Dorchester ( DOR-ches-tər) is the county town of Dorset, England. It is situated between Poole and Bridport on the A35 trunk route. A historic market town, Dorchester is on the banks of the River Frome to the south of the Dorset Downs and north of the South Dorset Ridgeway that separates the area from Weymouth, 7 miles (11 km) to the south. The civil parish includes the small town of Poundbury and the suburb of Fordington.
The area around the town was first settled in prehistoric times. The Romans established a garrison there after defeating the Durotriges tribe, calling the settlement that grew up nearby Durnovaria; they built an aqueduct to supply water and an amphitheatre on an ancient British earthwork. After the departure of the Romans, the town diminished in significance, but during the medieval period became an important commercial and political centre. It was the site of the "Bloody Assizes" presided over by Judge Jeffreys after the Monmouth Rebellion, and later the trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
In the 2011 census, the population of Dorchester was 19,060, with further people coming from surrounding areas to work in the town which has six industrial estates. The Brewery Square redevelopment project is taking place in phases, with other development projects planned. The town has a land-based college, Kingston Maurward College, The Thomas Hardye School, three middle schools and thirteen first schools. The Dorset County Hospital offers an accident and emergency service, and the town is served by two railway stations. Through vehicular traffic is routed round the town by means of a bypass. The town has a football club and a rugby union club, several museums and the biannual Dorchester Festival. It is twinned with three towns in Europe. As well as having many listed buildings, a number of notable people have been associated with the town. It was for many years the home and inspiration of the author Thomas Hardy, whose novel The Mayor of Casterbridge uses a fictionalised version of Dorchester as its setting.
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 that became the town 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 recorded in the 4th-century Antonine Itinerary and became a market centre for the surrounding countryside, an important road junction and staging post, and subsequently one of the twin capitals of the Celtic Durotriges tribe.
The remains of the Roman walls that surrounded the town can still be seen. 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 remains near the Top 'o Town roundabout.
Other Roman remains include part of the town walls and the foundations of a town house near the county hall. Modern building works within the walls have unearthed Roman finds; in 1936 a cache of 22,000 3rd-century Roman coins was discovered in South Street.
The County Museum contains many Roman artefacts. The Romans built an aqueduct to supply the town with water. It was rediscovered in 1900 as the remains of a channel cut into the chalk and contouring round the hills. The source is believed to be the River Frome at Notton, about 12 miles (19 km) upstream from Dorchester. 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.
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.
One of the first raids of the Viking era may have taken place near Dorchester around 790. According to a chronicler, the King's reeve assembled a few men and sped to meet them thinking that they were merchants from another country. When he arrived at their location, he admonished them and instructed that they should be brought to the royal town. The Vikings then slaughtered him and his men.
By 864, the area around Durnovaria was dominated by the Saxons who referred to themselves as Dorsaetas, 'People of the Dor' – Durnovaria. The original local name would have been Dorn-gweir giving the Old English Dornwary. The town became known as Dornwaraceaster or Dornwaracester, combining the original name Dor/Dorn from the Latin and Celtic languages with cester, an Old English word for a Roman station. This name evolved over time to Dorncester/Dornceaster and Dorchester.
At the time of the Norman conquest, Dorchester was not a place of great significance; the Normans did build a castle but it has not survived. A priory was also founded, in 1364, though this also has since disappeared. In the later medieval period the town prospered; it became a thriving commercial and political centre for south Dorset, with a textile trading and manufacturing industry which continued until the 17th century. In the time of Edward III (1312–1377), the town was governed by bailiffs and burgesses, with the number of burgesses increasing to fifteen by the reign of James I (1566–1625)."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".
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. The 1613 fire was the most devastating, resulting in the destruction of 300 houses and two churches (All Saints and Holy Trinity).
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, such as the Shire Hall, which are built in Portland stone. The municipal buildings, which incorporate the former corn exchange and the former town hall, were erected in 1848 on the site of an earlier town hall, which was built in 1791 and had a marketplace underneath.
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. The first colonisation attempted was at Cape Ann, where fishermen who would rejoin the fishing fleet when the vessels returned the next year, tried to be self-sufficient. However, the land was unsuitable, the colony failed and was moved to what is now Salem. In 1628, the enterprise received a Royal Charter and the Massachusetts Bay Company was formed with three hundred colonists arriving in America that year and more the following year. 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.)
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. The town was heavily defended against the Royalists in the civil war and Dorset was known as "the southern capital of coat-turning", as the county gentry found it expedient to change allegiance and to swap the sides they supported on several occasions. In 1643, the town was attacked by 2,000 troops under Robert Dormer, 1st Earl of Carnarvon. Its defences proved inadequate and it quickly surrendered but was spared the plunder and punishment it might otherwise have received. It remained under Royalist control for some time, but was eventually recaptured by the Puritans.
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.
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 awaiting 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. Plans have since been made to erect 189 dwellings and a museum on the site.
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, 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, and a Dorset County Constabulary police station in 1860, west of the Southampton railway, east of Weymouth Avenue and north of Maumbury Rings.
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. 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. The clock and bandstand were added in 1898.
A permanent military presence was established in the town with the completion of the Depot Barracks in 1881. The High West Street drill hall was created, by converting a private house, around the same time.
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.
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.
Dorchester became Dorset's first Official Transition Initiative in 2008 as part of the Transition Towns concept. Transition Town Dorchester is a community response to the challenges and opportunities of peak oil and climate change.
From 1295 to 1868, Dorchester was a parliamentary constituency. This was abolished by the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885, after which Dorchester was placed in the new Dorset South constituency and in 1918 it was transferred to Dorset West, where it has remained ever since. Dorchester is represented by two tiers of government. Dorchester Town Council and Dorset Council, both of which are based within the town. The Member of Parliament (MP) for West Dorset was Oliver Letwin from 1997 to 2019. Since the 2019 general election, the local MP has been Conservative Chris Loder.
