Dorchester, Dorset

Dorchester, Dorset

Coordinates: 50°42′00″N 2°26′00″W / 50.7°N 2.433333°W / 50.7; -2.433333

Dorchester is located in Dorset

 Dorchester shown within Dorset
Population 20,101 
OS grid reference SY690906
District West Dorset
Shire county Dorset
Region South West
Country England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Postcode district DT1
Dialling code 01305
Police Dorset
Fire Dorset
Ambulance South Western
EU Parliament South West England
UK Parliament West Dorset
List of places: UK • England • Dorset

Dorchester (play /ˈdɔrɛstər/ dor-ches-tər) is the county town of Dorset, England. An historic market town, Dorchester lies on the banks of the River Frome, in the Frome Valley, just south of the Dorset Downs and north of the South Dorset Ridgeway, that separates the area from Weymouth, 8 miles (13 km) south.

Dorchester is noted as being home and inspiration to the author Thomas Hardy, whose novels Tess of the d'Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge were both based on the town.

In the 2001 Census the official population of Dorchester was 16,171, although by 2010 this was estimated to have risen to 18,280.[1]



Prehistory and Romano-British

Dorchester's roots stem back to prehistoric times. Settlements were first based around Maiden Castle, a large Iron Age hill fort that was one of the most powerful settlements in pre-Roman Britain, with varying tribes having existed there since 4000 BC. The Durotriges were likely to have been there at the arrival of the Romans in 43 AD.

The Romans defeated the local tribes by 70 AD. After possibly being converted from a garrison to a town, the Romans named the settlement Durnovaria. This was a Brythonic name meaning 'place with fist-sized pebbles' and appears to have taken part of its name from the local Durotriges tribe who inhabited the area. Durnovaria was first recorded in the 4th century Antonine Itinerary and became a market centre for the surrounding countryside, and an important road junction and staging post,[2] and eventually one of the twin capitals of the Celtic Durotriges tribe.[3]

The Romans walled the town and the remains can still be seen today. The walls were largely replaced with walks that form a square inside modern Dorchester. Known as 'The Walks' a small segment of the original Roman wall still exists today near the Top 'o Town roundabout.

Roman town house ruins in Dorchester

The town still has some Roman features, including part of the town walls and the foundations of a Roman town house, which are freely accessible near the County Hall. There are many Roman finds in the County Museum. The Romans built an 8-mile (13 km) aqueduct to supply the town with water, lengths of the terrace on which it was constructed still remain in parts. Near the town centre is Maumbury Rings, an ancient British henge earthwork converted by the Romans for use as an amphitheatre, and to the north west is Poundbury Hill, another pre-Roman fortification.

Little evidence exists to suggest continued occupation after the withdrawal of the Roman administration from Britain. Historians have suggested that the town became known as Caer Durnac, mistakenly recorded by Nennius as Caer Urnac.[4][5] The area remained in British hands until the mid-7th century and there was certainly continuity of use of the Roman cemetery at nearby Poundbury. Dorchester has therefore been suggested as the centre of a sub-kingdom of Dumnonia or other regional power base.[6]


By 864, the area around Durnovaria/Caer Durnac was dominated by the newly established Saxons, who came to refer to themselves as Dorsaetas ('People of the Dor' - Durnovaria). In their own language, they referred to the town as Dornwaraceaster or Dornwaracester, combining the original name 'Dor/Dorn' from the Latin and Celtic languages with the word 'cester', which was an Anglo-Saxon word used for 'walled town'.[7] The name would further change to Dorncester/Dornceaster until modern Dorchester emerged some time later. It continued as a thriving commercial and political centre for south Dorset with a textile trading and manufacturing industry continuing until the 17th century.[8]

Early modern history

"The town is populous, tho' not large, the streets broad, but the buildings old, and low; however, there is good company and a good deal of it; and a man that coveted a retreat in this world might as agreeably spend his time, and as well in Dorchester, as in any town I know in England". -- Daniel Defoe, in his A tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-1726).[9]

In 1613 and 1725 great fires destroyed large parts of the town, but some of the mediaeval buildings, including Judge Jeffreys' lodgings, and the Tudor almshouse survive in the town centre, amongst the replacement Georgian buildings, many of which are built in Portland limestone.

