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A Local’s Day Out in Weymouth

Weymouth in summer and Weymouth in winter are two very different towns. Only four months ago, holiday makers packed the beach and ice creams were being consumed by the thousand. In winter, the town is peaceful and as the civic Christmas tree twinkles in Bond Street, the magnificent seasonal lights give St. Mary and St. Thomas Streets a truly magical feel.

As locals in coats and scarves move quickly round the streets and only the hardy in search of good sea air brave the seafront, we locals notice how very different Weymouth is in winter. Truthfully, most of us prefer it that way. Only a few months ago, bikinis and swimsuits were the order of the day. The popular Punch and Judy show – was knocking seven bells out of the constabulary and sausages! The red and white striped booth is the very epitome of the seaside – on “the best beach in the best bay of the best resort,” says us.

Holidaymakers once came on a Saturday and left the next Saturday, but there is a new breed these days. Usually car borne, they leave decisions to a much later stage and if they see a dark cloud in the sky, they won’t go near the coast. Worse still, if the previous day’s forecast is bad, they decide at that point not to come.

Situated in a magnificent bay surrounded by a ring of hills, Weymouth has its own microclimate – it can be fine here and raining through much of the hinterland. Three television franchises border Weymouth and their misleading forecasts often refer to areas fifty or more miles away.

Summer brings other problems. Traffic is the major difficulty in season – sometimes at a standstill five miles back over the Ridgeway, almost as far as Dorchester. All this traffic pours into a small medieval street plan, on a narrow tapering sandspit, limited by the River Wey and the sea. Space is precious and car parks soon get filled. That’s good news for local council taxpayers who pick-up £2.3 million from parking – assisted by razor sharp enforcement from the Borough’s traffic wardens. As a local, it can be frighteningly difficult to get around in summer.

Back to my favourite seafront seat by Brunswick Terrace, from which so much of Weymouth Bay is in view. The pretty Greenhill Gardens are to the north. Queen Victoria’s statue stands outside St. John’s Church of 1854 – whose magnificent spire is one of the town’s greatest landmarks. The now-demolished seaward platform of the Pier Bandstand on concrete stilts, used to host events as diverse as Miss Weymouth and wrestling.

Of more sombre purpose is the Cenotaph, where on Remembrance Sunday in November and on Veterans Sunday in June, traffic is stopped while the Mayor leads the town’s homage to locals who died in conflict. Walking south, the Jubilee Clock of 1887, built to mark Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, is another of Weymouth’s landmarks. On New Year’s Eve, revellers dance round the tower. Hereabouts, the shingle beach changes dramatically to sand. It’s an accident of geography that Weymouth’s seafront faces east, unlike most south coast resorts.

This is a good place to look at the Esplanade, a magnificent terrace of Georgian buildings that run from St. John’s Church to the Pavilion. They are protected by the borough council from unwise development and decoration; indeed many are municipally owned, leased to hoteliers and other traders.

The King’s Statue of 1809 marks the centre of the town. Weymouth’s only Grade 1 listed structure commemorates the 50th year of the reign of King George III, who did much to popularise sea bathing and Weymouth in particular. The King and the royal family spent many happy years at the resort from 1789, at the nearby Gloucester Lodge – now flats with a noisy pub in the basement.

As we reach the Alexandra Gardens island, note the Rex Hotel – today one of the top hotels in town, but once summer residence of the Duke of Clarence – third son of George III, who later became king William IV. At the south end of the Esplanade is the Pavilion Theatre and Ocean Room, the undisputed cultural centre of the borough, where all the big shows and events take place.

The long-term commitment of Condor Ferries to continue operating out of Weymouth has been questioned. Since 1794 and only 70 miles from Guernsey, Weymouth was always the departure port for the ships that took post, passengers and goods between the Channel Islands and the mainland. Most now goes by air.

Adjacent to the Pavilion is the Quay railway station, terminus of the 1865 Weymouth Quay Tramway, which runs mainly through the streets for almost a mile to join the main line at Weymouth Junction.

Of course we are not really in Weymouth but Melcombe Regis, but more of that another

After the Georgian Summers

King George III’s enthusiasm for Weymouth was the making of the resort but it was the Duke of Gloucester who had first brought Royal patronage to the town when he built what was known as Gloucester Lodge on an open field facing the sea between what was then the northern limit of the town and the new Royal Hotel. In 1789 the king was advised to try the newly recognised ‘cure’ of sea bathing and the Duke lent his seaside home to his elder brother the King. In 1805 the King and the Royal Family stayed at Royal Lodge (as it had become known) from July until October but the holiday atmosphere was marred when news arrived of the death of the Duke of Gloucester, an event that deeply affected the King. On October 4th the King and his Court departed from Weymouth; he was never to return.

In the autumn of 1809 three of the King’s children returned to Weymouth and stayed from September until early November. The Princesses Amelia and Mary arrived ahead of their brother Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge. This was a quiet holiday: Amelia was already seriously ill and she died the following year. The local press reported that Amelia benefited from her stay and was taken into the bay in a bathing machine “for the purposes of inhaling the sea air in its greater purity.” Princess Mary spent most of her time with her sister, just occasionally taking short walks on the esplanade and sands, accompanied by Adolphus or other members of the Royal Family who paid brief visits to Royal Lodge during this time; they included the Prince of Wales and the Dukes of York, Clarence and Kent.

