Weymouth and Melcombe-Regis

WEYMOUTH and MELCOMBE-REGIS, a sea-port, borough, and market-town, having separate jurisdiction, and the head of a union, in the Dorchester division of Dorset, 8 miles (S. by W.) from Dorchester, and 129 (S. W. by W.) from London; containing 7708 inhabitants of whom 2669 are in Wey mouth. This borough comprises the towns of Weymouth and Melcombe, forming opposite boundaries of the harbour, in the conveniences of which they had their origin, and to terminate their mutual rivalry for the exclusive possession of which, they were united into one borough in the 13th of Elizabeth. Weymouth, which derives its name from its situation at the mouth of the river Wey, is the more ancient, and was probably known to the Romans, as in the immediate neighbourhood there are evident traces of a vicinal way, leading from one of the principal landing stations connected with their camp at Maiden Castle, to the via Icemana, where the town of Melcombe-Regis now stands. The earliest authentic notice of it occurs in a grant by Athelstan in 938, wherein he gives to the abbey of Milton "all that water within the shore of Waymouth and half the stream of that Waymouth out at sea, a saltern, &c." It is also noticed in the Norman survey, with several other places, under the common name of Wai, or Waia, among which it. is clearly identified by the mention of the salterns exclusively belonging to it.

The ports of Weymouth and Melcombe, with their dependencies, were granted by charters of Henry I. and II. to the monks of St. Swithin, in Winchester, from whom, by exchange, Weymouth passed into the possession of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, who, in the reigns of Henry III. and Edward I., held it with view of frankpledge and other immunities. His successor Lionel, Duke of Clarence, obtained many privileges for the town, which he made a borough, and which, through his heir Edward IV., subsequently reverted to the crown, and formed part of the dowry of several queens of England. In the time of Edward II. it received the staple of wine, and collectors were appointed in the 4th and 6th years of that king's reign, to receive the duties. Weymouth, in the 10th of Edward III., had become a place of some importance, and, with Melcombe and Lyme, contributed several ships towards the equipment of the expedition to Gascony. In the year 1347, it furnished 20 ships and 264 mariners towards the fleet destined for the siege of Calais: in this subsidy, Melcombe, though not mentioned, was probably included. In 1471, Margaret of Anjou, with her son, Prince Edward, landed here from France, to assist in restoring her husband, Henry VI., to the throne; and in the 20th of Henry VII., Philip, King of Castile, on his voyage from Zealand to Spain, with a fleet of 80 ships, on board of which was his queen, being driven by a storm on the English coast, put into Weymouth for safety. This port, in 1588, contributed six ships to oppose the armada of Spain; and one of the enemy's vessels, having been taken in the English Channel, was brought into Weymouth harbour.

Melcombe-Regis, on the north side of the harbour, derived its name from being situated in a valley, in which was an ancient mill; and its adjunct Regis from its having formed part of the crown demesnes. The place is not mentioned in Domesday book, being included in the parish of Radipole, which at that time belonged to Cerne Abbey; it passed from the monks into the possession of the crown at an earlier period than Weymouth, and, in the reign of Edward I., became the dowry of Queen Eleanor, on which account it obtained many valuable privileges. In the time of Edward III., it was made one of the staple towns for wool, and flourished considerably; but in the following reign, having been burnt by the French, it became so greatly impoverished, that the inhabitants petitioned the king to be excused from paying their customs. Edward IV., in order to afford relief, granted them a new charter, conferring the same privileges as were enjoyed by the citizens of London.

In the reign of Elizabeth, the lords of the council, wearied by the continual disputes of the two towns, which were both boroughs and endowed with extensive privileges, by the advice of Cecil, lord treasurer, united them into one borough by an act of parliament (confirmed by James I.) under the designation of "The United Borough and Town of-Weymouth and Melcombe Regis." Weymouth afterwards gradually fell into decay, and suffered greatly during the civil war, being alternately garrisoned for both parties. In 1644, it was evacuated by the royalists, on which occasion several ships, and a great quantity of arms, fell into the hands of the parliament. The royalists soon after attempted to recover it, but the garrison sustained the attack for eighteen days, and finally obliged them to raise the siege. An additional fort was built in 1645, on the Weymouth side of the harbour, to defend it from the incursions of the Portlanders 5 and four years afterwards, the corporation petitioned for an indemnification for the destruction of their bridge and chapel (the latter, from its commanding situation, having been converted into a fort), and for assistance in the maintenance of the garrison. This application appears to have been disregarded. In 1666, however, a brief was granted to repair the damage; and in 1673, another was bestowed for the collection of £3000, to amend the injury the town had received from an accidental fire, whereby a considerable portion of it had been destroyed. The rise of Poole, which was rapidly growing into importance, the decay of the haven, and the loss of its trade, with various other causes, contributed to the decline of the town, which, from an opulent commercial port, had in the middle of the last century almost sunk into a mere fishing-town. Ralph Allen, Esq., of Bath, in 1763 first brought it into notice as a bathingplace; and the visits of the Duke of Gloucester, and afterwards of George III. and the royal family, with whom it was a favourite resort, laid the foundation of its present prosperity.