In the 17th century the town was at the centre of the Puritan emigration to America, and the local rector, John White, organised the settlement of Dorchester, Massachusetts. For his efforts on behalf of Puritan dissenters, White has been called the unheralded founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (Some observers have attributed the oversight to the fact that White, unlike John Winthrop, never came to America.)[10]

In 1642, just prior to the English Civil War, Hugh Green, a Catholic chaplain was executed here. After his execution, Puritans played football with his head.[11] The town was heavily defended against the Royalists in the Civil War. In 1651 Prince Charles, the future King Charles II, on his hasty escape to France via Bridport, narrowly escaped capture by hiding in Lee Lane. A plaque erected on the spot in 1991 commemorates the event.[12]

In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth failed in his invasion attempt, the Monmouth Rebellion, and almost 300 of his men were condemned to death or transportation in the "Bloody Assizes", held in the Oak Room of the Antelope Hotel, Dorchester and presided over by Judge Jeffreys.

Modern history

In 1833, the Tolpuddle Martyrs formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. Trade unions were legal, but due to them swearing an oath of allegiance, they were arrested and tried in the Shire Hall in Dorchester. This building still remains and is preserved as it was at the time. Under the court are the cells where the prisoners were held while waiting for their court appearance. Dorchester Prison was constructed in the town during the 19th century and the prison is still in use today, holding convicted and remanded inmates from the local courts.

Dorchester remained a compact town within the boundaries of the old town walls until the latter part of the 19th century due to the ownership of all land immediately adjacent to the west, south and east by the Duchy of Cornwall. This land composed the Manor of Fordington, and a select few developments had encroached onto it:

  • The Marabout Barracks, to the north of Bridport Road, in 1794
  • The Dorchester Union Workhouse, to the north of Damer's Road, in 1835
  • The Southampton and Dorchester Railway and its station east of Weymouth Avenue, in 1847
  • The Great Western Railway and its station to the south of Damer's Road, in 1857
  • The Waterworks, to the north of Bridport Road, in 1854
  • A new cemetery, to the west of the new railway and east of Weymouth Avenue, in 1856
  • The Dorset County Constabulary police station in 1860, west of the Southampton railway, east of Weymouth Avenue and north of Maumbury Rings.
A map of Dorchester in 1937

This remaining Duchy land was farmed under the open field system until 1874 when the land was enclosed - or consolidated - into three large farms by the landowners and residents.[13] Soon afterwards followed a series of key developments for the town: the enclosing of Poundbury hillfort for public enjoyment in 1876, the 'Fair Field' (new site for the market, off Weymouth Avenue) in 1877, the Recreation Ground (also off Weymouth Avenue) opening in 1880, and the imposing Eldridge Pope Brewery of 1881, adjacent to the railway line to Southampton. Salisbury Field was retained for public use in 1892, with land being purchased in 1895 for the formal Borough Gardens, between West Walks and Cornwall Road.[13] The clock and bandstand were added in 1898.[14]

Meanwhile, land had begun to be developed for housing outside the walls. This included the Cornwall Estate, between the Borough Gardens and the Great Western Railway, from 1876 and the Prince of Wales Estate, centred on Prince of Wales Road, from 1880. Land for the Victoria Park Estate was bought in 1896 and building began in 1897, Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee year. The lime trees in Queen's Avenue were planted in February 1897.[13]

Recent developments

Dorchester High West Street

Poundbury is the well-known western extension of the town, constructed on Duchy of Cornwall land (owned by Charles, Prince of Wales) according to urban village principles since 1993. Being developed over 25 years, it will eventually be composed of four phases with a total of 2,500 dwellings and a population of about 6,000. Since 2008, Poundbury is now home to Dorset Fire and Rescue Service headquarters and Dorchester fire station. Prince Charles designed the estate (as well as the local Tesco supermarket) and makes several visits throughout the year.[15]

Dorchester became Dorset's first Official Transition Initiative in 2008 as part of the Transition Towns concept.[16] Transition Town Dorchester is a Dorchester community response to the challenges, and opportunities, of Peak Oil and Climate Change.[17]

