Dorchester, Dorset

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Town Pump and Corn Exchange - Dorchester.jpg
Town Pump and Corn Exchange
Dorchester is located in Dorset
 Dorchester shown within Dorset
Population 19,060 (2011 census)
OS grid reference SY690906
District West Dorset
Shire county Dorset
Region South West
Country England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Postcode district DT1
Dialling code 01305
Police Dorset
Fire Dorset
Ambulance South Western
EU Parliament South West England
UK Parliament West Dorset
List of places

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Dorchester (/ˈdɔːrɛstər/ DOR-ches-tər) is the county town of Dorset, England. It is situated between the towns of Poole and Bridport on the A35 trunk route. A historic market town, Dorchester lies on the banks of the River Frome, in the Frome Valley, just south of the Dorset Downs and north of the South Dorset Ridgeway, that separates the area from Weymouth, 7 miles (11 km) south.

Dorchester was the home and inspiration of the author Thomas Hardy, whose novel The Mayor of Casterbridge was based on the town.

In the 2011 census the population of Dorchester was 19,060.


Prehistory and Romano-British

Dorchester's roots stem back to prehistoric times. The earliest settlements were about 2 miles (3.2 km) southwest of the modern town centre in the vicinity of Maiden Castle, a large Iron Age hill fort that was one of the most powerful settlements in pre-Roman Britain. Different tribes lived there from 4000 BC. The Durotriges were likely to have been there when the Romans arrived in Britain in 43 AD.

The Romans defeated the local tribes by 70 AD and established a garrison nearby, which was subsequently converted to a town which the Romans named Durnovaria, a Brythonic name incorporating durn, "fist", loosely interpreted as 'place with fist-sized pebbles'. It appears to have taken part of its name from the local Durotriges tribe who inhabited the area. Durnovaria was first recorded in the 4th century Antonine Itinerary and became a market centre for the surrounding countryside, an important road junction and staging post,[1] and subsequently one of the twin capitals of the Celtic Durotriges tribe.[2]

The remains of the Roman walls that surrounded the town can still be seen today. The majority have been replaced by pathways that form a square inside modern Dorchester known as 'The Walks'. A small segment of the original wall still remains near the Top 'o Town roundabout.

The town's remaining Roman features include part of the town walls and the foundations of a town house near the County Hall. Modern building works within the walls have frequently unearthed Roman finds; in 1936 a cache of 22,000 3rd-century Roman coins was discovered in South Street.[3] The County Museum contains many Roman artefacts. The Romans built an 8-mile (13 km) aqueduct to supply the town with water; lengths of the terrace on which it was constructed still remain. Near the town centre is Maumbury Rings, an ancient British henge earthwork converted by the Romans for use as an amphitheatre, and to the north west of the town is Poundbury Hill, another pre-Roman fortification.

Little evidence exists to suggest continued occupation after the withdrawal of the Roman administration from Britain. The name Durnovaria survived into Old Welsh as Durngueir, recorded by Asser in the 9th century.[4][5] The area remained in British hands until the mid-7th century and there was continuity of use of the Roman cemetery at nearby Poundbury. Dorchester has been suggested as the centre of a sub-kingdom of Dumnonia or other regional power base.[6]


By 864, the area around Durnovaria/Durngueir was dominated by the Saxons who referred to themselves as Dorsaetas, 'People of the Dor' - Durnovaria. The town became known as Dornwaraceaster or Dornwaracester, combining the original name Dor/Dorn from the Latin and Celtic languages with cester, Old English for walled town[7] and the name changed over time to Dorncester/Dornceaster and Dorchester.

