Dorset Ancestors Rotating Header Image

Wraxall

In picturesque countryside north-east of Cattistock and about six miles east of the town of Beaminster lies the parish of Wraxall, comprising the hamlets of Lower and Higher Wraxall. The name is thought to mean “a nook of land frequented by buzzards”. There are similarly named parishes in Somerset and Wiltshire.

The small Parish Church of St. Mary is in the east of the parish at Lower Wraxall.  The church is surrounded by farm buildings and the entrance to the churchyard is through a wrought iron gate. The nave dates from the 12th century; the chancel, originally 12th century, was rebuilt in the 13th century. It is thought a chapel was added to the north side of the nave during the 14th century but this was destroyed later. During restoration works carried out in the 19th century a wall was built outside the arch to the former chapel and a south porch and bell-turret were added to the structure. The windows date from the 13th and 15th century except for the chancel east window, which is modern.

The one bell that hangs in the turret is said to be inscribed ‘Thomas Hey maked,’ c. 1350-60.  The medieval font has an octagonal bowl with chamfered under edge; the stem and base are modern. There are references and monuments to the Lawrence family dating from the 17th century when the family was lord of the manor. The church has a silver chalice, its design unusual among the altar plate of Dorset churches as it is engraved with overlapping bands and was made in the 17th century.

Higher Wraxall is set in a valley of its own up in the hills; there are a few cottages, a farm and Wraxall Manor House. This fine house was built in the early 17th century, probably by William Lawrence. The regular stone-built front has four gables, large mullioned windows and a centre projecting porch that has a smaller and lower gable. William Lawrence was an eminent lawyer during the Civil War and later, after a disagreement with his wife whom he thought had been dishonest towards him, he wrote a book: A Vindication of Marriage by the Moral Law of God; in the same volume he argued the case for the Duke of Monmouth’s claim to the succession. Stewart Boyd of Wraxall comments: “although it is true that John Aubrey (1621-1597) says it was written on disaffection from his wife, Martha Sydenham of Wynford Eagle, the book appeared several years after her death. Aubrey’s story may be true, but seems unlikely.”

Changes were made to this article on the 17th of March 2013, following further information from Stewart Boyd of Wraxall.

The Mark of the Blandford Architects

“A pretty neate Country town”, was how Celia Fiennes described Blandford around 1680 and a few years later Defoe said of the town: “…a handsome well built Town, chiefly famous for making the finest Bone lace in England”, but that was before the great fire of 1731, which reduced most of the town to ashes. Its resurrection was assured, for here lived a family of architects and masons: the Bastards.

The rebuilding of the town was largely the work of two men, John and William Bastard, the sons of Thomas Bastard, whom is remembered on a memorial in the church as “eminent for his Skill in Architecture”. Thomas Bastard must have been responsible in his day for a lot of building work in and around Blandford; It is thought the classic church at Charlton Marshall (1713) and the rectory at Spetisbury (1716) are his work. By the time of his death in 1720 Thomas Bastard had built up a considerable business for his sons to carry on.  After the fire in 1731 ‘A List of Sufferers’  was drawn up; it included the losses of the firm Bastard & Co, estimated at £3,709, the largest individual loss recorded in the town.
 
Thomas Bastard’s eldest son, also a Thomas, was a joiner and architect. He died a few weeks after the fire, probably a victim of the small-pox epidemic that was raging in the town at the time.  Then came John (1687-1770) and William (1689-1766); the fourth son, Samuel, was a ship-modeller in the royal dockyard at Gosport and the fifth son Benjamin (1698-1772) set up in business at Sherborne. The youngest son, Joseph, described as a ‘builder and surveyor’ moved to Hampshire.

There is a curious form of capital that acts like a trade mark and helps us identify some of the buildings the Bastard firm designed and built. Instead of the volutes carving outwards in the usual way, they curve inwards and give a distinctive effect.  Two house fronts in the market-place in Blandford have the “Bastard capital”: The Red Lion Inn and The Grape, which is said to have been John Bastard’s own house.