The Price of Wales – Prince Regent from 1811 onwards – did not share his father’s affection for Weymouth. His daughter, Princess Charlotte of Wales had, while still a small child, accompanied her grandparents to Weymouth. She returned to the resort in 1814 and 1815 for long holidays at Royal Lodge. There exists a report of the eighteen-year-old Princess on one occasion referring to the town “as this odious place;” perhaps she was out of sorts because she seems generally to have enjoyed her stays at Weymouth.

She enjoyed the welcome given to her by local people and found the scenery around Weymouth much to her liking, as her grandfather had. The princess would travel in her carriage to the local villages and often stopped to talk to the inhabitants, as well as visiting the houses of the leading Dorset families. She seems to have inherited her grandfather’s love of the sea and used a naval guard ship as a Royal Yacht. This was in contrast to most female members of the Royal Family: a diarist in Weymouth in the 1790’s commenting on the royal trips in the channel wrote: “The King never seemed afraid of the weather. The Queen and the Princesses always wore dark blue habits on these occasions and I have often seen them looking very miserable and bedraggled on their return.”

Princess Charlotte’s visit in 1815 was such a success it prompted the author of one Weymouth Guide to optimistically predict “…it is generally believed that Weymouth will be the future summer residence of Her Royal Highness.”  The following year Princess Charlotte Augusta married Prince Leopold of Saxe Coburg and in 1817 she died in childbirth.

On the 25th of October 1809 – the King’s Jubilee – Weymouth celebrated by laying the foundation stone to the statue of King George III, an event that was attended by the Duke of Cambridge and Princess Mary. Newspaper reports make no mention of any members of the Royal family being present when the completed statue was unveiled the following year. Later Princess Mary married her cousin the Duke of Gloucester, the son of the builder of Royal Lodge, and she was in residence there in November 1817, when the news of the death of the young  Princess Charlotte of Wales came. This was the last visit to Weymouth of any member of the family of King George III.

Following the death of George III, the Royal Lodge was sold on the 19th July 1820 for £4,000 and the Royal Pew in St. Mary’s Church was sold for £220.10s at the same time. Houses adjoining the Royal Lodge that had been used to accommodate members of the Royal family were also sold-off and reportedly fetched high prices. The furniture was sold separately and the enormous prices paid reflected the added value achieved with each piece being considered a relic of departing royalty.

The economic benefits gained by the town from the occasional royal visits after 1805 would have been small but the benefits of many years of patronage by the King were considerable. Thomas’s Weymouth Guide of 1815 says “…the inhabitants by such an influx of money have been encouraged to rebuild, beautify, and greatly enlarge the town, which in little more than twenty years has undergone a considerable transformation.”

Weymouth was now established as a seaside resort and the expansion begun in the days of ‘Royal Weymouth’ continued throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, considerably helped by the coming of the railway in 1857.

John Love of Weymouth

Few pictorial records of the Dorset countryside seem to have been made before the mid 18th century; until then landscape painting had not been taken seriously as an art form. It was around this time that travelling for pleasure or health reasons became fashionable with the upper and middle classes. An important factor as far as south Dorset was concerned – and in particular Weymouth – was the patronage of the Royal Family.

The man who probably did most to promote an interest in art in the area was John Love,  a bookseller and publisher as well as being an accomplished artist. He was said to have been a skinny youth but later in life he confessed to deriving much pleasure from his food, which was apparent for all to see as he weighed a portly twenty-six stone. It was claimed, almost certainly falsely, that at one time he was the heaviest man in England.

As a young man he went to London and studied at the Royal Academy Schools lodging with William Ryland, who had been engraver to the King. But Ryland took a wrong turn in his career and was found guilty of forgery, a crime for which he was executed.

John Love returned to Weymouth where, during the 1780’s and until his death in 1793, he had a shop that incorporated a library and exhibition rooms; it was here that upcoming artists could display their work. Here Love wrote a Guide to Weymouth, which was published in 1788.

In 1790 Weymouth was a very popular resort and Love collaborated with James Fittler, the Court Engraver at the time, to publish a series of twelve prints entitled Love’s Picturesque Views of Weymouth; one set of these was recently offered for sale through a London auction house, fetching £1,200.

Weymouth – Sandsfoot Castle

This Tudor fort was completed around 1541 and is part of Henry VIII’s network of coastal defences to protect against attacks from Roman Catholic enemies, both French and Spanish, following the change in the established religion in England. Sandsfoot Castle stands opposite Portland Castle and between them their artillery protected shipping in Portland Harbour from foreign attack.

A century later the country was moving toward civil war and from 1642 the castle was held for King Charles I until 1644-45 when Colonel Ashburnham, governor for the king, surrendered it to Parliamentary forces.

From 1642 the Parliamentary authorities had full control of the Royal Mint within the Tower of London, which was able to supply all the currency demands of its new masters. Interestingly, the king’s opponents continued to use King Charles’ portrait and titles on their coins until 1649, when he was executed.

