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Lying as if bracketed by two rivers, The Piddle (Trent) on the north and the Frome on the south, Wareham’s strategic importance was realised from very early times. Finds recovered from excavations under the town’s walls proved there had been some settlement on the site during the Iron Age and Romano-British periods, though it is the Saxons we have to thank for the foundation of Wareham as a planned town (burh). Even so, it was s stronghold resisting the Saxon incursions for two and a half centuries after the Romans left.

Sometime in the 8th century victorious Saxons claimed the site and fortified it with an earthen wall on the north, west and east sides. Christianised, they made their burh a centre of the British faith, having links with the church in Gaul. St. Aldhelm, later to become Bishop of  Sherborne visited Wareham to unify the Roman and Celtic traditions.

It is Aldhelm who is believed responsible for the founding, near the north gate in about 698, of St. Martin’’ Church. The original building is supposed to be the burial place of the West Saxon King Beorthric in 802, but the earliest fabric of the present building dates from about 1020. The church is worth a visit to see the remains of Norman and later paintings on its walls, and the characteristically Saxon high and narrow proportions of the building. After 1736 the church was only in use for baptisms and marriages, and was restored in 1935. A miracle legend holds that after the Danes destroyed the roof in a raid, shepherds could still shelter within the walls without getting wet. St. Martins is also famous for a recumbent effigy of Lawrence of Arabia by Eric Kennington.

By reason of its strategic importance the Dane Guthrum captured Wareham in 876, but in the following year King Alfred routed the Danes in a sea battle off Swanage and strengthened the town’s defences. Alfred’s daughter Ethelfleda is said to have restored the Priory after Guthrum had sacked it in 876. Later King Athelstan founded a mint and granted Wareham a market, ruling that all trade must take place within the burh. Towards the end of the 10th century Wareham was assailed by the Danes Sweyn and Cnut (Canute).

Following their own conquest the Normans made the Priory a Benedictine cell of Lire Abbey, and undertook extensive rebuilding in stone around 1100, including strengthening the town’s walls and building a motte and bailey castle. The castle was raided by the army of King Stephen, an event which caused Wareham to be caught in the cross-fire between the king and Matilda, whom the town supported. Stephen soon lost the stronghold to Robert of Gloucester, who installed Prince Henry there until he left for France in 1146, but the conflict pushed Wareham into economic recession from what had been a position of growing prosperity. The slump was further compounded by progressive silting up of the harbour, on which the town’s prosperity depended.

Holy Trinity Church, where historian John Hutchins was Rector from 1743, stands near the South Bridge over the Piddle. Today it is the Purbeck Information & Heritage Centre, but before the Norman Conquest there was a chapel to St. Andrew on the site.

Wareham’s parish church of Lady St.Mary features St. Edward’s Chapel of about 1100, said to have been his resting place before removal of his body to Shaftesbury. In the north aisle reposes a Nordic-style stone sarcophagus hinting at the presence of a church on this site as early as 700. The broad, windowed chancel and the Becket Chapel however, are early 14th century, and the tower was added about 1500. Lady St. Mary was once attached to the Priory.

The Priory was built on the east side of Frome Quay (later Wareham’s trading heart) and may have succeeded a convent on the site. It certainly became a Benedictine house in Norman times. In 1414 the Priory was taken over by a cell of Carthusian Monks of Sheen, who held it until the dissolution in 1536. Today the oldest part of the Priory is Elizabethan, and lies between St. Mary’s and the Frome.

The growing economic importance of Wareham during the medieval period is reflected especially in the north west quarter, where there is a Cow Lane, Roper’s Lane, Tinker’s Lane and Mill Lane, which runs up to the north wall above the Mill House. The Mill was powered by the Piddle, upon which sluices were also constructed to control the irrigation of the water meadows. Comfortable town houses and inns were built on the main streets, intermixed with many poorer dwellings. Butchers shambles and charnal houses were crowded on the wider streets near the Cross.

