A History of Cerne Abbas

By Tim Lambert

Early Cerne Abbas

Cerne Abbas is a village in Dorset with charming street names such as Piddle Lane, Duck Street, The Folly, and Kettle Bridge.

According to legend St Augustine who was sent by the Pope in 597 to preach to the Saxons founded St Augustine’s Well. However, the legend is unlikely to be true!

Cerne Abbas began in 987 when some monks built an abbey by the River Cerne. It was rebuilt in the 12th century but Henry VIII closed it down in 1539. Meanwhile, however, in the Middle Ages, a little market town grew up by the abbey. (In the Middle Ages towns often grew up around abbeys because the monks provided a market for the townspeople’s goods).

In the Middle Ages, Cerne Abbas Abbey was a powerful landowner. Tenants of the Abbey had to pay a rent of one-tenth (a tithe) of their produce. The grain they gave was stored in a tithe barn, which was built in 1350 and which still stands.

In the Middle Ages, the little town of Cerne Abbas had 3 main streets. Long Street ended in a triangle where markets were held. Abbey Street led to the abbey. Another street called Back Lane ran parallel to Long Street.

From the early 13th century Cerne Abbas had markets. From the 15th century, Cerne Abbas also had annual fairs. In those days fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and they attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area. Market Cross once stood on the site of the market but it was later moved to the cemetery.

The Church of St Mary in Cerne Abbas dates from the 13th century.

A row of Tudor timber-framed buildings stands in Cerne Abbas. They are called the Pitchmarket. Thomas Washington, the uncle of George Washington is reputed to have lived there.

In the 18th century, Cerne Abbas was a flourishing little town. There was a silk industry. There was also a brewing industry in Cerne Abbas and local ales were sold in London. There was also a leather industry in Cerne Abbas and boots and gloves were made there.

A pair of leather gloves

However, some of the people still lived by farming. Acreman Street takes its name from old words meaning ‘farm laborer’.

In the 18th century, many stagecoaches passed through Cerne Abbas and there were several inns in the town.

Modern Cerne Abbas

In 1836 a Union Workhouse was built in Cerne Abbas. In the workhouse, conditions were made as harsh as possible to dissuade the poor from seeking help.

However in the 19th century when railways were built in Dorset they bypassed Cerne Abbas. In those days, before the internal combustion engine railways were the arteries of trade. Since Cerne Abbas was not on a railway it dwindled.

Today Cerne Abbas is a quiet village and many of its residents commute to work in Dorchester. n However the population of Cerne Abbas has fallen substantially since the 19th century. In 2022 the population of Cerne Abbas was about 860.

Cerne Abbas is most famous for its giant, which is carved in chalk on a hillside. It has been claimed that the giant dates from the Iron Age but there is no mention of it in writing before the end of the 17th century and it may have been carved much later. What is certain is that it was used as a fertility charm. As late as the 19th century women would sleep inside the outlines of the giant to increase their fertility.