The town's Woolworths shop closed in January 2009 after the high-street retail chain entered administration. The store manager, however, secured investment to re-open the store in March 2009, under the name Wellworths.[18] In May 2009, a skatepark was opened in Dorchester after 12 years of planning and construction.[19]

The catchment population for major food retail outlets in Dorchester is 38,500 (2001 estimate). The catchment area extends eight miles west, north and east of the town, and two miles south.[20] Brewery Square is a new development in the heart of the town, and is planned to include a multitude of retail outlets, residential units, bars, restaurants and various cultural facilities, plus the regeneration of Dorchester South station to make it the UK's first solar powered rail station. [21] The Charles Street development, being built on the site of the former Charles Street car park, is the newest project in Dorchester, and will include 23 new shops, a 485-space underground car park, an hotel, affordable housing, new public toilets, a public library and adult education centre provided and paid for by Dorset County Council, and offices and separate parking occupied and paid for by West Dorset District Council. The Charles Street development is predicted to create 660 new jobs (not including jobs within the council).[22]


Dorchester is represented by three tiers of government. Dorchester town council, West Dorset District Council and Dorset County Council, all of whom are based within the town. The Member of Parliament for West Dorset is Oliver Letwin.

The town's coat of arms depicts the old castle that used to stand where the prison now does. The royal purple background signifies Dorchester's status as part of the private estates of the king since before Domesday. The shield within the castle depicts lions, copied from the shields of Dorset men who fought at the Battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415, and fleur-de-lys. The fleur-de-lys on the shield are scattered (or "semée") rather than the more traditional triangular arrangement. Doing so, shows that the town had the right to bear the arms of France before 1405, when they were altered by King Henry VI. Dorchester's seal is the only one in the UK to use the fleur-de-lys in this way. The inscription 'Sigillum Bailivorum Dorcestre' means 'The Seal of the Bailiffs of Dorchester'.


The town has two railway stations. Dorchester South railway station on the South Western Main Line to Bournemouth, Southampton and London is operated by South West Trains. Dorchester West railway station on the Heart of Wessex Line is operated by First Great Western and serves Yeovil, Bath and Bristol The building at Dorchester West railway station is the original building designed and built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. As part of the regeneration project taking place at the Brewery Site in the town centre, Dorchester South railway station will become the first solar powered railway station in the UK.

Nunney Castle steam special passing through Dorchester West on its return from Weymouth to Bath 14 August 2011

A bypass road was completed in 1988 by construction company Mowlem to the south and west of the town, diverting through traffic using the A35 and A37 from the town.[23]


Dorchester has one private school, several first schools, two middle schools and one upper school. The upper school, The Thomas Hardye School, can trace its origins back to 1569, when it was founded by a merchant of that name, not the writer Thomas Hardy as commonly believed.

Kingston Maurward College is a land-based studies college based on the outskirts of the town.


Local author and poet Thomas Hardy based the fictional town of Casterbridge on Dorchester. Hardy's childhood home is to the east of the town, and his house in town, Max Gate, is owned by the National Trust and open to the public. William Barnes, the local dialect poet, was Rector of Winterborne Came, a small hamlet near Dorchester, for 24 years until his death in 1886,[24] and ran a school in the town. Statues of both men stand in the town centre; Barnes is outside St Peter's Church and Hardy's beside the Top o' Town crossroads. Cecil Day Lewis is buried in Stinsford, one mile (1.6 km) from Dorchester. Hardy is buried in London, but his heart was removed and buried in Stinsford.

On the hills to the south west of the town, stands Hardy's Monument, a memorial to the other local Thomas Hardy, Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, who served with Lord Nelson, which overlooks the town with views of Weymouth, the Isle of Portland and Chesil Beach. Tom Roberts, Australian painter, was born in Dorchester in 1856.

Dorchester Arts, a regularly funded arts organisation based in a former school building runs a seasonal programme of music, dance and theatre events in the town as well as a range of participatory arts projects for socially excluded groups and the biannual Dorchester Festival. In 2011, Dorchester Arts became an Arts Council 'National Portfolio organisation' with enhanced funding until 2015.

