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Sturminster Newton: anything but a new town

As part of their survey of Dorset's historic towns, Dorset CC, North Dorset DC and English Heritage brought together a wealth of historical material on Sturminster Newton. Stephen Baker races through a couple of millennia of the history it reveals.

The medieval bridge more conveniently linked the population centres of Sturminster and Newton than had the pre-existing ford

Rather like Paris’s Pont Neuf and the New Forest, Sturminster Newton (and indeed Newton which lies opposite it over the Stour flood plain) is not, as its name might imply, in any way new. In 968 ‘Nywetone at Stoure’ was granted to Glastonbury Abbey by King Edgar. There is a suggestion that it had been an important settlement in the centuries preceding this, though. According to the Historic Towns Survey report, ‘Minster churches functioned as an ecclesiastical centre for an extended parish from the 8th century or earlier.’
Over the thirteen or so centuries that have passed since that early settlement, Sturminster has certainly grown, but with the exception of some realignment of roads, its shape is surprisingly consistent. Although the current St Mary’s church, has yielded no indications of an earlier structure on its site than those dating from the 14th century, the report declares, ‘its location on a prominent bluff above the River Stour would be an excellent location for an earlier minster church’. It continues, ‘the church appears to be located within a small enclosure of curving boundaries. Such enclosures, associated with minsters or early British monasteries have often been recorded in the west of England and are sometimes taken as evidence for a pre-Saxon Christian foundation. There is evidence for early Christian activity in the region from the Late Roman villa or ‘church’ at Hinton St Mary. The Iron Age [800BC-AD42] hill fort on the south side of the River Stour, facing the minster site, is suggestive of a late prehistoric regional centre, the site of which was re-used in the Saxon and medieval periods as the royal and monastic manorial centre of Sturminster Newton.’ The town could therefore have been settled for between 800 and 1700 years before the Saxon times.

Although there is annoyingly no confirmatory archaeological evidence, St Mary's Church is built, the report states, 'on a prominent bluff above the Stour,' and would have been an 'excellent location for a Minster church,' whence the town's name

One of the frustrations clearly felt by the report’s authors and editors is that there is a paucity of archaeological evidence to clarify the extent and age of previous settlements or ancient sites within the town. The only find of significance lies outside the town at the aforementioned Hinton St Mary villa – a mosaic floor thought to be one of the earliest representations of Christ in Britain, which is now at the British Museum.
As well as being beside a river, Sturminster Newton is also ‘…located close to the junction of two important early long distance routes. The first, in an approximately North-South direction, probably closely followed the line of the present B3092 through the town. It would originally have crossed the Stour slightly to the east of the late medieval town bridge via a ford and then continued south towards Whitmore Drove and the Dorset Gap. The second major route ran in a northwest-southeast direction from Stalbridge, crossing the Stour near Colber and then continuing through Sturminster to Fiddleford. This road represents one of a number of parallel routes closely following the course of the Stour valley in the Sturminster area.’
Whilst the two routes cross at the market place, this probably represents a later medieval plan component as the original settlement of Sturminster is now ‘only represented by a series of curved or lobed enclosures fossilised in modern plot boundaries.’ These enclosures resemble infields enclosed from open land which were potentially farmed as part of the ecclesiastical demesne. Although this most ancient part of the town is only hinted at, the report postulates: ‘In the area of the market place, the boundaries and building frontages are much closer set. In fact there is evidence within the… boundaries here for a planned settlement of simple double row form developed on the west side of the earlier minster site. This is likely to represent the second major phase of development at Sturminster, possibly in the late Saxon period [AD900-1065]. The situation has been greatly confused by the insertion of the market place. Nevertheless, clues survive in the line of Church Lane, Church Street, the eastern side of the Market Place and the rear boundary of properties fronting on to the west side of the market place. When taken together, these elements make a rectangular unit…, which may have been divided lengthways into two halves separated by a central street.’

Nearly 800 years ago, Sturminster's market, once the largest cattle market in Europe, was founded; fifteen years ago it closed for good. This testament to the past sits in front of the Exchange, Sturminster's legacy to the future.

