Lost Towns & Villages

Lost Towns & Villages

One of the most peculiar chapters of Dorset history was the destruction of the town of Milton Abbas by the then Lord Milton who lived in the Abbey mansion. The town had grown up in Saxon times at the gates of the abbey founded by Athelstan in 938, and for eight centuries it had flourished as a market centre. Its Grammar School, founded by Abbot Middleton in 1521, was one of the most renowned in Dorset, attracting boarders from all over the county (including the later Admiral Hardy whose monument stands on Blackdown). In the seventeenth century, when small change was scarce, four of its tradesmen were prosperous enough to issue their own money tokens; and in 1674 an almshouse for six poor widows was founded and endowed. There were four inns, a brewery whose ales sold throughout Dorset and even in London, and more than a hundred houses.

Unlike most places which have vanished, Milton perished not of decay but because it was too lively. Its inhabitants, and particularly the Grammar School boys, disturbed his lordship’s aristocratic seclusion: and the buildings, he thought, spoiled his View. Since there could be no question of moving Lord Milton, the town had to go. For twenty years the leases were bought out, or the properties taken over as they fell in, and the houses demolished one by one, till in 1786 the destruction was completed. The Grammar School was banished to Blandford; the church bells were sold and the churchyard turned into a lawn — regardless of the graves and monuments. The present village was built, at a distance and hidden in a valley, for those inhabitants for whom his lordship still had a use, but the tradesmen who had been the mainstay of the place had to seek a living elsewhere.

Very different was the history, such as it was, of Newton in Purbeck. Edward I, who was a great town-planner, decided in 1286 to establish a ‘new town’ to serve as port for the stone trade, and ordered that a site be pegged out with streets, building-plots, and space for a church and market, on Brand’s Bay in Poole Harbour. Anyone taking a plot and building there was offered the same privileges as the burgesses of Lyme and Melcombe. Some apparently did, for ancient foundations have recently been discovered, but Newton never flourished. There is no record of a church being consecrated, or indeed of anything at all, and the scheme fell through. Poole, across the Harbour, had much better inland communications and a good deep-water channel, and while Poole could not deal with Purbeck Stone it is probable that this trade alone was not enough to support a town. By Elizabeth I’s time there was only a single cottage to preserve the name ‘Newton’.

At various places in Dorset, as in other counties, are sites of long-deserted villages. One is Knowlton near Wimborne St Giles, and others are Ringstead on the coast east of Weymouth and Winterborne Farringdon a mile south ofDorchester. The Black Death of the fourteenth century is generally blamed, and sometimes no doubt with reason, though it does not follow that the whole population was wiped out. In any case, if the land had been attractive enough the place would in time have been re- peopled. It is more likely that the drastic fall in population which the Plague caused took much marginal land out of cultivation, and encouraged the survivors to seek a better living elsewhere. This may have happened at Farringdon and Ringstead, and we know that the latter parish was joined to Osmington in 1448. Knowlton, however, was still cultivating its three open fields early in the sixteenth century, though a hundred years later its church (whose ruins still stand inside a neolithic religious circle) was in decay. It may be an example of something-very common in the Midlands — deliberate depopulation by Tudor landlords to make way for more profitable sheep-farming.