Early Dorset Boroughs

Early Dorset Boroughs

The term ‘borough’ meant, broadly, a town with certain privileges which distinguished it from a large village. In Saxon times it had been a fortified market and minting centre, with a king’s reeve, and in Domesday Book only the four pre-Conquest burhs appear as boroughs. In the Middle Ages, however, as money came to play an increasingly important part in life and government, and the towns were the only places which had ready cash, the word takes on a more definite meaning. From the time of Richard I it became common for places which could afford it to buy charters from the king or their manorial lord, which gave them the right to hold fairs and markets, to have their own courts, and to pay a fixed rent in place of normal dues and taxes. If they were important enough, they generally managed to become incorporated as a legal ‘person’ able to hold public property, and to elect a mayor or bailiffs as their magistrates and head officers. Some places, like Bere Regis, claimed the title ‘borough’ though their privileges went little beyond a chartered fair and market, but when it came to summoning representatives to Parliament after 1295 they were generally ignored.

The most obvious development in Dorset in post—Conquest times is the growth of completely new port-towns into prominence and full borough status. Lyme, Weymouth, Melcombe, and Poole did not exist in 1066, yet in the thirteenth century when trade with France was flourishing they all emerge as chartered towns. Their growth is partly due to the decline through silting of the older ports of Bridport and Wareham. While Melcombe remained in royal hands, Weymouth was subject to manorial lords and thus grew up, and was chartered, as a separate and rival town. Poole also got its first charter from the lord of Canford Manor, paying seventy marks for the right to have its own court — though the manor bailiff presided. It also nominated six burgesses from whom the lord appointed one as ‘port—reeve’. It was another century before the portreeve became a mayor and the burgesses were able to get rid of the manor bailiff in return for a fixed annual ‘farm’.

Weymouth and Melcombe had an excellent natural harbour over which they quarrelled bitterly — but the growth of Lyme depended on the famous artificial Cobb which was probably built at the time the town was incorporated in 1284. The abortive borough of Newton (see section 17) also dates from this period, and there was one other example of deliberate creation in the ‘borough’ of Newland at Sherborne, laid out and chartered by the Bishop in 1227. Plots of land were measured out and offered to any free man who would build there and pay the rental, but the Bishop never gave the right of incorporation which was necessary to a genuine borough. His charter did not even mention a court, though one in fact came into existence. Blandford was for some purposes regarded as a borough, and was even twice summoned in the fourteenth century to send burgesses to Parliament, but it was never chartered till 1606.

The summonses to provide ships for the French and Scottish wars give some idea of the growing importance of the new ports. The first in 1254 was addressed to Weymouth, Poole, and Lyme, and these three were regularly called on from 1295. Wareham also sent one in I 310 and 1311, but Bridport dropped out of the lists since its harbour was no longer serviceable. In 1324 Weymouth and Melcombe provided ten ships, Poole four, and Lyme two, but two years later the Poole contribution was the largest. These vessels were of up to 200 tons, with crews of 30 to 40. For the siege of Calais in 1346 Weymouth and Melcombe between them sent I 5 ships with 264 men, Poole 4 with 94, Lyme 4 with 62, and Wareham 3 with 59.

But serious checks to this early prosperity were soon to come. The Black Death entered England through Melcombe in the summer of 1348, and there was a second attack in 1361. With the loss of command of the sea in the last quarter of the fourteenth century the French and Spanish sent repeated raids against the Dorset ports. Melcombe was burnt in I 377 and again in I 3 80, and could not pay taxes for years. The townsmen got a licence to build a defensive wall, but were too poor to do more than dig a ditch. By 1407 there were only 8 burgesses left, and in 1433 Poole (which had fought off a Franco-Spanish raid in 1405) managed to get the Customs House transferred from decaying Melcombe and to build a wall across the isthmus north of the town. In 1417 Poole provided three ships for Henry V’s French expedition, Wareham two, and Weymouth only one.

Borough representation in Parliament, which became regular after 1295, involved two members from Lyme, Bridport, and Dorchester from the beginning and from Shaftesbury, Weymouth, Melcombe, and Wareham soon afterwards. Poole was at first only occasionally summoned, sending members three times in the fourteenth century, but from I4 55 -— by which time it was the most prosperous place in the county — it was regularly represented. Corfe Castle, centre of the Purbeck Marblers, was incorporated by Queen Elizabeth I and given representation in 1572. The county, as distinct from the boroughs, also sent two ‘knights of the shire’. In practice this proved an expense and a burden, and towns were generally glad to leave influential outsiders to send men up in their names. By Elizabeth I’s reign we find the representatives for Weymouth, Melcombe, and Poole regularly nominated by lords and earls, and election a rarity. The contrast between the agricultural interior and the maritime coast— towns was already marked in the later Middle Ages. In the villages life remained bounded by an unchanging round of labour and the narrow horizons of the parish, but the men of the chartered ports saw something of the outside world. Foreign ships tied up at their quays, and their own ventured to the ports of France, Spain, and the Netherlands. War and piracy, as well as the dangers of the sea, were part of their lives, and they took an equal chance of fortune or disaster. In Elizabeth I’s time they were to venture much further afield, and to be in the front line of the naval war with Spain.

The rivalry and quarrels between Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, separated as they were by only a few yards of jealously disputed harbour mouth, became so intolerable by Elizabeth I’s time that a new charter was granted in 1571 to incorporate them as one united borough. Its terms were unfortunately vague, and for years the Weymouth people interpreted it as they chose or ignored it completely, defying the Mayor (and the Queen’s Council) and carrying on as if they were still a separate borough. Not until a bridge was at last built to join the two sides in 1597 did the union become a reality, and signs of the old division were still apparent as late as the Civil War.