At the time of the Norman conquest Dorchester was not a place of great significance, though the Normans did build a castle here, but this has not survived. A priory was also founded, in 1364, though this also has since disappeared. In the later medieval period however the town prospered;[8] it was a thriving commercial and political centre for south Dorset, with a textile trading and manufacturing industry which continued until the 17th century.[9]

Judge Jeffreys' lodging house, now a restaurant, in High West Street

Early modern

"The town is populous, tho' not large, the streets broad, but the buildings old, and low; however, there is good company and a good deal of it; and a man that coveted a retreat in this world might as agreeably spend his time, and as well in Dorchester, as in any town I know in England". -- Daniel Defoe, in his A tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-1726).[10]

In the 17th and 18th centuries Dorchester suffered several serious fires: in 1613, caused by a tallow chandler's cauldron getting too hot and setting alight; in 1622, started by a maltster; in 1725, begun in a brewhouse; and in 1775, caused by a soap boiler.[8] The 1613 fire was the most devastating, resulting in the destruction of 300 houses and two churches (All Saints and Holy Trinity).[8] Only a few of the town's early buildings have survived to the present day, including Judge Jeffreys' lodgings and a Tudor almshouse. Among the replacement Georgian buildings are many which are built in Portland limestone.

In the 17th century the town was at the centre of Puritan emigration to America, and the local rector, John White, organised the settlement of Dorchester, Massachusetts. For his efforts on behalf of Puritan dissenters, White has been called the unheralded founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (Some observers have attributed the oversight to the fact that White, unlike John Winthrop, never went to America.)[11]

In 1642, just before the English Civil War, Hugh Green, a Catholic chaplain was executed here. After his execution, Puritans played football with his head.[12] The town was heavily defended against the Royalists in the civil war.

In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth failed in his invasion attempt, the Monmouth Rebellion, and almost 300 of his men were condemned to death or transportation in the "Bloody Assizes" presided over by Judge Jeffreys in the Oak Room of the Antelope Hotel in Dorchester.


Shire Hall in High West Street, where the trial of the Tolpuddle martyrs took place

In 1833, the Tolpuddle Martyrs founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. Trade unions were legal but because the members swore an oath of allegiance, they were arrested and tried in the Shire Hall. Beneath the courtroom are cells where the prisoners were held while waiting trial. Dorchester Prison was constructed in the town during the 19th century and was used for holding convicted and remanded inmates from the local courts until it closed in December 2013.

Dorchester remained a compact town within the boundaries of the old town walls until the latter part of the 19th century because all land immediately adjacent to the west, south and east was owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. The land composed the Manor of Fordington. The developments that had encroached onto it were Marabout Barracks, to the north of Bridport Road, in 1794,[13] Dorchester Union Workhouse, to the north of Damer's Road, in 1835,[14] the Southampton and Dorchester Railway and its station east of Weymouth Avenue, in 1847,[15] the Great Western Railway and its station to the south of Damer's Road, in 1857,[15] the waterworks, to the north of Bridport Road, in 1854,[16] a cemetery, to the west of the new railway and east of Weymouth Avenue, in 1856,[17] and a Dorset County Constabulary police station in 1860, west of the Southampton railway, east of Weymouth Avenue and north of Maumbury Rings.[18]

The Duchy land was farmed under the open field system until 1874 when it was enclosed - or consolidated - into three large farms by the landowners and residents.[19] The enclosures were followed by a series of key developments for the town: the enclosing of Poundbury hillfort for public enjoyment in 1876, the 'Fair Field' (new site for the market, off Weymouth Avenue) in 1877, the Recreation Ground (also off Weymouth Avenue) opening in 1880, and the Eldridge Pope Brewery of 1881, adjacent to the railway line to Southampton. Salisbury Field was retained for public use in 1892 and land was purchased in 1895 for the formal Borough Gardens, between West Walks and Cornwall Road.[19] The clock and bandstand were added in 1898.[20]

A 1937 map of Dorchester

A permanent military presence was established in the town with the completion of the Depot Barracks in 1881.[21]

Land was developed for housing outside the walls including the Cornwall Estate, between the Borough Gardens and the Great Western Railway from 1876 and the Prince of Wales Estate from 1880. Land for the Victoria Park Estate was bought in 1896 and building began in 1897, Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee year. The lime trees in Queen's Avenue were planted in February 1897.[19]

Poundbury is the western extension of the town, constructed since 1993 according to urban village principles on Duchy of Cornwall land owned by Prince Charles. Being developed over 25 years in four phases, it will eventually have 2,500 dwellings and a population of about 6,000. Prince Charles was involved with the development's design. Since 2008, Poundbury has housed the Dorset Fire and Rescue Service headquarters and Dorchester Fire Station.