However, there exists an earlier use of this peculiar design of capital on a building unlikely to have seen the involvement of the Dorset architects: Marlow Court in Buckinghamshire built about 1720 for the then Prince of Wales. This stately edifice displays another unusual design of capital and other similarities, which it shares with Chettle House in north-east Dorset. It is most unlikely that the Bastards had any involvement with the Marlow house but they might have been involved with the building of Chettle House about which the RCHM says: “…the architect in all probability being Thomas Archer.”

Arthur Oswald suggests the Bastards acquired their signature capital from the designer of Chettle House “whom they may actually have assisted as builders”. They went on to reproduce it for a further thirty years.

Another house of interest is Creech Grange, owned by Dennis Bond, where there is a further example of the Bastard capital. In the accounts for the alterations made between 1738 and 1741 the name of Cartwright is frequently used to identify the responsible mason and builder, but his place of origin is not given. However, the glazier on these works was a Blandford man, so perhaps Mr Cartwright also came from the town. To add weight to this speculation, in Blandford St. Mary Church we find a memorial: “In Memory of Mr Fran. Cartwright and Ann his beloved wife.” Below this is carved an architect’s set-square, dividers and ruler and a drawing of a Palladium House, which is undoubtedly a representation of Came House near Dorchester, built in 1754 by Francis Cartwright. This would have been one of his last works, for he passed away in 1758.
 
Cartwright does not appear in the list of people who suffered from the Blandford fire. He is described elsewhere as a provincial master builder so it is likely he was a rival rather than a pupil, employee or sub-contractor of the Bastards; nevertheless he incorporates an example of the Bastard capital in Came House.

Poole: Then and Now

BOOK REVIEW

Poole: Then & Now in Colour

“A poor fisher village” was how the ancient borough of Poole was described in bygone days. Doubtless so it once was, but today it is considered a place of beauty in which to live, work, play and, crucially, as a resort and vibrant cross-channel port. Its harbour lacked the depth to allow Poole ever to develop as a commercial container port like Southampton, yet it is a breath-taking statistical fact that only Sydney Harbour is larger among the natural harbours of the world. So we can be thankful that Poole has escaped the fate of those other ports and is instead noted for its absence of oppressive over-development and the attraction of its heathland and wildlife across the water.

Of course, over the decades there have been great changes. Now, for the first time, archive photographs and modern colour plates have been wedded to illustrate these changes in Poole’s development in a new hardback publication: Poole – Then & Now. It is the work of local historians Frank Henson and Ian Andrews who, cleverly juxtaposing the old and the new, have presented time-comparisons for 46 locations around the town. Each consecutive double-page spread features one of these locations. Each of the sites as it was is reproduced as a sepia print to preserve the period atmosphere, with the modern view inset or set alongside for comparison. Around each pair of illustrations a brief summary explanation of the history of the location has been set. In many instances common landmarks have disappeared (or become obscured) as old buildings have been demolished, others built. Other views, however, show little change or at least are still recognisable. For instance, it is interesting to compare the degree of change noticeable in the photos of Ashley Cross (pages 48/49) with those of Flag Farm on pages 56&57.  

But behind this publication a wealth of meticulous detective work has been undertaken. For it, Henson and Andrews explored Poole’s changing face, rediscovering monuments, landmarks and buildings thought to have been lost forever. Ian Andrews drew on his experience as a Town Clerk and Chief Executive Officer of the town’s Borough Council – besides serving as Poole’s Borough Archivist and founding several organisations. He is currently President of the Society of Poole Men. For many years a resident of Poole, Frank Henson’s interest is as a member of the Society of Poole Men; he too is a former Borough Councillor and also gives illustrated talks on the history of the area.

The book is 17cm by 24cm and about 1cm thick. There are 95 pages of pictures and text with magenta headings and sub-headings. After brief notes about the acknowledgements and authors a one page introduction leads into the main section of the book.

Poole Then & Now is published by the History Press (www.thehistorypress.co.uk) as part of its Then & Now series aiming to create pictorial records for local people with a passion for delving into and re-discovering their local history.

