DORSETSHIRE (Dorset), a south-western county of England, bounded N.E. by Wiltshire, E. by Hampshire, S. by the English Channel, W. by Devonshire and N.W. by Somersetshire. The area is 987.9 sq. m. The surface is for the most part broken. A line of hills or downs, forming part of the system to which the general name of the Western Downs is applied, enters the county in the north-east near Shaftesbury, and strikes across it in a direction generally W. by S., leaving it towards Axminster and Crewkerne in Devonshire. East of Beaminster in the south-west another line, the Purbeck Downs, branches S.E. to the coast, which it follows as far as the district called the Isle of Purbeck in the south-east of the county. Both these ranges occasionally exceed a height of 900 ft. Of the principal rivers and streams, the Stour rises just outside the county in Wiltshire, and flows with a general south-easterly course to join the Hampshire Avon close to its mouth. It receives the Cale, Lidden and other streams in its upper course, and breaches the central hills in its middle course between Sturminster Newton and Blandford. The Lidden and Cale are the chief streams of the well-watered and fertile district known as the Vale of Blackmore. The small river Piddle or Trent and the larger Frome, rising in the central hills, traverse a plain tract of open country between the central and southern ranges, and almost unite their mouths in Poole Harbour. In the north-west the Yeo, collecting many feeders, flows northward to join the Parret and so sends its waters to the Bristol Channel. The Char, the Brit and the Bride, with their feeders, water many picturesque short valleys in the south-west. The coast is always beautiful, and in some parts magnificent. In the east it is broken by the irregular, lake-like inlet of Poole Harbour, pleasantly diversified with low islands, shallow, and at low tide largely drained. South of this a bold foreland, the termination of the southern hills (here called Ballard Down) divides Studland Bay from Swanage Bay, after which the coast line turns abruptly westward round Durlston Head. The peninsula thus formed with Poole Harbour on the north is known as the Isle of Purbeck, an oblong projection measuring 10 m. by 7. St Albans or Aldhelms Head is the next salient feature, after which the fine cliffs are indented with many little bays, of which the most noteworthy is the almost landlocked Lulworth Cove. The coast then turns southward to embrace Weymouth Bay and Portland Roads, where a harbour of refuge with massive breakwaters is protected to the south by the Isle of Portland. The isle is connected with the mainland by Chesil Bank, a remarkable beach of shingle. After this the coast is less broken than before and continues highly picturesque as far as the confines of the county near Lyme Regis. This small town, with Charmouth, Bridport, Weymouth, Lulworth Cove and Swanage, are in considerable favour as watering-places.
Geology. - Occupying as it does the central and most elevated part of the county, the Chalk is the most prominent geological formation in Dorsetshire. It sweeps in a south-westerly direction, as a belt of high ground about 12 m. in width, from Cranborne Chase, through Blandford, Milton Abbas and Frampton to Dorchester; westward it reaches a point just north of Beaminster. From about Dorchester the Chalk outcrop narrows and turns south-eastward by Portisham, Bincombe, to West Lulworth, thence the crop proceeds eastward as the ridge of the Purbeck Hills, and finally runs out to sea as the headland between Studland and Swanage Bays.
Upon the Chalk in the eastern part of the county are the Eocene beds of the Hampshire Basin. These are fringed by the Reading Beds and London Clay, which occur as a narrow belt from Cranborne through Wimborne Minster, near Bere Regis and Piddletown; here the crop swings round south-eastward through West Knighton, Winfrith and Lulworth, and thence along the northern side of the Purbeck Hills to Studland. Most of the remaining Eocene area is occupied by the sands, gravel and clay of the Bagshot series. The Agglestone Rock near Studland is a hard mass of the Bagshot formation; certain clays in the same series in the Wareham district have a world-wide reputation for pottery purposes; since they are exported from Poole Harbour they are often known as "Poole Clay." From beneath the Chalk the Selbornian or Gault and Upper Greensand crops out as a narrow, irregular band. The Gault clay is only distinguishable in the northern and southern districts. Here and there the Greensand forms prominent hills, as that on which the town of Shaftesbury stands. The Upper Greensand appears again as outliers farther west, forming the high ground above Lyme Regis, Golden Cap, and Pillesden and Lewesden Pens. The Lower Greensand crops out on the south side of the Purbeck Hills and may be seen at Punfield Cove and Worbarrow Bay, but this formation thins out towards the west. By the action of the agencies of denudation upon the faulted anticline of the Isle of Purbeck, the Wealden beds are brought to light in the vale between Lulworth and Swanage; a similar cause has accounted for their appearance at East Chaldon. South of the strip of Weald Clay is an elevated plateau consisting of Purbeck Beds which rest upon Portland Stone and Portland Sand. Cropping out from beneath the Portland beds is the Kimmeridge Clay with so-called "Coal" bands, which forms the lower platform near the village of that name.