Moving forward to the conquest and medieval Sturminster Newton, the report again manages expectations with its opening line: ‘Remarkably little is known about medieval Sturminster Newton. It never became a borough, remaining a manor of Glastonbury Abbey throughout the [medieval] period.’
There is still a framework of ecclesiastical and property-related background information, though. ‘In 1296 the abbey appropriated the living of the parish for itself at a time of financial difficulties. The tithes remained with the vicarage however. Glastonbury Abbey rebuilt the manor house on the site of the late Saxon manor, which was itself within the Iron Age hill fort of Sturminster Castle. The Abbot of Glastonbury was granted a market in 1322-3 and a fair for three days over the feast of St Barnabas on 11 June. The number of fairs held by the Abbot in Sturminster had increased to two by the late 15th century. Only 13 taxpayers are recorded in the lay subsidy of 1327 and 20 in the lay subsidy of 1332. This does not necessarily reflect the true size of the town, as much of the property belonged to the Abbey and did not appear in the subsidy returns. Those names that do appear suggest an economy based on the cloth, leather and other local craft industries. Cloth-making was probably the most important industry in the town. The later medieval period [1350-2539] seems to have been one of economic prosperity for Sturminster. A number of important works and improvements can be dated to that time.’ The market was established by the 14th century and the church entirely rebuilt in 1486 (the current façade dates from a 19th-century rebuilding). This is atypical, the report observes, as ‘the late 14th and 15th centuries are often seen as periods of decline or stagnation in English medieval towns and yet Sturminster’s market Cross was built during the 15th century and the Town Bridge [replacing an earlier ford] and the Old Market Cross House were both built about 1500. A later subsidy of 1525 recorded 64 taxpayers suggesting a modest town. Leland visited Sturminster in about 1540 describing the town as “…no greate thing, and the building of it is mene. There is a very good market…There is a very fair bridge of 6 archis at the towne end made of later times…”.’
The establishment of the market and building of the bridge brought changes: ‘These two factors led to a realignment of the …town. Instead of a simple double row linear town, roads now radiated from the central market place which had become the commercial focus for the town. Bridge Street in particular cut across earlier plot boundaries to create a thoroughfare from the Town Bridge to the market. New plot boundaries were established fronting on to the new street. Furthermore, the market square expanded to the north with a triangular extension upon which new road alignments from the north and new plot boundaries were also established.’ This information will provide an explanation to anyone who has tried to drive through Sturminster Newton and who has wondered why 21st-century traffic bottlenecks at that point.

Although an irritation to through traffic, Sturminster Newton's idiosyncratic street plan is evidence of a switch in emphasis of the importance of different parts of the town through the centuries

The passage of time from medieval to the Georgian period appears to have affected the owners of the town more than its residents in some ways: ‘Glastonbury Abbey was dissolved in 1539 and its estates reverted to the crown. In 1544, Henry VIII granted Newton Manor to Katherine Parr, who renovated the 14th century manor house at Sturminster Castle. The Pitt family became the major landowner in 1714. Sturminster Newton was relatively quiet during the civil war. In 1644 the royalist town was taken over by parliament without a fight. The main disturbance in the area came as a result of Dorset Clubmen attacking the Roundhead garrison at Sturminster in 1645.’ It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. There was a major fire in 1681 and, in 1729, another devastating fire destroyed a significant portion of the town.’
In terms of the local economy, cloth-making continued to be the main industry during the post-medieval period. Sturminster was known for the production of swanskin, a coarse white cloth used for soldier’s clothing and for the Newfoundland fishermen. In 1793, there were 1200 people in Sturminster engaged in this industry. Leather working, button and glove making and clock making were other minor local industries. By the 19th century, the cloth industry was declining and Sturminster Newton’s cattle market and the coming of the railway stimulated the growth of the town in a period when many Dorset towns were in decline. Sturminster came into its own as a cattle market…, with the cattle being driven into town along droves from all directions.’

Once the railway was the gateway to the world for Sturminster's cattle market and its creamery. Now only the S&D's gates remain

The station eventually enabled a direct link between Sturminster market and Poole. The Sturminster Newton Gas & Coke Company was formed in 1864, [after the arrival of the railway enabled the cheap transport of coal to the town. Mains water arrived in the town in 1906 and first electricity supply in Sturminster dates to about 1924 with the town being connected to the mains grid in 1932.
The full Dorset Historic Towns Survey of Sturminster Newton is a fascinating amalgam of historical record and educated inference. Part of its appeal is the many avenues of further research it opens up. This historic town has yet to yield many of its secrets and perhaps therein lies one of its charms.

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