Dorchester became Dorset's first Official Transition Initiative in 2008 as part of the Transition Towns concept.[22] Transition Town Dorchester is a community response to the challenges and opportunities of Peak Oil and Climate Change.[23]


Dorchester is represented by three tiers of government. Dorchester Town Council, West Dorset District Council and Dorset County Council, all of which are based within the town. The Member of Parliament for West Dorset is Oliver Letwin.

The town's coat of arms depicts the old castle that used to stand where the prison now does. The royal purple background signifies Dorchester's status as part of the private estates of the king since before Domesday. The shield within the castle depicts lions, copied from the shields of Dorset men who fought at the Battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415, and fleur-de-lys. The fleur-de-lys on the shield are scattered (or "semée") rather than the more traditional triangular arrangement. Doing so, shows that the town had the right to bear the arms of France before 1405, when they were altered by King Henry VI. Dorchester's seal is the only one in the UK to use the fleur-de-lys in this way. The inscription 'Sigillum Bailivorum Dorcestre' means the 'Seal of the Bailiffs of Dorchester'.

There are four electoral wards in Dorchester (North, South, East & West) showing a combined population of 19,060 as is shown above.

In 2011 Dorchester was one of more than 20 towns across the country to apply for city status to mark the Queen's diamond jubilee,[24] although in March 2012 it was revealed that Dorchester's bid was unsuccessful.

On 15 December 2004, Dorchester was granted Fairtrade Town status.[25]

The River Frome on the edge of the town


Dorchester town centre is sited about 55 to 80 metres (180 to 262 ft) above sea-level on gently sloping ground beside the south bank of the River Frome.[26] Measured directly, it is about 7 miles (11 km) north of Weymouth, 18 miles (29 km) SSE of Yeovil in Somerset, and 20 miles (32 km) west of Poole.[27] The town's built-up area extends south, west and southeast of the town centre; to the north and northeast growth is restricted by the floodplain and watermeadows of the river.[28] The land immediately south and west of the town is part of the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.[29]

The geology of the town comprises bedrock formed in the Coniacian, Santonian and Campanian ages of the Late Cretaceous epoch, overlain in places by more recent Quaternary drift deposits. The bedrock is chalk of various formations. The drift deposits comprise a cap of clay-with-flints on the western edge of the town around Poundbury, alluvium in the river's floodplain, and several narrow ribbons of poorly stratified head deposits, found particularly around the town's northeastern and southwestern boundaries but also elsewhere.[30]


In 2012 there were 17,500 people working in Dorchester, 51% of whom were working full-time. 57% of jobs were in public administration, education and health, 18% were in professional and market services (including finance and ICT), 17% were in distribution, accommodation and food, 4% were in production and 2% in construction. The unemployment rate in July 2014 was 0.9% of residents aged 16-64.[31]

Dorchester has six industrial estates: The Grove Trading Estate (7.1 ha or 18 acres), Poundbury Trading Estate (5 ha or 12 acres), Marabout Barracks (2 ha or 4.9 acres), Great Western Centre (1.4 ha or 3.5 acres), Railway Triangle (1.4 ha or 3.5 acres) and Casterbridge Industrial Estate (1.1 ha or 2.7 acres). Significant employers for Dorchester residents include AEA Technology, BAeSEMA Ltd, Dorset County Council, Goulds Ltd, Henry Ling Ltd, Kingston Maurward College, Tesco, West Dorset District Council, Dorset County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and Winterbourne Hospital.[31]

In 2008 the Dorchester BID, a business improvement district, was set up to promote the town and improve the trading environment for town centre businesses. Local traders were overwhelmingly in favour of the decision, with 84% voting in favour at the February 2008 ballot.