John Streche founded the Almshouses, now private residences, in 1418. In 1461 John Haynes leased the grounds of the castle for cultivation, by which time the keep had fallen into ruin. Today the line the bailey once followed is marked by Trinity Lane and an archway set into the Rectory wall in Pound Lane may be all that remains above ground.

During the Civil War the town’s fortunes fluctuated widely. The Parliamentarian commander, Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper, wanted Wareham raised to the ground to prevent it falling into the hands of the Cavaliers. The town was a Royalist stronghold at the outset of the war, but then was captured by Cromwell twice and re-captured by the Royalists twice. Parliament ordered the town walls to be slighted (lowered) to half their original height. Following the Duke of Monmouth’s Rebellion in 1685, some of his followers were hung, drawn and quartered on the part of the wall known as the Bloody Bank.

In 1703 Queen Anne conferred a charter upon Wareham, heralding a new-found Regency prosperity won through the Purbeck Marble and stone trades, servicing Corfe Castle, and the wealth of the merchants. One merchant in particular, Thomas Perkins, found Bestwall outside the town wall an ideal location for the concealment of contraband from his smuggling operations. But smuggling was a popular if illicit occupation; in time it was said that for every Wareham man in business there was one of independent means.

But fire selectively destroyed some of the older buildings three times through the 18th century: in 1704, 1742 and in 1762 when 133 buildings were reduced to ashes. To tackle this last blaze turf ash was thrown onto a dunghill at the Bull’s Head (now Lloyds Bank). The Rectory of the Dorset historian John Hutchings was the third building to be lost in the fire. But for a courageous act of salvage by his devoted wife, the manuscript of Hutchins’ History & Antiquities of the County of Dorset would have been lost. But it was the timber and thatch houses of the artisans and traders which suffered most. The Kings Arms survived but the Red Lion had to be rebuilt. After the last fire the roads were widened and the houses rebuilt in brick and tile, although a few thatched buildings still mark the limit of the disaster.

The Town Hall stands on the site of a church once dedicated to St. Peter, built in 1321 but destroyed in the 1762 fire. Six years later this was rebuilt as the Town Hall and Jail, and rebuilt again in 1870. It is now the town’s museum and Tourist Information Centre.

Although the 20th century saw output from the Purbeck quarries contract, the extraction of ball clay and oil has increased over the same period. English China Clays (Ball Clays Ltd.) have established an office in the town, showing the continued vigour of Wareham’s commercial life. There is also a thriving horticultural sector, with the dark peaty soil well suited to the cultivation of vegetables and fruit. There is a market for the farm produce on Thursdays, and an annual cattle market in East Street. A new shopping precinct now stands on a site off St. John’s Hill, making money on the site of the old mint of Athelstan and Edward the Confessor.



William Knapp 1698-1768

William Knapp was born in 1698 at Wareham and died at Poole, where he was buried on September 26th 1768. He was a shoemaker and for 39 years he was the Parish Clerk for Poole, where he is known to have played an instrument and been a member of the Church Choir. In 1753 he published a book of hymn and psalm tunes titled Church Melody, that included the tune “Wareham“, which has been included in many hymn books over the years and is his most recognisable work.

Church Melody was reprinted several times and included a reprinting of An Imploration to the King of Kings, written by Charles I while a prisoner in Carisbrooke Castle in 1648. The book is beautifully engraved.   He also published another book containing a set of new psalms and anthems for church occasions, including one that commemorates the fire that engulfed Blandford in 1731. This book is dedicated to John Saintloe Esq., of Little Fontmill who is addressed as one who appreciated and practised divine music.  In this second book Knapp includes the tune ‘Langton’, which he claims as his own work but which was written some 180 years earlier by Tallis, who contributed it to Archbishop Parker’s Psalmster.

In the index we find that our Dorset-bred composer dedicated almost all his hymn and psalm tunes to the towns and villages of his native county.


