By Tim Lambert
Bridport was once an important settlement. In the late 9th century Alfred the Great created a network of fortified settlements across his kingdom called burhs. In the event of a Danish attack, all the men from the area could gather together in the local burh to fight.
Bridport was one such burh. However, Bridport was more than just a fortress. It was also a busy little market town. In the 10th century, Bridport had a mint so it must have been a place of some importance.
At first, Bridport was known as Bridian but its name changed in the early Middle Ages. In those days ‘port’ meant a place of trade rather than a seaport.
Bridport continued to be a busy little town and port in the Middle Ages, although it would have seemed tiny to us. Medieval Bridport may have had a population of around 500-600. Still, towns were very small in those days.
Nevertheless later in the Middle Ages, Bridport probably grew considerably larger and by the 12th century, it was prospering.
Then in 1253 King Henry III gave Bridport a charter (a document granting the citizens certain rights). From 1295 Bridport sent 2 MPs to Parliament.
Of course, for centuries Bridport was famous for rope making. By the time of King John in the early 13th century, Bridport was renowned for its rope. The local land is very well suited to growing both hemp and flax. So it was natural that a rope-making industry would grow up there. It was so important in 1213 that King John urged the ropers to work ‘night and day’ to make the rope he needed for his navy.
Rope from Bridport was also used for making hangmen’s nooses. In fact, the noose was nicknamed ‘a Bridport dagger’. At the time of Henry VIII the rope-making industry in Bridport was so important he ordered that all hemp grown within 5 miles of the town should be reserved to make rope for his navy.
Meanwhile, in the 13th century, a priory (small abbey) was founded in Bridport. From the 13th century, there were also friars in Bridport. (Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach). In Bridport, there were Carmelites known as white friars because of the color of their costumes.
Then in the late 16th century Queen Elizabeth gave Bridport a new charter and allowed the people to hold markets and fairs. (In those days fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and they attracted buyers and sellers from a much wider area).
In 1619 James I incorporated Bridport (granted it a mayor and corporation). However, like all towns in those days, Bridport suffered from outbreaks of plague. It struck Bridport in 1626.
In 1651 after losing the battle of Worcester Charles II stayed briefly in Bridport before fleeing to France.
In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth led a rebellion against King James II. His army landed at Lyme Regis. On 14 June 1685, they fought the Dorset militia at Bridport. However, the fight was very short. The rebels quickly retreated and headed west.
Through the centuries Bridport continued to grow and in the 18th century, it was a busy little market town as well as a rope-making centre.
The population of Bridport reached a peak in the mid-19th century when it was around 7,000. However, the population fell in the late 19th century.
The railway reached Bridport in 1857 and there were some other improvements in Bridport in the 19th century. From the early 19th century the streets of Bridport were lit with gas. A cemetery opened in 1864 and in 1872 a water company was formed to provide piped water. On the other hand, for centuries Bridport had sent 2 MPs to parliament. In 1868 the number was reduced to 1 and in 1885 Bridport lost its MP altogether.
Hemp growing at Bridport ended in the 19th century due to cheaper foreign imports. However there was a shipbuilding industry in Bridport Harbour, but it died out in the late 19th century.
Today Bridport remains a prosperous market town and it is popular with tourists. Bridport is also known for making nets.
Bridport Arts Centre opened in 1973 and in 1987 a bypass was built around Bridport. During the 20th century, the population of Bridport recovered. By 1951 it was almost 6,300. Bridport Literary Festival was first held in 2005. In 2022 the population of Bridport was 13,000.