1902 Encyclopedia > Dorset


DORSET, an English county, situated on the south-western coast. In British times, previous to the land-ing of Caesar, it was inhabited by a tribe which Ptolemy calls the Durotriges, and which, upon no good authority, but not without probability, has been identified with the Merini, the occupants of a part of the opposite coast (extremi hominuni Morini, Aen. viii. 727), the two appellations being apparently of similar import, and refer-ring to their location on the sea-shore. Under the Bomans this county constituted a portion of Britannia Prima; and the Saxons called it Dornsaeta, or Dorsaeta (a word in-volving the same root, Dwr, water), and included it in the kingdom of Wessex.

On the north Dorsetshire is bounded by Somersetshire and Wiltshire, on the east by Hampshire, on the west by Devonshire and a part of Somersetshire, whilst the British Channel washes the whole of its southern coast. Its form is very irregular; the northern boundary has a considerable angular projection in the middle ; its southern coast runs out into various points and headlands; and the western inclines towards Devonshire with an uneven line. Its greatest breadth from north to south is about 35 miles, and its length from east to west 55. Its circumference, including 627,265 acres, is nearly 160 miles. In 1871 the population was found to be 195,537,—having in-creased from 114,452 in 1801 and 175,054 in 1841. 111,73,1 acres were under corn-crops, and 60,633 under green-crops. The males numbered 95,616, the females 99,921

Dorset is divided into 35 hundreds, containing more than 300 parishes, 8 boroughs, 22 liberties, and 12 market towns, the principal of which are Dorchester, Bridport, Sherborne, Lyme-Begis, Shaftesbury, Weymouth and Melcombe-Regis, Poole, and Blandford. Only 10 members are returned to parliament, instead of 20 as before the first Eeform Act. The county itself sends three; Dorchester, Bridport, Poole, Shaftesbury, and Wareham one each, and Melcombe-Regis and Weymouth two between them. Dorsetshire forms a part of the see of Salisbury. It originally fell under the wide jurisdiction of the ancient sees of Dorchester in Oxfordshire and of Winchester, till the foundation of the bishopric of Sherborne, 705 A.D., and when that see was transferred to Salisbury it still remained a part of it, till in 31st Henry VIII. it was annexed to the newly-erected bishopric of Bristol, and so continued till 1836, when its ancient connection with Salisbury was revived, and still continues.

Branches of the London and South-Western Bailway, or in connection with it, enter the county from Southampton, Salisbury, and Bath, meet near Wimborne, and continue to Poole, Wareham, Dorchester, and Weymouth, which last two places are also reached by a branch of the Great-Western from Yeovil, with a drop-line to Bridport at Maiden-Newton. The main line of the London and Southwestern likewise touches the north of the county near Shaftesbury, Gillingham, and Sherborne.

The surface of Dorsetshire is hilly and uneven. Throw-ing out for the present the consideration of the coast-line in Purbeck, Portland, and to the westward, and proceeding in the direction of from S.E., to N.W., we find a descending series of formations, commencing from the Tertiaries, which occupy an almost equilateral triangle, and include the towns of Wareham, Poole, Wimborne, and Cranborne ; passing through a band of Chalk some ten or twelve miles in breadth, in which the chief town Dorchester and Blandford are situated, and which is fringed by a thin belt of Greensand ; and thence to the Oolitic beds in the north-east, and the Lias at Bridport and the south-west. The three systems thus roughly indicated have been popularly divided into the Sands, the Chalks, and the Clays. It is, of course, the last which has won for this county the somewhat exaggerated, and not uncontested, designation of " the garden of England;" though the rich wide vale of Blackmore, and the luxuriant pastures and orchards of the extreme west may fairly support the claim. The Downs of the Chalk district, formerly so celebrated as sheep-walks, have been rapidly disappearing of late years under the influence of a more scientific system of agriculture, though still the stock of sheep pastured in the county amounts to between 500,000 and 600,000. Even in the sandy region, cultiva-tion is advancing, and detached portions are improved, though there is still much waste land, dreary and barren, hardly supporting, even in the summer months, a few sheep and cattle, and supplying the scattered cottars with heath and turf for fuel.

Dorsetshire is not generally speaking a well-wooded county, though much fine timber may be seen, not only in the richer and deeper soils, but likewise in the sheltered valleys of the Chalk district, and more especially upon the Greensand. The views from some of the higher hills, which constitute, as it were, the back-bone of the county, are often vastly extensive, ranging on many points from the Needles to the very utmost limit of the Mendip and Quantock Hills, where they sink into the Bristol Channel.