Charles I issued currency of equal intrinsic value mainly from his headquarters in Oxford, the mint there being in New Inn Hall, but also from various places throughout the country including Sandsfoot Castle, where the dungeons were used as a mint. Its use as a place for striking coinage gave the castle more importance than it had as a strategic military asset. After the Royalist surrender of the castle it was held for the government by Humphrey Weld but as its condition deteriorated it appears to have been abandoned until a use for it was found as a storehouse and this continued until 1691. The castle was in a ruinous state by the end of the 18th century and in 1837 parts of it fell into the sea.

The castle had suffered damage from coastal erosion quite soon after its completion, repairs being undertaken in 1584; further repairs were necessary in 1610 and 1623. A Grade II listed building since the mid 20th century, it has in more recent times benefited from Heritage and Lottery grants that have facilitated restoration works, making it safe for free access to the public.


Weymouth – A Royal Bathing Machine

A Royal Bathing Machine photographed on Weymouth sands. For more about this see our story The Royal Bathing Machines in the Weymouth category.

A Royal Bathing Machine photographed on Weymouth sands. For more about this see our story The Royal Bathing Machines in the Weymouth category.

The Royal Bathing Machines

Weymouth was not the first seaside resort to have Bathing Machines. Prior to their appearance here in the 1770’s, they were already a feature at Scarborough and Margate but those resorts did not enjoy the patronage of King George III.

The earliest type of bathing house was a static hut; the revolutionary idea of putting the hut on wheels came along in the mid 18th century and the mobile bathing hut became known as a bathing machine. It could be drawn out into the sea by a horse to avoid the bather having to make an exhibition of themselves walking down the beach.

King George III first dipped his toe in the sea at Weymouth on the 7th of July 1789 in the company of a select group of lady bathing attendants. Apparently it was a great surprise to the king when a band concealed in a neighbouring machine, struck up God Save Great George our King as soon as he ducked his head under the water.

The first Royal Bathing Machine was octagonal in design and in 1791 it was replaced by a larger and more extravagantly fitted-out machine. Altogether three bathing machines were available that year for the exclusive use of the Royal Family.  The original machine continued to be used on Weymouth beach until 1916.
A newspaper report from 1791 describes the vehicle thus: “The King’s Bathing Machine is in the form of an oblong at its base, and painted white, with the panels blue and red cornices, but is destitute of lining. The outside, at the top, forms a semi-circle, on the extremity of which stands upon a pole of about two feet in length, the Crown; and on the other, the British Flag on a pole or standard about ten feet high; on the front is painted the King’s Arms.”

Another newspaper reported that the Queen had decided to try the effects of bathing, so another machine had been newly painted and fitted for her use. This conflicts with other reports suggesting Queen Charlotte showed no enthusiasm for sea bathing; the Royal Princesses however, were regular “dippers.”

When the King came to Weymouth in 1792 his bathing experience was greatly improved by the introduction of the Royal Floating Bathing Machine, which gave more privacy to the Royal Family. This was a large structure resembling a house-boat or a floating dock, with dressing rooms and three large baths. It allowed the user to bathe in complete privacy and could be used in pretty much all weathers; it was covered by a roof and sea water flowed in through grills at each end. At one end of the structure were the Royal Bath and Royal Dressing Room and at the other end were baths and dressing rooms for the use of the king’s guests. It was first used on the 24th of August 1792.

When not being used for bathing this Floating Bathing Machine doubled as a Royal Landing Stage and was moored alongside Weymouth Pier. The dressing rooms provided the family with the opportunity to smarten up their appearance before coming ashore after their frequent trips to sea with the Royal Navy.

The King first visited Weymouth in 1789. A letter written at Gloucester Lodge, Weymouth on the 13th of July 1789 by Fanny Burney to her father illustrates wonderfully how the inhabitants of the town felt about their Sovereign being amongst them.  She reports “The loyalty of all this place is excessive; they have dressed out every street with labels of ‘God save the King’: all the shops have it over the doors; all the children wear it in their caps, all the labourers in their hats, and all the sailors in their voices, for they never approach the house without shouting it aloud, nor see the King or his shadow, without beginning to huzza, and going on to three cheers.”

The three luxurious Royal Bathing Machines of 1791 did not survive after the last of the Royal visits in 1805, although machines of the original design both octagonal and rectangular continued in use for more than a century.

In 1810 a local byelaw decreed that no one was to “bathe in any manner than by means of a Bathing Machine upon the Sea Sands, or in the Harbour, or Back Water within the town”. In 1864 a byelaw was introduced to stop the use of Bathing Machines on a Sunday after 10 a.m. This law required residents to be allowed the use of a machine for a charge of 6d, whereas visitors had to pay 9d. All machines had to be fitted with a looking glass and carpet and two hand towels for each person and also a pair of drawers for the use of each gentleman. Males were permitted to bathe nude before 8 am, and there had to be a space of 50 yards between machines used by men and women.

Two much larger bathing machines came to the beach in 1890, these had several cubicles. These larger machines, one for men and one for women, had very large wheels and the authorities ordered that they be kept in deep water. Around this time there were many complaints about the wearing of “proper bathing drawers”.

Fanny Burney, writing from Weymouth in 1789, tells her father that she had difficulty keeping a straight face when observing the ladies bathing apparel: flannel dresses, tucked up, with no shoes or stockings, with bandeaus and girdles. King George III preferred to bathe in the nude.

