The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Defoe in Dorset; Part 4

Continuing and completing Daniel Defoe’s travels through Dorset between 1722 and 1724, Harry Bucknall guides us on the final part of his journey through the county

Sherborne (or Shireburn, as Defoe called it) Abbey: ‘still a reverend pile, and shews the face of great antiquity’

Sherborne (or Shireburn, as Defoe called it) Abbey: ‘still a reverend pile, and shews the face of great antiquity’

Arriving in North Dorset, the author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe captured the region in his three-volume A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain at a unique moment in its history. Here pre-industrial society was booming as the Shaftesbury-Stalbridge-Blandford ‘triangle’ became a focus for manufacturing cloth in all its many and varied forms – from lace to stockings to sail canvas and buttons. Here it was that the fabrics and the fastenings that, in some senses, literally held the country together were made. The great steam driven looms of Lancashire that would revolutionise production and sweep all before them were still a good generation in the future hence Defoe’s commentary: ‘In this little interval also I visited some of the biggest towns in the north-west part of this county, as Blandford, a town on the river Stour … , a handsome well built town, but chiefly famous for making the finest bonelace in England, and where they shew’d me some so exquisitely fine, as I think I never saw better in Flanders, France or Italy, … but ’tis most certain, that they make exceeding rich lace in that county, such as no part of England can equal.’
Nothing remains of the lace industry that Defoe spoke so highly of, save Mrs Betty Penny’s collection of historic costumes in the Blandford Fashion Museum, which catalogues trends in clothing from 1740 to the present day.
The Blandford Forum that Defoe visited was most different from that of today; it was already recovering from a significant fire in 1713, when – nine years after Defoe had composed his history – on the afternoon of 4 June 1731, the town was almost completely destroyed when sparks from a soap boiler chimney fell onto a neighbouring thatch roof. The inferno ripped through the streets and even the Church of St Peter & St Paul, where the townsfolk were sheltering, succumbed to the flames later in the day.
Sixteen people died in the blaze and donations from across the land, including the Royal Family, were sent to help rebuild the town, which John and William Bastard set about designing with gusto; drawing up plans most notably for the Town Hall, the church, the market place, almshouses and a number of residences. The Bastard brothers, entrepreneurs in spirit, were not only builders, but furniture makers, ecclesiastical carvers and plaster workers; their company, Bastard & Co, was recorded as the single largest private losers in the fire.
Blandford is today described as a Georgian town because it was totally rebuilt as a consequence of the conflagration; the Town Hall was completed in 1734 but it would take a further twenty-nine years before the town was finally completed in 1760; a portico was added to the church to mark the occasion.

The market cross in Stalbridge

The market cross in Stalbridge

Back in Defoe’s day: ‘From thence I went west to Stourbridge, vulgarly call’d Strabridge; the town, and the country round is employ’d in the manufacture of stockings, and which was once famous for making the finest, best, and highest priz’d knit stockings in England; but that trade now is much decay’d by the encrease of the knitting-stocking engine, or frame, which has destroyed the hand knitting-trade for fine stockings thro’ the whole kingdom,…’ the industrial winds of change were already beginning to blow through the Blackmore Vale when Defoe visited Stalbridge, and it was perhaps to alleviate this new found austerity that King George I granted the town market rights. About the same time, the MP for Melcombe Regis, artist and father-in-law of Hogarth, Sir James Thornhill built Thornhill Park nearby. Pevsner once described it as a ‘modest but sizeable villa’. Recently on the market, it was one of the most sought after houses in Dorset. The obelisk erected to mark the accession of George II still stands to this day.

A form of transport unknown in Defoe's time, but popular in Stalbridge

A form of transport unknown in Defoe’s time, but popular in Stalbridge

If Defoe were to visit Stalbridge now, he would comment on the town’s welcoming feel. There is a great sense of tradition along the High Street, from the veritable cycle emporium at the far end, to the snug Post Office and the enduring presence of Dike & Son, the local stores since 1851, or still in a nostalgic vein, the Vault, where the connoisseur can even find vinyl records to suit his or her every need. It was also in Stalbridge, that the late, great and much-lamented Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Something in Stalbridge that would have been usual in Defoe's time

Something in Stalbridge that would have been usual in Defoe’s time

Defoe, meanwhile, heads further west: ‘From hence I came to Shireburn, a large and populous town, with one collegiate, or conventual church, and may properly claim to have more inhabitants in it than any town in Dorsetshire, tho’ it is neither the county town, or does it send members to Parliament; the church is still a reverend pile, and shews the face of great antiquity.’