The Middle Purbeck building stone and Upper Purbeck Paludina marble have been extensively quarried in the Isle of Purbeck. An interesting feature in the Lower Purbeck is the "Dirt bed," the remains of a Jurassic forest, which may be seen near Mupe Bay and on the Isle of Portland, where both the Purbeck and Portland formations are well exposed, the latter yielding the well-known freestones. In the north-west of the county the Kimmeridge Clay crops in a N.-S. direction from the neighbourhood of Gillingham by Woolland to near Buckland Newton; in the south, a strip runs E. and W. between Abbotsbury, Upway and Osmington Mill. Next in order come the Corallian Beds and Oxford Clay which follow the line of the Kimmeridge Clay, that is, they run from the north to the south-west except in the neighbourhood of Abbotsbury and Weymouth, where these beds are striking east and west.
Below the Oxford Clay is the Cornbrash, which may be seen near Redipole, Stalbridge and Stourton; then follows the Forest Marble, which usually forms a strong escarpment over the Fuller's Earth beneath - at Thornford the Fuller's Earth rock is quarried. Next comes the Inferior Oolite, quarried near Sherborne and Beaminster; the outcrop runs on to the coast at Bridport. Beneath the Oolites are the Midford sands, which are well exposed in the cliff between Bridport and Burton Brandstock. Except where the Greensand outliers occur, the south-western part of the county is occupied by Lower and Middle Lias beds. These are clays and marls in the upper portions and limestones below. Rhaetic beds, the so-called "White Lias," are exposed in Pinhay Bay.
Many of the formations in Dorsetshire are highly fossiliferous, notably the Lias of Lyme Regis, whence Ichthyosaurus and other large reptiles have been obtained; remains of the Iguanodon have been taken from the Wealden beds of the Isle of Purbeck; the Kimmeridge Clay, Inferior Oolite, Forest Marble and Fuller's Earth are all fossil-bearing rocks. The coast exhibits geological sections of extreme interest and variety; the vertical and highly inclined strata of the Purbeck anticline are well exhibited at Gad Cliff or near Ballard Point; at the latter place the fractured fold is seen to pass into an "overthrust fault."
Climate and Agriculture. - The air of Dorsetshire is remarkably mild, and in some of the more sheltered spots on the coast semi-tropical plants are found to flourish. The district of the clays obtains for the county the somewhat exaggerated title of the "garden of England," though the rich Vale of Blackmore and the luxuriant pastures and orchards in the west may support the name. Yet Dorsetshire is not generally a well-wooded county, though much fine timber appears in the richer soils, in some of the sheltered valleys of the chalk district, and more especially upon the Greensand. About three-fourths of the total area is under cultivation, and of this nearly five-eighths is in permanent pasture, while there are in addition about 26,000 acres of hill pasturage; the chalk downs being celebrated of old as sheep-walks. Wheat, barley and oats are grown about equally. Turnips occupy nearly three-fourths of the average under green crops. Sheep are largely kept, though in decreasing numbers. The old horned breed of Dorsetshire were well known, but Southdowns or Hampshires are now frequently preferred. Devons, shorthorns and Herefords are the most common breeds of cattle. Dairy farming is an important industry.
Other Industries. - The quarries of Isles of Portland and Purbeck are important. The first supplies a white freestone employed for many of the finest buildings in London and elsewhere. Purbeck marble is famous through its frequent use by the architects of many of the most famous Gothic churches in England. A valuable product of Purbeck is a white pipeclay, largely applied to the manufacture of china, for which purpose it is exported to the Potteries of Staffordshire. Industries, beyond those of agriculture and quarrying, are slight, though some shipbuilding is carried on at Poole, and paper is made at several towns. Other small manufactures are those of flax and hemp in the neighbourhood of Bridport and Beaminster, of bricks, tiles and pottery in the Poole district, and of nets (braiding, as the industry is called) in some of the villages. There are silk-mills at Sherborne and elsewhere. There are numerous fishing stations along the coast, the fishing being mostly coastal. There are oyster beds in Poole Harbour. The chief ports are Poole, Weymouth, Swanage, Bridport, and Lyme Regis. The harbour of refuge at Portland, under the Admiralty, is an important naval station, and is fortified.