George III and Weymouth

An event 223 years ago, when it became the summertime resort of a king, converted an already popular seaside resort on the Dorset coast into a world-renowned watering place, now one of the most popular in England among holidaymakers.  KING GEORGE III came to Weymouth to convalesce in 1789, and returned many times over the next 16 years.  He bathed in the sea every morning, from a bathing cart, a copy of which can be seen at Weymouth Museum. No other bathers were allowed in the vicinity.

Gloucester Lodge was built on the seafront in 1780 and was to become the summer palace of the King.  Adjoining the Gloucester Hotel, the lodge has suffered from fire but has now been rebuilt – and is now lived in by flat-dwellers.   But though now regarded in a matter-of-fact manner, the King who brought prosperity and encouraged Georgian architecture is not forgotten.  A statue to George III was erected in 1809 by the inhabitants on a traffic island in the centre of the Esplanade, where Weymouth’s benefactor could not be forgotten, and past which frequent stagecoaches carried visitors to the town.  The statue and its accompanying emblems are still repainted every year in vivid colours.

George III suffered from what has been described as an imbalance of body chemicals damaging the nervous system.  George III was to make his 14th and final visit in 1805, and spent his last years as King confined to Windsor Castle.  By the early 19th. Century Weymouth was garrisoned with 10,000 troops billeted in three huge barracks, including a whole regiment on the esplanade.  The King had brought everlasting fame as the country’s most fashionable resort to Weymouth; the Army in force – and the highest rents and food prices ever.

It was during George III’s first visit that the storming of the Bastille in Paris took place, at the beginning of the French Revolution. At the time, he was cruising in the Bay. In 1793 France declared war on England. By 1794 there was real fear of an invasion of this country, so that every year saw more and more troops around Weymouth, in addition to the local volunteer forces.  The King personally supervised the planning of defences on the Island of Portland.  But a projected breakwater, which was to protect the harbour of Portland, was not to be built for over 50 years. In 1798 came the Battle of the Nile and Admiral Nelson’s victory, celebrated with gun salutes on board ships in the Bay and by troops and crowds on the beach.

There is a story that General Garth, a royal equerry, was the father of a baby boy said to have been born in the town to Princess Sophia (22), the King’s fifth daughter, and that he later brought him up at Puddletown.  And the famous clown Joe Grimaldi once recited, at the town’s Theatre Royal, an eight-verse poem extolling Weymouth and George III. Terraces were built with regal names. In 1799 the “Sherborne Mercury” declared that Weymouth “had seldom heretofore had to boast of a greater assemblage of rank, beauty and fashion than at present….”

The King rode to hounds, and visited countryseats such as Lulworth Castle, Sherborne Castle and Milton Abbey.  He took a great interest in the island of Portland, dined at what is now the Royal Portland Arms – and studied sheep farming.  He visited the theatre in Augusta Place, and the Assembly Rooms, and services in the parish church and aboard ship.

In the 1790’s, the King met Mr. Weld of Lulworth Castle and asked him what had happened to the English Catholic communities, which had been set up in the Low Countries. When he was told that nuns at a convent in Belgium where Mr. Weld’s daughter was a novice, had nowhere to flee from the French, and were in danger, he invited the Sisters to come back to their home country. The Sisters sailed from Holland to London and settled in the Abbey House at Winchester where they began to hear Mass.

There were great celebrations when the royal visitor first arrived in town from Windsor, a month after his 51st. birthday, to be greeted by thousands at the Weymouth turnpike, and copious decorations in the streets.  On first viewing the Bay, the King enthused: “I never enjoyed a sight so pleasing.”  That visit was to last no less than 10 weeks.

According to one report, the King, Queen Charlotte and the Princesses were out in the sea air by six o’clock every morning, and there were frequent voyages on the royal yacht, protected by a ring of frigates.

On the 24th August 1804 George and his entourage set off from Windsor for Weymouth travelling through the night arriving there at dawn. He was soon to be seen walking along the Esplanade and on horseback he reviewed the Hanoverian Legion. Later in the day he inspected other military units including the Weymouth Volunteers.

A busy round of engagements; including two balls, one in celebration of his wedding anniversary, and a review of the fleet give the lie to his doctors diagnosis of madness, at that time at least.

For the crowds who saw him on special occasions, the King was a majestic sight to behold, wearing a sash of crimson-netted silk made by his Queen.  The original use of sashes was to carry off the wounded from battle, and when spread out they measured over four feet wide by three yards long.

A building spree at Weymouth began with the construction of Stacie’s Hotel in 1772. Georgian houses and terraces were erected and the Royal Crescent and Charlotte Row made their appearances, and a two-feet-wide esplanade wall as protection against the sea.

The arrival of the Victorian Age was recognised when soon after 1850 Victoria Terrace was constructed, including the present-day Hotel Prince Regent.

Mr Russell’s Weymouth Holiday – 1840

In the summer of 1840 Mr T.P. Russell decided to spend a month at the seaside resort of Weymouth. He brought with him from Gloucester, where he was a banker, his wife, two daughters, brother-in-law and a maid. Mr Russell was 65 and suffered from rheumatism; his wife was 56 and his two daughters were in their early thirties. He kept a diary of their month-long holiday at the seaside resort made popular by George III.