Wareham – Attack and Counter Attack

The population of the town of Wareham during the Civil War was predominantly for the Royalist cause, while Poole was almost to a man for Parliament. In 1643 the Poole garrison was commanded by Capt. Lay; he decided to attack Wareham by boat and landed 200 men at Redcliffe taking a small party of Royalists by surprise. The Roundheads chased the Royalists along the river path to the quay, where battle raged for most of the day, the fierce and bloody fighting leaving many dead, some from drowning. As the Poole men departed they seized ammunition, took many prisoners and carried off much of the produce intended for the following day’s market.

The people of Wareham were inspired by the loyal sermons of their Rector the Reverend William Wake, who was not shy of involving himself in military matters and is described by a contemporary writer as “a jolly soldier like cleric.” Reverend Wake was taken prisoner on nineteen occasions during the Civil War and was at the Siege of Sherborne Castle.
Wareham remained in Royalist hands during the winter of 1643 but on 27th February 1644 Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper for Parliament launched a full scale attack on the town. The assault came from all sides and the Royalists were greatly outnumbered. A fierce battle took place on Holme Bridge where forty five men, both horse and foot, beat off three hundred Roundheads for five hours, killing forty of them. It was reported that Captain Purton was wounded and “bled to death while encouraging his men with great cheerfulness” After a day of relentless attacks by the Roundheads from Poole the outnumbered Royalists surrendered the garrison.

 As the 13th of April 1644 dawned a force of Royalist Cavaliers under the command of Colonel Ashburnham attacked the town, a savage encounter resulting in total victory for the Royalists. Thirty-nine Roundheads were killed and one hundred and fifty were captured including six Captains; the remainder fled back to Poole by water. Many guns and muskets were taken off the enemy.  Whitelocke in his History writes of the Roundheads: “they obtained places by treachery and when in occupation committed many rapes and diverse acts of cruelty” It is likely the people of Wareham were glad to see the back of them.

In the months of June and July there were skirmishes round the town but the Royalist garrison held firm even on the 18th of June, ignoring a call to surrender made by the Earl of Essex, the Parliamentarian Lieutenant-General, to surrender.

On the 8th of August the tide of events at Wareham was to turn again and for the Royalists the day of reckoning had arrived – Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper, newly promoted to the rank of Field-Marshall-General, was back and intent on revenge. He came with two thousand men, more than enough to overwhelm the small Royalist garrison. Battle was engaged: the old Walls had been fortified with palisades and every male stood behind them bravely defending the town. By the end of the day the town was no longer a Royalist stronghold and the Rector again found himself a prisoner.

Sir Anthony, proud of his success, went to Parliament and delivered an account of the storming of the town of Wareham, for which he received more honours. The King’s supporters were being beaten in their castles and towns and it was not long before the Parliamentarians were triumphant everywhere. In Dorset there was one last fight at Wareham. A Royalist, Colonel Cromwell (a cousin of Oliver) stormed into the town with a troop of horses, captured the Roundhead Governor and two Committee men, and carried them off to Corfe Castle, which was still holding out.

A vindictive Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper asked Parliament: “Query, whether it not be absolutely necessary to pluck down Wareham, it being impossible to victual; if Sir William Waller ever drew away his Foot the town it is left naked to the pleasure of the enemy, who will certainly posssess it unless it can be made no Town. There can be no arguments against demolishing it, being extremely mean built and the inhabitants almost all dreadful malignants; besides the keeping will certainly starve more honest men than the destroying will undo knaves. A few Foot in Lulworth will keep Corfe Castle far better than Wareham…If they are unwilling to destroy the town of Wareham it may be left for a horse quarter with instructions that when they are forced to quit it; to set it on fire.” Wareham survived but Corfe Castle was demolished.

Writing a century after the events the Reverend John Hutchins says: “No evidence can be stronger as to the loyal feelings of the Good Townsmen of Wareham towards the Crown”.


