What is M B of the B of D?
Jo Draper deciphers the lettering on the cryptic plates to be found around Dorchester
Published in July ’14
Standing proud on cast-iron plates set on bridges or rough Portland Stone pillars, looking rather like milestones, the letters ‘MB of the B of D’ are to be found scattered around Dorchester. To what, though, does this mysterious selection of initials refer?
The date on the plate –1835 – gives the clue. These are the Municipal Bounds of the Borough of Dorchester, as defined by the Municipal Reform Act of 1835. Until then, Dorchester had been tidily confined within its ancient Roman defences which had been turned into the tree-lined walks of today in the 18th century. Most of the big additions in 1835 were taken out of Fordington parish, which had surrounded the town on three sides. The actual village of Fordington became part of the town of Dorchester too.
I had always assumed that these boundary markers were put up in a fit of enthusiasm in 1835 or 1836, a sort of solid reminder to the robbed parish of Fordington that things were different now. Research for this article has shown me how wrong I was: certainly the Borough ceremonially beat the new bounds in 1835, but it was not until the second perambulation in 1857 that the stones were thought of.
In 1857, the Mayor, John Ensor ‘directed attention to the desirability of perambulating the boundary of the Borough’ and stated that ‘a few boundary stones’ would not ‘come to much’. During the perambulation, ‘marks were set up at different points where the boundary stones, or plates,’ were to be set up. The Town Council had resolved that ‘7 boundary stones be provided 6 feet in length & 12 plates’. They are all dated 1835 because that was when the new boundary was fixed.
The 1831 report recommending the new boundary saw that there could be problems for the southern part ‘Fordington Field is intersected by several tracks, varying from year to year according to the nature of the cultivation. On this side, however, a series of remarkable objects present themselves, by which a well defined line can be ‘drawn across this otherwise uniform expanse, without diverging to an unreasonable distance’.
Fordington still had open fields, as in medieval times, with no fixed boundaries. The ‘series of remarkable objects’ were mostly barrows, often used in Saxon times to fix parish boundaries, but rarely needed in the 19th century when almost all the open fields had been enclosed and cut up into farms. Even in 1857, Fordington’s open fields had not been enclosed. The southern boundary headed west from Max Gate for Two Barrows, nipped to Maumbury Rings, and then angled north to Laurence Barrow. The only one of these markers to survive the expansion of the town is Conquer Barrow at Mount Pleasant, on the eastern boundary.
In 1900 the boundary was moved again, this time including much more land to the west and south, tripling the acreage of the Borough. Dorchester finally had proper drainage, and a good water supply which affected the new boundary. Some places were deliberately left out of the extended Borough – for example Poundbury Farm ‘owing to the difficulty of supplying water to such a height’. If it had been inside the boundary the Borough would have had to supply water to it.
The Beating of these new Bounds in June 1901 was a thoroughly serious occasion. A huge procession was led by the Borough Surveyor ‘if we disregard a rabble of irresponsible youths who formed an advanced guard’. The ‘Corporation started at Grey’s Bridge, where the boundary was the same as the 1835 one, ie along the river. Nothing was left to chance: ‘Temporary bridges had been constructed across every stream and gully’ sometimes with ‘the luxury of a hand rail. Even ‘the brick wall by the old Charminster Road was scaled by means of a temporary flight of wooden steps’ records the Dorset County Chronicle’s long report on the event. Their reporter noted that there were several women in the group and they ‘did the journey with a light-hearted levity and easy grace that was the envy of the more corpulent masculine members of the party’. At this early stage, the Corporation ‘conscientiously followed every sinuosity of the river bank; and here the free and easy general public enjoyed a distinct advantage,’ by taking ‘the many short cuts which presented themselves’. In fact the boundary was the centre of the river – they should all have swum.
At the first boundary stone (on the New Charminster Road, not surviving) the Mayor was about to seize the first of the six boys to be bumped, when ‘he himself was seized by two or three facetious councillors’ and himself bumped on the stone. The six boys ‘were “bumped” not on the head, but on that portion of the anatomy especially provided by Nature for the purpose’. (One longs for him to say ‘bottom’, but he never does.) Thrashing with a stick was saved as a special treat at the second stone (surviving close to the new cemetery on the Bradford Peverell road). All this bumping and thrashing was to make the boys remember the boundaries, which one would have thought was sufficiently memorialised in the Town Clerk’s new map.
There were at least two people in the 1901 Beating who had done this before. Mr J Vincent, the Borough Beadle, had been beaten as a boy in 1857, 14 years earlier, and even more impressively old Mr Noyes, a retired prison warder, was beaten (lightly one hopes) at the 1835 stone re-used at Mount Pleasant. He had been beaten at the first boundary beating in 1835, 66 years earlier.
The Corporation did themselves well with a lunch in a big tent at the second stone: salmon, crevettes, roast chicken, etc, crowned with a choice of seven puddings including cherry meringues and strawberries and cream. ‘An abundance of still and sparkling wines crowned the board’ followed by many toasts in champagne. The Chronicle’s reporter seems to have been exhausted after the long lunch (and maybe all that toasting) and only notes that parts of the route were through standing corn; it was July. To the west and south, the route was across the open fields of Fordington, with boundary stones where the roads were crossed.
The southern part of the boundary again used two barrows as a fixed point on Conygar Hill. From near Max Gate, the old boundary was re-used.
Later in the day the Mayor also held a garden party in his tennis ground in the Prince of Wales Road, with ‘delicacies for tea’. As a finale, the Borough Gardens were illuminated ‘a mazy labyrinth of coloured lights’. The Rifle Volunteers band played the Corporation down the High Street at the start of the long walk, played them back up the High Street on their return and played from 6.00-7.30 for the Garden Party, and was probably responsible for the music for the dancing in the Borough Gardens in the evening, when ‘many people indulged in dancing on the grass’.
Dorchester has expanded its boundaries several times since 1900, most recently to incorporate Poundbury. Only three of the 1835 cast-iron plates survive, and only one of them on its pillar of Portland Stone. Two plates are on Grey’s Bridge and Little Mohun Bridge, and the pillared one is now off the re-sited roads south-east of Max Gate, on the cut-off bit of the old Wareham Road… and well grown in.
The 1900 stones survive rather better – a very tall one on the Bradford Peverell Road (near the new cemetery); smaller ones on the Maiden Castle & Herringston Roads. The latter has lost its plate and has been reset. ◗