They departed from Gloucester in their own carriage. Along the way a small repair to the carriage was necessary and they spent a night at Bath, after sending their maid on separately with luggage. In the morning the family was on the road again, stopping at Frome to change horses, then onto Bruton and Sherborne, passing through many cloth manufacturing villages on the way. Mr Russell thought Sherborne “large but ill-built.” By 5 o’clock the family group had arrived at Luce’s Hotel in Augusta Place, Weymouth, having passed through Dorchester, which Mr Russell decided was “better constructed” than Sherborne.

The family had dinner at the Hotel at a cost of one guinea, including tip. Then followed a stroll along the Esplanade to the Alexandra Gardens where they listened to a band of fourteen Fusiliers.

Lodgings for their stay were found at 6 York Buildings; “clean and sufficient Commodious but dear at fifty shillings a week” thought Mr Russell. The family spent the morning buying supplies with help from Mr Thomas, who kept a library on the Esplanade. He had been recommended to Mr Russell and “proved most helpful”. Mr Russell commented “We found the town larger than we expected, with very good shops and a good market, fish plentiful and at a low price. The baths, however, were a disappointment, being poor.”

The next day Mr Russell took his first warm sea bath. The rest of the family walked along the beach and watched the yachts in the bay. The weather was showery and blustery but this did not deter the family taking a trip in a rowing boat followed by a walk to Radipole Spa where they could smell the Sulphur Spring. The family made an expedition to Wyke, “a pretty rural village with a handsome church”. It was mid-August and corn was being cut.

The family expressed satisfaction with their lodgings and the “cheerful” situation but there was some disappointment as Mr Russell commented: “the place does not fill as much as we expected, the fashion of it has partly gone”.

Mr Russell was suffering from rheumatic pain and did not accompany the family to church on Sunday. The weather was stormy and Mr Russell chose instead to write letters and visit Mr Thomas’ library. The next day the family could have gone to the local races but decided to sail out to Portland, where they saw a large ship bound for Sydney and a brig en route for America.

A few days later they again set off for Portland and found that no work was being done in the quarries as the men were on strike for higher wages. Mr Russell thought the sheep on Portland were “poor”. He was very interested in the modern castle, probably Pennsylvannia, but he found the island generally desolate: “a few miserable villages, scattered on sterile land”, was how he summed up Portland.

Mr Russell continued to take warm sea baths but they did nothing to improve the rheumatic pain. One of his daughters swam in the sea and the family visited Osmington about which Mr Russell said: “a very beautiful retired village very neat, rural and clean, with roses in full bloom”. The church (which one of his daughters sketched) was “remarkably clean and neat”. The family saw the hillside chalk image of King George on his horse. On another trip to Osmington Mills, prawns and lobsters were sampled. At dinner one evening they tried a fish called “pipers, ugly with a large head”; it was eaten baked and stuffed.

The maid joined them on their next boat trip and they all watched men unloading stone for an extension to the pier. Other days passed with them taking walks but because of his rheumatism Mr Russell had to travel by bath chair, which cost him one shilling and sixpence a time; his baths cost three shillings.

The family returned home to Gloucester on the 8th of September by way of Sherborne, Castle Cary and Clifton. On the whole they had enjoyed their stay by the sea and left with some regret.

Mr Russell’s diary concludes with a breakdown of costs; after all he was a banker. The journey to Weymouth cost fourteen pounds, eight shillings and ten pence, the return journey seventeen pounds, one shilling and sixpence. The subscription to the rooms for the month was ten shillings; the boatmen charged four shillings a trip. Four weeks lodgings with linen came to twenty-two pounds and a piano was hired at a cost of thirteen shillings and nine shillings was spent on wine. The total cost for the month was almost eighty three pounds and the diary makes clear this includes the maid, although how much of a holiday the trip was for her, we can only speculate about.

The Trial of Augustine Elliott

Two men appeared at the Summer Assizes in Dorchester on the 15th of July 1749 to answer for their part in the plundering of the Dutch vessel Hope when it ran ashore on the Chesil on the 16th of January 1748, and resulted in ten days of lawlessness on the Chesil.  One of those men was Augustine Elliott; we do not have the name of the other man.

Augustine Elliott was a Portland man. The son of John and Joan Elliott, he was baptised on the 25th of April 1696 and on the 4th of April 1716 he married Joan Mitchell. The couple had a daughter, Edith, baptised on the 15th of February 1717 but we haven’t found at Portland any other children from the marriage.
The charge against him was: “Feloniously stealing and carrying away ten ounces of gold and twenty ounces of silver from the ship called the Hope, the property of Hendrick Hogenbergh, merchant of Amsterdam, and others.”

Counsel for the prosecution said in his opening remarks: “My Lord and gentlemen of the jury, I am counsel for the Crown against the prisoner at the bar who stands indicted and charged with a crime of a very heinous nature. Considered in itself it is horrid and barbarous, contrary to the first principle of reason and impressions of humanity. Religion most severely threatens and condemns it. A crime it is which the laws of all civilised societies most strictly punish; a crime in its consequences highly prejudicial to the honour and commercial interest of the kingdom in general. And such in every respect as cries aloud to public justice to lift an avenging hand.”