The catchment population for major food retail outlets in Dorchester is 38,500 (2001 estimate) and extends eight miles west, north and east of the town, and two miles south.[32] The Brewery Square redevelopment project now includes retail outlets, residential units, bars, restaurants, hotel and cultural facilities. The regeneration of Dorchester South railway station will make it the UK's first solar powered railway station.[33] The Charles Street development has had a first phase completed that includes a library and adult education centre for Dorset County Council, and offices for West Dorset District Council. Future phases are planned to include 23 shops, an underground car park, hotel and affordable housing. It is predicted to create 660 new jobs (not including jobs within the council).[34]


In the 2011 census Dorchester civil parish had 8,996 dwellings,[35] 8,449 households and a population of 19,060, with 48.35% of residents being male and 51.65% being female.[36] 17% of residents were under the age of 16 (compared to 18.9% for England as a whole), and 22.4% of residents were age 65 or older (compared to 16.4% for England as a whole).[37]


Dorchester is served by two local radio stations: Wessex FM and BBC Radio Solent. The county hospital has its own station named 'Ridgeway Radio'. Local television news coverage is by South Today or Spotlight (BBC News). ITV coverage is by Meridian or, in some parts, ITV West Country. Dorchester's regular print media comprise Dorset Echo and a free weekly periodical.

Many homes in Dorchester have access to fibre broadband services provided by private companies.[38] The town is also part of the second phase of Superfast Dorset, a project to increase fibre broadband availability within the county, which is scheduled for completion in 2016.[39]


The town has two railway stations. Dorchester South on the South Western Main Line to Bournemouth, Southampton and London is operated by South West Trains. Dorchester West on the Heart of Wessex Line is operated by the Great Western Railway (train operating company) and connects with Yeovil, Bath and Bristol. Dorchester West railway station was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. As part of the regeneration at the Brewery Site in the town centre, Dorchester South railway station will become the first solar powered railway station in the UK.

Mowlem completed a bypass road to the south and west of the town in 1988, diverting through traffic using the A35 and A37 roads away from the town centre.[40]

Education and healthcare

Dorchester has a private school, several first schools, two middle schools and an upper school, The Thomas Hardye School founded in 1569 by a merchant. The author Thomas Hardy was a school governor from 1909 until shortly before his death. Nineteen schools in the Dorchester area form the Dorchester Area Schools Partnership (DASP). Kingston Maurward College is a land-based studies college on the outskirts of the town.

The town's hospital is Dorset County Hospital on Williams Avenue.[41]



Statue of Thomas Hardy beside The Grove, north of High West Street

The author and poet Thomas Hardy based the fictional town of Casterbridge on Dorchester, and his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge is set there. Hardy's childhood home is to the east of the town, and his town house, Max Gate, is owned by the National Trust and open to the public. Hardy is buried in Westminster Abbey, but his heart was removed and buried in Stinsford.

William Barnes, the West Country dialect poet, was Rector of Winterborne Came, a hamlet near Dorchester, for 24 years until his death in 1886,[42] and ran a school in the town. There are statues of both Barnes and Hardy in the town centre; Barnes outside St. Peter's Church and Hardy's beside the Top o' Town crossroads.

