Daniel Defoe’s Dorset: Weymouth to Abbotsbury
Harry Bucknall compares Daniel Defoe's account of travels in 18th-century Dorset with the modern reality
Published in July ’13
Between 1724 and 1726 Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, published his three-volume A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain; although it is now generally believed that much of the material was sent in by others and only collated by Defoe, the book does offer a unique view of pre-Industrial Revolution Dorset. This is an edited version of the second part of his journey through the county.
Leaving Dorchester, as Defoe had done nearly three hundred years earlier, it is surprising to note that he failed to make any mention of the sprawling Iron Age earthworks at Maiden Castle, which sits with such majesty outside the town. Today’s journey is on a fast road to Weymouth, so much so that the magnificent view across the bay as you crest the downs is lost in a matter of seconds. If you have the luxury of time, take the Winterborne Herringston road and stop just after Came Down Golf Club to admire the vista that is laid out before you.
‘The first town you come to is Weymouth,’ records Defoe, before adding ‘or Weymouth and Melcomb, two towns lying at the mouth of a little rivulet, which they call the Wey, but scarce claims the name of a river; however, the entrance makes a very good, tho’ small harbour, and they are joyn’d by a wooden bridge; … yet they are seperate corporations, and choose each of them two Members of Parliament….
And while Weymouth with Melcombe Regis remain two distinct entities – the former with its pretty harbour straddling the River Wey and the latter a bustling seaside town stretching the length of the Bay, the whole however feels, and is administered, as one. Since the Industrial Revolution, two World Wars and the advent of the digital age, the town has seen an enormous transformation; with a population of over 50,000, it is probably ten times the size when Defoe visited. Today’s Weymouth would be almost unrecognisable to him as the same place.
What really put the town on the map some years after his visit was as a holiday spot of King George III. His younger brother, Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, owned a significant and much-used residence in the town, Gloucester Lodge and Weymouth, the playground of Royalty, was – for a while at least, the original Saint Tropez.
That was yet to come in Defoe’s day, where he found: ‘a sweet, clean, agreeable town, considering its low situation and close to the sea’. It is not clear whether he is talking altitude or distance from London by ‘low situation’. Either way, he continues that it is: ‘well built, and has a great many good substantial merchants in it; who drive a considerable trade, and have a good number of ships belonging to the town: They carry on now, in time of peace, a trade with France; but besides this, they trade also to Portugal, Spain, Newfoundland, and Virginia; and they have a large correspondence also up in the country for the consumption of their returns …’
Great Britain, as the Kingdom was stylised following the Act of Union with Scotland but fifteen years earlier, had been at peace for ten years since the victories in the War of the Spanish Succession, which had gained, among others, Gibraltar, Newfoundland and Quebec. The trade routes Defoe spoke of therefore would have been relatively new and offered exciting prospects, especially given the devastating effects on trade of the Southsea Bubble in 1720. Today, the little port remains very ‘agreeable’ – in parts reminiscent of Venetian Murano with buildings painted in a variety of bright colours. It is no less active, lined with attractive bars and restaurants and filled with trawlers, yachts and motor boats. The ‘wooden bridge’, Defoe describes, however, has been replaced many times, the current is a lifting bascule design, like Tower Bridge, opened by the Duke of York, later King George VI, in 1930. And in July, the place will become even busier as the high-speed ferries return home to a renovated harbour, resuming routes to the Channel Islands and Europe once again.
‘While I was here once, there came a merchant ship … under a very hard storm of wind; … bound from Oporto for London, laden with wines, and as she came in, she made signals of distress …, firing guns for help …, as is usual in such cases; it was in the dark of the night … The venturous Weymouth-men went off … with two boats … and found she was come to an anchor, and had struck her top-masts; but that she had been in bad weather,… and had but one cable to trust to, which did hold her, but was weak; and as the storm continued to blow, they expected every hour to go on shore, and split to pieces.… in less than three hours, they were on board… and thereby secur’d the ship: … they took a good price of the master … ; for they made him draw a bill on his owners at London for 12l*. … But they sav’d the ship and cargo by it …’
Nowadays, the Weymouth Lifeboats, Ernest and Mabel and Phyl Clare III, answer a call roughly every other day. The local MP, Richard Drax, along with many others, is however campaigning vociferously against the threatened closure, in 2018, of the important Search & Rescue Helicopter based at neighbouring Portland.
It is interesting to note that of Drax’s forebears, Sir Christopher Wren was MP for Weymouth in 1702 and, at the time of Defoe’s visit, artist Sir James Thornhill was MP for Melcombe Regis. His work can be seen in the town’s St Mary’s Church, and, more famously, in the dome of St Paul’s, at Blenheim and Greenwich.
‘Tho’ Portland stands a league off from the main land of Britain, yet it is almost joyn’d by a prodigious riffe of beach, that is to say, of small stones cast up by the sea, which runs from the island so near the shore of England, that they ferry over with a boat and a rope, the water not being above half a stones throw over; and the said riffe of beach ending, as it were, at that inlet of water, turns away west, and runs parallel with the shore quite to Abbotsbury, which is a town about seven miles beyond Weymouth… ‘On the inside of this beach, and between it, and the land, there is, …, an inlet of water, which they ferry over, …, to and from Portland: This inlet opens at about two miles west, and grows very broad, and makes a kind of lake within the land of a mile and a half broad, and near three miles in length, the breadth unequal. At the farthest end west of this water is a large duck-coy, and the verge of the water well grown with wood, and proper groves of trees for cover for the foul; in the open lake, or broad part, is a continual assembly of swans: Here they live, feed and breed, and the number of them is such, that, I believe, I did not see so few as 7 or 8000. Here they are protected, and here they breed in abundance; we saw several of them upon the wing, very high in the air, whence we supposed, that they flew over the riffe of beach, which parts the lake from the sea to feed on the shores as they thought fit, and so came home again at their leisure.
From this duck-coy west, the lake narrows…, till the beach joyns the shore; and so Portland may be said not to be an island, but part of the continent.’
It is a beautiful drive, up and down hills and through tucked-away villages to Abbotsbury, especially if taking the B3157, which follows high above the Chesil Beach that Defoe chronicles, on the wild downs. The approach to the Abbotsbury Swannery is dominated by the inspiring sight of the 15th-century Chapel to St Catherine which sits on top of the hill overlooking the only sanctuary for mute swans anywhere in the world – the chapel is said to be a site of pilgrimage for women in search of a husband; the Saint being patron to spinsters. Although the Swannery’s first recorded existence was over six hundred years ago, it was in all probability established by Benedictine monks as early as the 11th century who founded the Abbey of St Peter, built at the bequest of King Canute and later destroyed during the Monastic Dissolution in 1539. Defoe’s claims of 7–8000 swans seem wild – there are at best 1000 birds today, but the monk’s motivations may have been less honourable than today’s guardians; the swans were a source of prized meat.
* 12l(ivres)/pounds in the first half of the 18th century would be about worth £1800-2000 in