The Lady Who Wouldn’t Drown

At the beginning of the 19th century Wareham and Poole were linked by a ferry route across Poole Harbour. One source of information about this run could be said to be the annals of its disasters. One such tragedy can be read about in a broadsheet printed in Poole by J. Moore after word reached the paper of the sinking of the Wareham ferry in the harbour on Thursday, 2nd of October 1806, in which 13 people including two under twenty years of age were drowned.

The 2nd of October 1806 was a stormy day of high wind, fog and rain. The ferry had departed from Wareham between five and six o’clock deeply laden with ten women and two men as passengers; the ferry’s owner Mr. Gillingham; and two boatmen, William Turner and Charles White, making 15 aboard in all. Between six and seven o’clock, after it was already dark, a fog had descended and a strong wind ahead blew hard upon the starboard side, causing the ferry to run aground across the channel just as the vessel entered the Wareham River at first and last boom.

The passengers then crowded towards the mast and rigging, while the men got aloft, but the boat sunk within a few minutes. The current, running against the sails, drove all under water, forcing those who had climbed the mast for safety to plunge into the harbour.

But only Mr. Everett was able to escape. However, he noticed that Mrs White was floundering in the water beside him. Clutching the young woman, he attempted to swim to the nearest shore with her – 100 yards from the Purbeck side – but the heavy coat she was wearing forced him to let go of her. Just then an oar floated nearby. Everett caught it and lay Mrs White upon it, using it as a kind of crude life raft. After battling the waves for one-and-a-half hours the two were washed ashore.

Following a rest, Everett made for the nearest house to summon assistance, only to be snubbed by uncooperative occupants. He then walked the two-and-a-half miles into Wareham, where he was able to get help. At Wareham a Captain Bartlett “immediately hastened with everything necessary” and brought Mrs White to his own home. Mrs White soon made a full recovery from her ordeal and was re-united with her joyous husband and children at Church Knowle.

The original broadsheet reporting this accident was in the possession of the Barnes Family of Poole, as Jane Barnes, 33 at the time and presumably a relation, was one of those who lost their lives when the ferry sunk. Charles White, the boatman who also drowned, is buried at Wareham in a grave in which his wife Elizabeth and daughter Mary were later interred.

The thirteen who were drowned were:
William Gillingham (52); William Oxford (37); William Turner (52); Charles White Jr. (33); Elizabeth Pindar (27); Betty Brown (39); Amelia Randall (19); Edith Randall (24); Elizabeth Mintern (38); Elizabeth Forster (27); Mary New (33); Jane Barnes (33), and Sophia Dorey (19).

A Day Out at Wareham

To the family historian Wareham is a registration district, suggesting a largish centre for trade and commerce and as such deserving to keep its alphabetical position on your list of places to spend a day out. Perish that thought. Wareham, situated between the Rivers Frome and Piddle, is a low skyline town hindered by nothing remotely resembling the term high rise or concrete jungle. Even the town’s Italian restaurant on North Street shelters under an ancient thatch.

As anyone with roots in the town will know many of the milestones in the lives of their ancestors were probably marked by events at Lady St. Mary’s church. To get there from the centre of town proceed along East Street taking a right turn into Church Lane. On the left as you proceed along Church Lane to Lady St. Mary’s there is, set back a little, a building which may hold the key to overcoming many a family historians Wareham ‘brickwalls.’

In the 17th century Wareham was home to a large congregation of Dissenters and in 1689 they built the Presbyterian Meeting House and made it their spiritual home. Partly destroyed in the great fire of 1762 it was rebuilt later that year. If your ancestors disappeared from the parish records there is a strong possibility record of them will be here. More recently the church has been known as the Congregational Church and is now known as the United Reformed Church.

The faithful have been worshipping at the site of Lady St.Mary’s Church for at least 1300 years. The nearby 16th century priory is now a hotel. The present building dates mostly from 1842 but the St. Edwards Chapel of 1100 remains. We will look at the church and its history in more detail in a future article about the history of Wareham and its churches.