It is £12.99. There is a photo of the book cover in the gallery area.

Cranborne Chase: Deer-stealers, Poachers and Gamekeepers

The Cranborne Chase we know today is a small remnant of its ancient splendour. When the Chase belonged to the Crown it was an immense tract of woodland with rides made through the woods, planted on each side with evergreens to provide food for the deer. The Chase had for a long period belonged to the Earls of Gloucester, but in King John’s reign and from Edward IV’s time to the reign of James I it belonged to the Crown. Records from the reign of Elizabeth I state that the office of Warden and Ranger of the Chase was granted to Henry, Earl of Pembrokeshire, for life. However, in James I’s reign, the free Chase and Warren was granted to William, Earl of Salisbury, and his heirs, and all the rights and privileges of the Chase were transferred to the Lord of the Manor at Cranborne, as was the custom; he was also the Lord of the Chase.

North of the main Blandford to Salisbury road it still has some fine avenues of trees and the boundary line between Dorset and Wiltshire runs through it. Between Tollard Royal and Ashmore Down there is some of the finest scenery in the north of Dorset. A series of long narrow valleys lie between very steep ridges while the valleys are called Bottoms; there is Rotherley Bottom right in the Chase, Malacombe Bottom between Rotherley Down and Berwick Down; Ashmore Bottom on the other side of Berwick Down, and Quarry Bottom near Ashmore Down. In ancient times they might all have been river valleys, as the gravel in the bottoms indicates died-up watercourses. On Berwick Down there are numerous low banks and shallow ditches which were probably cultivation banks in prehistoric times.

William Chafin wrote Anecdotes respecting Cranborne Chase in September 1816. About gamekeepers he says:  “In the grant of the Chase, it is not the feed of the deer only that is granted, but the inclusive property of all undergame of every denomination”. He tells of a time when there was no such person as a game-keeper throughout the whole chase and relates that the first person to appoint a gamekeeper was Mr Doddington, later Lord Melcombe.

At the time George Chafin was the Head Ranger of the whole Chase, he died in 1766. One day he met Doddington’s game-keeper, who had a gun and dogs with him. After some argument Chafin ordered the game-keeper to go home and tell the person who sent him that, if he ever came again to this or into any part of the Chase with gun and dogs, the dogs would be shot and he himself prosecuted.

A few days later the Ranger met the same man near the same place and, having a gun in his hand, put his threat into action, shooting three dogs with one shot as their heads were close together drinking in a small puddle of water.

Mr Doddington was far from pleased. He set off for London the next day and sent a Challenge to Chafin to meet him in London and give him satisfaction for the affront. George Chafin, a Member of Parliament for the County of Dorset as well as Ranger of the Chase, went to the expense of buying a sword, which was never used and to this day has never seen blood.
 
It seems that when Chafin and his friend, Jacob Bankes Esq, at that time Member of Parliament for Shaftesbury went to see Mr Doddington to fix a time and a place for their duel they found him peacefully inclined and happy to acknowledge his error. Mr Doddington invited them both to dine with him and instead of fighting a duel they became good friends to the end of their days.

On the night of 10th of December 1780 there was a fight between the keepers and deer-stealers on Chettle Common in Bursye-Stool Walk. A gang of deer stealers met at Pimperne, headed by a Sergeant of Dragoons named Blandford who was stationed in the town of that name.

They came to the Chase in the night, in disguise and armed with swindgels, an offensive weapon resembling flails to thresh corn. They attacked the keepers, breaking the knee-cap of the stoutest man in the Chase and they broke three ribs of another keeper. The keepers re-grouped and moved on their opponents and one of Sergeant Blandford’s hands was severed from his arm and fell to the ground. The Dragoon was carried to the Lodge and Peter Beckford, who at the time was Ranger for the Walk, brought Mr Dansey, an eminent surgeon, to dress the wound. As soon as Sergeant Blandford was well enough to be moved he was committed to Dorchester gaol, where he joined his companions; his hand was buried in Pimperne Churchyard. Several of the offenders were employees of Mr Beckford. All were found guilty and sentenced to be transported for seven years but this was commuted to confinement in gaol for an indefinite term.

