Click on the map to see a map of Dorset showing the places listed below (8,481 bytes)
My maternal grandmother, and all her ancestors that I have traced, were born in various villages and small towns in Dorset, but they seem to have moved frequently, so tracing them has been difficult. This is the number two area of interest, after Wiltshire, so far as my ancestry is concerned. Limitations on the time I have available mean that a lot of the work here remains to be done. For example, I have not yet joined either of the two(?!?) family history societies that cover it.
For such a small county it includes an almost incredible variety of landscape, a direct result of its complex geology. In the north east are the acid heathlands of Cranborne Chase, with a smaller area of heath also on the Studland peninsula in the south east between Swanage and Poole Harbour. Beyond are rolling chalk downs and fertile river valleys, and along the extensive coast remarkable features such as Poole Harbour (one of the largest natural harbours in the world), the near-island of Portland Bill with its great white cliffs and Chesil Bank, about 16 miles of heaped up pebbles making a single smooth curve on the map, a major hazard to shipping in the days of sail, and a great mystery in its form and maintenance.
Chesil Bank is a heap of shingle 42 feet high and 200 yards wide at its eastern end where it meets Portland Bill and where the pebbles are all about 3 inches across, but it slowly diminishes in all respects towards the west, and is fine gravel, almost sand, at Bridport. It is claimed that locals can tell in fog how far they are along the beach by examining the size of the pebbles. The bank is separated from the mainland along most of its length by the brackish water called the Fleet, which opens to the sea only at Weymouth Harbour, its eastern end. The effect of the bank on shipping is well described in the book Moonfleet by Meade Falkner.
In addition to these major coastal features, there are numerous sandy beaches, many of them offering safe bathing at resorts such as Studland Bay, Swanage, Lulworth, Weymouth, West Bay, etc. Further west around Charmouth and Lyme Regis the unstable cliffs and beach are a treasure store for fossil hunters.
Dorset has three relatively large rivers. The biggest is the Stour, flowing south from its Somerset source, then turning south east at Sturminster Newton and continuing its meandering course in that same general direction through Blandford Forum and Wimborne Minster to meet the sea and the River Avon simultaneously at Christchurch, in what was (until the reorganisation of 1974) Hampshire. The River Frome has its source in the hills of west Dorset, near the Somerset border, flows first south east, then generally eastwards to Wareham and the western end of Poole Harbour. The River Piddle meets the sea very close to the same point, having originated almost in the centre of the county and travelled south east through Piddletrenthide, Puddletown and numerous other villages incorporating the name Piddle or its bowdlerised version Puddle in their names; Wareham is almost an island, being set between the two rivers Frome and Piddle just before they meet the sea.
In addition to the larger rivers, there are many smaller one's. Some, like the Brit and Marston Vale in the west of the county flow, in these two cases north to south, directly into the sea, while others, like the Winterborne and the Tarrant, are tributaries of one or other of the larger rivers. These last two, like the Piddle, have a string of villages along their courses with the name of the river incorporated into their names.
Pre-1974 Dorset's largest town, and only significant industrial centre, is Poole, an old port and minor ship-building centre, benefitting from its marvellous natural harbour. Weymouth comes next, though well under half as big, again enjoying the benefit of a natural harbour formed by having its beach protected from the open sea by the mass of Portland Bill. Less than one third the size of Weymouth is the county town of Dorchester, with a population of only 14,000 as recently as 1985.
A review of Dorset's geography cannot be completed without mentioning the incongruous modern addition to this agricultural county. At Wytch Farm it is host to Britain's largest mainland oilfield.
The Romans themselves almost certainly used Badbury Rings, one of the larger such forts, since two of their roads meet right by it. Dorchester was a major Roman town.
Throughout the middle ages Dorset ports were thriving centres, Poole, Weymouth, Melcombe Regis, Bridport and Lyme Regis all being important. The Civil War, however, hit Dorset hard, and destroyed the prosperity of these places, especially Melcombe Regis, now a mere suburb of Weymouth. Dorset was roughly evenly split between the two sides in this war, and was the location of many battles. The civilian population suffered so much from the ill-disciplined soldiers of both sides that they founded their own army, the Clubmen, to defend themselves against both. The Clubmen resorted to using Badbury Rings once more as a place to defend in one of their final losing battles against Cromwell's army.
Since the Civil War Dorset's part in warfare has been mainly in providing manpower for the armed forces and bases for all three main forces. The RAF had an airfield at Tarrant Rushton, now returned to agricultural use. The army uses a large area of south Dorset, in the region around Lulworth, as a training ground, while the navy has for long had a major base at Portland Harbour, which has no doubt contributed to the prosperity of neighbouring Weymouth. Dorset was, however, one of the main centres of activity of the Swing rioters of the 19th century, as well as home to the Tolpuddle Martyrs, two instances of the struggle by agricultural labourers to survive in conditions of economic difficulty.
Brian Tompkins Dorset Pages is the most comprehensive Dorset site I have found, and should be visited by anyone interested in the county. Among many other things it contains a list of all the towns and villages in the county, with a web page describing each one; it should be noted, however, that many of these descriptions are identical to those in Harry Ashley's "The Dorset Village Book", published in 1984. Whether this copying is with permission or in breach of copyright I do not know, but the source is not acknowledged.
