A History of Shaftesbury

By Tim Lambert

Early Shaftesbury

The village of Shaftesbury in Dorset was founded by the Saxons. The second part of its name is derived from the Saxon word burh, which meant a fortified settlement. In the late 9th century Alfred the Great created a network of fortified towns across his kingdom. In the event of a Danish attack, all the men in the area would gather in the burh to fight them. Shaftesbury was one such burh. It was a natural place because it lies on a promontory of land protected on three sides by steep slopes. A rampart of earth protected the fourth side with a wooden palisade on top.

The first part of the name Shaftesbury is believed to be derived from the Saxon word sceapt, which meant point. That is not surprising since Shaftesbury lay on a ‘point’ of land. King Canute died in Shaftesbury in 1035.

As well as a fortress Shaftesbury was a bustling little town. In the 10th century, there were royal mints in the town. Shaftesbury also had weekly markets. (In those days there were no shops so if you wished to buy or sell anything you had to go to a market). However, Shaftesbury would seem tiny to us. At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 it probably only had a few hundred inhabitants. Still, towns were very small in those days.

Alfred the Great also founded a nunnery at Shaftesbury. In 978 the young Saxon king Edward, known as Edward the Martyr was murdered and in 979 he was buried in Shaftesbury Abbey. He was canonized (made a saint) in 1001. However, Henry VIII dissolved Shaftesbury Abbey in 1539.

In the early 18th century a man named William Lush founded a charity school called a Blue Coat School (So-called because of the colour of the children’s uniforms).

Through the centuries Shaftesbury was a small but busy town. From 1295 Shaftesbury sent two MPs to parliament. However, in 1835 the number was reduced to one, and in 1885 Shaftesbury was merged into a larger constituency.

In the late 17th century and during the 18th century the main industry in Shaftesbury was making buttons. (Button making died out in the 19th century).

There was also a malting industry and there were many breweries in Shaftesbury.

Modern Shaftesbury

In the 19th century, Shaftesbury remained a small market town. In 1800 it only had a population of around 1,000 people. Unfortunately, the railway passed Shaftesbury by. (If the railway had passed through Shaftesbury it would almost certainly have boosted the growth of the town).

However, in 1827 the town gained a new Town Hall. In 1836 Shaftesbury gained gaslight. In 1852 Shaftesbury gained a piped water supply and a Market Hall was built in Shaftesbury in 1855.

The Church of the Holy Trinity was rebuilt in 1842. St James Church was rebuilt in 1867. The Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Name and St Edward was built in 1910.

Westminster Memorial Hospital was founded in 1871.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Shaftesbury was about 1,800. It grew rapidly in the subsequent decades.

However, during World War One some 136 people from Shaftesbury lost their lives.

Then in 1935, Shaftesbury gained electric light. Today Shaftesbury remains a picturesque market town. However, it does have Longmead industrial estate.

In 1973 a famous advert for Hovis bread was made in Shaftesbury on Gold Hill. Although the narrator spoke in a northern accent!

By the middle of the 20th century, the population of Shaftesbury had reached about 3,500 and it continued to grow rapidly. In 2022 the population of Shaftesbury was 9,000.

Gold Hill in Shaftesbury