20th Century Wareham
1914 – 1918
The First World War...
At the outbreak of what was known at the time as the ‘Great War’, Wareham was a small market town with a population of just over 2000 people. However it was soon home to one of the largest military camps in Dorset with over 7000 men stationed.
The camp was built on the outskirts of the town on both sides of the Worgret road (where the Purbeck School and the old Wareham Middle school are located). It was used as a base for training new recruits and included a hospital, chapel and a garrison theatre. Regiments from Yorkshire, Lancashire and also from Australia and New Zealand were housed there. Towards the end of the war the camp was also used to store tanks returning from France.
After the war the camp was eventually dismantled in the 1920s and some of the buildings were sold off for Scout huts and village halls.
Another important part of the war effort in Wareham was the building of a cordite ammunitions factory just a few miles away at Holton Heath in 1915.
A new railway station was built at Holton to ship the large workforce of several thousand people, mostly women, from Poole and Bournemouth as well as to transport the cordite to Poole harbour. A lot of the work was carried out underground to reduce the risk of damage by accidental explosion.
After the war, in the 1930’s, there was an explosion at the factory which resulted in the death of ten workers. The factory was used again in WW2 but finally closed in 1957 although many of the buildings still survive.
Lawrence of Arabia
Wareham is also famous for its connection to the famous WW1 soldier and author TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) who lived near the town at Clouds Hill in Bovington. Lawrence was well known in Wareham and regularly visited the town. An effigy of him was given to the St Martin’s church after his untimely death in 1935.
1939 – 1945
The Second World War...
During the Second World War Purbeck was an important centre of military activity. Holton Heath continued to manufacture ammunition for the war. To protect it from enemy bombs an elaborate anti-aircraft defence surrounded it including two decoy factories at Gore Heath and Arne which were manned by the local Home Guard. There was also a protective circle of anti-aircraft sites installed at various places including Wareham, coordinated from Lytchett Manor House. In Worth Matravers, a few miles from Wareham there was a secret centre where top scientists were developing better and long range radar.
The coastal village of Tyneham was completely evacuated in 1943 so it could be used for military training particularly the preparations for D-Day. An office was opened in Wareham for the village residents to get advice, and many were re-homed by Wareham Town Council. After the war it became a ghost village, as residents, despite government promises, were never allowed back again, and the land continued to be used as a military training ground. Wareham station also received a large number of evacuated children by train from London during the war who were billeted to Wareham and the surrounding towns and villages.
With so many military targets nearby, Wareham itself was not an obvious target. However, Wareham’s walls came into use again when the walls were steepened as an anti-tank measure. However, Wareham’s walls could not defend the town in December 1942 when it received a direct hit from a lone German bomber. The blast destroyed several properties injured several. Many houses in the town had their windows blown out but luckily the bomb had narrowly missed the Saxon church of St. Martin.
1939 – 1945
Wareham in the post-war years...
After the war Wareham was still a very small settlement with a population of less than 2000. However new housing developments started to appear in the town and its outskirts and the population started to grow to around 3000 by 1951.
From the 1950’s the town’s more traditional industries declined or disappeared – such as Sibley Pottery works in Sandford – whilst the town’s attraction for tourists increased with the advent of the motor car. Although the Wareham to Swanage railway line closed in 1972 people could see travel to Wareham from London.
However Wareham was not so accessible in February 1978 when it was cut off by a snow blizzard and essential supplies had to be delivered by the army!
Thankfully, Wareham’s old Saxon walls and the two rivers that border it have ensured that its town centre has retained its characteristic feel of a small rural market town; it’s layout not much changed since the days of King Alfred the Great. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Wareham’s still described that way in another 1000 years!
Let's continue our travel through Wareham's history...!
Useful links / Further reading…
Wareham in the 1914-1918 World War
The story of the cordite factory in Holton Heath.
Dorset Life magazine article about the day the town was bombed.
- Wareham residents recollections of the 2nd World War
Radar development in Purbeck in 1940 – 1942
Story of how Tyneham’s residents were moved from their ancestral dwellings in 1943 and re-located by WarehamTown Council.
- Includes an alternative ‘none rose-tinted glasses’ discussion of the life of the Tyneham villagers…