Exeter University Dorset Page
Dorset County Council site includes some interesting satellite photos of the county.
The Dorset churches site contains photos of many of the churches in the county.
John Allen's Dorset Pages include many recent photos of scenery around Wimborne.
SOUTHERN LIFE Chris and Caroline have a useful website which gives the history of over 460 villages in Hampshire and neighbouring counties (with a Dorset section now (March 2007) in preparation) along with over 60 parish church histories and lots of other information on the relevant counties. Also links to record offices and other useful departments including a full list of the Register Offices in Southern England. SOUTHERN LIFE can be found at: http://southernlife.org.uk.
The Society of Dorset Men publishes a very interesting annual Year Book.
The Weymouth area is the main focus of Debby Rose's interesting web site, covering history, various points of interest, etc. about the town and its surrounding area in considerable depth. However, it also includes material about the rest of Dorset, with numerous useful links, especially relating to family history.
Anyone intending to visit Dorset may find the World Heritage Coast web site of interest. It contains information on destinations, accommodation and attractions along the Jurassic Coast, as most of the Dorset and east Devon coast is called.
Dorset Archives hold many records of interest to genealogists. They can be contacted by email by clicking this link.
Dorset Lookup Exchange is a list of volunteers willing to do free lookups, as and when they have time, in resources they happen to have available to them.
Dorset Genealogy Lookups, which is linked with the Dorset mailing list, is another very useful resource well worth consulting.
Dorset Family History Society and Somerset & Dorset Family History Society both cover the county.
The GENUKI page for Dorset gives links to most of the main genealogy sites related to the county, and the snail mail addresses of relevant organisations such as county record office, libraries, family history societies, etc., etc.
The Dorset On-Line Parish Clerk site contains transcripts of censuses, parish registers, bishops' transcripts, etc., transcribed by various volunteers and organised by parish. A wonderful source of data. The coordinator can be contacted on email@example.com.
Another excellent Dorset web site is Paul Benyon's. You will not regret a moment of your time spent looking at it!
The Dorset Ancestors site is also strongly recommended.
Other Dorset surnames and records can be found on Jim Parsons' Dorset page.
There is mailing list for people with an interest in Wessex genealogy which includes Dorset. The following introduction is supplied by a former list owner:
WESSEX-PLUS A well maintained & helpful mailing list for hobbyists who have an interest in genealogy or general and local history related to and incorporating the counties of Berkshire, Bristol, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Isle of Wight, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, Somerset, and Wiltshire, England. To subscribe to the list, send a message to:
WESSEX-PLUSfirstname.lastname@example.org to receive individual messages, or to
WESSEX-PLUS-Demail@example.com to receive digests approximately daily.
in the body of the message in either case (not in the subject line - anything you put in the subject line is ignored). You DO NOT have to leave the subject line blank. It is IGNORED except to quote it back to you if there is an error.
There is another mailing list dealing just with Dorset. To subscribe send the message:
At least three different surname interests lists exist for Dorset. These are:
Brian Tompkins's surnames pages
The GENUKI Dorset surnames list
and John Symonds's Somerset & Dorset Surnames Index (in Australia) and its mirror site in UK.
Elizabeth Parker's new web site, at present giving details of people and the workhouse in Longfleet, near Poole, is expanding to cover other aspects of Dorset genealogy.
Robert Douch: A Handbook of Local History: Dorset (1952, revised 1960).
C.H. Mayo: Bibliotheca Dorsetiensis (1885). Don't be put off by the pretentious title!
Thomas Gerard: General Description of the County of Dorset. This was written in the 1620s, published in 1732 but wrongly attributed to Rev. John Coker. A facsimile was published, with correct attribution in 1980. This was the earliest book on the history and topography of the county, but is mainly concerned with prominent families.
John Hutchins: History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset was published in 1774 (in 2 volumes). A larger 4 volume edition was published 1796-1815 by R. Gough and J.B. Nichols, and a third and fullest edition edited by W. Shipp and J.W. Hodson was published in 4 volumes 1861-1870 and reprinted in 1973. This is generally regarded as the standard text on Dorset history.
J. Britton and W. Brayley: Topographical and Historical Description of Dorset, published 1804 as part of their The Beauties of Britain series is probably the best topographical and descriptive text.
There are many more specialised books on ancient history and archaeology in the county.
Some good non-book resources are:
Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries, a series published continuously since 1888. Several of this series (as well as various old trade directories and other old Dorset publications), are now available quite cheaply on CD from the excellent, non-profit-making, Archive CD Books.
The Proceedings (published annually from 1877) and library of Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, located at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.
Buildings in Dorset are well covered by the 8 volume survey published by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, which is claimed to cover all existing monuments and buildings dating from before 1850.
C.R.J Currie and C.P.Lewis A Guide to English County Histories (Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1994), ISBN 0-7509-1505-6.
A. Room: Dictionary of British Place Names (1988), ISBN 1 85605 1775.
A.D. Mills: A Dictionary of English Place-Names (Oxford University Press, 1991, revised 1995), ISBN 0-19-869156-4.
J. Whitaker: Whitaker's Almanack (1923) Volume 55 (1922).
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