The town is beautifully situated on the western shore of a fine open bay in the English Channel, and is separated into two parts by the river Wey, which, expanding to a considerable breadth, in its progress to the bay, forms a small, but secure and commodious harbour. On the south side is Weymouth, at the foot of a high hill near the mouth of the river 3 and on the north side Melcombe-Regis, on a peninsula connected with the main land by a narrow isthmus which separates the waters of the bay from those formed by the estuary of the river, called the Backwater. A long stone bridge of two arches, with a swivel in the centre to admit small vessels into the upper part of the harbour, was erected by act of parliament in the 1st of George IV., and connects the two parts of the town. Since the place has become of fashionable resort for sea-bathing, various handsome ranges of building, and a theatre, assembly-rooms, and other places of public entertainment, have been erected. Among the former, Belvidere, the Crescent, Gloucester-row, Royal-terrace, Chesterfield-place, York-buildings, Charlotte-row, Augustaplace, and Clarence, Pulteney, and Devonshire buildings, are conspicuous 5 to which may be added Brunswickbuildings, a line of houses at the entrance of the town, and numerous villas in the vicinity. From the windows of these buildings, which face the sea, a most extensive and delightful view is obtained, comprehending, on the left, a noble range of hills and cliffs extending for many miles in a direction from west to east, and the sea in front, with the vessels, yachts, and pleasure-boats which are continually entering and leaving the harbour. The town, especially on the Melcombe side of the harbour, is regularly built. It has two principal streets, parallel with each other, intersected by others at right angles; is well paved and lighted, under the provisions of an act passed in 1766; and is supplied by a public company, incorporated by another act, with excellent water, conveyed by pipes from the Boiling Rock, in the parish of Preston, a distance of two miles. The houses not erected for visiters are in general roofed with tiles, and are low and of indifferent appearance.

About a mile to the south-west are the remains of Weymouth, or Sandsfoot, Castle, erected by Henry VIII., in the year 1540, on the threatened invasion of the Pope, and described by Leland as "a right goodly and warlyke castle, having one open barbicane." It is quadrangular in form. The north front is nearly destroyed, the masonry with which it was faced having been removed; the greater part of the south front fell into the sea in 1837. A low building, broader than the castle, flanks its east and west sides. The walls, in some parts, are of amazing thickness, but in a very dilapidated state, and rapidly falling to decay. On the south of the town are the cavalry barracks, a commodious range of building. The Esplanade, the finest marine promenade in the kingdom, is 30 feet broad, rising from the sands, and secured by a strong wall; it extends in a circular direction, parallel with the bay, a mile in length, and commands a beautiful view of the sea, and the mountainous range of cliffs by which the bay is inclosed. Among the buildings that adorn it is the Royal Lodge, where George III. resided when visiting the place, comprising several houses of handsome, though not uniform, appearance. Some flights of steps, of Portland stone, lead to the sands, to which also is a gently sloping descent from the Esplanade throughout its whole length: in the centre is the principal public library. The assemblyrooms form part of the Royal hotel, a handsome range with commodious stabling and other appendages, occupying an area 600 feet in length and 250 in breadth, the whole erected at an expense of £6000, advanced on shares of £100 each. The theatre is a neat and wellarranged edifice. Races were established in 1821, which take place in August, and are generally well attended; among the prizes contended for are the queen's plate of 100 guineas, the members' of 50 guineas, and the ladies' and tradesmen's plates. The course is situated a mile from the town. About the time of the races, a splendid regatta is celebrated.

The bay has a fine circular sweep of nearly two miles, and being sheltered from the north and north-cast winds by a continuous range of hills, the water is generally calm and transparent. The sands are smooth, firm, and level; and so gradual is the descent towards the sea, that, at the distance of 300 feet, the water is not more than five feet deep. Numerous bathing-machines are kept, and on the South Parade is an establishment of hot salt-water baths. At the south entrance of the harbour are the piers; two new quays have been erected of late years, and the harbour has been deepened. Part of the ground over which the sea formerly flowed has been embanked, and is now covered with buildings; other parts are inclosed with iron-railings, which form a prominent feature on the Esplanade. The bay almost at all times affords facilities for aquatic excursions, its surface being never disturbed, except by violent storms from the south or south-east; yachts and pleasure-boats are always in readiness, the fares of which are under strict regulations. The air is so mild and pure that the town is not only frequented during the summer, but has been selected by many opulent families as a permanent residence; and the advantages it possesses in the excellence of its bay, the beauty of its scenery, and the healthfulness of its climate, have contributed to raise it from the low state into which it had fallen, from the depression of its commerce, to one of the most flourishing towns in the kingdom.

