings.
A map of Dorchester in 1937

This remaining Duchy land was farmed under the open field system until 1874 when the land was enclosed into three large farms by the landowners and residents.[6] Soon afterwards followed a series of key developments for the town: the enclosing of Poundbury hillfort for public enjoyment in 1876, the 'Fair Field' (new site for the market, off Weymouth Avenue) in 1877, the Recreation Ground (also off Weymouth Avenue) opening in 1880, and the imposing Eldridge Pope Brewery of 1881, adjacent to the railway line to Southampton. Salisbury Field was retained for public use in 1892, with land being purchased in 1895 for the formal Borough Gardens, between West Walks and Cornwall Road.[6] The clock and bandstand were added in 1898.[7]

Meanwhile, land had begun to be developed for housing outside the walls. This included the Cornwall Estate, between the Borough Gardens and the Great Western Railway, from 1876 and the Prince of Wales Estate, centred on Prince of Wales Road, from 1880. Land for the Victoria Park Estate was bought in 1896 and building began in 1897, Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee year. The lime trees in Queen's Avenue were planted in February 1897.[6]


Poundbury is the well-known western extension of the town, constructed since 1993 on [[Duchy of Cornwall land and guided by the current Duke, Charles, Prince of Wales, according to urban village principles. Being developed over 25 years, it will eventually be composed of four phases with a total of 2,500 dwellings and a population of about 6,000. Poundbury will also now house a new headquarters for the Dorset Fire and Rescue Service as well as a new fire station to be completed by September 2008.[8] Prince Charles designed the estate (as well as the local Tesco supermarket) and makes several visits throughout the year.


Local author and poet Thomas Hardy based the fictional town of Casterbridge on Dorchester. Hardy's childhood home is to the east of the town, and his house in town, Max Gate, is owned by the National Trust and open to the public.

William Barnes, the local dialect poet, was Rector of Winterborne Came, a small hamlet near Dorchester, for 24 years until his death in 1886,[9] and ran a school in the town. Statues of both men stand in the town centre; Barnes is outside St Peter's Church and Hardy's beside the Top o' Town crossroads. Cecil Day-Lewis is buried in Stinsford, a mile from Dorchester. Hardy is buried in London, but his heart was removed and buried in Stinsford.

On the hills to the south west of the town, stands Hardy's Monument, a memorial to the other local Thomas Hardy, Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, who served with Lord Nelson as Captain of the Victory. At the Battle of Trafalgar. The monument overlooks the town with views of Weymouth, the Isle of Portland and Chesil Beach.

Tom Roberts, Australian painter, was born in Dorchester in 1856.

Dorchester Arts, a regularly funded arts organisation based in a former school building runs a seasonal programme of music, dance and theatre events in the town as well as a range of participatory arts projects for socially excluded groups and the biannual Dorchester Festival.



  • Bingham, A. (1987) Dorset : Ordnance Survey landranger guidebook , Norwich: Jarrold, ISBN 0-319-00187-3
  • Chandler, J. H. (1990) Wessex images, Gloucester: Alan Sutton and Wiltshire County Council Library & Museum Service, ISBN 0-86299-739-9
  • Draper, J. (1992) Dorchester : An illustrated history Wimborne: Dovecote Press, ISBN 1-874336-04-0
  • Morris, J. and Draper, J. (1995) "The 'Enclosure' of Foridngton Fields and the Development of Dorchester, 1874–1903", Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society proceedings, v. 117, p. 5–14, ISSN 0070-7112
  • Pitt-Rivers, M. (1966) Dorset, A Shell guide, New ed., London: Faber, ISBN 0-5710-6714-X
  • Taylor, C. (1970) Dorset, Making of the English landscape, London: Hodder & Stoughton, p. 197–201, ISBN 0-340-10962-9
  • Waymark, J, (1997) "The Duchy of Cornwall and the Expansion of Dorchester, c. 1900–1997", Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society proceedings, v. 119, p. 19–32, ISSN 0070-7112

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Dorchester)