Museums in Dorchester inclue the Roman Town House, The Dinosaur Museum, the Terracotta Warriors Museum, the Dorset Teddy Bear Museum, The Keep Military Museum, Dorset County Museum and the Tutankhamun Exhibition. All of these museums took part in the "Museums at Night" event in May 2011 where museums across the UK opened after hours. [25]

On 15 December 2004, Dorchester was granted Fairtrade Town status.

Twinned towns

Dorchester is twinned with Bayeux in France since 1959, Lübbecke in Germany since 1973, and Holbæk in Denmark since 1992.[26]

Notable people

  • Paul Hillier (1949-), classical siger and composer was born in Dorchester. He attended the Thomas Hardye School.
  • James Campbell (1988-), cricketer


Dorchester is represented by many sports teams, the most prominent of whom are Dorchester Town F.C., a football team currently playing in the Conference South.

Harry Redknapp and former England players Graham Roberts and Martin Chivers represented 'The Magpies' during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The club have historically been based along Weymouth Avenue in the south of the town. Having previously played at the old Avenue Ground since their inception, the club moved to a new purpose built 5,000 capacity Avenue Stadium in the early 1990's - designed and owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. The site of the old Avenue ground is now a Tesco supermarket built at the same time as the Avenue stadium

Dorchester RFC are an amateur rugby union team who currently play in the Southern Counties South league.

Dorchester CC, are a cricket club, who play in the Dorset Premier League, being last crowned champions in 2009.

Aaron Cook, a taekwondo athlete who competed in the 2008 Olympic Games finishing in fifth place, was born in Dorchester.[27]


  1. ^ Dorchester Population
  2. ^ Stevens Cox (1974; 60) (full ref. required)
  3. ^ Durotriges
  4. ^ Nennius vs Bede
  5. ^ The 28 Cities of Britain
  6. ^ Southern Britain's Lost Kingdoms
  7. ^ English Place Names
  8. ^ Taylor (1970)
  9. ^ Chandler (1990; 72)
  10. ^ Rev. John White of Dorchester, England, Rev. Arthur W. Ackerman, D.D., Dorchester Atheneum
  11. ^ Supremacy and Survival
  12. ^ Flight of Prince Chalers from Worcester at
  13. ^ a b c Morris and Draper (1995)
  14. ^ Waymark (1997)
  15. ^ Poundbury Development
  16. ^ | Dorchester, Dorset, England - officially designated a Transition Town, number 71 in date order and the first in Dorset.
  17. ^ | Transition Town Dorchester is a Dorchester community response to the challenges of Peak Oil and Climate Change
  18. ^ "'Wellies' To Give Crunch The Boot". Sky News. 2009-02-12. Retrieved 2009-02-12. 
  19. ^ "Dorchester's new skatepark". BBC. 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-08. 
  20. ^ Dorchester Population
  21. ^ Brewery Square Development
  22. ^ Charles Street Development
  23. ^ Draper (1992)
  24. ^ Bingham (1987)
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ Aaron Cook profile


  • Bingham, A. (1987) Dorset : Ordnance Survey landranger guidebook , Norwich: Jarrold, ISBN 0-319-00187-3
  • Chandler, J. H. (1990) Wessex images, Gloucester: Alan Sutton and Wiltshire County Council Library & Museum Service, ISBN 0-86299-739-9
  • Draper, J. (1992) Dorchester : An illustrated history Wimborne: Dovecote Press, ISBN 1-874336-04-0
  • Morris, J. and Draper, J. (1995) "The 'Enclosure' of Foridngton Fields and the Development of Dorchester, 1874–1903", Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society proceedings, v. 117, p. 5–14, ISSN 0070-7112
  • Pitt-Rivers, M. (1966) Dorset, A Shell guide, New ed., London: Faber, ISBN 0-5710-6714-X
  • Taylor, C. (1970) Dorset, Making of the English landscape, London: Hodder & Stoughton, p. 197–201, ISBN 0-340-10962-9
  • Waymark, J, (1997) "The Duchy of Cornwall and the Expansion of Dorchester, c. 1900–1997", Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society proceedings, v. 119, p. 19–32, ISSN 0070-7112

External links

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