The port formerly carried on an extensive trade with France, Spain, Norway, and Newfoundland, in the fishery of which last it employed eighty vessels; but the war with France, after the Revolution, put an end to its commerce with that country; the trade with Newfoundland was, in a great measure, transferred to Poole; and the accumulation of sand in the harbour, operating with other causes, considerably diminished its importance. A few vessels, however, are still engaged in the American and Mediterranean trade, in addition to which there is a tolerable coasting-trade. The principal imports are coal, timber, wine, brandy, geneva, tobacco, and rice, for which it was made a bonding-port by an order of council in 1817; and the chief exports are Portland stone, pipeclay, Roman cement, bricks, tiles, slates, corn, and flour. The number of vessels of above fifty tons registered at the port is 56, and their aggregate burthen 6037 tons. Ship-building is carried on to some extent; and many persons are employed in the manufacture of rope, twine, and cordage, and in making sails. The quay, on which is the custom-house, is well adapted to loading and unloading goods, but, from the accumulation of sand in the harbour, it is not accessible to ships of large burthen. Post-office steam-packets sail regularly, on Wednesday and Saturday, for Guernsey, Jersey, and the neighbouring islands; and arrangements have been lately made for establishing a communication by steam with Cherbourg, on the coast of France, twice a week. An act was passed in 1846 for making a line called the Wilts, Somerset, and Weymouth railway, to run from Weymouth northward to the counties of Wilts and Somerset. In 1847 an act was passed for reducing the harbour dues, and consolidating the harbour and bridge trusts. The market-days are Tuesday and Friday: the town is abundantly supplied with fish of every description, with the small mutton from the Isle of Portland, and with provisions of all kinds.

Weymouth and Melcombe-Regis, which had been distinct boroughs, and had returned members to parliament, the latter since the 8th, and the former since the 12th, of Edward II., were united into one borough, as already observed, by charter of Elizabeth. The corporation now consists of a mayor, six aldermen, and eighteen councillors, under the act 5th and 6th of William IV., cap. 76, and the number of magistrates is six; the borough is divided into two wards, and the municipal and parliamentary boundaries, including 812 acres, are co-extensive. From its union, it continued to return four members to parliament until the 2nd of William IV., when it was deprived of two: the mayor is returning officer. There is a court of record every Tuesday, for the recovery of debts to any amount. The powers of the county debt-court of Weymouth, established in 1847, extend over the registration-district of Weymouth. A handsome town-hall, in the market-place, has been erected within the last few years, the old one having become dilapidated; under it are a small prison and watch-house.

Weymouth is a chapelry to Wyke-Regis: the tithes have been commuted for £20. The chapel, dedicated to St. Nicholas, and situated on the top of the hill, long since disappeared; but the site, called Chapel-Hay, is distinctly marked by large stones at the four corners. Under the hill, and nearly adjoining this site, a church dedicated to the Holy Trinity was built from a design by Mr. P. Wyatt, at the expense of the Rev. George Chamberlaine, late rector of Wyke: underneath it are catacombs capable of containing upwards of 1000 bodies. Melcombe was originally a chapelry to Radipole, from which it was separated in 1605, when a church was built on the site of the former chapel, and made parochial: the living is a rectory, with the living of Radipole annexed, valued in the king's books at £11. 5. 5.; net income, £298; patron, W. Wyndham, Esq. The church, dedicated to St. Mary, having become greatly dilapidated, an act of parliament was obtained in the 55th of George III., for rebuilding it, which was completed in 1817; it is a neat edifice containing upwards of 2000 sittings, including 500 sittings purchased by the Rev. G. Chamberlaine, at an expense of £500, for the exclusive use of the poor. The interior is neatly fitted up, and the altarpiece is embellished with a painting of the Last Supper, by Sir James Thornhill. There are places of worship for Independents, Baptists, Wesleyans, and Roman Catholics. Of the several bequests for education, are, one of £70 per annum, and another of £28, for six boys, left by Mr. Taylor in 1753. The poor-law union of Weymouth comprises eighteen parishes or places, and contains a population of 18,683.

In the centre of the town was a priory of Black canons, dedicated to St. Winifred, founded by some member of the Rogers family, of Bryanston: the buildings occupied a quadrangular area of nearly one acre. At Nottington, two miles and a half distant, on the Dorchester road, is a mineral spring, the water of which is considered efficacious in scrofula; and about a mile from the town is Radipole Spa, discovered in 1830 by John Henning, Esq. Five miles from Weymouth is the burning cliff at Holworth, which was first introduced to public notice by Mr. George Frampton, in 1827, and has since attracted the notice of naturalists. Certain masses of septaria, which, when sawn asunder, exhibit beautiful specimens of spar, cornua ammonis, &c, were discovered a few years since in the rear of Melcombe. Thornhill, the celebrated painter, was a native of Melcombe, and represented that borough in parliament. The late Mr. John Harvey, of Weymouth, projected the plan of a breakwater for Portland Roads, which has been matured and improved by his son, the present postmaster of the town. Melcombe conferred the title of baron on Bubb Doddington, with whom it became extinct; Weymouth gives that of Baron to the family of Thynne.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 7th edition, published in 1848.