In the small square to the front of the church entrance there is a stone recording the planting of a tree to commemorate the wedding of HRH the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer on the 29th July 1981.

Walk through the small alleyway and you will be in the area known as the Quay where you can sit by the river and be served by pubs and restaurants. From the South Bridge you can look down over the Quay and upstream you will see moored many small sailing craft. The River Frome is tidal at this point. On the hard standing at the foot of the bridge there is a man who will hire you a small motor boat by the hour.

Near the bottom of South Street on your left and hidden away down a short alley is the entrance to Holy Trinity Church. On this site before the Norman Conquest there was a chapel dedicated to St. Andrew. Dorset historian John Hutchins was installed as rector in 1743. Nowadays the building is home to the Purbeck Information and Heritage Centre.

Continuing up South Street on your left is the Bear Inn and Hotel and across the road a fine three story Georgian property, The Manor House built in 1712. There is a small shopping development here on the site of the former church dedicated to St. John.

We are back at the cross roads at the centre of the town and what would have been the business heart of the place and rather confirms Wareham as a small town. Here on the corner of North and East Streets is the Town Hall in earlier days the site of St. Peter’s parish church dating from 1321. Damaged in the great fire of 1762 it was rebuilt as the Town Hall and jail in 1768. It was rebuilt again in 1870 and nowadays it is the town’s museum and also home to the local Tourist Information Centre.

Opposite the Town Hall in East Street is an interesting building with a bell tower. Actually the tower was part of the Town Hall until that building was rebuilt in 1870 and the tower moved across the street. John Streche an Essex man who had property in the town founded the Almshouses in 1418 and now they are private residences; new almshouses were built in 1908 at Westport. The building we see here today was re-built in 1741 by Henry Drax and John Pitt, Members of Parliament for the Borough.

Let us turn about and cross over into West Street and continue to Bloody Bank – the town’s place for executions in days past. The historian John Hutchins tells us the place got its name after five men involved in the Monmouth Rebellion were sent there in 1685 by Judge Jeffreys to be hung, drawn and quartered. But the place could have earned its name earlier as executions are believed to have been carried out here from as far back as 1213.

We can now walk along the bank up to the North Walls, from where there is an excellent view across to the River Piddle and the North Bridge. Continue round to the top of North Street and visit Wareham’s jewel: St. Martin’s Church.

The writer had mixed feelings towards the artist selling his pictures from inside the church and wondered what our Lord might have thought about it. On the other hand had he not been there it might not have been possible to gain access and his wildlife paintings were rather good.

The Saxon church is small and we are told St. Aldhelm founded a church here in 698. The present building dates from early in the 11th century and has a number of wall paintings and inscriptions the earliest said to date from the 12th century. After 1736 the church was only used for a brief period and then only for baptisms and marriages. It fell into disuse and was unused for about 200 years. In 1935 it was restored and at the request of his younger brother an effigy of T.E. Lawrence – “Lawrence of Arabia” – was placed in the north aisle.

As you leave St. Martin’s you can see straight down North Street to the cross roads at the centre of town and as you walk that way you will notice the Methodist church on your left.

A day well spent; St. Martin’s alone is worth the trip but do check first that it is open.

Wareham – St. Martin’s Church

Effigy of T.E. Lawrence - 'Lawrence of Arabia' in St. Martin's Church at Wareham.

Effigy of T.E. Lawrence - 'Lawrence of Arabia' in St. Martin's Church at Wareham.

Wareham – St. Martin’s Church

Interior of St. Martin's Church

Interior of St. Martin's Church

Wareham – St. Martin’s Church



Wareham – St. Martin’s Church

St. Martin's Church at Wareham

St. Martin's Church at Wareham

Wareham – St. Martin’s Church

The entrance to St. Martin's Church, Wareham.

The entrance to St. Martin's Church, Wareham.