BEAMINSTER: A LITTLE HISTORY
Beaminster is surrounded by hills where ancient trackways and burial mounds suggesting human activity has taken place here for over 3000 years. Recorded as ‘Bebyngminster’ in the 7th century by the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086 ‘Betminster’ probably had about 300 inhabitants.
From its earliest times Beaminster was an agricultural economy, prosperity and growth coming from the wool cloth trade and the manufacture of sailcloth, sack-cloth, rope and twine from locally grown flax and hemp. In 1284 it was granted a charter for a market once a week and a three-day fair in September.
Beaminster’s fine church, St Mary’s, built on the site of an earlier Norman church has a 100-foot tower, erected in about 1500, which is one of the highest in Dorset. One of the carvings on the west face is a man with a fuller’s bat and mill used in the flax trade.
Since Leland wrote of his travels between 1535-43 describing Beaminster as ‘a praety market town … and lyith in one street from north to south: and another from west to est’ there has really been little physical change.
In 1644 Beaminster was strongly Parliamentarian. A fire, started by Royalist troops occupying the town destroyed three-quarters of its buildings. Fire was an ever-present threat; flames could spread rapidly across the thatched roofs. In 1684 and 1781 the centre of the town was devastated again.
The Square has been the centre of town-life for centuries. Long gone are the market cross and stocks, so too is the Market House that provided an inn, butchers shambles and town hall; it was demolished in 1886.
Today, standing within an attractive mix of late-18th and early 19th century buildings the Robinson Memorial, known as “Julia”, is the focal point. It is a covered market cross erected in 1906 by Vincent Robinson of Parnham in memory of his sister.
Horn Hill Tunnel, paid for by public subscription, was begun in 1830 creating a new north-south route for the daily coaches and carriers’ carts.
The tunnel was opened with great ceremony on 29th June 1832 with 21-gun salutes, speeches, a grand procession, fireworks and a fair, attracting huge crowds.
It is the only pre-railway road tunnel still in everyday use.
Beaminster is ‘Emminster’ in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ . His heroine, Tess, was played on the London stage in 1929 by Gertrude Bugler, who lived in Beaminster and was Hardy’s own choice for the role.
Others too played a part on a much wider stage:
- Thomas Spratt (b 1635) was a Beaminster man. He became Bishop of Rochester and was a founder member of the Royal Society.
- Samuel Hearne (d1792) was a schoolboy here and gained fame for his explorations in the Canadian Arctic; he is believed to be one of the real-life figures inspiring Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’.
- Richard Waygood, started an iron-works and engineering business in the town in 1833 and, after moving to London, produced a hydraulic lift. His name lived on when the company was eventually taken over by an American lift-maker forming Waygood-Otis.
- In 1915 Lieutenant William Rhodes-Moorhouse, whose family resided at Parnham House, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the first airman to be granted this honour.
You can learn more about Beaminster’s history at Beaminster Museum. Visit our website: http://www.beaminstermuseum.org
© Beaminster Museum 2009