There’s so much around Wareham to explore and enjoy – a thousand years of history that can be traced along its streets! Here’s our guide to exploring Wareham – including the most notable, interesting and historical buildings…
A selection of the places to see...
St Mary's Church
St Mary’s, Wareham’s main church, originally built during the Saxon period.
Situated on Church Green and built of local Purbeck Stone, St Mary’s is the main church of Wareham and its tower dominates the view from across the River Frome. The church was originally built during the Saxon period but was substantially modified during the 19th century.
When visiting St Mary’s look out for:
St Edward’s Chapel. One of the oldest parts of the church, at a lower level than the rest of the building and dating to the 12th century.
The chancel dates to the 14th century and the west tower probably early 16th century. The stained glass window at the front of the church, installed in 2011, was made by master glazier Andrew Johnson. The church organ dates from the 19th century and was made by Crickmay and Sons of Weymouth.
The 12th century Norman Stone Font which is a rare hexagonal shape, with 12 figures of the Apostles around the bowl. Two 13th century marble effigies of Knights. Various stone fragments found during the 1841 rebuilding which have Brittonic (the celtic language) inscriptions cut into Roman- British limestone fragments.
Burial site of two Saxon Kings. The church is believed to have been the burial site of two Saxon Kings: Beorhtric in 802 and King Edward the Martyr 998.
For up to date services, dates and times, see warehamchurches.org.
History & Links
St Martin's Church
St Martin’s Church is the most complete example of a Saxon church in Dorset.
At over 1000 years old, St Martin’s Church in North Street is the most complete example of a Saxon church in Dorset, and its oldest! Locally it’s still known as St Martin’s-on-the-Walls because of its close proximity to them – though nowadays they’re no longer clearly visible nearby. Read more about Wareham’s Walls.
When visiting St Martin’s look out for:
The church has been adapted and enlarged over the centuries but you can still see the original Saxon nave, chancel, wall arcading and traces of a Saxon door.
The interior walls are covered in a number of fresco fragments. Above the chancel arch is a fresco of the Royal Arms of Queen Anne dated 1713, flanked by black letter scriptural texts dating from the 1600’s, these overlay earlier scripts including some red stars which are believed to indicate plague deaths. On the north wall of the chancel are 12th century frescoes depicting Saint Martin.
Lawrence of Arabia Effigy
St Martin’s is also famous for its priceless effigy of TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). The effigy was sculpted by Eric Kennington, official war artist for both world wars.
Originally the effigy was made for St Paul’s Cathedral but controversy around Lawrence and his depiction in Arabic dress resulted in it being refused. The effigy was also offered to Westminster Abbey and Salisbury Cathedral but neither would accept him and hence he was given to Wareham’s Saxon church in 1939.
For its protection the church is kept locked but the key is available from Joy’s Gentlemen’s Outfitters, 35 North Street.
History & Links
Wareham Town Hall
The ancient town of Wareham can trace its Mayors back to 1336…
At the main crossroads, with its entrance on East Street, can be found Wareham’s town hall. Wareham can trace its Mayors back to 1336.
It replaces two earlier buildings. These were the ancient Parish church of St Peter’s (whose first priest was recorded in 1321), which itself was converted in 1768 into a town hall, school, jail and butcher’s shop.
However, this was then demolished and completely rebuilt in 1870 with funds entirely contributed by the public. The new building, which was designated solely as a town hall, was designed by the well known architect C. R. Crickmay to whom the author Thomas Hardy had been articled. This then is the building we see today.
The ground level is divided up into the Corn Exchange (which is used for social functions, exhibitions and the Farmers’ Market), and the Wareham Town Museum. Upstairs is the home of Wareham Town Hall and is also licensed for Weddings and Civil Partnerships ceremonies. For more information about the building uses contact the Town Hall on 01929 553006.
Wareham’s ancient mayoral lineage
Wareham is rare in that it can trace its Town Mayors back to 1336, the names are listed on panels in the council chamber. The names were almost lost forever when in 1703 a town clerk absconded to London with the records. The clerk named Nathaniel Child attempted to blackmail for the return of the records. Payment was refused and names boards were created instead, using local records which were themselves destroyed in 1762 during the Great Fire of Wareham.