John Cowper Powys's novel Maiden Castle (1936) is set in Dorchester and Powys intended it to be "a Rival of the Mayor of Casterbridge.[43] Powys had lived in Dorchester as a child, between May 1880 and Christmas 1885, when his father was a curate there.[44] Then, after returning from America in June 1934, he had lived at 38 High Street, Dorchester, from October 1934 until July 1935, when he moved to Wales.[45]

Performing arts and museums

Dorchester Arts, based in a former school building, runs a seasonal programme of music, dance and theatre events, participatory arts projects for socially excluded groups and the biannual Dorchester Festival. Dorchester Arts is an Arts Council 'National Portfolio organisation'.[46] Dorchester Arts is resident at the Corn Exchange since 2015.[citation needed] Dorchester museums include the Roman Town House, the Dinosaur Museum, the Terracotta Warriors Museum, the Dorset Teddy Bear Museum, the Keep Military Museum, Dorset County Museum. and the Tutankhamun Exhibition. All of these museums took part in the "Museums at Night" event in May 2011 in which museums across the UK opened after hours.[47]

The Durnovaria Silver Band is based in Fordington Methodist Church Hall.[48]

Twinned towns

Dorchester is twinned with three European towns:[49]

  • France Bayeux in France since 1959, because the Dorset Regiment were the first soldiers to enter the town in 1944 as the Second World War came to an end[50][51]
  • Germany Lübbecke in Germany since 1973, largely because of the special relationship between the Durnovaria Silver Band who met the Lübbecker Schützenmusik Corps at an event in Bayeux when it was twinning with Lübbecke in 1968
  • Denmark Holbæk in Denmark since 1992, resulting from a shared interest in community drama. Actors from each town have appeared in plays in the other community.[52]

The town's schools are twinned with schools in Europe, Africa and Asia. The Thomas Hardye School has partnerships with schools in Barcelona, London, Dehradun and many more.[53]

Sport and leisure

Dorchester Town F.C., the town's football team currently play in the Southern League Premier Division. Harry Redknapp and former England players Graham Roberts and Martin Chivers represented 'The Magpies' in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The club is based on Weymouth Avenue in the south of the town after moving from its old ground also on Weymouth Avenue. The club moved to the purpose-built 5,000 capacity Avenue Stadium on Duchy of Cornwall land in the early 1990s.

Dorchester RFC is an amateur rugby union team who currently play in the Southern Counties South league.

Dorchester Cricket Club play in the Dorset Premier League, being last crowned champions in 2009.

A leisure centre and swimming pool on Coburg Road replaced the Thomas Hardye School Leisure Centre in 2012, at a cost of more than £8 million.[54]

In May 2009, a skatepark was opened at the junction of Maumbury Road and Weymouth Avenue in Dorchester after 12 years of planning and construction.[55]

Church of St Peter

Notable buildings

Within Dorchester parish there are 293 structures that are listed by Historic England for their historic or architectural interest, including five that are listed Grade I and sixteen that are Grade II*. The Grade I structures are the Church of St George on Fordington High Street, the Church of St Peter on High West Street, Max Gate on Syward Road, the Roman town house on Northernhay, and Shire Hall on High West Street.[56] The Church of St George has a late-11th-century south door that has a Caen stone tympanum with a realistic carved representation of St George surrounded by soldiers, said to depict the miracle of his appearance at the Battle of Antioch. The south aisle and the north part of the porch date from the 12th century.[57] The Church of St Peter mostly dates from 1420-21, with a 12th-century south doorway reset into it. There are many notable monuments, including two 14th-century effigies and a 14th-century tomb chest. Thomas Hardy contributed to the addition of the vestry and chancel in 1856-7.[58] Max Gate was designed by Thomas Hardy in the Queen Anne style, and was his home until his death in 1928. It was built in 1885.[59] The remains of the Roman house north of county hall date from the early 4th century, with later 4th-century enlargements. It has a hypocaust heating system and mosaic pavements. It is the only visible Roman town house in Britain.[60] The current Shire Hall building was designed by Thomas Hardwick and built in Portland stone ashlar in 1797.[61] It replaced a previous structure that had fallen into disrepair.[62] A tablet commemorates the sentencing of the Tolpuddle Martyrs here in 1834.[61] The building housed the Crown Court until 1955; Thomas Hardy was a magistrate here and his experience provided inspiration for his writing.[62] The building has changed little since the 19th century, and in 2014 planning permission was granted to transform it into a heritage centre and tourist attraction, to open in 2017.[63]

Notable people


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External links