A History of Wareham

By Tim Lambert

Saxon Wareham

Fifteen hundred years ago the Celts lived in the area of Wareham. However, the modern settlement was founded by the Saxons. They conquered east Dorset in the mid-7th century and about 700 AD a Saxon named St Aldhelm founded a nunnery on the site of Wareham. He also built a church (St Martins), which was rebuilt in the early 11th century. In time a village grew up by the nunnery. It was called wer ham, the settlement by the weir.

In 876 Wareham was captured by an army of Danes. Alfred the Great, king of Wessex arrived with a Saxon army and he made a treaty with the Danes. Afterward, they withdrew.

Alfred created a network of fortified settlements called burhs across his kingdom. In the event of a Danish attack, all the men would gather in the local burh to fight. Wareham was made a burh. It was surrounded by an earth bank with a wooden stockade on top. The Saxon earth bank still survives.

However, Wareham was more than just a fort. It was also a flourishing little market town (part of the Saxon street pattern survives). It also contained a royal mint, showing it was quite an important place.

Edward the Martyr, a Saxon king who died in 978 was buried in St Mary’s church in Wareham. However, his body was later removed to Shaftesbury but his marble coffin remained.

Then when the king of England died in 1015 rival claimants fought for the throne. One of these was Canute. In 1015 he sacked Wareham. However, the little town recovered and thrived once again.

Wareham in the Middle Ages

Medieval Wareham was a flourishing little town. However, to us, it would seem tiny, with a population of only several hundred. It was more like a village than a modern town. Many people kept livestock. Any stray animal was put in a pound and the owner had to pay a fine to get it back. That is how Pound Lane got its name.

The Normans built a castle in the southwest of the town but later it was neglected in favour of Corfe Castle. However, by 1248 the people of Wareham were granted a charter (a document granting them certain rights and privileges).

From the 14th century, Wareham sent two MPs to parliament. However, in 1832 they were reduced to one and in 1885 Wareham was made part of a larger constituency.

In the early Middle Ages, Wareham was a busy little port but when Poole was founded in the 13th century it took trade away from the town.

In 1418 almshouses were built with money from a man named John Streche.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Wareham continued to be a busy little market town. To us, it would seem tiny. It probably had a population of less than 1,000.

In 1762 Wareham was devastated by a fire, which destroyed most of the houses. Much of Wareham had to be rebuilt and as a result, many of its houses are Georgian or Regency.

Modern Wareham

During the 19th century, Wareham remained a small market town. However, it did gain gaslight and in 1847 the railway reached Wareham.

In 1837 a workhouse was built in Wareham. Conditions in the workhouse were deliberately made as harsh as possible to discourage people from seeking help from the state. Meanwhile, in the 19th century, there was a brewing industry in Wareham. In 1889 Oddfellows Hall was built in Wareham. Later it became the Rex Cinema.

In 1906 Wareham gained a piped water supply and in 1927 a new bridge was built over the Frome. On a more sombre note in 1919 a war memorial was erected. In the 1920s the first council houses were built in Wareham.

In 1939 a sculptor named Eric Kennington carved an effigy of Lawrence of Arabia (who lived near Wareham) in St Martin’s Church.

Wareham Town Museum opened in 1974 and in the 1980s a by-pass was built.

Today Wareham is an attractive little market town though it does have two industrial estates, Sandford and Westminster.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Wareham was still a very small settlement with a population of less than 2,000. By 1951 it was still less than 3,000. However, during the late 20th century, Wareham grew rapidly. In 2022 Wareham had a population of about 5,900.

A church in Wareham on a snowy day