Dorset on the Eve of the Railway Age

Dorset on the Eve of the Railway Age

By the Census of 1841 the population of Dorset was 174,743, an increase of 35 per cent over 1801 and about three-fifths of the 1951 figure. No railway had yet entered the county, though the Great Western was pushing on from Bristol through Somerset and the London and South Western had reached Southampton. Mails were still carried by coach on the main routes from London shown on the map, and by ‘postboys’ on horseback to places of these lines. Other coaches ran regularly connecting all towns of any size, from Taunton through Beaminster to Bridport and from Bristol and Bath Via Frome and Bruton either to Sherborne, Dorchester, and Weymouth or by Gillingham, Shaftesbury, Blandford, and Wimborne to Poole. In addition there were regular carrier services by waggon, and by coastal shipping from Lyme, Bridport, Weymouth, and Poole to Southampton, London, and the Channel Islands. Mail packets to the last destination had sailed from Weymouth since 1794, and from 1837 they were steamers.

Completely lacking important minerals, apart from Portland and Purbeck stone, Dorset had not felt the effects of the Industrial Revolution. The ancient cordage and sailcloth manufacture at Bridport still flourished, buttons were made at Shaftesbury and Blandford, and there was some small-scale silk-working at Sherborne and stocking-knitting at Wimborne. But all these, and even the considerable coastal and long—distance shipping: trade of Poole, were completely dwarfed in importance .by farming.

Apart from the coast towns, with their harbour trade and small industries the distribution of population was decided by agriculture. The size of villages depended on the productiveness of their land, and that of market towns on their situation as centres of a large or’ small group of Villages. Some of the latter supported a considerable number of tradesmen connected with agriculture or with the supply of clothing and other necessaries. Beaminster at this time had six inns and twelve ale-houses, fourteen cobblers, ten tailors, eight butchers, seven blacksmiths, and four wheel-wrights. Sometimes, however, the attractions of a larger neighbouring centre had brought decline: Evershot had recently lost its market, and those at Corfe Castle and Swanage had ceased years before.

The following figures, taken from ‘Pigot’s Directory for 1842, give some idea of the activities and comparative importance of the Dorset towns at this time: most of them refer only to firms or businesses, and the number employed was much larger. Beaminster also supported 5 printers, Blandford 12 insurance offices, Bridport 20 line and thread manufacturers and 2 shipbuilders. Dorchester had 7 brewers and 4 printers, Lyme Regis 2 ‘fossilists’ and 8 lodging—house keepers, and Shaftesbury 2 manufacturers of buttons and 3 of worsted. .Poole boasted 20 ship—owners, 8 ship— and boat—builders, and 2 Vice- Consuls (for Hanover and Portugal). Weymouth had 3 Vice-Consuls: one did duty for France, Holland, Hanover, Denmark, Prussia, Portugal, and four minor German states, the others respectively for Spain and for Sweden and Norway. The town had 7 ship—owners, 2 ship—builders, 4 lending libraries, 7 livery stables, and 12 confectioners. Sherborne contained 2 silk—manufacturers and 2 glovers.

The old boundaries of the county, before modern changes, are shown on the map. In 1832 detached portions, like the Dorset Dalwood and Stockland in Devon and the Somerset Holwell in Dorset, were amalgamated with the counties surrounding them for parliamentary purposes and finally transferred in 1844. Dorset then received Thorncombe in compensation. Later changes took place in 1896, when Chardstock and Hawk— church went from Dorset to Devon and Wambrook to Somerset, while the last county transferred Goathill, Poyntington, Sandford Orcas, Sea- borough, and Trent to Dorset. Kinson, near Poole, was taken over by Hampshire in 1930.