The Dorsetshire air is remarkably mild and salubrious, and in some sunnier spots of the coast, such as Abbotsbury, even tropical plants are found to flourish. Weymouth has long been celebrated as a watering-place, and owing to the general calmness of the sea there, its pleasant situation, and commodiousness for bathing, it still maintains con-siderable consequence. The sea-side villages of Swanage, Lulworth, and Charmouth also, though more difficult of access, and affording less accommodation for visitors, abound with many quiet and enjoyable charms.

The chief port of the county is Poole, situated on an estuary formed by the mouth of the Frome. Its entrance is defended by Brownsea Castle,'—not, however, a military fortress, but simply a castellated mansion,—and it is very secure in all winds. It was formerly the chief place for equipping ships for the Newfoundland fishery; and a brisk trade was carried on from it with Spain, Portugal, and the Mediterranean; but it is now chiefly occupied with a coasting trade, and the export of potters' clay. Swanage, Weymouth, Bridport, and Lyme have harbours capable of admitting small vessels only. The magnificent breakwater at Portland, of which the first stone was laid by Prince Albert in 1849, provides a harbour of refuge which is nearly land-locked, and a secure anchorage of almost unlimited extent, and of easy access to the largest class of vessels.

The principal rivers of Dorsetshire are the Frome, the Stour, the Piddle, and the Ivel. The Frome rises in the north-western part of the county, near Evershot, and passing by Dorchester, reaches Poole, and falls into its bay. The Stour enters this county from Wiltshire, near Gillingham, and, pursuing a southern and south-eastern direction, enters Hampshire. The Piddle rises in the north, and, flowing to the south-east, falls into Poole Bay. The Ivel, anciently the Yeo, has its origin from several springs near Horethorn, in a hill north-east from Sherborne, from which town it flows into Somersetshire, and falls into the Parret, near YeoviL

Although neither coal nor any metallic ores have ever been found in Dorsetshire, the stone quarries of Purbeck and Portland have long been celebrated. Purbeck, though called an island, is more properly a peninsula, of an irregular oval form, about twelve miles in length and seven in breadth. It consists, according to Mantell, of Cretaceous, Weal den, and Oolitic strata in their regular order of succes-sion, and highly inclined in their section towards Swanage Bay, where they are easily detected. At Handfast Point the chalk is discovered, its lower division dipping at a con-siderable angle ; then comes a layer of firestone, next gault, and then greensand—all inclined; then, at Swanage Bay, a thick wealden bed; to the south of which are the Purbeck Hills, with their peculiar strata, and, a little further on, the Portland Oolite. The soil is altogether calcareous, and for the most part a continuous mass of either white or a brownish limestone, the latter having a mixture of sea-shells. The quarries on the south side of the isle afford an inexhaustible fund of natural curiosities. The best quarries are at Kingston, Worth, Langton, and Swanage. The Swanage stone is white, full of shells, takes a polish, and looks like alabaster. All over the heaths, both here and on the mainland, blocks of indurated Tertiary grit, commonly called firestone, are found, and have been occasionally employed in the building of some of the neighbouring churches ; and at Downshay and Quai, in the parish of Worth, and elsewhere, the beautiful Purbeck marble, so conspicuous in the monuments and shafts of many of our cathedrals and finest churches of the 13th century, and now often sought for their restoration, has been extensively quarried. One of the most valuable pro-ducts of Purbeck is a white clay used for making pipes, and very largely applied to the manufacture of china. Large quantities of it are dug, and many vessels loaded with it for Staffordshire in the port of Poole.

The Isle of Portland, as it is called, is also a peninsula, rising at its highest point, the Verne, to nearly 500 feet above the sea-level, and sloping gradually to near the water's edge at its extreme southerly point, the Bill. Its famous quarries, about 100 in number, are scattered in all directions under heaps of rubble and unsaleable stone. They are Crown-property, and, except where the stone is taken for Government purposes, are leased to various firms, who pay a royalty of so much per ton. Some 50,000 tons are annually raised and exported. The stratum of stone that is worked for sale lies nearly parallel with the upper surface of the island, and without much earth or rubbish on it. The Portland stone (or freestone as it is sometimes called) is well known for its almost white colour, and as composing the materials of the most splendid erections in London, as well as in other parts of the British empire. The connection of Portland with the mainland occurs at some 10 or 11 miles' distance, at Abbotsbury, where a most remarkable beach of raised shingle, called the Chesil (Anglo-Saxon Ceosol) or Pebble Beach, touches the shore, being thus far separated from it by a narrow estuary, famous for its swannery, called the Fleet.

