The best of Dorset in words and pictures

A fair legacy of landmarks – Verwood

Joël Lacey charts the 700-year progress of Verwood from place-name, to holding, to village and of its last quarter century as a town

This shot, taken around 1920, shows the piecemeal development of Verwood; houses were built first along roads, and then in-filled (www.barriepictures.co.uk)

To the modern visitor, Verwood may itself seem a relatively recent arrival if one uses architecture alone as a guide to the antiquity of a place. Verwood has ten listed buildings – the oldest of which is thought to date from the late 17th century – while Three Legged Cross has one from the 18th century. This somewhat meagre architectural legacy is an indication not of a lack of antiquity, but of an absence of rich landowners within the then hamlet prepared to build grand expressions of wealth.
This fact is probably reflected in a description from Barbara Kerr’s Back to the soil, wherein Verwood is described as ‘the poorest place on earth’, which, although a little extreme, gives an indication that Verwood was not a grand place or at least lacked a selection of grand houses.
Despite Verwood’s relative architectural anonymity, it has, however, been known of for 725 years this year. Its transformation in terms of its size has, along with two crucial pieces of legislation, been the drive behind the two great leaps forward of Verwood, first to a village and then, in 1987 to a town.

Newly built Victorian villas along Ringwood Road in the 1890s show the relative sparsity of development as recently as 120 years ago (www.barriepictures.co.uk)

First recorded in 1288 as Beauboys (or Beubos) from the Old French for handsome (or fair) wood; the root of the town’s name has been long-established, with Fairwod appearing in 1329, Ferwood in 1614 and thanks to the Dorset dialect rendition of F as V culminating in its ultimate official name change to the current rendering.
Whether the place was named for a person or vice-versa, the transfer of lands on 8 December 1377 by William de Bello Bosco, to the vicar of Cranborne of (inter alia):…’ the lands, tenements, meadows, woodland, heath, marsh, pasture, rents and services” in Fairwoode certainly cements the connection between the place and a one-time landowner – albeit one who gave his name in Latin, rather than Norman French. The transfer to a clergyman in Cranborne is an important one, as it was from Cranborne that Verwood was administered until an act of parliament requiring that all villages with 300 or more inhabitants should have an elected parish council. Verwood had been run as on offshoot of the ecclesiastical parish of Cranborne – and in much the same manner as it had, since 1834, fallen under the auspices of the Wimborne and Cranborne Poor Union, it would ultimately be a parish in the Wimborne and Cranborne Rural District Council.
The Local Government (England and Wales) Act became law on 5 March 1894, but Cranborne’s parochial authorities held their last meeting on the subject of Verwood on 29 March and elections to fill the newly minted parish council vacancies were not held until mid-December later that year; that date of 17 December is recorded in the school’s log as a holiday for the purposes of Parish Council elections.

Health and Safety regulations and working clothing have changed a good deal since this 1890s shot of the station showing its official 'railway' name of Verwood

The railway came to town before Verwood was indeed officially a civil parish, let alone a town, with the station being built in 1866; it closed, along with so many others in Dorset, in 1964. Whilst the station signs read Verwood, the name on the platform spelt out in stones and flowers, was Fairwood. The other amenities associated with sizeable settlements can be said to have arrived with irregularity and over a pretty broad range. The first churchyard burial occurred in 1830 and in October 1847, the national school opened its doors. In the mid 1850’s equivalent of its OFSTED report, the school inspector reported that, to the great credit of the teacher and assistant: ‘the attendance of the children in this wild district is very good’.

This is not a still from Village of the Damned but Victorian schoolchildren playing in the still deserted roads of the 1890s