The town's coat of arms depicts the old castle that used to stand on the site of the former prison. The royal purple background represents Dorchester's status as part of the monarch's private estate, a position held since before the Domesday Book was published. The shield is divided into quarters, two depicting lions and two fleur-de-lis. These are copied from the shields of the troops from Dorset who took part in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The fleur-de-lis have a scattered arrangement which shows that permission for the armorial bearings was given before 1405, after which date the rights were varied by King Henry VI. The inscription 'Sigillum Bailivorum Dorcestre' translates as 'Seal of the Bailiffs of Dorchester'. The mayor has a similar seal of office, but this has the inscription Dorcestriensis Sig: Maioris.
There are four electoral wards in Dorchester (North, South, East and West) showing a combined population of 19,060. The town has been growing steadily with 11,620 residents in 1951, 13,740 in 1971 and 15,100 in 1991.
In 2011, Dorchester was one of more than 20 towns across the country to apply for city status to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II, although in March 2012 it was revealed that Dorchester's bid had been unsuccessful.
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. 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. 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.
The land immediately south and west of the town is part of the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is traversed by the South Dorset Ridgeway, part of the South West Coast Path. There are over five hundred ancient monuments along the chalk hills that form the ridgeway, including barrows, stone circles and hillforts; many archaeological finds from the area are on view at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.
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.
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.
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). The estates mostly house light industrial units, wholesalers and the service sector. Significant employers for residents in the town include AEA Technology, BAeSEMA Ltd, Dorset County Council, Dorset County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, Goulds Ltd, Henry Ling Ltd, Kingston Maurward College, Tesco, and Winterbourne Hospital.
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 BID is funded by a levy on the businesses in the town. The BID lasts initially for five years, and between 2013 and 2018 the projects being undertaken include business support, security projects, town promotion, the provision of green spaces and making the town more visually attractive. In June 2018 the Dorchester BID was successful in being voted in for a second term.
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. 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. 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 Dorset Council. Future phases are planned to include 23 shops, an underground car park, hotel and affordable housing. The second phase has attracted funding of £4 million from the former West Dorset District Council and includes new Marks & Spencer and Waitrose stores.
In the 2011 census Dorchester civil parish had 8,996 dwellings, 8,449 households and a population of 19,060, with 48.35% of residents being male and 51.65% being female. 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).
Novelist 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, and ran a school in the town. There is a statue of Hardy and one of Barnes 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. Powys had lived in Dorchester as a child, between May 1880 and Christmas 1885, when his father was a curate there. Then, after returning from America in June 1934, he had lived at 38 High East Street, Dorchester, from October 1934 until July 1935, when he moved to Wales. The building is commemorated with a plaque erected by the Dorchester Heritage Committee, but giving the date of his residence as 1936.
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'. Dorchester Arts has been resident at the corn exchange since 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. The Durnovaria Silver Band is based in Fordington Methodist Church Hall.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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. The current Shire Hall building was designed by Thomas Hardwick and built in Portland stone ashlar in 1797. It replaced a previous structure that had fallen into disrepair.
A tablet commemorates the sentencing of the Tolpuddle Martyrs here in 1834. The building housed the Crown Court until 1955; Thomas Hardy was a magistrate here and his experience provided inspiration for his writing. 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.
Dorchester has thirteen first schools, three middle schools:St Osmund's Church of England Middle School, and Dorchester Middle School and an upper school; The Thomas Hardye School which was founded in 1569 and endowed by Thomas Hardye, a merchant in 1579. It was expanded and reopened in 1888. In 2011 had 2,283 pupils on the roll. The author Thomas Hardy, a distant relative, was a school governor here from 1909 until shortly before his death. The nineteen schools in the Dorchester area form the Dorchester Area Schools Partnership (DASP). There is also a private school, Sunninghill Prep School,
Kingston Maurward College is a land-based studies college on the outskirts of the town. It offers full-time and part-time courses, apprenticeships and university-level courses in a wide range of subjects including agriculture, horticulture, conservation, construction, countryside and wildlife management.
The town's hospital is Dorset County Hospital on Williams Avenue. It offers a twenty-four-hour accident and emergency treatment with services being provided by Dorset County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.
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 Dorset & Wilts South 1 League. Dorchester Cricket Club play in the Dorset Premier League, being last crowned champions in 2009.
The town has two railway stations. Dorchester South is on the South West Main Line to Bournemouth, Southampton and London Waterloo is operated by South Western Railway; Dorchester West, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, is on the Heart of Wessex Line, operated by Great Western Railway and connects with Yeovil, Bath, Bristol and Gloucester. 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. Dorchester is approximately 43 miles (69 km) west of junction 1 of the M27 motorway at Cadnam, and the same distance south east of junction 25 of the M5 motorway at Taunton.
Dorchester was served by two local radio stations: Wessex FM, and BBC Radio Solent. However Wessex FM closed down in August 2020 and was relaunched as Greatest Hits Radio which broadcasts more modern music across a wider catchment area.
Dorset County Hospital has its own station named 'Ridgeway Radio' which has been on the air for fifty years. Local television news coverage is by BBC South Today in Southampton, ITV Meridian in Whiteley, BBC Spotlight in Plymouth and ITV West Country in Bristol. Dorchester's regular print media comprises the Dorset Echo.
Many homes in Dorchester have access to fibre broadband services provided by private companies. The town is part of the second phase of Superfast Dorset, a project to increase fibre broadband availability within the county, which has been completed.
The following people and military units have received the Freedom of the Town of Dorchester.