In his book William Chafin mentions hawking and says it was: “the most predominant amusement and was followed by all the gentry at a great expense”. He says of cock-fighting: “…it was a favourite diversion at this time and cocks were bred at different Lodges in the Chase. But in our days of refinement, this amusement of cock-fighting hath been exploded, and in a great measure abandoned, being deemed to be barbaric and cruel”.

No more game-keepers were heard of in the Chase until Lord Rivers, then Mr Pitt, was called upon to represent the County of Dorset in Parliament. Some saw this as an opportunity to install game-keepers in the Chase, something Mr Pitt found convenient to over-look. Very soon there were numerous game-keepers at work in the Chase. Records show that in 1828 there were as many as twelve thousand head of deer roaming across the Chase and these were the charge of keepers who worked for the Rangers.

Hutchins included a print of a noted deer-hunter in his costume, from a portrait by Byng in 1720, with the comment: “The deer-hunter of 200 years-ago was on-all-fours with the poacher of his day, no better and no worse. He was not ashamed of his occupation, nor was it considered a disgraceful one in any sense, and the result was the disappearance of the deer. The only point of contrast discoverable is that old-time poachers were the gentry and modern-time poachers are not”.

 

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.

Three Little Books

Liz Chater has recently self-published three little books that will be of interest to anyone engaged in family history research or looking for relatives in the parishes of Symondsbury or Eype.  The books include photographs of all the Memorials with Inscriptions in the Symondsbury and Eype Churchyards as well as the Symondsbury Cemetery and include references to the entries in the burial register. The indices are particularly useful. The vast majority of our ancestors are not remembered in stone; furthermore the books would have benefited from the inclusion of a transcription of the full burial registers.

They are nicely presented with full colour covers but more importantly they are packed with information. For more about the books, the author and how to order use the following links.

http://www.blurb.co.uk/my/book/detail/3702644 http://www.blurb.co.uk/my/book/detail/3702588 http://www.blurb.co.uk/my/book/detail/3702552

Gussage St. Andrew in the Parish of Sixpenny Handley

The small and interesting church of Gussage St. Andrew sits in a field behind Chapel Farm in the parish of Sixpenny Handley. Nowadays it is a chapelry of the Parish Church of St. Mary’s but in Hutchins time it belonged to the parish of Gussage St. Michael about two miles away and has also been a Chapel of Ease to the church at Iwerne Minster.

The walls are of flint with ashlar dressings and in part have been rendered; the roof is tiled. St. Andrew’s comprises just a nave, chancel and a small bell-turret. The nave dates from the 12th century and the chancel from the late 13th century.

The gabled east wall of the chancel has two restored 13th century lancet windows and at the other end of the cell in the west wall there is a 12th century window. The nave has windows from the 12th, 13th, and 17th century as well as one probably installed in 1857 when a little restoration work was carried out. The church is entered through a 14th century doorway in the north wall of the nave.The Purbeck stone font dates from the 12th century and there is a late 17th century oak pulpit. The Royal Arms of George III are displayed but have been crudely painted.

There are two floor slab memorials: one in the chancel to William Williams who passed away on the 17th November 1725 aged 100 years, the other is in the nave and commemorates John Lush and his wife Mary, dated 1722.

By far the most interesting things about this little church are the wall paintings that were only uncovered in 1951. They depict the Betrayal of Christ and the Scourging, the Crucifixion, the Deposition and also the Suicide of Judas.

We have included in the gallery photos of the exterior and interior of St. Andrews.

Sixpenny Handley – the Fire of 1892

Four miles from the border with Wiltshire in the north east of the county is the curiously named village of Sixpenny Handley. It is probably the largest village in Cranborne Chase and sometimes signposted “6d Handley”, a reference to a pre-decimalisation coin. In his book Highways and Byways in Dorset Frederick Treves bestows on the village the accolade: “.the ugliest village in Dorset.”

