Dorchester - Encyclopedia

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DORCHESTER, a market town and municipal borough and the county town of Dorsetshire, England, in the southern parliamentary division, 135 m. S.W. by W. from London by the London & South Western railway; served also by the Great Western railway. Pop. (Igo I) 9458. It stands on an eminence on the right bank of the river Frome, within a wide open tract of land, containing 3400 acres, held under the duchy of Cornwall, called Fordington Field. Several of the streets are planted with trees, and the town is nearly surrounded by fine avenues. St Peter's church is a Perpendicular building with a fine tower. All Saints and Holy Trinity churches are modern, but Fordington church retains Norman and Transitional details. Of public buildings the principal are - the town-hall, with market-house, shire-hall, county prison and county hospital; there is also a county museum, containing many local objects of much interest. The grammar school (founded in 1569) is endowed with exhibitions to Oxford and Cambridge. There is a statue to William Barnes the Dorsetshire poet (1801-1886). The town is noted also for its ale. It is a place of considerable agricultural trade, and large sheep and lamb fairs are held annually. The borough is under a mayor, six aldermen and eighteen councillors. Area 1648 acres.


Durnovaria was here, a Romano-British country town of considerable size, probably successor to a British tribal centre of the Durotriges. The walls can be traced in part, and many mosaics, remains of houses, &c., have been found. The remains of an amphitheatre are seen at Maumbury Rings, near the town. Maiden Castle, 2 m. S.W. of the town, is a vast earthwork considered to have been a stronghold of the tribe of the Durotriges. There are other such remains in the vicinity. Little mention of Dorchester (Dornceaster, Dorcestre) occurs in Saxon annals, but a charter from ZEthelstan to Milton Abbey in 939 is dated at villa regalis quae dicitur Doracestria, and at this period it possessed a mint. According to the Domesday Survey it was a. royal borough, and at the time of Edward the Confessor contained 172 houses, of which Ioo had been totally destroyed since the Conquest. Mention is made of a castle at Dorchester in records of the 12th and 13th centuries; and the Franciscan priory, founded some time before 1331, is thought to have been constructed out of its ruins. The latter was suppressed among the lesser monasteries in 1536. Edward II. granted the borough to the bailiffs and burgesses at a fee-farm rent of 20 for five years, and the grant was renewed in perpetuity by Edward III. Richard III. empowered the burgesses to elect a coroner and two constables, to be exempt from tolls, and to try minor pleas in the king's court within the borough before a steward to be chosen by themselves. The first charter of incorporation, granted by James I. in 1610, established a governing council of two bailiffs and fifteen capital burgesses. Charles I. in 1629 instituted a mayor, six aldermen and six capital burgesses, and also incorporated all the freemen of the borough, for the purposes of trade, under the government of a council consisting of a governor, assistants and twenty-four freemen, the governor and four assistants to be chosen out of the twenty-four by the freemen, and five other assistants to be chosen by the mayor out of the capital burgesses; the Council was empowered to hold four courts yearly and to make laws for the regulation of the markets and trade. Dorchester returned two members to parliament from 1295, until the Representation of the People Act of 1868 reduced the number to one; by the Redistribution Act of 1885 the representation was merged in the county. Edward III. granted to the burgesses the perquisites from three fairs lasting one day at the feasts of Holy Trinity, St John Baptist and St James, and markets on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Elizabeth granted an additional three days' fair at Candlemas. The days of the fairs and markets have remained unchanged. The cloth industry which flourished during the 16th century never recovered from the depression following on the Civil War. The malting and brewing industries came into prominence in the 17th century, when there was also a considerable serge manufacture, which has since declined.

See Victoria County History, Dorsetshire; John Hutchins, The History and Antiquities of the Town and Borough of Dorchester (3rd edition, corrected, augmented and improved by W. Shipp and T. W. Hodson, Blandford, 1865).

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