Counsel went on to describe the conditions at sea and the lack of light from the Portland lighthouse that conspired to cause the Hope to run ashore and said of the people who went to the beach from Portland, Wyke and Weymouth “these people I’m sorry to say it, came not with dispositions of men, but with those of beasts of prey, They came for rapine and plunder.” Counsel said of Augustine Elliott he was “accustomed to prey and ravages of this kind”  and described him as one of two men  who led and organised the men on the beach into one “merciless battalion”  and then sub –divided them into groups of twenty. The prosecution claimed: “In vain did the captain and his company in faltering foreign accents as well as they could “No wreck. The goods ours. Bring it to we and we will pay for it” – meaning the salvage.”

The court was told: “it seems the pillaging parties threw all they could snatch into one heap, for the security of which the prisoner at the bar (Elliott) was posted – as commander of an armed select party. As soon as the reflux of the sea had made the ship accessible, the scattered bands were again united – in a hostile manner armed with cutlasses, clubs, hooks and such like. They marched down to the ship swearing it was a wreck and if not so, they could make it a wreck. Shocking to relate!…the injury of strangers in distress is adding barbarity to iniquity and committing an act exceedingly sinful in the sight of both God and man.”

We learn from the court hearing that the captain with some of his crew made their way off the beach and took the goods they had managed to save to Fleet House, where they had hoped the King’s officers would help them. It seems they were disappointed. Counsel claimed in court: “They came indeed, but basely deserted their duty. Their behaviour was despicably timorous and infamously negligent.”

The description of the events to the court reached the point where there were thousands of people on the beach engaged in plunder when the forces of law and order determined to step in. Three Justices of the Peace with a well-armed group of men finally halted the wreckers and proceeded to search from house to house through the hamlets, villages and towns making many people surrender their ill-gotten gains to the agents of the ship’s owners. About £25,000 worth of goods were retrieved.

Elliott, it was claimed, was the principal organiser and the court was told “He was the muster-master, the treasurer, and divider of the prey amongst his plundering regiment.”

Captain Corneliz came to give evidence but was shy of saying how much his cargo was worth, saying only that it was rich and worth over £30,000. His command of English was not very good.

Next up was Bartholomew Cooper, officer of Customs at Portland. He told the court: “Early Monday morning I heard a loud talking in Chesil parish in Portland that a ship was on shore. I got up, but the thing being doubtful, I went and fed my horse with oats at a stable which was at some distance.” Copper was not a very co-operative witness and Counsel for the prosecution had to question him hard to get him to answer any question directly; we might be excused from thinking Cooper was on Augustine Elliott’s side.

It appears that once Cooper had determined there was a ship wreck, he and two other officers of Customs rode along the beach. Under questioning Cooper eventually told the court that there were at least 2,000 people digging and turning over the beach, the ship was pretty much dashed to pieces and he added “My business of surveying would not let me stay long.”

Further evidence was provided to the court that plainly supported Elliott. Another officer of Customs, Benjamin Roper, an officer in Portland quarries, told how he was at Schollard’s public house at Chesiltown when a great number of people clamoured for a division of the loot. Elliott, said Roper, was for keeping the money together till the owners called for it: “But within doors they insisted on sharing the money, as I was told, or else they would burn the house.”

Another witness, John Comben, gave similar testimony. He said “when bags were found they were hoisted on his horse and taken to a boat on the shore of the Fleet…” He said he did not see Elliott in the boat “but saw a man at some distance who mid or mid not be the prisoner. The Captain, I mind, did ask me for a bag but then I had none, The Tuesday after there were a great many of Weymouth, Wyke and Portland at Chesiltown to have the money divided. I did not see the prisoner at first myself but after I did and he said he was for keeping the money together till called for by the owners. But many threatened him, if the money were not divided, and accordingly, it was the next morning – it was £7 a piece.”

Elliott’s defence Counsel took this argument further. “We have several sufficient witnesses to prove,” he said, “that the prisoner in the whole affair acted an open and public spirited part. What he assisted in carrying away home was with an intention to save and not destroy; to preserve for the owners and not to steal and keep from them. On this generous fixed principle he not only acted himself but to his utmost laboured to bring the company he was concerned with to behave in the same humane and honest manner.”

The defence produced a receipt for the money Elliott was charged with stealing, it had been handed to the ship’s agents. The prosecution suggested the money had been brought in as an afterthought by his friends four days after Elliott was committed to stand trial and this was a ruse to mitigate the charges against him.

John Hutchins’ report of the trial reveals the defence had a second strand: arguing the Dutch were pirates who had argued amongst themselves over the division of their bounty and then deliberately ran the ship on shore and deserted her for fear of being taken and punished. The two argued that the Dutch had taken the goods from the Spaniards, who had bought and paid for them; thus they maintained it was lawful to plunder pirates.

Elliott’s trial lasted six hours and thirty minutes and the jury brought in a verdict of “NOT GUILTY

Afterwards, Judge Baron Heneage Legge, commented: “As the nature of this in itself, and the penalties of the law, have been fully and plainly open in the preceding trials, so I am strongly inclined to hope these proceedings might have their proper design and influence, in causing crimes of this sort to cease amongst us.”

An anonymous reporter at the time wrote a layman’s summing up, saying: “As at a moderate computation 10,000 from all parts of the county, of farmers, tradesmen, labourers with one Lord of the Manor, have been concerned either in carrying away part of the property of this ship themselves, or in purchasing the same off them that did so; it is therefore far from being any matter of wonder to find the jury under a strong disposition to favour such, as were tried for offences of this kind.”