Sherborne, capital of ancient Wessex, shows its antiquity but wears it lightly

Sherborne, capital of ancient Wessex, shows its antiquity but wears it lightly

It is hard not to empathise with Defoe; there is an intangible vibrancy to Sherborne – its characterful streets and secret courtyards, hewn out of the local golden ham stone, coupled with an ever present throng, partly the result of it being home to five schools, partly the beguiling array of shops, galleries, cafés and restaurants – give the town a charm and sense of purpose, as if it was still the capital of ancient Wessex.

Sherborne Abbey – a ‘conventual or collegiate church'

Sherborne Abbey – a ‘conventual or collegiate church’

To give provenance to this educational pedigree, King Alfred was educated here, and his two elder brothers, Kings Ethelbert and Ethelbald, are buried in the pretty 8th-century abbey, once the capital’s cathedral, with its exquisite vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows and intricately carved reredos. It is surprising, however, that Defoe makes no mention of Sherborne’s castles; the old, destroyed by Fairfax, the Parliamentarian General, and the new built by Sir Walter Raleigh and extended by the Digby family in the 17th century.

 A memorial to Baron Digby in Sherborne by John Nost

A memorial to Baron Digby in Sherborne by John Nost

The A30, the old London to Penzance road, takes you through rolling open country where big hedges abound and bold tree lines march the ridges that climb towards the border with Wiltshire until Shaftesbury ‘upon the top of a high hill, and which closes the plain, or downs, and whence nature presents you a new scene or prospect, (viz.) of Somerset and Wiltshire, where ’tis all enclosed, and grown with woods, forests, and planted hedge-rows’.
Since early times, Shaftesbury, because of its high position, had always played an important role in the Kingdom of Wessex. In the early 10th century, Royal Mints were established in the town by King Æthelstan. King Alfred fortified Shaftesbury against the Danes and, later, with his daughter, Æthelgifu, founded the Abbey, which rose to become the wealthiest Benedictine Nunnery in England, until broken up in the reign of Henry VIII during the Reformation.
In 980AD the Abbey, became home to the relics of Saint Edward the Martyr, the King of England murdered at Corfe Castle in an alleged conspiracy by the Dowager Queen Ælfthryth and Edward’s half-brother Æthelred the Unready. The town thus became a site of pilgrimage, bringing added wealth and income.
During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the relics were buried for safe keeping and only recovered in the 1930s; thereafter they lay in a bank vault for many years while the authorities wrangled over whether the remains should be returned to Shaftesbury or handed to the Orthodox Church where Edward is also venerated. In the 1980s, the Saint was placed in the care of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and he is enshrined in Brookwood, Surrey, in the St Edward the Martyr Orthodox Church – far from his kingdom and a long way from his spiritual resting place, no matter how he met his end.
Defoe found the town to his liking: ‘the country rich, fertile and populous, the towns and houses standing thick, and being large and full of inhabitants, and those inhabitants fully employed in the richest and most valuable manufacture in the world, (viz.) the English cloathing, as well, the medley, or mixt clothing, as whites; as well for the home trade, as the foreign trade.’
It is arguable that Defoe visited Shaftesbury at its zenith; Abraham Case founded his button business in the 17th century and by the reign of Queen Anne, his family and heirs had turned it into an efficient and profitable commercial operation that employed 700 people; by the end of the 18th century, over 4000 women and children were involved in the manufacturing process. Initially made from rams horn discs and latterly wire rings, the buttons were renowned for the detail of their embroidery, with names like ‘High Top’ and ‘Dorset Knob’; remarkably, it was not until the Great Exhibition of 1851, when John Ashton exhibited his button-making machine, that mechanisation dealt a devastating blow to the weavers and button makers that, for centuries, had made the town, and surrounding areas, so wealthy. The effect on the community was devastating, leading to considerable unemployment and significant levels of emigration. Shaftesbury has never regained such prominence since. ◗

Dorset Directory