During the spring of 1892 there had been remarkably little rain; the thatch roofing on the cottages was very dry. As the 20th of May dawned people awoke and set about their labours. The village blacksmith and wheelwright was busy bonding wheels, a process that required the rim to be heated to a very high temperature before being lifted and secured on the wheel.
 
Just before noon it seems a spark, or piece of burning material, was caught-up by the wind and carried some 150 yards from the smithy, alighting on the thatched roof of a cottage and setting it alight. Before it was noticed, sparks and embers had been lifted by the wind and carried along and across the main street; it was not long before the greater part of the village was ablaze, including the oil and tallow store.

Residents grabbed all the possessions they could and took them out of reach of the inferno but later, as the fire spread and there was much commotion and confusion, the flames greedily swallowed up even these meagre possessions. By the time the residents realised the scale of the battle they had on their hands the fire was unstoppable.

It was noon. Most of the men and lads were at work in the fields, this being a mainly agricultural community. The village is not near a river and had no direct water supply from any source above ground. It proved an impossible struggle, as even the wood framed wells surrendered to the intense heat. Some villagers put ladders to the walls of their homes and attempted to remove the burning thatch, but were defeated when the wooden ladders caught fire.

The inability of the villagers to get control of the fire in the early stages allowed it to rage fiercely and defy all attempts to halt the destruction it was determined to wreak; it burnt for three days. There was little left of the village after over 50 buildings were gutted, leaving 186 people homeless and destitute with little more than the clothes they stood up in. This was the third fire to break out in the village in 35 years and by far the most devastating.

The cost of rebuilding the village was expensive and a daunting task. Other communities rallied around with donations of money and clothes. The government sent bell tents and the army soldiers to put them up. Local farmers sent shepherds’ huts to house victims.

Treves was writing about the village a decade after the fire, when rebuilding would have been largely completed. We know the work had to be done quickly; it was not to the highest standard and this is clearly reflected in Treves scathing review of this unfortunate village.

There are photos of the village and the fire damage in the photo section.

 (See our story Sixpenny Handley published 26th of November 2012 in the Sixpenny Handley category.)
.

Sixpenny Handley

The hundreds of Sexpena and Hanlega were amalgamated probably in the 14th century and became the Hundred of Sixpenne et Henle. The parish was formed in the 19th century when two chapelries, Handley and Gussage St. Andrew, previously parts of the parish of Iwerne Minster, were united.  However, Handley had been a parish until the 13th century.

Until relatively recent times the village was known simply as Handley. It lies in the eastern part of the parish, comprises over six thousand acres and spans the upper reaches of three valleys in the north-east of the county. This is the largest village in Cranborne Chase and it is the economic heart of the parish. In the west of the parish are the early settlements of Minchington and Gussage St. Andrews, where two later settlements appear to have sprung up: Woodcutts, in existence by 1244 and Dean, in existence since 1278.

The Parish Church of St. Mary is at the north-west end of the village. There are pointers to a 12th century building: a stone carved image of Christ-in-Majesty; the font and a capitol re-used as a stoup in the porch, but nothing else from that period has survived. The chancel and the south porch date from the 14th century and a north aisle was added in 1832. In 1877 the 14th century porch was taken down and re-erected in its present position and a south aisle was built on. At the same time the nave, north aisle and west tower were rebuilt. Amongst the monuments in the church is one to John Alie, who died in 1579, and his family; there is a brass commemorating the life of James Isaac, the parish clerk whose family held that position for a 128 years including throughout the 19th century.

 Isaac Gulliver, the notorious smuggler, used Handley as one of his bases and it was at St. Mary’s Church that he married Betty Beale on the 5th of October 1768. A newspaper in 1770 reported that a posse of the Excise men came to the village and seized contraband tea and brandy hidden in a cottage in the village; they had to beat off an attack from local free traders and managed to get the contraband safely back to the Excise Superintendents house in Blandford.  Later in the evening about 150 men armed and on horseback came to Blandford and persuaded the Excise officer’s wife at gun-point to give them back the contraband. (See our story: Isaac Gulliver – Dorset’s Smuggler King, published 24th April 2010 in the Real Lives category.)