Jordan Hill Roman Temple and the nature of pagan piety

Leaving Weymouth and travelling two miles north east along the A 353 towards Overcombe, one draws close to an area known as Furzey Cliff. This feature lies within the ownership of the National Trust, but something of far greater value for Britain’s ancient heritage is also here – or rather was, but for the disappearance of all but its foundations. It was a 4th century Romano-Celtic temple of four-square plan, characteristic of the period, a convention which can also be seen in the ground plan of a very similar religious structure the Romans built within the enclosure of the Iron Age hillfort at Maiden Castle. But both there and at Jordon Hill, the site of the temple near Furzey Cliff, all that remains are the footing walls.

The story of how those footing walls re-emerged into the light of day began one day in 1812 when some farm labourers, ploughing a field on the brow of the hill, had to call a halt to their work when their ploughshare struck an object buried in the ground.  It was found to be an urn containing a hoard of several hundred Roman silver coins, which the astonished men principally distributed among themselves. Only a remnant of this amazing find found its way to the county museum in Dorchester. And for another thirty years, Jordon Hill would become a focus of growing speculation as to the possibility that a Roman settlement could once have existed there. But who would be responsible for establishing that that was indeed the case?

In 1843 James A S Medhurst was living in the Weymouth district of Melcombe Regis and working as a craftsman specialising in the production of a kind of decorative inlaid woodwork called Tunbridge Ware, after the town of Tonbridge Wells. Tunbridge Ware involved skilled intricate work, commonly taking the form of boxes having small strips of wood glued together. Woodcraftsmanship, then, was Medhurst’s occupation, but the craftsman had a sideline that would eventually lead to the first systemmatic excavation of Jordon Hill; for Medhurst was a keen archaeologist who had already carried out a considerable amount of digging work in Suffolk before coming to live in Weymouth.

The summer of 1842 was a notably dry one. Under such conditions the foundations of buried buildings are apt to be revealed in grassland or cereals as crop marks. At that time Medhurst’s curiosity had been aroused by the failure of the wheat harvest on Jordon Hill, an event which led to his suspicion that an extensive ancient building lay just beneath the surface. Medhurst commenced his preliminary excavation in 1843, and would continue the work over several other seasons throughout the 1840’s.

The archaeologist first unearthed the foundation of a massive stone wall five feet thick enclosing a square of about 35 square feet. Associated with this wall were pottery and coins clearly of Roman origin and consistent in style with a 1st century construction. Early on in the progress of the work Medhurst had sought the opinion and advice of Professor Buckland who, following his inspection of the site, made known his findings to the British Archaeological Association and the Oxford Ashmolean Society in 1844. He gave as his opinion that the stonework Medhurst had unearthed was the foundation of a square-planned Roman temple, an inner square having been the cella or shrine, while the massive outer wall would have been the peristyle or outer collonade of the normal Romano-Celtic type. Interestingly, some later speculated that the structure may have been a signalling station or Pharos for guiding mariners, but most authorities agree that Buckland’s interpretation is correct. The subsequent discovery of a British coin associated with Roman ones has confirmed the fact.

As the excavation work progressed a number of interesting features came to light. The foundations of a short flight of steps marking the entrance were found near the centre of the south wall. Four feet inwards from the topmost step the bases of four slim columns of Purbeck Marble were found, Beyond the north wall were the base and capital of another column, now on display in the County Museum. In addition to Roman coins and fragments of pottery four sackfuls of bull horns and bones were found by Medhurst within the peristyle, evidently the remains of animal sacrifices to the deity worshipped there.
But the most exciting discovery was yet to come. This was a shaft four feet two inches by fourteen feet deep in the south-east corner of the temple area, a feature described in great detail by Hutchins. The shaft had been lined with clay and stone tiles. A cist formed from two oblong stones and containing two small urns, a 21-inch-long sword, an iron crook and bucket handle, two long irons, an iron knife and a steelyard, had been inserted into the base of the shaft. Immediately above the cist was a thin layer of stone tiles arranged in pairs; between each pair lay the skeleton of a bird and a small Roman coin; this arrangement was repeated sixteen times between the top and bottom of the shaft, the sequence being broken midway by the insertion of a second cist containing urns, a spearhead, and an iron sword. The birds had been buzzards, ravens, crows and starlings. The shaft partly underlay the south-east corner of the building. Professor Buckland speculated that the temple had been a shrine to Aesculapius, the god of healing and that the birds and coins had been votive offerings made by Roman families.

