Axe heads found near Wool and on Moreton Heath are evidence of a nomadic people that lived in the Bovington area perhaps 5,000 years ago. Beginning about 3500 BC a further move of people from the continent took place.
These new settlers were farmers and they occupied high points of land over the whole of the area that is now Dorset. In the latter part of the late Stone (Neolithic) Age and in the following early Bronze Age, one of the local centres of population was located close to the site of present-day Dorchester, where now stands the remains of Maiden Castle.
Between 1800 BC and 1200 BC was the period of the Wessex culture, when the Bronze Age people of Dorset, Wiltshire and of parts of Somerset and Hampshire were at the height of their power. Cremating their dead, they left in Dorset alone between 1,700 and 1,800 “round barrows’’ containing the ashes of their warriors and also axes, rapiers, daggers and other items of bronze and even ornaments of gold.
Between Bridport and Dorchester there are great numbers of these burial mounds; in the Bovington area there are examples at Clouds Hill, Chaldon and Affpuddle.
In about 500 BC, iron workers from Central Europe began to reach the shores of Britain. Hengistbury Head, ten miles to the east of Poole, was one of the main landing areas and later, in about 350 BC, there were landings at Lulworth Cove. The long earthworks which is plainly visible on Bindon Hill, on the ranges at Lulworth, was built by these people as protection for their staging camp which was sited in the ground between Bindon and the sea. These new arrivals moved in, and for protection established their settlements on the various high points in the area. It was during this, the Iron Age, that Maiden Castle was constructed; coinciding with the previous Neolithic site. The Roman invasion of Britain began in 43 AD and all evidence goes to show that there was heavy fighting in the Dorset area, including skirmishes around many of the Iron Age hill forts. In that year or in the one following, it came the turn of Maiden Castle to meet and to succumb to the full shock of the Roman Army. Between twenty and thirty years later, a Romano-British country town of considerable size began to grow up at the near by intersection of a number of Roman roads.
This was Durnovaria, the present-day Dorchester, where many of the remains of this Roman town may still be seen. The amphitheatre at Maumbury Rings and the Colliton Park town house on the north side of the County Hall are particularly interesting.
The departure of the Romans from Britain early in the 5th century was followed by the gradual moving in of the Saxons and the creation of the West Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, of which Dorset became a part.
In 787 the raiding Danes made their first appearance in the area, when they landed at Portland, and for the following two hundred and fifty years they constantly ravaged the surrounding country. Entering Poole Harbour, they burnt and pillaged the Saxon town of Wareham on several occasions. On 18th March, 978, King Edward the Martyr was assassinated at Corfe Castle.
In 1066 Dorset formed part of Harold’s earldom and at the hands of the Norman Conqueror suffered the devastation of Dorchester, Wareham, Shaftesbury and Bridport. Corfe Castle was frequently the residence of King John and was a stronghold of the barons against Henry III. Athelhampton Hall, just east of Puddletown, is one of the finest surviving examples of a house of the Medieval period.
During the Civil War there was much activity in Dorset, where the general feeling fluctuated between the King and Parliament. In 1643, Lyme Regis and Poole were the only Parliamentary garrisons, but this situation was reversed by the following year when Sherborne, the Isle of Portland and Corfe were the only surviving Royalist garrisons. The castle at Corfe was held by Lady Bankes against the Parliamentarians from 1643 until 1645 when, due to the treachery of an officer of the garrison, it fell to Cromwell’s men. After this episode it was dismantled and wrecked.
An examination of the ruins today shows that the stone-workers of Purbeck were masters of their craft; the wafer-thin mortar between the blocks of Purbeck stone is still in many places holding these great blocks together, in spite of the fact that large sections of the walls were brought crashing to the ground; they had also made the outer surfaces of these stones smooth so that the attackers could find no place where they could obtain any assistance in attempting to scale the walls.
It was a coal brig out of Poole that took Charles II across to France in 1651 after the Battle of Worcester. Poole, also the meeting place of Charles and the Duke of Monmouth in 1665, was twenty years later to be the scene of Monmouth’s capture, when he was caught in a ditch some distance to the north as he was endeavouring to gain the port. Retribution against those people accused of taking part in Monmouth’s insurrection was immediate and severe, the “bloody assize’’ of Judge Jeffreys moving to Dorchester shortly after this episode. Many of the victims were executed and many others were sold into slavery in the West Indies.
In 1834 at Tolpuddle, a village eight miles east of Dorchester, seven farmworkers formed an Agricultural Labourers Society. They did this in an effort to protect themselves against their employers who, in spite of there being a minimum wage set at 10/- per week, were paying only 7/-. This mild protest was dealt with extremely severely and the men were sentenced to transportation for seven years. The “Tolpuddle Martyrs’’, as they were called, were pardoned two years later, after much suffering, as a result of a country-wide protest, a pardon was grudgingly given. It was some time before they could get back to England, but they eventually moved to Essex and emigrated to Canada in the 1840s.
Thomas Hardy, the novelist and poet, was born near Dorchester, the “Casterbridge’’ of his Wessex novels, in 1840; Woolbridge Manor, close to Wool Station, is associated with Tess in his “Tess of the D’Urbervilles’’.
T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), explorer, scholar and author of the “Seven Pillars of Wisdom’’, served as a soldier in the Royal Tank Corps at Bovington from 1923 to 1925. He was living at Clouds Hill, close to the Bovington tank-driving training area, when he met with a fatal motor-cycling accident on the 13th May, 1935. He is buried in Moreton churchyard.