Communications. - The main line of the London & South Western railway serves Gillingham and Sherborne in the north of the county. Branches of this system serve Wimborne, Poole, Swanage, Dorchester, Weymouth and Portland. The two last towns, with Bridport, are served by the Great Western railway; the Somerset & Dorset line (Midland and South Western joint) follows the Stour valley by Blandford and Wimborne; and Lyme Regis is the terminus of a light railway from Axminster on the South Western line.
Population and Administration. - The area of the ancient county is 632,270 acres, with a population in 1891 of 194,517, and in 1901 of 202,936. The area of the administrative county is 625,578 acres. The county contains 35 hundreds. It is divided into northern, eastern, southern and western parliamentary divisions, each returning one member. It contains the following municipal boroughs - Blandford Forum (pop. 3649), Bridport (5710), Dorchester, the county town (9458), Lyme Regis (2095), Poole (19,463), Shaftesbury (2027), Wareham (2003), Weymouth and Melcombe Regis (19,831). The following are other urban districts - Portland (15,199), Sherborne (5760), Swanage (3408), Wimborne Minster (3696). Dorsetshire is in the western circuit, and assizes are held at Dorchester. It has one court of quarter sessions, and is divided into nine petty sessional divisions. The boroughs of Bridport, Dorchester, Lyme Regis, Poole, and Weymouth and Melcombe Regis have separate commissions of the peace, and the borough of Poole has in addition a separate court of quarter sessions. There are 289 civil parishes. The ancient county, which is almost entirely in the diocese of Salisbury, contains 256 ecclesiastical parishes or districts wholly or in part.
History. - The kingdom of Wessex originated with the settlement of Cerdic and his followers in Hampshire in 495, and at some time before the beginning of the 8th century the tide of conquest and colonization spread beyond the Frome and Kennet valleys and swept over the district which is now Dorsetshire. In 705 the West Saxon see was transferred to Sherborne, and the numerous foundations of religious houses which followed did much to further the social and industrial development of the county; though the wild and uncivilized state in which the county yet lay may be conjectured from the names of the hundreds and of their meeting-places, at barrows, boulders and vales. In 787 the Danes landed at Portland, and in 833 they arrived at Charmouth with thirty-five ships and fought with Ecgbert. The shire is first mentioned by name in the Saxon Chronicle in 845, when the Danes were completely routed at the mouth of the Parret by the men of Dorsetshire under Osric the ealdorman. In 876 the invaders captured Wareham, but were driven out next year by Alfred, and 120 of their ships were wrecked at Swanage. During the two following centuries Dorset was constantly ravaged by the Danes, and in 1015 Canute came on a plundering expedition to the mouth of the Frome. Several of the West Saxon kings resided in Dorsetshire, and Æthelbald and Æthelbert were buried at Sherborne, and Æthelred at Wimborne. In the reign of Canute Wareham was the shire town; it was a thriving seaport, with a house for the king when he came there on his hunting expeditions, a dwelling for the shire-reeve and accommodation for the leading thegns of the shire. At the time of the Conquest Dorset formed part of Harold's earldom, and the resistance which it opposed to the Conqueror was punished by a merciless harrying, in which Dorchester, Wareham and Shaftesbury were much devastated, and Bridport utterly ruined.
No Englishman retained estates of any importance after the Conquest, and at the time of the Survey the bulk of the land, with the exception of the forty-six manors held by the king, was in the hands of religious houses, the abbeys of Cerne, Milton and Shaftesbury being the most wealthy. There were 272 mills in the county at the time of the Survey, and nearly eighty men were employed in working salt along the coast. Mints existed at Shaftesbury, Wareham, Dorchester and Bridport, the three former having been founded by Æthelstan. The forests of Dorsetshire were favourite hunting-grounds of the Norman kings, and King John in particular paid frequent visits to the county.
No precise date can be assigned for the establishment of the shire system in Wessex, but in the time of Ecgbert the kingdom was divided into definite pagi, each under an ealdorman, which no doubt represented the later shires. The Inquisitio Geldi, drawn up two years before the Domesday Survey, gives the names of the 39 pre-Conquest hundreds of Dorset. The 33 hundreds and 21 liberties of the present day retain some of the original names, but the boundaries have suffered much alteration. The 8000 acres of Stockland and Dalwood reckoned in the Dorset Domesday are now annexed to Devon, and the manor of Holwell now included in Dorset was reckoned with Somerset until the 19th century. Until the reign of Elizabeth Dorset and Somerset were united under one sheriff.
