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Dorchester, Dorset

Historical Description

Dorchester, the county town of Dorsetshire, a municipal borough, a market-town, and head of a poor law union and county court district. The town stands on the Ridge Way, the Via Iceniana, and the river Frome, with stations on the L. & S.W.R. and G.W.R. 135 miles from London and 8 N of Weymouth. Its site is an eminence, sloping on one side to the Frome, and bordered on other sides by open downs. It is the Caer-Dori of the ancient Britons, the Durnovaria and the Dunium of the Romans, and the Dom-ceaster of the Saxons. It was strongly fortified by the Romans, made a mint-town by Athelstan, burnt in 1003 by Sweyn the Dane, burnt again in 1613 and 1662, desolated by the plague in 1595, fortified against Charles I. in 1643, taken and held afterwards by both parties in the war, and made the scene of a " bloody assize " by Jeffreys in 1685. The ancient Roman roads from it are still used as highways. The Roman walls around it enclosed about 80 acres; seem to have been grouted, or formed of two parallel walls, with interior fitting of stones, flint, and hot mortar; and, though generally destroyed in making walks and otherwise, are still recognisable in remaining portions, 6 feet thick, and of herring-bone work. An amphitheatre, called Maen-bury or Maumbury, situated beyond the walls, by the side of the Roman road to Weymouth, and of the railway stations, is the most perfect antiquity of its class in the kingdom; has been generally regarded as a Roman work of the time of Agricola, but may have been previously formed by the ancient Britons; comprises an oval earthwork 30 feet high, with a diameter of 350 feet; would afford accommodation to so many as 13,000 spectators, and was used, in 1705, for the burning of a woman's body after execution in the presence of about 10,000 persons. Roman coins, a Roman gold ring, a bronze Roman Mercury, and a considerable fragment of a Roman pavement have been found in the town and its vicinity. An ancient camp called Poundbury, of irregular shape, protected by a lofty vallum and ditch, and thought to have been constructed by the Danes, crests a hill on the NW, commanding an extensive view. Another ancient camp- one of the largest and most perfect in the kingdom- called Maiden Castle, with three earthen ramparts, the innermost one 60 feet high and a mile or more in circuit, occupies an eminence by the side of the Ridge Way, 2 miles to the SSW. Great numbers of barrows also dot the hills to the south. Dorchester has been made widely known by Mr Thomas Hardy's charming novel "The Mayor of Casterbridge."

The town is one of the cleanest and prettiest in the West of England. It has an irregular quadrangular outline, and consists of but a few streets, mostly long, well-built, clean, and quiet. The High Street runs from E to W on the line of the Via Iceniana, and South Street and North Square run in the opposite direction. The parish of Fordington to the east, is now included in the borough of Dorchester. Fine walks engird the town on three sides, along the line of the Roman wall, and are so planted with elms, chestnuts, and sycamores as to have the character of pleasant park avenues. The guild-hall was built in 1847, and is in the Tudor style. The corn exchange was built in 1867, and is spacious. The shire-hall is a neat pedimented commodious building. The county jail, on the site of an ancient castle, on the north side of the town, comprises an erection of 1793, at a cost of £16,180, and subsequent wings and other enlargements, and has capacity for 160 prisoners. The railway stations are well situated outside of the town, and have neat arrangements. St Peter's Church, at the intersection of four streets, near the centre of the town, is a recently-restored, well-proportioned, ancient edifice, with Norman porch; consists of nave, chancel, and aisles, with pinnacled tower 90 feet high, and contains a few monuments of distinguished persons and some ancient brasses. All Saints Church was rebuilt in 1845, and has an interesting east window of painted glass, presented by the late Bishop of Salisbury. Trinity Church was rebuilt 1875; it is a building of Portland stone in the Early English style. Fordington Church is an ancient structure, originally cruciform, with a high pinnacled tower, is dedicated to St George, and has over the porch a sculpture of St George and the Dragon. Christ Church, in W. Fordington, is an edifice in the Early English style. The county museum contains an interesting collection of British and Roman antiquities, and was opened in 1884. The county hospital, in the south part of the town, is a handsome building of 1841 in the Tudor style, and a chapel was added to it in 1862 in the Early English style. The artillery barracks and military depot are situated at the western extremity of the town. The soldiers' home in North Square was founded in 1885, and has reading, smoking, and recreation rooms; also a Bible class and mission room. The workhouse, half-a-mile to the south-west, was erected in 1836. The grammar school is endowed, and has three exhibitions; three almshouses have £165, £61, and £32. There are Congregational, Baptist, Wesleyan, Primitive Methodist, and Roman Catholic chapels, and within easy distance is the county school. The masonic hall is an appropriate building in Prince's Street.

The town has a head post office, three banks, and three chief inns, is a seat of assizes and quarter sessions, and publishes three weekly newspapers. Markets are held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and fan's on 14 Feb., 6 July, 6 Aug., and 25 Oct. The manufacture of broadcloth and serges was, at one time, largely carried on, but has entirely decayed, and the chief trade now, besides a brisk country one at the markets and the fairs, is the brewing and exporting of excellent ale. The town sent two members to Parliament from the time of Edward I. till 1867, afterwards only one, and, under the Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885, its representation was merged in that of the county. It is governed by a mayor, four aldermen, and twelve councillors. St Peter and All Saints parishes jointly comprise 60 acres; Holy Trinity parish includes Frome-Whitfield and Colliton-Row hamlets, and comprises 1189 acres, and Fordington comprises 3018 acres. Population of All Saints, 813; Holy Trinity, civil parish, 1289; ecclesiastical, 1301; St Peter, 1372; Fordington, 5088. The livings are all rectories with the exception of Fordington, which is a vicarage, in the diocese of Salisbury; value of St Peter, £232; of All Saints, £156 with residence; of Holy Trinity, with Frome-Whitfield, £400; of Fordington Church, £242. Patron of St Peter, the Lord Chancellor; of All Saints, Simeon's Trustees; of Holy Trinity, the Free School and Almshouses' Trustees; of Fordington, the Bishop of Salisbury.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5


The following is a list of the administrative units in which this place was either wholly or partly included.

Ancient CountyDorsetshire 
DioceseBristol1542 - 1836
DioceseSalisbury1836 -
HundredDorchester Borough 
Poor Law unionDorchester1836 -
Registration districtDorchester1837 - 1949
Registration districtWeymouth1949 - 1974
Registration sub-districtDorchester 

Any dates in this table should be used as a guide only.

Church Records

The Phillimore transcript of Marriages at Dorchester, Holy Trinity, 1560-1812 is online

Civil Registration

Dorchester was in Dorchester Registration District from 1837 to 1949 and Weymouth Registration District from 1949 to 1974

For births, marriages, and deaths in Dorchester from 1837 to 1949 you should search for the Dorchester Registration District.
For births, marriages, and deaths in Dorchester from 1949 to 1974 you should search for the Weymouth Registration District.

Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for Dorchester from the following:

Land and Property

The Return of Owners of Land in 1873 for Dorset is available to browse.


Online maps of Dorchester are available from a number of sites:

Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the Dorset County Chronicle and the Sherborne Mercury online.

Villages, Hamlets, &c

Colliton Row

Visitations Heraldic

The Visitation of Dorset, 1623 is available on the Heraldry page.

DistrictWest Dorset
RegionSouth West
Postal districtDT1
Post TownDorchester