Description of Dorchester from Samuel Lewis' Topographical Dictionary of England, 1848

DORCHESTER, a borough and market-town, having separate jurisdiction, and the head of a union, locally in the hundred of ST. GEORGE, Dorchester division of DORSET, 120 miles (S. W. by W.) from London; the town containing 3249 inhabitants. The early existence of the old town is evident from the etymology of its Roman names, Durnovaria and Durinum, "a place on or near the Varia," which was the British appellation of the Frome. Ptolemy describes it as the chief town of the Durotriges, and calls it Durinum , it was named by the Saxons Dornceaster, whence the modern Dorchester is derived. In Athelstan's charter to Milton Abbey, dated here, Dorchester, which then belonged to the crown, is called Villa Regalis, to distinguish it from Dorchester, in Oxfordshire, which was styled Villa Episcopalis. The Roman station stood on the Via Iceniana, and the remains of its ancient walls, the several vicinal roads leading from it, and the discovery of coins and other relics of antiquity, evince it to have been of great importance. In the Saxon age, two mints were granted to the place by Athelstan. In 1003, it was besieged and burnt, and its walls thrown down by Sweyn, King of Denmark, in revenge for the attempt of Ethelred to extirpate the Danes by a general massacre.

In the reign of Elizabeth, several Roman Catholic priests were executed here; in 1595, the ravages of the plague were very extensive. In 1613, a fire consumed several houses, together with the churches of the Holy Trinity and All Saints: the damage amounted to £200,000. A second conflagration took place in 1662, and a third in 1775. During the civil wars, according to Lord Clarendon, Dorchester was considered one of the strongest holds of the parliament; it was fortified in 1642-3, but on the approach of the Earl of Carnarvon, with 2000 men, the town was immediately relinquished, and the governor fled by sea to Southampton: the Earl of Essex afterwards took possession of it. In 1645, an action took place here between General Goring, at the head of 1500 cavalry, and about 4000 of the parliamentary troops under Cromwell, in which the latter sustained a defeat, but kept possession of the town. In 1685, on the oceasion of the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion, the assizes were held here, before Judge Jeffries, when 29 out of 30 persons tried in one day were found guilty and condemned; on the following day, 292 pleaded guilty and were condemned, of whom 80 were executed: on the morning of trial, Jeffries ordered the court to be hung with scarlet.

The TOWN is pleasantly situated on elevated ground rising from the river Frome, by which it is bounded on the north-west. It occupies an area of about 80 acres, and consists principally of three spacious streets diverging from an area called Cornhill, in the eentre, where the corn-market is held, and terminating severally in the roads to London, Weymouth, and Exeter: from West street, in a northern direction, is the road to Bath. The town is well paved, and kept remarkably clean: a company was formed in 1834 for lighting it with gas, for which, and for its general improvement, an act was obtained, The adjacent scenery, which consists of extensive downs, sloping hills, and fertile inclosures, watered by branches of the Frome, forms a picturesque landscape. A small theatre was erected in 1828, which has since been converted into a masonic lodge, and races are held in September, Surrounding the town is a large tract called Fordington Field, partly meadowland, and partly in tillage, without any inclosure, seven miles in circumference; it belongs to the duchy of Cornwall, and is held by the owners on lives, with a widowhood. Six-hundred thousand sheep were formerly computed to be constantly fed within a circuit of six miles, and that number is now exceeded: the high estimation of Dorchester mutton is attributable to the sweet herbage of the soil; and the water, which springs from a chalky bed, is particularly favourable for brewing beer, which is here made to a great extent, and of a superior quality. During the reigns of Elizabeth, Charles I., and James I., there was a flourishing cloth-manufactory; but this branch of business has greatly declined, there being only a little blanketing and linsey now manufactured, in addition to the spinning of worsted-yarn. In 1845 an act was passed for the formation of a railway from Weymouth, by Dorchester, to the counties of Somerset and Wilts, and a railway to Southampton was completed in 1847, which is 62 miles in length, including a branch of two miles to Poole. The principal market day is Saturday, and there is an inferior market on Wednesday. The fairs are on Candlemas-day, St. John the Baptist's and St. James' days (O. S.), and Oct. 25th; the three last are principally for sheep and lambs.

Dorchester claims to be a BOROUGH by prescription. Edward III. granted a charter, which was confirmed by succeeding sovereigns, as also did Richard III., but no specific form of municipal government was established until the charter of James I. Another charter was bestowed by Charles I., and under this the corporation consisted of a mayor, two bailiffs, six aldermen, and six capital burgesses, assisted by a high steward, recorder, town-clerk, two serjeants-at-mace, &c. By the act of the 5th and 6th of William IV., cap. 76, the government is now vested in a mayor, four aldermen, and twelve councillors, the mayor, and late mayor, are justices of the peace, and the total number of magistrates is seven. The borough has returned two members to parliament since the 23rd of Edward I. By the determination of a committee of the house of commons, on a petition in 1790, the elective franchise was resolved to be in the inhahitants paying church and poor rates in respect of their personal estates, and in persons paying church and poor rates in respect of their real estates, whether resident or not. Under the act of the 2nd of William IV., cap. 45, the former non-resident electors, except within seven miles, were disfranchised, and the privilege was extended to the £10 householders of an enlarged district, comprising 572 acres, which was substituted for the ancient borough, which included only 67 acres: the mayor is returning officer. There is a court of record, as under the old charter; a court leet is held on the first Monday after New Michaelmas-day, at which four constables and other usual officers are appointed; and petty-sessions of the mayor and justices are held every Monday. The powers of the county-debt court of Dorchester, established in 1847, extend over the registration-district of Dorchester and Cerne. The town-hall was erected by the corporation in 1791; underneath is the market-house. The shire-hall is a plain and commodious edifice of Portland stone, containing court rooms where the assizes and quarter-sessions for the county are held : the corporation have a right to use the hall for all public purposes. The county-gaol was erected near the site of the old castle, between 1789 and 1795, at an expense of £16,179, on the plan of the benevolent Howard, and comprises a gaol, sheriffs' ward, penitentiary, and house of correction; the exterior is handsome, and the interior is divided into various departments for the classication of prisoners, having four wings, which, though detached, communicate with the central building by cast-iron bridges, Dorchester is the place of election for the knights of the shire.

