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.
The only mineral of importance found in the county is potter's clay, of which the annual production is over 70,000 tons, valued at about £25,000. There are manufactures, of flax, thread, hemp, cordage, sailcloth, woollens, worsted stockings, and gloves. Fisheries of various kinds, but most largely of mackerel, are carried on along the coast, particularly near Abbotsbury and from Portland to Bridport. The county has good railway facilities by means of the G.W.R., L. & S.W.R., and Somerset and Dorset lines.
According to the census returns issued in 1893, the chief occupations of the people of the county were:Professional, 6088 males and 2350 females; domestic, 764 males and 13,066 females; commercial, 6042 males and 112 females ; agricultural, 19,632 males and 681 females; fishing, 333 males and 2 females; industrial, 25,246 males and 7860 females; and "unoccupied," including retired business men, pensioners, those living on their own means, and others not specified, 12,023 males and 50,954 females; or a total in the county of 70,128 males and 75,025 females. The number of men employed in the leading industries was as follows: Agricultural labourers, 11,282 ; general labourers, 5021; carpenters, bricklayers, and masons, 4020; and farmers, 2463. The chief occupations of women are, domestic service, with a total of 10,215, and those of millinery and dressmaking, 2987. There were also in the county 211 blind persons, 179 deaf, 98 deaf and dumb, and 723 mentally deranged,
The chief seats are Eastbury Park, Stalbridge Park, Cranborne Lodge, Sherborne Castle, Motcombe, Encombe, Melbury House, Milton-Abbas, Wimborne St Giles, Bryanstone, Rushmore Lodge, Down House, Gaunt's House, Loder's House, Mapperton, Parnham House, Raunston House, Sydling, Sans-Souci, Rhode Hill, Bloxworth, Bridehead, Charborough Park, Critchell House, Dewlish, Edmondesham, Frampton House, Stowborough Grange, Hanford House, Henbury, Herringstone Lodge, Kingston House, Langton, Lulworth, Manston, Moor-Critchell, Nottington House, Strode House, Studland, Thornhill House, Turnworth, Upton, West Stafford, Whatcombe, and Wolverton.
For parliamentary purposes, the county is divided into four divisionsNorth, East, West, and South. There are eight municipal boroughsviz., Blandford Forum, Bridport, Dorchester, Lyme-Regis, Poole, Shaftesbury, Wareham, and Weymouth. It has one court of quarter sessions and nine petty-sessional divisions. There are 28 civil parishes; 254 ecclesiastical parishes and districts, and parts of five others. The county is governed by a lord-lieutenant, and a county council consisting of 57 councillors and 19 aldermen. It is in the south-western military district, and the western judicial circuit. The assizes and the quarter sessions are held at Dorchester. The county jail also is there. Population, in 1801, 114,452; in 1821, 144,930; in 1841, 175,054; in 1861, 188,789; in 1891,194,517.
The territory now forming Dorsetshire belonged to the ancient British Durotriges and Morini, was included by the Romans in their Britannia Prima, and formed part of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex. The Danes invaded it, particularly in 833, 876, and 1002, and had battles with the Saxons in these years at, respectively, Charmouth and Dorchester. The Spanish Armada was routed off Portland in 1588, and Van Tromp beaten in 1653. The side of the King was taken by most of the higher classes in the wars of Charles I., and that of the Parliament by the working classes. The Duke of Monmouth landed at Lyme-Regis, and was taken near Horton after the battle of Sedgmoor. The county gave the title of Duke of Dorset to the family of Sackville. Ancient British remains, variously Druidical circles, hill-camps, and large barrows, occur at Pokeswell, Portisham, Winterbourne, Badbury-Rings, Hamildon-Hill, Hod-Hill, and Nine-barrow-down. The Ridge Way traversed the county from south to north, and the Via Iceniana from east to west. A Roman amphitheatre, perhaps originally British, is in the vicinity of Dorchester, and Roman stations were at Dorchester, Charmouth, Lyme-Regis, Wimborne-Minster, Weymouth, Wareham, and Poole. Ancient castle ruins are at Corfe Castle, Portland, and Brownsea. About forty abbeys, priories, and other monastic houses, besides some large fine churches, stood dispersed throughout the county, and interesting specimens of ancient ecclesiastical architecture, variously entire and ruined, occur at Wimborne-Minster, Sherbome, Stanwich, Bindon, Cerne-Abbas, Cranborne, and Shaftesbury.
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 Historical Directories web site have a number of directories relating to Dorset online, including:
Kelly's, Pigot, Slater, etc.
We have Kelly's Directory of Dorset, 1935 available to browse.
We have transcribed the entry for Dorset from the following:
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 & places
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.