views updated Jun 11 2018

Dorset is one of the oldest and most beautiful shires. But it has been so immortalized in the novels of Thomas Hardy that to many people it is better known in fiction than in fact—the land of Tess and of Gabriel Oak, of Giles Winterborne and Marty South, of Eustacia Vye, the reddleman, and Michael Henchard—trapped in time, where Mrs Yeobright sits dying on Egdon Heath and the effigy of Henchard swirls round and round the weir-pond outside Casterbridge.

It is not easy to see much geographical unity. The county is largely the basin of the river Frome, which flows through Dorchester and Wareham into Poole harbour, and of the Stour and its tributaries, flowing from Sturminster in the north through Wimborne to Christchurch. For centuries it was the quietest of rural counties, with small market towns like Shaftesbury, Beaminster, and Blandford, and quiet harbours like Wareham, Lyme, and Bridport. The balance of the county was transformed from 1850 onwards by the sudden growth of the coastal towns. In 1801, no town in the shire had above 5,000 people; Poole had 4,800, Weymouth 3,600, Sherborne 3,200, Bridport 3,100, and Shaftesbury, Blandford, and Dorchester were all well under 3,000. But by 1931, when Dorchester had reached 10,000, Poole had grown to 57,000 and Weymouth 22,000. The boundary changes of 1972 reinforced this shift by bringing in Bournemouth and Christchurch from west Hampshire. Bournemouth's growth was amazing. In 1841 it boasted 26 dwellings. But after the coming of the railway in 1870, it gained county borough status by 1895, was well over 100,000 by 1931, and 159,000 by 1991. Since by 1991 Poole had grown to 135,000, nearly half of the county's population was tucked into the south-east corner.

At the time of the Roman invasion in ad 43 the local tribe was the Durotriges. Their fortress of Maiden castle was stormed by Vespasian's second legion, and nearby Dorchester developed as the Roman town of Durnovaria. In Saxon times it was soon recognized as a distinct area. Sherborne was established as a bishopric as early as 705, and remained one until 1075 when it was removed to Old Sarum.

The region formed part of the kingdom of Wessex: Brithric was buried at Wareham c.802 and Edward the Martyr at Shaftesbury in 979. In the 9th cent. Dorset was repeatedly attacked by the Danes. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records an encounter in 837 between the men of Dorset and the Danes at Portland and another in 845 when they joined with the men of Somerset to engage the Danes at the mouth of the Parrett. Wareham was taken by the Danes in 876 and Sherborne, Dorchester, and Shaftesbury devastated by Sweyn in 1002.

By this time Dorset was a recognized county. The Domesday survey of 1086 identified four boroughs—Shaftesbury, Dorchester, Wareham, and Bridport—the latter having difficulty in sustaining its position because of the vulnerability of its sea defences. Much of the county was owned by the great monastery of Sherborne and by the nunnery at Shaftesbury, reputedly founded by Alfred.

In the later Middle Ages and Tudor period, the coastal towns suffered greatly from French and Spanish reprisals and from Algerine pirates. The seashore inhabitants gained some recompense by resorting to wrecking, a tradition which lasted well into the 19th cent., and by their own privateering and smuggling. Wareham gradually silted up, losing its prosperity to Poole, which flourished on mackerel, oysters, and the Newfoundland fish trade. Bridport manufactured hempen ropes. The demand for Portland stone increased vastly from the 17th cent. onwards, the Banqueting Hall, St Paul's, and Greenwich palace made of it: as late as 1927, the 87-year-old Thomas Hardy enjoyed watching goods trains carrying stone clattering through Dorchester. Purbeck marble, exported through Swanage, was also much in demand. Inland, cloth manufactures flourished—silk at Sherborne, lace at Blandford, linen at Gillingham, baize at Sturminster. But the mainstay of the county was the sheep on the chalk downs around Dorchester and the cattle in the vale of Blackmoor to the north.

Like most counties, Dorset was divided by the Civil War. Dorchester, Lyme, and Poole were parliamentary strongholds, Sherborne and Corfe castles royalist bastions. The county's position between the parliamentary east and the royalist west, and easy communications with France, made it strategically important. After the royalist victory at Roundway Down in 1643 much of the shire fell to the king and Lyme, in 1644, survived a royalist siege. In the last years of the war, club-men were active, and confrontations took place at Sturminster in June 1645 and in August with Cromwell near Shaftesbury.

After 1731 one fortunate result of a disastrous fire at Blandford was a complete rebuilding, making it one of the most charming Georgian towns in the country. Another rebuilding was at Milton Abbas, where Joseph Damer pulled down the old village and employed Capability Brown to build a new model village. The county remained remote and little known. Visits by George III helped to encourage Weymouth as a resort. In 1796 an Act was passed authorizing a 49-mile canal linking the Stour with the Kennet and Avon but, unsurprisingly, it was never completed. Apart from Bournemouth, not then in the county, the railways did not make much impact, though the Somerset and Dorset passed into folklore as the old Slow-and-Dirty, and the Pines Express, which ran from Bournemouth to Manchester via Bath, Green Park, had a strong claim to be the slowest express ever.

The 20th cent. produced a vast urban build-up between Poole and Bournemouth and a diversification of industry—an atomic energy station on Wynfrith Heath, oil drilling off the coast. The hinterland remains largely unspoiled and boasts villages like Sixpenny Handley, Ryme Intrinsica, Okeford Fitzpaine, Toller Porcorum, and Hazelbury Bryan. The recommendation of the Banham commission in 1994 was to retain the county for ceremonial purposes only. Nevertheless, it has retained its full status, with Bournemouth and Poole established as unitary authorities.

J. A. Cannon


views updated May 29 2018

DORSET. A county of southern England, regarded by many as the heart of the WEST COUNTRY, although others favour SOMERSET. Archaic DIALECT forms dating from Saxon times occur where the two counties meet: for example, the Old English first-person pronoun ic (pronounced ‘itch’: modern I) was heard in the 19c in what A. J. Ellis called ‘the land of utch’ (the area around Montacute in Somerset and stretching into Dorset). In the 1950s, fieldworkers for the Survey of English Dialects recorded Udge am gwain I am going. The Dorset dialect was made famous by the novelist Thomas HARDY, who usually portrayed the variety spoken by people who had received some schooling and were therefore influenced by the standard language. The philologist William BARNES wrote poetry in the dialect.


views updated May 11 2018

Dorset County on the English Channel, sw England; the county town is Dorchester. Dorset's most famous prehistoric monument is the Iron Age hill fort, Maiden Castle. After the defeat of the Romans, Dorset became part of the West Saxon kingdom. It is traversed w to e by the North Dorset and South Dorset Downs, and drained by the rivers Frome and Stour. Cereal crop cultivation and livestock-raising is important. Industries: tourism, marble quarrying. Area: 2654sq km (1025sq mi). Pop. (1997 est.) 389,200.