Dorchester Church Tower

Dorchester Visitor Guide


Dorchester in Dorset, a brief insight into its history.

Dorchester is a market town in southern central Dorset on the River Frome. It has been the county town since 1305.

Dorchester's origins go back to prehistoric times. Settlements were first situated around Maiden Castle, a large Iron Age hill fort that was one of the most powerful centres in pre-Roman Britain. The Durotriges tribe was thought to have been there when the Romans arrived in AD43.

The Romans defeated the local tribes by AD70 and after being converted from a garrison to a town, the Romans named the settlement Durnovaria. They walled the town and the remains are still evident today. Near the town centre is Maumbury Rings, an ancient British earthwork transformed by the Romans for use as an amphitheatre, and to the north west is Poundbury Hill, another pre-Roman fortification.

By 864, the area around Durnovaria was controlled by the recently established Saxons, who came to refer to themselves as Dorsaetas. Dornwaracester, as it became known, would further change to Dorncester/Dornceaster until modern Dorchester emerged. It continued as a prosperous commercial and political centre for south Dorset with a textile trading and manufacturing industry being sustained until the 17th century.

In the Middle Ages it had 3 weekly markets and 3 annual fairs with people coming from all over Dorset to buy and sell at a Dorchester fair.

In 1613 and 1725 tremendous fires damaged large parts of the town, but some of the mediaeval buildings, including Judge Jeffreys' lodging, and the Tudor almshouse, survived. In the 17th century the town was at the heart of the Puritan emigration to America, and John White, the local rector, organised the settlement of Dorchester, Massachusetts.

The town was heavily defended against the Royalists in the Civil War. In 1651 Prince Charles, the future King Charles II, on his escape to France via Bridport, only just escaped capture by hiding in Lee Lane. In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth failed in his invasion attempt, the Monmouth Rebellion, and around 300 of his men were condemned to death or transportation in the ‘Bloody Assizes’ which were held the Antelope Hotel’s Oak Room and presided over by Judge Jeffreys.

In 1833, the Tolpuddle Martyrs formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers and, although trade unions were legal, due to them swearing an oath of allegiance they were arrested and tried in the Shire Hall in Dorchester.

From 1835 the town had gas lighting and in 1836 Dorchester’s police force was formed. The County Hospital opened in 1841 and the railway reached the town in 1847.

On June 2, 1840 Thomas Hardy, the poet and author, was born in the small village of Higher Bockhampton, just outside Dorchester and due to his writings Dorchester will forever be linked with 'Casterbridge'.

The population of Dorchester was just 2,400 in 1801 but it had grown to 9,000 by the beginning of the 20th century. Dorchester remained a small town within the boundaries of the old town walls until the latter part of the 19th century.

Today there is still a brewing industry in Dorchester but new industries have arrived such as the IT and light industries, and tourism is also a major source of income. By 2001 the town had a population of 16,000.

Disclaimer: The information in this Tourist Guide has been researched from a variety of sources including books, articles and online information. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information the reader should check any specific facts for themselves before making any decisions based upon the said information.

Dorchester Tourist Information Centre

11 Antelope Walk

01305 267992


Dorset County Hospital

Williams Avenue

01305 251150

Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015