Dorsetshire or Dorset, a maritime county bounded on the NW by Somerset, on the NE by Wilts, on the E by Hants, on the S by the English Channel, and on the W by Devonshire. Its outline is very irregular. Its greatest length, from east to west, is 52 miles, its greatest breadth 37 miles, its circuit about 180 miles, its area 632,272 acres. The surface, in a main degree, is hilly and bleak, consisting of chalk downs and sandy heaths, yet possesses the charms of wild scenery, extensive prospects, and beautiful shores. The loftiest points are Swyre Hill, Black Down, and Pillesdon Pen, respectively 669, 813, and 934 feet high. The coast is about 75 miles long, presents much diversity, and includes the singular promontory called the Isle of Portland. The chief rivers are the Stour, the Frome, the Piddle, the Ivel, the Cerne, and the Brit. Mineral springs are at Sherborne, Chilcombe. Nottington, and some other places. Lias rocks, chiefly dark blue clays studded with ammonites and the bones of vast reptiles, are in the west; lower and middle oolite rocks, including interior oolite, fuller's earth, great oolite, forest marble, corn brash, Oxford clay, calcareous grit, and coral rag, adjoin the lias from Somerset to the sea; upper oolite rocks, Kimmeridge clay, Portland stone, and Purbeck limestone prevail in the isles of Portland; and Purbeck upper greensand skirts the escarpments of two great ranges of downs, and rises into the mass of Pillesdon Pen; chalk forms the main bulk of the downs, in the one case with a breadth of from 10 to 18 miles, in the other with an average breadth of barely 2 miles, and is the most prominent geological feature in the county; and tertiary deposits, chiefly the sands of the plastic clay, stretch in barren heaths between the two ranges of downs, from Poole to Dorchester. Bad stony coal, coarse marble, pipeclay, the Portland stone, the Purbeck limestone, and good potter's clay are worked, the last three to a great extent, for exportation.
The soil of some low grounds in the west, in the centre, and in the north, is a deep rich loam, of about one-sixth of the entire area sand, of about one-fifth clay, of about one-third chalk, of about one-ninth useless irreclaimable rock.
Wheat and barley are much cultivated on the best soils, the latter for malting; potatoes and beans are grown as alternating crops on the good soils, and sainfoin and turnips on the chalk; hemp for oil and oil cakes is raised near Bridport and Beaminster, and hops are cultivated on a few spots. Salt butter, of such quality as when well washed to be sold for fresh, is sent to the London market; and skimmed milk cheese, streaked and known as double Dorset, is made for home consumption. Cattle are reared both for the dairy and for grazing. Short-woolled sheep, of the Down and Southdown breeds, crossed with the Leicesters and others, are famous for early lambs. A small breed, equal to the Bagshot and the Welsh, occurs in Portland and Purbeck.
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Archives and Libraries
For general information about Civil Registration (births, marriages and deaths) see the Civil Registration page.
List of Registration Districts in Dorset from 1837 to 1974.
Directories & Gazetteers
The description of the county from Pigot's Commercial Directory of Dorsetshire, 1830 is online.
The Historical Directories web site have a number of directories relating to Dorset online, including:
Kelly's, Pigot, Slater, etc.
A listing of the Hundreds and Liberties in Dorset, with the parishes contained in them.
Land and Property
The Return of Owners of Land in 1873 for Dorset is available to browse.
Old map of Dorset circa 1848 (Samuel Lewis)
Old map of Dorset circa 1895 (Gazetteer of England and Wales)
Parishes and places
The towns and parishes have now been moved to a separate page.
A listing of the Poor Law Unions in Dorset, with the parishes contained in them.
In 1700 the population of Dorset was 90,000; in 1801, 114,452; in 1851, 184,207; in 1861, 188,789; in 1871, 195,531; in 1881, 191,028; 1891, 194,517; in 1901, 202,063, and in 1911, 223,274.
The Visitation of Dorsetshire, 1623 is online.