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The County of Dorsetshire     OS Map Grid Ref: ST721015

 The County of Dorsetshire

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Commercial fisheries were once an important part of the economy of the Dorset coast. Commercial sea fishing declined with catches as at Abbotsbury.

Trade between Dorset and Newfoundland commenced in the 17th century and led to the prosperity of many merchants of Poole. It also produced much prosperity in the famous rope-making town of Bridport whose merchants built many fine houses there in the 18th century.

see also:   The Wessex Newfoundland Society

Maintenance of the roads within its boundaries was the responsibility of the parish since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and each able-bodied parishioner was liable to provide four (later six) days' labour or money in lieu for the maintenance of the roads. With the advent of turnpikes, several of Dorset's more important routes were 'turnpiked' between 1750 and 1775 and other roads were added up until 1841.

Not all main routes were turnpiked and all road which were not remained the reponsibility of the parish. How effective turnpiking was depended on the experience and competence of the turnpike's surveyor and whether the tolls raised were sufficient to cover the initial loan, continuing running expenses and leave sufficient for running repairs.

Several dozen turnpike trusts were established in Dorset and several of them controlled such short stretches of road that their overheads left little funds for carrying out running repairs. The main east-west route through the county (via Blandford Forum, Dorchester and Bridport), however, was taken over by only two trusts and became a Mail Coach route in 1784.

The turnpike trusts usually took over existing roads or straightened routes across open country; wherever possible the trusts preferred the readily drained hilltop routes rather than parallel valley roads (the Dorchester-Sherborne and Blandford-Shaftesbury turnpikes kept to high open country and avoided the routes followed by the present main roads through the villages).

By 1841, many turnpike trusts had become so loaded with debt, a situation excarebated by poor management, they did not have the resources to maintain the roads in their care. An Act of Parliament of 1841 permitted Justices of the Peace to help the trusts from parish rates where necessary.

The arrival of the railways, particularly during the 1830s and 1840s, robbed the turnpike trusts of much of their traffic and the coaching revenue in particular. Parliament began to extinguish the less efficient turnpike trusts in 1864 throwing the maintenance of the roads onto the parish rate (as statute labour had been abolished in 1835). Central government were eventually forced to provide a quarter of the cost of maintaining dis-turnpiked roads from central funds.

Responsibility for the upkeep of roads was transfered from the Parishes to the newly-formed Highway Boards in 1862. By 1889, nearly all the trusts had expired and the maintenance of the main roads and former turnpikes became the responsibility of the newly-formed County Councils.

The turnpike system allowed the development of coaching along the main roads to and from London; the journey to the capital from Weymouth by mail coach in 1791 took only eighteen hours, by 1825, lighter coaches were completing the same route in fifteen hours.


The railways cut travelling time between Dorchester and London from fourteen hours by coach, initially to four, and later to only three hours.

The first railway line arrived in Dorset in 1847and, while there was little industry in the county to benefit from the new rapid transport, the railways had a profound influence on Dorset's development in the latter half of the 19th century. The railways helped the market towns along their lines to grow at the expense of their less fortunate counterparts and, by providing a rapid means of transporting milk, were a major influence in the development of dairy farming. The railways also helped the development of the towns of the Dorset coast as seaside tourist resorts allowing many town and city dwellers of the latter part of the Victorian era to afford summer holidays by the sea for the first time.

The Southampton-Dorchester line was expected to be the first section of a trunk line linking Southampton and Exter. In the event, the Salisbury & Yeovil line was chosen to run to Exeter. The Dorchester line was then developed to serve the ports of Poole and Weymouth and the expanding resort of Bournemouth.

An Act of Parliamnet for the first railway in Dorset was passed in 1845 and the single track linking Dorchester to Southampton via Wimborne Minster was completed in 1847. For reasons of cost, it by-passed towns such as Christchurch and Poole. This line joined the London and Southampton Railway and thus provided a through route to the capital.

The Wiltshire, Somerset and Weymouth Railway was also empowered by and Act of Parliament of 1845 which was backed by the Great Western. The tunnels and awkward gradients caused the line to be far from complete when the railway boom collapsed and worked on it stopped completely. The Great Western Railway took over the project in 1950 and the line was finally opened in 1857. In the meantime, Weymouth temporarily lost its Channel Island packet service to the port of Southampton.

The Southampton to Dorchester line became part of the LSWR which engaged in a struggle with the Great Western Railway for traffic to the South-West, a struggle which was complicated by the GWR's use of seven foot guage at the time. Both companies proposed unsuccessful schemes for a Dorset to Exeter lines in 1853, the GWR from Maiden Newton and the LSWR from Dorchester.

The station at Dorchester remained unaltered so that trains had to back into it. A collision was inevitble and occured in 1877 causing new platforms to be built which enabled down trains to pass through.

An agreement was reached for the LSWR to build a loop connecting to the Weymouth line and exercie running powers over it.

The use of the Dorchester to Weymouth line by standard guage trains meant that a third rail had to be laid along the length of the route. In return, the LSWR was obliged to lay an equal length of third rail eastwards from Dorchester to enable broad guage trains to reach Winfrith Heath (none ever did and, after rusting unused for many years, the third rail was taken up).

The Dorset branch of the GWR changed to standard guage in 1874.

The Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway survived the amalgamation of 1921 largely due to the fact that is was jointly controlled by the SWR and Midland Railway.

The Dorset Central Railway started as a branch line from the LSWR line at Wimborne Minster to Blandford Forum opened in 1860. The line was soon extended up the Stour Valley to meet the Somerset Central line at Bruton in 1862. Only four years later, a loop was built to connect the line to the Salisbury to Yeovil line at Temple Combe. In 1875, the two comapnies amalgamated to form the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway. Between Blandford Forum and Templecombe, the Central Dorset line was a single track.

The Hole bay curve to the north of Hamworthy was built in 1892 and allowed the main line from London to be diverted from from Wimborne Minster to run through Bournemouth.

Bournemouth was little more than a tiny fishing hamlet during the early development of the railways in Dorset. As the new town grew in importance, it was approached by lines from both Poole in the west and Christchurch in the east. These were linked up in 1888.

The development of the Royal Naval Base caused the extension of the Weymouth line to Portland in 1865 and on to Easton to accomodate quarry traffic. Both sections were once open to passenger traffic.

A single-track branch was laid from Upwey on the Weymouth line to Abbotsbury but this was closed in 1952 and later dismantled.

Nearly every important market town in the county with the exception of Shaftesbury was connected to the railway system by 1862. Lyme Regis and Swanage, however, were still served by horse-drawn vehicles Axminster and Wareham. The route from Wareham to Swanage was opened in 1881. The hills between Axminster and Lyme Regis presented considerable engineering difficulties which were only tackled at the beggining of the 20th century.

see also:   London & South Western Railway

No canal was ever built in Dorset although the Dorset and Somerset Canal was planned in the late 18th century from the Kennet and Avon Canal near Bradford to the Stour, just below Shillingstone. A branch was to run from Frome to the Somerset coalfield and part of this was actually made although it never opened.

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The Wessex Newfoundland Society


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Island of Portland Railways
  by BL Jackson

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