The village sits in a part of the county where there are many prehistoric remains. Local land owner General Pitt-Rivers was responsible for much archaeological work in the area, notably at Wor Barrow, a Neolithic long barrow about a mile to the east of the village and at a site on the common near to the hamlet of Woodcutts. More recently Bournemouth University has carried out a considerable amount of work hereabouts. (See our story: General Pitt-Rivers & the Cranborne Years, in the Biography category, published 19th November 2012.)
 
A fire in 1892 destroyed most of the village; inevitably most of the buildings along the long High Street are modern and include several shop premises. Within the parish boundaries however, there are several examples of attractive houses dating back to the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. This is not a picture post card village but whether or not it still deserves Frederick Treves accolade of “..the ugliest village in Dorset,” is something you will have to make your own mind up about.

(See our story Sixpenny Handley – the Fire of 1892, published 2nd December 2012 in the Sixpenny Handley category.)

General Pitt-Rivers and the Cranborne Years

For the first eighty years of the 19th century the history of Cranborne Chase was something of a closed book. That this area in the north east of Dorset was especially rich in monumental evidence of England’s earliest agricultural societies was well known, but few excavations had been carried out here.

But all that was to change when, in 1880, a landmark shift in the Chase’s ownership took place. In that year General Augustus Lane Fox inherited the Rivers Estate from his great uncle and adopted the name Pitt-Rivers. The Rivers seat in Dorset was at Rushmore House, a country residence on Cranborne Chase, now the Sandroyd School. But Pitt-Rivers was no mere landowner of the idle rich kind. Rather, his twenty or so years at Rushmore saw the greatest flourishing and fruits of his life-long interest in archaeology and a revolution in our understanding of the prehistory of Cranborne’s extensive royal hunting district. Indeed, Sir Mortimer Wheeler considered Pitt-Rivers to have been the greatest antiquarian and excavator of his day.

Before Pitt-Rivers, whatever digs did take place on the Chase most likely amounted to little more than unscientific haphazard pillages for treasure more than anything else, and certainly led to no lasting or comprehensive understanding of the prehistoric settlers of the area. By the time he had gone to his grave Pitt-Rivers had explored or excavated a multiplicity of sites on or adjoining his Cranborne estate and had set detailed and systematic excavation on a firm professional foundation.

In his years at Cranborne, Pitt-Rivers’ work teams sifted and meticulously recorded the Bronze Age cemetery on Martin Down, a Romano-British village at Woodcutts, and Wor Barrow on Handley Hill – the first ever in-depth excavation of a Neolithic long barrow. He further explored a Roman villa at Iwerne Minster and was the first archaeologist to carry out a detailed investigation of the mysterious Bokerley Dyke along Dorset’s north east border. Pitt-Rivers wondered if this earthwork might be a trap for deer, as Blagdon to the east was once Dorset’s largest deer-park. Seeking explanations for archaeological mysteries caused him to entertain all possibilities.

This fascination for unlocking the secrets of the past, as well as an almost kleptomanial fetish for anthropological artefacts expressed itself long before Pitt-Rivers came to Dorset. Born in 1827, the son of William Augustas of the wealthy Lane-Fox gentry family of Hope Hill, Yorkshire, young Augustus entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in 1841, being commissioned into the Grenadier Guards on passing out four years later. In 1852 Lane-Fox toured Europe to study methods of gunnery instruction, then became a gunnery instructor himself during service in the Crimean War.
In 1885 he went to Malta to train soldiers in rifle use after a medical had found him unfit for further service in the Crimea.

Following the Trent Affair early in the American Civil War, Lane-Fox was sent to Canada, but returned after only six months to serve as Assistant Quartermaster General in Cork, Ireland from 1862 to 1866. It was during these four years that he embarked upon his first excavations. From 1873 to 1877 he served a term as Commander of the West Surrey Brigade Depot in Guildford.