The town is divided into three PARISHES, viz., All Saints', commonly called All Hallows, containing 692; St. Peter's, 1203; and the Holy Trinity, 1354, inhabitants. The living of All Saints' is a discharged rectory, valued in the king's books at £4.4.7.; net income, £84 ; patrons, the Trustees of the late Rev. C. Simeon. The church was rebuilt after the great fire. The living of Trinity parish is a rectory, to which the rectory of Froome-Whitfield adjoining was united by act of parliament in 1610, valued in the king's books at £17. 8. 6½., and in the patronage of the Feoffees of the free school and almshouse, who were incorporated by the same act: the tithes have been commuted for £350, and there are 25½ acres of glebe. The church, erected nearly on the site of an ancient edifice pulled down in 1821 in consequence of its dilapidated state and its protruding so far into the street, is an elegant and commodious structure, ornamented with beautifully painted glass. The living of St. Peter's is a rectory not in charge, with a net income of £184: the present rector was appointed by the crown, but it has been made a question whether the patrons of Holy Trinity are not entitled to the patronage of St. Peter's also. The church is in the later English style, and consists of a chancel, nave, and aisles, with an embattled tower crowned by pinnacles, 90 feet in height. It contains several ancient and curious monuments, including one to the memory of Denzil, Lord Holles, of white marble, with his effigy in a recumbent posture, and the handsome tomb of Sir John Williams, of Herringstone, Knt., and his lady. In the north aisle, on a stone coffin lies the effigy of a knight, cross-legged, and completely armed in a coat of mail and helmet, with belt, spurs, and shield, but without armorial devices, and there is a similar figure in the south window: they are supposed to represent two crusaders belonging to the family of Chidiock, founders of the neighbouring priory, and to have been removed hither on the demolition of the priory church. There are places of worship for Baptists, Independents, Wesleyans, and Unitarians. A free grammar school was founded in the year 1579, by Thomas Hardy, and endowed by him with an estate of about £20 per annum: it has an exhibition of £5 per annum, at any college in either university; in addition to which there are two exhibitions, of £10 per annum each, at St. John's College, Cambridge, for scholars from St. Paul's school, London, or this school. A second school was refounded by the corporation, about 1623, having existed prior to the establishment of the grammar school, the management is vested in six trustees. A handsome almshouse, founded by Sir Robert Napier, in 1615, for ten men, adjoins the grammar school. Near the priory is another, founded and endowed previously to 1617, by Matthew Chubb, one of the representatives of the borough, for nine women; and in the vicinity of All Saints' church are Whetstone's almshouses, for the maintenance of four persons, or four couples, at the discretion of the six trustees of municipal charities. The poor law union of Dorchester and Cerne comprises 59 parishes or places.

There are some probable remains of the wall and fosse by which the town was surrounded while in the possession of the Romans. The wall, which is six feet thick, and in some parts twelve feet high, is founded on the solid chalk rock, and is built of ragstone, laid obliquely and covered with mortar; every second course, in the Roman manner, running the reverse way, and there being occasional horizontal ones for binding, intermixed with flint: the remains appear to be only the groutwork, or interior part of the wall, the facing having been long removed. A great part of the fortifications was levelled and destroyed in making the walks which partially surround the town, particularly in 1764, when 87 feet of wall were pulled down, and only 67 feet left standing. A castle, probably of Roman origin, stood here, the site of which is placed by tradition in a large field near the county prison, still called Castle Green; but there are not the slightest traces of the building. A friary of the Franciscan order was built with the materials, a little eastward from the castle, by a member of the Chidiock family, some time previously to the 4th of Edward III. The conventual church was pulled down at the Reformation, and the house altered by Sir Francis Ashley for his own residenee; it contains many of his armorial bearings and insignia. Here Denzil, the celebrated Lord Holles, died; after which the mansion was converted into a Presbyterian meeting-house, and so continued till 1722. Opposite to it, on the north, are the priory close and meadow. Several British tumuli are scattered round the town. In 1725, a large tessellated pavement was discovered, at the depth of three or four feet, in a garden near South-street; and in 1747, a brazen image of some Roman deity, probably of Bacchus, was found at the depth of five feet. In preparing the foundations for the gaol, a great number of Roman coins were dug up, including some of Antoninus Pius, Vespasian, Constantine, Carausius, Valerian, Valens, and Gallienus. In the immediate vicinity of the town are some interesting remains of a supposed British amphitheatre, a Saxon earthwork called Poundbury, and the intrenched residence now called Maiden Castle.

Source: A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 7th edition, 1848. Transcribed by Nigel Batty-Smith ©2014