The first doctor (Dr Girling) to take up residence in Verwood did so in 1921 at the Restynge House. Perhaps he was attracted by the fact that some piped water had been coming into the village from a reservoir near Stephens Castle the year before. In 1939, clean, fresh water from boreholes made its way to Verwood, although it was noted that, five years later, half the town’s properties still had no running water. Mains sewerage did not arrive until 1970/71, by which time Verwood had a population of over 3500.
During the war, Verwood was on the receiving end of some bombing, all to a greater or lesser degree of inaccuracy as there was nothing militarily to be destroyed, but it still tragically recorded a sole civilian casualty owing to the Luftwaffe – the unfortunate fifteen-year-old, Max Barrett.
Much has been written on Verwood’s population growth, but little about how this was a deliberate policy. Much as Germany is currently concerned about its balance of younger and older people, and the British government is concerned about the lack of available housing, so it was in East Dorset in 1961, when a report was commissioned to look into the cold, hard statistics of the demographic breakdown of Verwood’s and the wider district’s population, and whether and how that increase might be balanced to get more younger people into the parish.
Verwood’s historically poor soil proved, for once, to be a useful asset, at least to the extent that using the land for development was not going to affect the agricultural possibilities of the area. So, just as so-called ‘brownfield’ sites in towns have been targeted as especially attractive for development, so the brown fields around Verwood proved more attractive – and significantly, useful – to developers than to anyone else.
In a way, this piecemeal infilling of land with houses was very much a continuation of how the spread of hamlets had themselves developed in older times, just at a vastly accelerated rate.
It is fair to say that by the time, in 1987, the parish council decided to avail itself of part six of section 245 of the Local Government Act 1972, Verwood was one of the most populous parishes in existence in England, let alone in Dorset, with a population of just shy of 10,000. The terms of the Act were quite simple, namely: ‘The council of a parish which is not grouped with any other parish may resolve that the parish shall have the status of a town and thereupon—
(a) the council of the parish shall bear the name of the council of the town;
(b) the chairman and vice-chairman of the council shall be respectively entitled to the style of town mayor and deputy town mayor;
(c) the parish meeting shall have the style of town meeting.’
So the parish council of Verwood voted to become the town of Verwood.
Whilst the pace of population growth of Verwood has abated (it grew by fifty per cent between achieving town status and the 2011 census compared with the 250% increase over the previous 25 years and new residential developments have fallen to 102 in the last five years compared with nearly three times that in the previous five years), the shift in demographics desired by the 1961 report, which recommended ‘inward migration’ – ie building lots of new homes – has happened. Verwood’s population split shows that the town has less than the average percentage for Dorset as a whole of people in all age groups over fifty years old, and greater than average population percentages for all age groups under fifty (except the 15-30 year grouping, where the differences are statistically insignificant).
The nature of the community cannot be shown by statistics alone, but the fact that Verwood has a burglary rate that is nearly half that of Dorset (excluding Poole and Bournemouth) as a whole, a quarter of that of the South-West region and a fifth of the national average for England and Wales is just one of the reasons why its residents are happy to live there. Another is the relative lack of deprivation of the population of Verwood; its residents are by no means all wealthy, but eight out of ten of its wards are in the 10 per cent least deprived in Dorset. Even in the other two wards, the health element of that deprivation index rating is still better than is the average for Dorset.
By necessity, with the arrival of the new residents, came lots of new infrastructure: roads were built, the town became home to new emergency services, two first schools and a middle school while from the private sector came a supermarket, which itself has had to grow.

Another view of the railway station which also shows evidence of the town's pottery history in the form of a kiln tower (www.barriepictures.co.uk)

As the town has grown in size, so it has grown in terms of confidence, and reached out to towns across Europe: first, in 1984/5 it twinned with Champtoceaux (which lies between Nantes and Angers on the River Loire). To reflect Verwood’s burgeoning size, the twinning was extended to include the other eight communities in Champtoceaux’s canton (Bouzillé, Drain, Landemont, Liré, Saint Christophe la Couperie, Saint Laurent des Autels and Saint Sauveur de Landemont) in 1992; this was the same year in which Verwood also twinned with Niederheimbach am Rhein in Germany.
A permanent record of the twinning exists in the form of Verwood Town Council’s emblem. When the twinning had been agreed, it was decided that the Twinning Association should have a shield. This was put to a competition of local schoolchildren and other residents and the chosen design was a shield that showed elements of Verwood’s location and history: Forestry, pottery plus a hint of closeness to the sea. Although the town could not, for heraldic reasons, have a shield, the idea evolved into the circular emblem, which shows trees, pottery and a pair of besoms over water.
Like the town itself, the emblem designed for the twinning association is the representation of the confluence of history, trade and co-operation that epitomises Verwood.

Dorset Directory