When Pitt-Rivers took up his residence at Rushmore House in 1880, having had two previous residences in London, he was in the twenty-seventh year of his marriage to Alice Stanley, eldest daughter of Lord Stanley of Alderley, Cheshire, and had nine children. His Cranborne estate amounted to 27,000 acres, and the Pitt-Rivers family had an annual income of a little under £20,000. For the rest of his life the management of the estate would be left to an agent, while the General kept a tight rein on his affairs.

After leaving Ireland he had conducted excavations in London, Yorkshire and Sussex before moving to Cranborne Chase. In 1861 Pitt-Rivers joined the Ethnological Society of London and the Anthropological Society slightly later. In 1864 he was elected to the Society of Antiquarians. By this time the Lieutenant General had compulsively amassed a huge collection of anthropological artefacts – mostly from dealers, but some from his own excavations.

The General would typically arrive at a site with his workman at 7 a.m. Pitt-Rivers recognised the importance of studying modern artefacts in order to understand those of the past. He recorded all finds on a site, no matter how trivial (including rubbish), with their contexts, developing the concept of typology: the classification in a chronological sequence of finds showing evolution over time. Close attention had to be paid to stratification, and the workers had to be fully trained. Pitt-Rivers thought that excavation should only be carried out under proper supervision. In later life he documented his fieldwork, had detailed plans drawn up, even having models made.

In 1883 he was appointed the first ever Inspector of Ancient Monuments, inclusion on the record of which precluded a landowner from destroying or defacing a monument he owned. Between 1887 and 1896 Pitt Rivers published in several volumes his ‘Excavations on Cranborne Chase’, which was warmly received at Salisbury. The work from excavation to publication needed the help of reliable clerical assistants and draughtsman, which the excavator himself handpicked. During a lecture to the Royal Archaeological Institute he pointed out the typically low cranium of early men’s skulls (he himself even invented and built a craniometer to measure them.)

Pitt-Rivers also became pre-occupied with the origin of local place names. He was sure funding would be adequate if the gentry could look beyond hunting and shooting, and criticised newspaper editors for ignoring “sensible things” like archaeology. But the General did not allow his own preferences to overrule the desires of others.

It must not be thought Pitt-Rivers set out to amuse the agricultural classes; he intended to educate them as well. The finds from his excavations on Cranborne Chase and exhibits from abroad were cleverly displayed to instruct and enlighten visitors. And he had ample means to explore the Chase; it was said that one could walk to the coast without leaving the Rivers estate.

But if Pitt-Rivers was a first class excavator; he was no less successful in brightening the lives of the local population. He encouraged as many as 40,000 to visit the estate annually, drawn by a bandstand, open-air theatre and zoo he established in the grounds of Rushmore Park. He opened an area known as the Larmer Grounds to the public on Sundays. The menagerie also became a laboratory for experiments in the cross-breeding of cattle and yaks – early forays into genetic engineering, which won Pitt-Rivers a fellowship of the Zoological Society.

But some of the activities also drew criticism. Ralph Wightman said of Pitt-Rivers that he “succeeded in shocking most of the countryside – I can remember elderly non-conformist relatives describing it (i.e. the opening of the Larmer Grounds) with obvious disapproval”. The Vicar of Sixpenny Handley complained about the noise from the General’s private band in the pleasure grounds. Many did not share Pitt-Rivers enthusiasm for disturbing burial places: the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, for one, believed the desecration of graves to be sacrilege.

Disapproval was also voiced after the General opened a museum and pub – called the Museum Arms – in nearby Farnham. To this museum he donated some 20,000 of the objects in his collection in 1884, though many more were left in Rushmore and in his London homes. Pitt-Rivers was awarded an honorary degree in 1886. He died in 1900 at the age of 73, his ashes being deposited in a black marble reliquary high in a wall-niche at Tollard Royal Church.

The material from Cranborne Chase has been relocated to the Salisbury and Wilts Museum, where a gallery to the memory of the excavator has been created. The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford also exhibits many of his collections together with a reconstruction of the Woodcutts Romano-British village.