A History of Dorchester

By Tim Lambert

Roman Dorchester

Dorchester was founded by the Romans. (Although the area was inhabited for thousands of years before they arrived. Stone age farmers erected the enclosure known as Maumbury Rings). The Romans invaded Southeast England in 43 AD and they quickly subdued the area we now call Dorset.

By about 60 AD a town grew up at Dorchester. It was called Durnovaria and at first, it seems to have been a primitive ‘frontier town’ with only wooden buildings.

However, in the 2nd century stone buildings were erected in Dorchester. The town was fortified with a ditch and an earth embankment, probably with a wooden stockade on top. The town had a forum or marketplace lined with shops and public buildings. There were also public baths. Water was brought into the town by an aqueduct. Some rich people had mosaic floors and even a form of central heating.

However, most people in Roman Dorchester lived in simple wooden houses, covered in plaster. The Romans also converted Maumbury Rings into an amphitheatre. They watched ‘sports’ like cockfighting there. On special occasions, gladiators may have fought there.

In the 4th century, Roman Dorchester was given stone walls. This was a sign of things to come. Fierce Saxons from Germany were raiding Eastern England and Roman civilization was in decline.

Dorchester in the Middle Ages

What happened to Dorchester after the Romans left is not certain. The town may have been abandoned. Or there may have been a small number of people living inside the walls, grazing their cattle there and farming fields outside the walls. As time went by people seem to have trickled back into Dorchester. At some point, a market began and slowly Dorchester grew into a town again.

Nevertheless, Dorchester was a very small town. At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 it probably only had a population of several hundred. Later it probably grew bigger but Dorchester probably had only around 1,000 inhabitants in the Middle Ages. Cattle still grazed within the old Roman walls.

The Normans built a wooden castle in Dorchester. Later it may have been rebuilt in stone but in the 14th century, it seems to have fallen into disuse.

Medieval Dorchester was a busy little market town. It had 3 weekly markets and 3 annual fairs. (In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. People came from all over Dorset to buy and sell at a Dorchester fair).

In the little town, wool was woven and dyed. Nevertheless, many people lived by farming, at least part-time.

In the 13th century, Franciscan friars came to Dorchester. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach.

In the Middle Ages, the church ran the only ‘hospitals’. In Dorchester, there was a hospital dedicated to St John. In it, monks cared for the sick and poor as best they could.

In the Middle Ages, the people of Dorchester took over the Maumbury Rings and used them for bear-baiting. (A bear was chained to a post and dogs were trained to attack it).

Dorchester 1500-1800

During this period Dorchester remained a small market town. In 1500 it was said to have 260 houses, which probably gave it a population of around 1,000. Dorchester grew slowly and may have had a population of 1,700 by the early 18th century. This was despite outbreaks of plague in 1563, 1579, and 1595.

There was a school in Dorchester in the Middle Ages but it was re-founded as a grammar school in 1567. Trinity School was founded in 1625.

In 1610 Dorchester was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights and reforming local government). Dorchester was given another charter in 1630.

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. Dorchester was a hotbed of Puritanism and so supported parliament. Attempts were made to fortify the town and Maumbury Rings were revamped as a fort. Nevertheless, the royalists captured Dorchester in August 1643. The royalists then plundered Dorchester. The royalist soldiers moved on because they were needed elsewhere. They returned to Dorchester in July 1644 but this time they were fought off.

In 1613 Dorchester suffered a severe fire, which destroyed much of the town. There were other less serious fires in Dorchester in 1622, 1725, 1737, and 1775. However, in 1776 thatched roofs were banned in Dorchester to reduce the risk of fire.

In 1615 Nappers Mite almshouses were built by Sir Robert Napper for 10 poor men.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the old wool industry continued in Dorchester but in the 18th century, it died out due to competition with northern towns. However, in the 18th century, Dorchester became known for its brewing industry.

In 1685 a rebellion broke out in Southwestern England led by the Duke of Monmouth. However, the rebellion was crushed. ‘Hanging Judge’ Jeffreys then held a series of trials in Winchester. Altogether 312 people were tried in the town. Thirteen men were executed in Dorchester. The heads of some were impaled on spikes as a warning to others.

People found a new use for the Maumbury Rings. As late as 1767 they were used for public executions or hanging fairs, which always attracted large crowds.

Dorchester in the 19th century

In the 19th century, Dorchester remained a country town although it grew rapidly. The population of Dorchester was 2,402 in 1801. It grew to 9,000 by the beginning of the 20th century.

For centuries Dorchester was confined to space within the old Roman walls. In this century Fordington grew up. It was a poor area and suffered outbreaks of cholera in 1848 and 1854.

However, there were some improvements in Dorchester in the 19th century. From 1835 the town had gaslighting. From 1836 Dorchester had a police force. The County Hospital opened in 1841. A museum opened in Dorchester in 1845.

The railway reached Dorchester in 1847. Also in 1847, a new Town Hall was built. A clock tower was added to it in 1862. In 1848 a Corn Exchange was built where grain could be bought and sold.

In the 1850s a network of sewers was dug in Dorchester and from 1860 the town had piped water. The first cemetery in Dorchester was laid out in 1856. Borough Gardens were laid out in 1895.

In 1834 the 6 Tolpuddle Martyrs were tried in Dorchester and sentenced to transportation to Australia for taking illegal oaths. They were trying to form a trade union for farm labourers. After 2 years they were pardoned.

In 1840 Thomas Hardy was born in Higher Bockhampton and due to him Dorchester will always be associated with ‘Casterbridge’. Another literary figure of the 19th century was the poet William Barnes. He lived in Dorchester from 1837 to 1886.

Dorchester in the 20th century

In the 20th century Dorchester remained a small country town but today it is growing rapidly. Today the population of Dorchester is 18,000. There is still a brewing industry in Dorchester but new industries have arrived. Today there is an IT industry in Dorchester. There are also light industries and several industrial estates have been built. Tourism is also a major industry.

Dorchester gained an electricity supply in 1901. The first cinema in Dorchester opened in 1911. Furthermore, in the 1920s and 1930s, the first council houses were built in Dorchester.

A statue of Thomas Hardy was erected in 1931. A new library was built in 1966.

The Dorset Martyrs statue was erected in 1986. West Dorset Hospital was built in 1987. Dorset Bypass was built in 1988. The present Keep Military Museum opened in 1994.

Dorchester in the 21st century

Today Dorchester is flourishing. A skate park opened in Dorchester in 2009. A new sports centre opened in Dorchester in 2012. In 2023 the population of Dorchester was 20,000.

Keep Museum in Dorchester
Keep Museum