The entire length of the beach is from 16 to 18 miles, with an average height of about 40 feet, and a breadth of some 180 or 190 yards, the pebbles constantly decreasing in size from 1 to 3 inches in diameter at Portland, to the size of peas at its termination.

Agriculture throughout the county has made very important advances within the last few years,—steam-cultivation and improved implements having been largely introduced, and the growth of root-crops abundantly stimulated by the use of artificial manures. The precarious crops of flax and hemp for the supply of the rope and twine works of Bridport are less cultivated than formerly. On the larger farms in the Chalk district a peculiar custom prevails of under-letting the dairies at so much per cow, the farmer finding the stock and the food, and the dairyman disposing of the produce. The horned sheep of Dorsetshire, long celebrated, have now become established as a useful and lucrative breed. Professor Bell, in his History of British Quadrupeds, gives a figure of this, as the typical English sheep, of " a handsome, though somewhat old-fashioned breed, principally esteemed for its producing lambs earlier perhaps than any other in this country." " To the eye of him who seeks for beauty in harmony and propro-tion (he adds) this sheep is one of the handsomest in any part of England. The strong well-formed body and limbs, the clear white fleece, the finely-curved horns, and other points will to him constitute a more pleasing combination of character than is to be found in those breeds which have become more changed from the old stock by repeated trans-mission of peculiarities, which, however advantageous to the breeder, whether for the sake of the fleece or the flesh, cannot be considered as adding to the abstract beauty of the animal." There are still many fine flocks of this characteristic breed existing in the county, though many fanners prefer the Southdowns or Hampshires, as better adapted to their particular holdings. There is a small breed in Portland, which fattens too highly upon richer pastures, but the mutton of which is an especial dainty, weighing only about 8 lb a quarter,

The old hardy race of long-horned cattle, formerly common in the hilly districts, are fast disappearing, and Devons, short-horns, and Herefords are almost exclusively now bred. Great quantities of butter are sent to the London market. The skimmed-milk cheese is often much esteemed, though little of it is exported from the county.

Vast numbers of mackerel are taken near Abbotsbury, and along the shore from Portland to Bridport. The season for taking them is from the middle of March till midsummer, in nets or seines.

The manufactures of Dorsetshire are not extensive. The principal are those of flax and hemp in the neighbourhood of Bridport and Beaminster, and of pottery and tiles in the district near Poole. Net-making, or braiding as it is called, and also gloving, are carried on in some of the villages; but the manufactures of lace, and of thread-buttons, formerly flourishing at Blandford and elsewhere, may be said to be now entirely obsolete. At Sherborne these industries have been succeeded by extensive silk-mills.

Few, if any, parts of England possess a more abundant treasure of prehistoric remains, than are to be found throughout this county, though the march of agricultural progress inevitably tends to their obliteration. Vestiges of peaceful British occupation may constantly be traced on those portions of the Downs which are still uninclosed, whilst a series of magnificent hill-forts crown all the most prominent heights, and probably served as camps of refuge for the harassed tribes and their cattle in times of war and invasion. The grandest of these, called Maidun Castle, is supposed to be the Dunium of Ptolemy, the stronghold or Acropolis of the Durotriges, whose gigantic ramparts may be seen outlined against the sky between the Weymouth and Bridport roads, about two miles south from Dorchester. Its inner area covers about 44 acres, its outer area about 116, the difference being absorbed in its stupendous double, and sometimes triple, entrenchments, some 60 feet high, and extraordinarily steep. Other grand examples of these hill-fortresses may be seen at Eggardun and Pilsdun to the westward, at Chalbury and Flowers-barrow to the eastward, and at Bawlsbury, or Bulbarrow, Hod (inclosing an equilateral Boman camp), and Hameldun, overlooking the valley of the Stour, and at Badbury, Woodbury, &c, in the more central parts of the county. It has been conjectured with great probability that some of these last were among the oppida subdued in the expedition of Vespasian ; and it is not unlikely that in that remarkable chain of tumuli, or barrows, which are visible along the crest of the Bidgeway, now tunnelled for the lines of railroad which connect Weymouth and Dorchester, may have been deposited the ashes of certain nameless heroes who fought the battles either of invasion or resistance. Such barrows are widely distributed elsewhere through the county, and when opened have usually been found to contain little more than burnt bones, corroded metal, and rude cinerary arns, with occasional marks of subsequent Boman interments. A few monoliths, cromlechs, and stone circles have also been recorded.
Of the period of Boman occupation many relics exist. The Via Iceniana, or Icknield Street, with various vicinal off-shoots, passes through the centre of the county, and connects its chief town Dorchester, or Durnovaria, with Old Sarum and Exeter. An indisputable though scanty fragment of the Boman wall of Dorchester still exists; and the avenues, called the walks, which surround the town appear to follow its ancient course, the trees being planted sometimes on the agger and sometimes in the vadium. A tesselated pavement, some 20 feet square, was exhumed in 1858 in the grounds of the county prison, and is preserved in its chapel; and various fragments of a similar charac-ter, as well as many coins of the later emperors, and other metallic and fictile antiquities, have been and still are not unfrequently brought to light, wherever the ground is disturbed. Boman pavements have been found elsewhere,—_ one at Rampisham in 1799, one at Frampton of unusual size and beauty in 1794, and others at Weymouth, Sherborne, Dewlish, &c. The amphitheatre, near the Dorchester railway station, has been generally attributed to the time of Agricola, and constructed very probably for the amusement of the Boman soldiers by the enforced labour of their captives. It is more perfect than any other remaining in this country, and has been calculated to suffice for nearly 13,000 spectators. The Boman stations in Dorsetshire which antiquarians pretty nearly agree in identifying are Landinis or Londinis, Lyme Begis ; Canca-Arixa, Charmouth ; Durnovaria, Dorchester; Clavinio, Weymouth, or a place in the immediate neighbourhood; Morinio, Wareham, or Hamworthy ; Bolvelaunio, Poole ; Bindogladia, Wimborne, or (Sir B. C. Hoare) Gussage Cow-down ; Ibernio, Bere. Of mediaeval castles no considerable remains exist, except at Corfe and Sherborne, both of them brought to ruin in the great Civil War, but both retaining picturesque and highly interesting traces of their former magnificence.