Whether the shrine on Jordon Hill had been dedicated to Aesculapius or not, the fact remains that the Romano-Celtic shrines were by no means to be exclusively for the veneration of any one deity once the Romans had established themselves in England. The pre-eminent concern of the new colonists was to consolidate their authority and to give the native Britons to understand that, having arrived in the country in full force, they meant to stay to time indefinite. Any dissent, resistance or outright rebellion would be swiftly and brutally suppressed, but at the same time the tenor of the system of government they established would otherwise be, as a matter of policy, one of peaceful cooperation and neighbourliness. As became clear from James Medhurst’s excavation of a nearby cemetery, the natives responded positively to the Romans friendly overtures, for the dig had revealed the interesting fact that Romans and Celts alike had shared the same communal burial ground. Furthermore, they had also worked together in contemporary potteries discovered and excavated at Sutton Poyntz. But most interesting of all was that this cooperation extended to religious belief as well. Polytheism, belief in the existence of more than one god, was of course endemic to the pagan civilisations and pre-Christian societies, and so the coming of the Romans into contact with the Britons created a fusion of two pagan traditions. Each race worshipped their own pantheon of deities under different names, but it was quite possible for men of both traditions to practise the sharing of a shrine, to use it for the worship of their own gods and to retain their distinctive beliefs. Cross-cultural identification of deities ruling the same thing (eg: health, love, war) was also commonplace. It was never the policy of the Romans, at least to the very end of the occupation, to ruthlessly suppress the religions of the lands they conquered or forbid on pain of death the worship of all gods but their own.

Consequently the Jordon Hill temple cannot be considered as dedicated to any one particular pagan deity, but was quite likely shared between conquerors and conquered alike. James Medhurst died in 1879, having left Dorset for another part of the country soon after his excavations were concluded. The archaeologist took most of his collection of finds with him but upon his death Pitt Rivers bought a share of the collection and many more of the objects were purchased by or given to several county museums where they are still held today.

But the Jordon Hill site had not given up all its secrets. In 1928, 116 years after the initial find of the urn hoard, a similar discovery was made in the near vicinity of the temple. This time however there was no trace of an urn, the coins having been buried loose as a hoard within the ground and simply covered over with a stone slab. It was, and remains, the largest hoard of Romano-Celtic bronze coins ever to be found anywhere in the Roman Empire. As this find was obviously one of considerable importance the coins were entrusted to Mr F S Salisbury, a noted expert numismatist. His description of them is given in detail in Vol 51 of the Proceedings of the Dorset Archaeological Society. Following classification of the currency it was intermediately entrusted to Mr Mayne & Co, owners of the then Weymouth Bay Estate, who in turn dispatched the coins to the British Museum for re-distribution to Dorchester, Portland and Yeovil Museums as well as to the offices of Weymouth Corporation.

Most of the coins in the Weymouth Hoard of 1928 as they became known, were of 4th century origin, the great majority of them having been minted during the reign of Theodosius 1. This emperor, a successor to Constantine, had decreed Christianity to be the official religion of the empire by the time
of his death in 395 CE, But despite a distinct loosening of the hold of the old gods on the popular imagination of the pre-Christianised Britons towards the end of the 4th century, the advent of Christianity also (paradoxically) brought with it a distinct hardening in attitude on the part of Rome towards the pagan deities. Their worship was declared to be illegal and the offering of sacrifices even became a capital offence.

But what was really interesting about the coins was their marked worn condition, confirming the widely held suspicion that a continuation of the old religion or paganism persisted in the countryside after the Christianisation of the towns, and furthermore, that the Jordon temple site remained in use almost to the very end of the Roman occupation from 410 – 429 CE. Once the Romans had withdrawn from Britain and the value of currency had depreciated, hoarding and burial became the popular way to dispose of the valueless coins. Interestingly, J Collingwood Bruce, in his Handbook to the Roman Wall notes that: “AD 418 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says: This year the Romans collected all the treasures that were in Britain, and some they hid in the earth, so that no-one has since been able to find them; and some they carried with them into Gaul…”
Perhaps a few of the temples and shrines that the colonists had built were re-consecrated as Christian oratories, but the remainder were either demolished or abandoned to fall into ruin. It is likely therefore that the Jordon Hill temple was one of the last to go, given the evidence of the long duration and late abandonment of the site. The Romans may have destroyed the building before (or as) they left, or, as is more probable, it was simply deserted and left to rot.
By 1931 the whole of Jordon Hill had passed into the possession of the Weymouth Bay Estate Company, with a view to development for housing. This clearly posed a threat to the archaeology of the site and brought about an urgent need for the conservation of the already existing structures, plus the imperative for seeking out anything hitherto missed by Medhurst’s excavations. Accordingly Charles Prideaux, and eminent archaeologist member of the Dorset Archaeological Society, was appointed to direct a rescue excavation, his first job being to uncover the site, a task in which he was assisted by volunteers from Weymouth College Field Club. Trial trenches were opened in various directions and the ground opened up to a distance of 15 feet from the outer wall of the temple, but no boundary wall or any other structural find of significance was made. However, many objects of interest did emerge, Jewellery, combs, black burnished pottery, as well as coins and iron nails. The following year Col Charles Drew, curator of Dorset County Museum took over from Prideaux as director, but was no more successful in locating structural finds of note, although, again, more artefacts would be revealed. Indeed, by the time these excavations were concluded 88 Roman coins and one Celtic coin had been recovered. This brought the total found in direct association with the temple to 177. The site was then temporarily covered with a layer of earth as a protection from bad weather and then offered to the nation by the WBCE, passing into the custodianship of HM Office of Works. 

Since the Prideaux-Drew excavations were concluded, there has been only one further investigation of the related sites, this being undertaken by Dorset archaeologist Bill Putnam in 1969. Anyone sufficiently interested in researching the subject further can find additional material in Hutchins’ History of Dorset      Volume 2 and the Dorset Field Club Proceedings  Volumes 10, 21, 44, 51, 53, 54 & 57.