Dorchester, Dorset

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"Dorchester, England" redirects here. For the village in Oxfordshire, see Dorchester on Thames. For the hotel in London, see The Dorchester.
Town Pump and Corn Exchange - Dorchester.jpg
Town Pump and Corn Exchange
Dorchester is located in Dorset
 Dorchester shown within Dorset
Population 19,060 [1]
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

Coordinates: 50°42′55″N 2°26′12″W / 50.7154°N 2.4367°W / 50.7154; -2.4367

Dorchester (/ˈdɔrɛstər/ DOR-ches-tər) is the county town of Dorset, England. 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, 8 miles (13 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.[1]


Prehistory and Romano-British[edit]

Main article: Durnovaria

Dorchester's roots stem back to prehistoric times. The earliest settlements were around 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. After possibly being converted from a garrison to a town, the Romans named the settlement Durnovaria, a Brythonic name incorporating durn, "fist", perhaps meaning 'place with fist-sized pebbles' and 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, and an important road junction and staging post,[2] and subsequently one of the twin capitals of the Celtic Durotriges tribe.[3]

The remains of the Roman wall around the town can still be seen. They have been largely replaced with walks that form a square inside modern Dorchester and known as 'The Walks'. A small segment of the original wall still remains near the Top 'o Town roundabout.

The town's Roman features include part of the town walls and the foundations of a town house near the County Hall. The County Museum contains many Roman finds. 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 in parts. 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 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 changed over time to Dorncester/Dornceaster and Dorchester. The town was a thriving commercial and political centre for south Dorset with a textile trading and manufacturing industry which continued until the 17th century.[8]

Early modern history[edit]

"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).[9]

In 1613 and 1725 great fires destroyed large parts of the town, but some of its mediaeval buildings, including Judge Jeffreys' lodgings, and a Tudor almshouse survive in the town centre. 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 came to America.)[10]

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.[11] 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.

Modern history[edit]

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 which is preserved as it was at the time.[12] 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:

  • The Marabout Barracks, to the north of Bridport Road, in 1794
  • The Dorchester Union Workhouse, to the north of Damer's Road, in 1835
  • The Southampton and Dorchester Railway and its station east of Weymouth Avenue, in 1847
  • The Great Western Railway and its station to the south of Damer's Road, in 1857
  • The waterworks, to the north of Bridport Road, in 1854
  • A cemetery, to the west of the new railway and east of Weymouth Avenue, in 1856
  • The Dorset County Constabulary police station in 1860, west of the Southampton railway, east of Weymouth Avenue and north of Maumbury Rings.
A map of Dorchester in 1937

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.[13] 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.[13] The clock and bandstand were added in 1898.[14]

A permanent military presence was established in the town with the completion of The Depot Barracks in 1881.[15]

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.[13]

Recent developments[edit]

Dorchester High West Street

Poundbury is the western extension of the town, constructed since 1993 according to urban village principles on Duchy of Cornwall land owned by Charles, Prince of Wales. 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.[16] Transition Town Dorchester is a community response to the challenges and opportunities of Peak Oil and Climate Change.[17]

The Woolworths shop closed in January 2009 after the retail chain entered administration. The store manager secured investment to re-open the store in March 2009 as Wellworths,[18] although for legal reasons it was renamed Wellchester. The store closed in July 2012.

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.

In May 2009, a skatepark was opened in Dorchester after 12 years of planning and construction.[19]

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.[20] The Brewery Square development is planned to include retail outlets, residential units, bars, restaurants and cultural facilities. The regeneration of Dorchester South station will make it the UK's first solar powered rail station.[21] The Charles Street development will include 23 shops, an underground car park, hotel, affordable housing, a library and adult education centre for Dorset County Council, and offices for West Dorset District Council. It is predicted to create 660 new jobs (not including jobs within the council).[22]

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.[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'.

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]


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.


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 First Great Western and connects with Yeovil, Bath and Bristol. Dorchester West station was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. As part of the regeneration at the Brewery Site in the town centre, Dorchester South 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.[26]


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.



St.Michael's Church, Stinsford, a mile east of Dorchester, where Thomas Hardy's heart was buried, and where poet Cecil Day-Lewis arranged to be buried.

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.

Athelhampton House situated just outside of Dorchester, was regularly visited by Thomas Hardy; dating from 1485 it is 5 miles (8 km) east of Dorchester, between the villages of Puddletown and Tolpuddle. Hardy's father was a stonemason and worked on the house. It was during this time that Thomas Hardy painted a watercolour of the South front including the Gate House of Athelhampton House and Gardens. Thomas Hardy set the poem "The Dame of Athelhall" at the house and "The Children and Sir Nameless" refers to the Martyn tombs in the Athelhampton Aisle at St Mary's Puddletown.

William Barnes, the West Country dialect poet, was Rector of Winterborne Came, a hamlet near Dorchester, for 24 years until his death in 1886,[27] 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.[28] Powys had lived in Dorchester as a child, between May 1880 and Christmas 1885, when his father was a curate there.[29] 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.[30]

Irish poet Cecil Day-Lewis, a great admirer of Thomas Hardy, made arrangements to be buried as close as possible to Hardy's grave in Stinsford churchyard.[31]

Visual arts[edit]

On the hills to the south west overlooking the town stands Hardy's Monument, a memorial to Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy who served with Lord Nelson. Tom Roberts, Australian painter, was born in Dorchester in 1856.