After the transference of the West Saxon see from Sherborne to Sarum in 1075, Dorset remained part of that diocese until 1542, when it was included in the newly formed diocese of Bristol. The archdeaconry was coextensive with the shire, and was divided into five rural deaneries at least as early as 1291.
The vast power and wealth monopolized by the Church in Dorsetshire tended to check the rise of any great county families. The representatives of the families of Mohun, Brewer and Arundel held large estates after the Conquest, and William Mohun was created earl of Dorset by the empress Maud. The families of Clavel, Lovell, Maundeville, Mautravers, Peverel and St Lo also came over with the Conqueror and figure prominently in the early annals of the county.
Dorsetshire took no active part in the struggles of the Norman and Plantagenet period. In 1627 the county refused to send men to La Rochelle, and was reproved for its lack of zeal in the service of the state. On the outbreak of the Civil War of the 17th century the general feeling was in favour of the king, and after a series of royalist successes in 1643 Lyme Regis and Poole were the only garrisons in the county left to the parliament. By the next year however, the parliament had gained the whole county with the exception of Sherborne and the Isle of Portland. The general aversion of the Dorsetshire people to warlike pursuits is demonstrated at this period by the rise of the "clubmen," so called from their appearance without pikes or fire-arms at the county musters, whose object was peace at all costs, and who punished members of either party discovered in the act of plundering.
In the 14th century Dorsetshire produced large quantities of wheat and wool, and had a prosperous clothing trade. In 1626 the county was severely visited by the plague, and from this date the clothing industry began to decline. The hundred of Pimperne produced large quantities of saltpeter in the 17th century, and the serge manufacture was introduced about this time. Portland freestone was first brought into use in the reign of James I., when it was employed for the new banqueting house at Whitehall, and after the Great Fire it was extensively used by Sir Christopher Wren. In the 18th century Blandford, Sherborne and Lyme Regis were famous for their lace, but the industry has now declined.
The county returned two members to parliament in 1290, and as the chief towns acquired representation the number was increased, until in 1572 the county and nine boroughs returned a total of twenty members. Under the Reform Act of 1832 the county returned three members, and Corfe Castle was disfranchised. By the Representation of the People Act of 1868 Lyme Regis was disfranchised, and by the Redistribution Act of 1885 the remaining boroughs were disfranchised.
Antiquities. - Remains of medieval castles are inconsiderable, with the notable exception of Corfe Castle and the picturesque ruins of Sherborne Castle, both destroyed after the Civil War of the 17th century. The three finest churches in the county are the abbey church of Sherborne, Wimborne Minster and Milton Abbey church, a Decorated and Perpendicular structure erected on the site of a Norman church which was burnt. It has transepts, chancel and central tower, but the nave was not built. This was a Benedictine foundation of the 10th century, and the refectory of the 15th century is incorporated in the mansion built in 1772. At Ford Abbey part of the buildings of a Cistercian house are similarly incorporated. There are lesser monastic remains at Abbotsbury, Cerne and Bindon. The parish churches of Dorsetshire are not especially noteworthy as a whole, but those at Cerne Abbas and Beaminster are fine examples of the Perpendicular style, which is the most common in the county. A little good Norman work remains, as in the churches of Bere Regis and Piddletrenthide, but both these were reconstructed in the Perpendicular period; Bere Regis church having a superb timber roof of that period.
The dialect of the county, perfectly distinguishable from those of Wiltshire and Somersetshire, yet bearing many common marks of Saxon origin, is admirably illustrated in some of the poems of William Barnes (q.v.). Many towns, villages and localities are readily to be recognized from their descriptions in the "Wessex" novels of Thomas Hardy (q.v.).
A curious ancient Survey of Dorsetshire was written by the Rev. Mr Coker, about the middle of the 17th century, and published from his MS. (London, 1732). See also J. Hutchins, History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset (London, 1774); 2nd ed. by R. Gough and E. B. Nichols (1796-1815); 3rd ed. by W. Shipp and J. W. Hodson (1861-1873); C. Warne, Ancient Dorset (London, 1865); R. W. Eyton, A Key to Domesday, exemplified by an analysis and digest of the Dorset Survey (London, 1878); C. H. Mayo, Bibliotheca Dorsetiensis (London, 1885); W. Barnes, Glossary of Dorset Dialect (Dorchester, 1886); H. J. Moule, Old Dorset (London, 1893); Victoria County History, Dorsetshire.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)