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Dorset


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Is one of the oldest and most beautiful shires. The county is largely the basin of the river Frome. 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. 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, and was well over 163,000 by 2004. Since by 2004 Poole had grown to 137,000, 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. 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.

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. In the later Middle Ages and Tudor period, the coastal towns suffered greatly from French and Spanish reprisals and from Algerine pirates. Wareham gradually silted up, losing its prosperity to Poole. Bridport manufactured hempen ropes. The demand for Portland stone increased vastly from the 17th cent. onwards, with the Banqueting House, St Paul's, and Greenwich palace being made of it. Purbeck marble 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.

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 town 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.

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.

Subjects: British History.


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