The three principal churches of the county are the abbey-ehurch of Sherborne, a rich specimen of Third Pointed architecture, restored in recent years at immense cost, and with admirable taste ; Wimborne Minster, with its two stately towers of different periods and its massive Norman nave; and the noble but unfinished abbey-church of Milton, now also carefully restored, and presenting some rich examples of the Decorated period. Besides these, there are notice-able churches at Bere-Begis, Dorchester (St Peter's), and Fordington, Maiden-Newton, Piddletrenthide, Cerne, Bea-minster, Powerstock, <fcc. ; but, generally speaking, the ecclesiastical buildings of the county, though not uninteresting, cannot boast of special grandeur or beauty.

At Milton abbey, originally founded by King Athelstan, and also at Forde-Abbey, handsome portions of the monastic buildings are incorporated in the modern mansions ; and there are monastic remains of varying interest at Cerne, Abbotsbury, Bindon, and elsewhere. At Sherborne some of the conventual buildings are to be traced within the precincts of the flourishing grammar school.

The dialect of the county, perfectly distinguishable from those of Wiltshire and Somersetshire, yet bearing many common marks of its Saxon origin, has been admirably illustrated, both philologically and poetically, by a living author, the Bev. Wm. Barnes, whose poems in the vernacular have won the eulogium of several eminent critics, whilst their Doric simplicity and tenderness and truth is heartily appreciated by high and low in the county.

This county has afforded titles to various noble families, besides the dukes and earls of Dorset, duke of Portland to that of Bentinck, earl of Dorchester to that of Darner, Shaftesbury to that of Ashley-Cooper, Viscount Brid-port to that of Hood, Baron Melcombe to Bubb-Dodington; whilst Blandford, Weymouth, Woodsford,, Encombe, &c, are swallowed in the higher titles of their noble possessors.

Amongst its more eminent natives may be reckoned Cardinal Morton, Archbishops Stafford and Wake, Bishops Sprat and Stillingfleet, Matthew Prior, Sir George Summers, Sir James Thornhill, &c.

The county rates have been recently assessed on an annual income of £1,095,736.

A curious ancient Survey of the county was written by * Rev. Mr Coker, about the middle of the 17th century, and published from his MS. in 1732. In 1774 a very valuable County History
appeared, by the Rev. John Hutchins, in 2 vols, folio ; a second edition in 4 vols, folio, in 1803 ; and a third, greatly improved, and brought down to the present date, also in 4 vols, folio, in 1874. No other county in England, perhaps, possesses so full and accurate a topographical and genealogical survey as this. The antiquities of the county have likewise been satisfactorily elucidated in various publications by Mr Sydenham, Mr C. Warne, F.S.A., Dr Wake Smart, and others. (C. W. B.)

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