Performing arts and museums[edit]

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. In 2011, Dorchester Arts became an Arts Council 'National Portfolio organisation' with enhanced funding until 2015. 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.[32]

Twinned towns[edit]

Dorchester is twinned with three European towns:[33]

  • 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[34][35]
  • 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.[36]

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.[37]


Dorchester Town F.C., the town's football team currently play in the Conference South. 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.

Aaron Cook, a taekwondo athlete who competed in the 2008 Olympic Games finishing in fifth place, was born in Dorchester.[38]

The local basketball team Dorchester Tigers came 6th in a European tournament in May 2013

Notable people[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Area: Dorchester (Parish), Key Figures for 2011 Census: Key Statistics". Neighbourhood Statistics. Office for National Statistics. Retrieved 9 June 2014. 
  2. ^ Stevens Cox (1974; 60) (full ref. required)
  3. ^ Durotriges
  4. ^ Rivet, A.L.F. and Smith, C., The Place-Names of Roman Britain, Batsford, 1982, p. 345.
  5. ^ Koch, John T. (ed.), Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, 2006, p. 139.
  6. ^ Southern Britain's Lost Kingdoms
  7. ^ English Place Names
  8. ^ Taylor (1970)
  9. ^ Chandler (1990; 72)
  10. ^ Rev. John White of Dorchester, England, Rev. Arthur W. Ackerman, D.D., Dorchester Atheneum
  11. ^ Supremacy and Survival
  12. ^ "Tolpuddle Martyrs courtroom to be centre-piece of new Dorset heritage centre". Western Gazette. 16 July 2014. Retrieved 20 July 2014. 
  13. ^ a b c Morris and Draper (1995)
  14. ^ Waymark (1997)
  15. ^ "The Depot Barracks". The Keep Military Museum. Retrieved 26 May 2014. 
  16. ^ | Dorchester, Dorset, England - officially designated a Transition Town, number 71 in date order and the first in Dorset.
  17. ^ | Transition Town Dorchester is a Dorchester community response to the challenges of Peak Oil and Climate Change
  18. ^ "'Wellies' To Give Crunch The Boot". Sky News. 2009-02-12. Retrieved 2009-02-12. 
  19. ^ "Dorchester's new skatepark". BBC. 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-08. 
  20. ^ Dorchester Population
  21. ^ Brewery Square Development
  22. ^ Charles Street Development
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ Fairtrade - Towns List
  26. ^ Draper (1992)
  27. ^ Bingham (1987)
  28. ^ Unpublished Diary 25 January 1935, quoted in Morine Krissdottir, Descents of Memory: The Life of John Cowper Powys. New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2007, p.313.
  29. ^ Krissdottir, pp.29, 39-40.
  30. ^ Krissdottir, pp.303, 308, 323.
  31. ^ Cecil Day-Lewis in the kirjasto website – information
  32. ^ Museum open evenings in Dorchester are a big hit, Dorset Echo May 2011.
  33. ^ Dorchester Town Twinning
  34. ^ "British towns twinned with French towns [via]". Archant Community Media Ltd. Archived from the original on 5 July 2013. Retrieved 2013-07-20. 
  35. ^ "National Commission for Decentralised cooperation". Délégation pour l’Action Extérieure des Collectivités Territoriales (Ministère des Affaires étrangères) (in French). Retrieved 2013-12-26. 
  36. ^ Dorchester Town Council
  37. ^ Thomas Hardye School#Partner Schools
  38. ^ Aaron Cook profile
  39. ^ Davies, Edward (n.d.). "SOME DESCENDANTS OF JOHN AND FRANCES (SKEY) WEBB". Retrieved September 25, 2014. 


  • Bingham, A. (1987) Dorset : Ordnance Survey landranger guidebook , Norwich: Jarrold, ISBN 0-319-00187-3
  • Chandler, J. H. (1990) Wessex images, Gloucester: Alan Sutton and Wiltshire County Council Library & Museum Service, ISBN 0-86299-739-9
  • Draper, J. (1992) Dorchester : An illustrated history Wimborne: Dovecote Press, ISBN 1-874336-04-0
  • Morris, J. and Draper, J. (1995) "The 'Enclosure' of Foridngton Fields and the Development of Dorchester, 1874–1903", Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society proceedings, v. 117, p. 5–14, ISSN 0070-7112
  • Pitt-Rivers, M. (1966) Dorset, A Shell guide, New ed., London: Faber, ISBN 0-571-06714-X
  • Taylor, C. (1970) Dorset, Making of the English landscape, London: Hodder & Stoughton, p. 197–201, ISBN 0-340-10962-9
  • Waymark, J, (1997) "The Duchy of Cornwall and the Expansion of Dorchester, c. 1900–1997", Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society proceedings, v. 119, p. 19–32, ISSN 0070-7112

External links[edit]