Wareham’s town crest
You may notice the Wareham Town Crest outside the museum near the town hall, (there’s an old plaque with it on as you come into town). Decorated with a crescent, star and inverted Fleur de Lys. The Star and Crescent are thought to represent the Stoke family and their involvement in the crusades. The inverted Fleur de Lys has an interesting legend. Apparently King John was angered when he visited Wareham and found no welcoming ceremony. He was so angry he forced the town to invert the Fluer de Lys!
Wareham’s Medieval Court Leet
Holy Trinity Church
This ancient building was formerly a church dating back to the 14th century…
Formerly it was the church of Holy Trinity with a 14th century nave and chancel, 18th century north chapel, and 16th century west tower.
Holy Trinity stood on the site of St Andrew’s church. It is believed this building was already in existence when Wareham was a Saxon town guarding the river crossing in the South, (just as St Martin’s guarded the north gate).
However, St Andrew’s was probably a wooden structure, and in 1137 it was so badly damaged during the fighting that took place during the ‘Anarchy’ rebellion, that it was completely rebuilt. Afterwards, it was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and finally ceased to be used after the fire of 1762.
The almshouse in Wareham exists thanks to the generosity of someone that lived over 600 years ago…
A notable building in the town centre is ‘Streche’s Almshouse’ opposite Wareham Museum in East Street. It bears a plaque dating its foundation in 1418. It is named after John Streche who had them built in order to care for “six ancient men and five women” of Wareham.
Saved by fire insurance
The building was rebuilt in 1741 by Henry Drax and John Pitt, and luckily survived Wareham’s great fire of 1762 thanks to being covered by Sun Fire Assurance. This meant that firemen went straight to any buildings displaying Sun Fires plaques. East Street’s Streche Almshouses still display the original plaque.
Many buildings didn’t escape the fire though, and in order to provide an adequate firebreak the main street was widened. The many charming Georgian properties in Wareham also indicate the amount of rebuilding necessary after the fire, though are in fact disguising earlier buildings which did survive.
Note that the bell tower was originally part of the 1768 Town Hall on the opposite side of the road, and was relocated when the present Town Hall was built in 1870.
The building we see today is currently divided into private flats.
Change of sites
The East Street building ceased to be an almshouse in 1907, when its occupants were transferred to a new much bigger almshouses complex in Worgret Road.
This new site is still in use today and still maintained by a listed charity for ‘for poor persons of good character’ called the ‘Almshouse Charity of John Streche’. At the time they were also promised to “receive seven shillings weekly, besides new clothes and beef and coals at Christmas…”
... and there's so much more :
This mint was established by King Athelstan in the early 10th century, and in fact by 1086 the Doomsday Book records that this was one of two mints in the town.
Gold Court is now a Bed & Breakfast.
It was destroyed at least once by Viking raiders but by the early 12th century it developed into a Priory, but was eventually dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. The current building dates to the early 16th century with some later additions.
It was formerly known as the Black Bear Hotel, and from that time there has been a life-sized statue of a bear over the entrance porch. Legend states that if the bear falls from the porch the world will end!
There is also an old legend that the Inn is haunted by a male ghost called Geoffrey.
After that time no thatched cottages were allowed in the town, and the main street was widened.
Two arches (the rounded ones) date to 1670, and the other more pointed one is even earlier, dating to the 14th or 15th century. There is an interesting warning sign on the bridge which says: "Any person wilfully injuring any part of this county bridge will be guilty of felony and upon conviction liable to be transported for life"!
Even today the chapel's denomination is noted as 'Dissenting'. It is one of many Dorset churches founded after the Rector of Wareham refused to comply with the infamous 1662 Act of Uniformity. On Sundays services are led by a variety of preachers from different denominations.
The Rectory was destroyed in the 1762 Great Fire of Wareham and later rebuilt. Also look out for the remain of a Norman arch in the wall, most likely taken from the Wareham Castle after it was destroyed.
The Pound was renovated in 2011 as a joint project between Wareham District Development Trust, Purbeck school students, and local illustrator Maria Burns.