Victorian Wareham

1800 – 1856

Dorset-buttons
Dorset buttons
Angela-Georgina-Burdett-Coutts
Lady Burdett Coutts

Bricks and Pottery...

With the advent of the industrial revolution Wareham was once again in decline. Local cottage and craft industries such as Dorset button making were hit hard by new machinery. Button making had been an important industry and it is said that Charles I went to his execution wearing a waistcoat with Dorset Buttons.

By the early 1800’s unemployment amongst agricultural, cottage and craft workers in Dorset was high. The average farm labourer was one of the poorest paid in the country. The combination of lack of work and poor pay resulted in many families emigrating to America and Australia.

In 1837 a workhouse was built in Wareham. Conditions for the inmates were severe in the hope of discouraging those seeking help.

In an attempt to create jobs and alleviate local poverty, a wealthy philanthropist, Lady Burdett Coutts, established a brickworks in 1840 at Sandford, (today the area is the Forest Edge housing estate).  She was a fascinating lady, a rich heiress, who began her career as a philanthropist after striking up a conversation with novelist Charles Dickens during a dinner engagement… (see the link to a biography of her at foot of page).

The brick company apparently made the bricks for the foundations of Crystal Palace in London on whose foundation Beard’s Television Studios were built. NB – an engraving of the works is featured in the picture at the top of this page.

By 1856, funded by Sir John Lawrence, the Sandford Clay and Pottery Works was built, which became a major employer in Wareham. It had an enormous 180 foot high chimney that dominated the landscape for miles around. Initially it made fine chinaware but by the 1900’s it concentrated on producing drainpipes until it was shut down in the mid 1960’s.

The railway comes to Wareham

One real benefit to Wareham was the opening of its first railway station in 1847, being replaced with the current station in 1887. The station served as a branch line to Swanage from 1885 until – like many in Britain – it was closed in 1972.

1860 – 1900 

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St Mary's before restoration
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Photo of Wareham from 1860's

A rural town in flux…

From Praying…

By the middle of the 19th century, out of the four churches left in Wareham, three of them reflected the rising diversion from the Established church, with ‘Independent’, ‘Unitarian’ and ‘Wesleyan’ chapels, alongside the old Anglican Lady St Mary church.

St Martin’s in the Walls, Dorset’s oldest church, hadn’t been used as a place of worship since 1736, although there is evidence that it continued to be used for christenings and marriages. In fact, after it’s use as a shelter for the homeless victims of the Great Fire in 1762, it was abandoned and therefore escaped the questionable zeal of the Victorian architects who loved to refurbish and rebuild Britain’s oldest churches. This unfortunately wasn’t the case for Lady St Mary’s. Despite its pedigree of having been rebuilt around 900 by Alfred the Great’s daughter, the venerable old church suffered the demolition of its Saxon nave in 1842.

There were two other medieval churches that had disappeared or fallen into disuse by the Victorian era – All Saints church near the South Bridge, St Peter’s where the Town Hall now stands, and St Michael’s which has totally disappeared.

To Paying…

In 1865 there were some 161 businesses listed in Wareham. Wareham was a fair reflection of a Britain whose ordinary citizens were becoming relatively prosperous compared to a few decades earlier.

The town had 15 pubs, of which only the Duke of Wellington on East Street, the Horse and Groom on St John’s Hill, the New Inn on the Quay, the Antelope on West Street, and the King’s Arms on North Street now survive. There were 3 hotels (including the Red Lion and the Black Bear which still serve guests), 12 shoemakers, 11 grocers, 7 bakers, 5 butchers, 4 drapers and a hairdresser! There was a general outdoor market on Saturdays and another on Tuesday for the sale of corn that was held in the Corn Exchange, which occupied the ground floor of the Town Hall. So for those that had money there was certainly a great deal of choice in where and how to spend it.

Another important industry in 19th century Wareham was the making of beer, with 2 breweries, one called Bennetts on Abbots’ Quay, and the other was a well established brewery called Panton & Co. located in Pound Lane. Panton’s (along with its other site in Swanage) served around 90 public houses, but declined toward the end of the 19th century, and by 1922 the Wareham site was only used for storage.

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John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Drax
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John Guest Montague in 1880

19th Century politics...

Throughout the 19th century Wareham’s politics was still dominated by a couple of local families – Drax and Calcraft. The town usually became very lively at election times as both families tried to win the remaining seat, sometimes using dirty tricks.

The election of 1880 saw the Calcrafts stand down in favour of  Montague Guest. The Drax candidate – John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Drax was very determined to win and is allegedly arranged for the highjacking and marooning of Liberal voters on an Island in Poole harbour. His cunning plan was thwarted after they were rescued by passing fisherman.  Guest went on to win vote and legend has it that Drax, on entering his carriage, told his driver  ‘Drive me to Hell!’ and never visited  Wareham again. However, Drax was known as a man of few words, nicknamed the silent MP – after he only spoke once during his 32 years at parliament – to ask the speaker of the house to open the window!

The 1880 election was the last one in which Wareham had sole representation. The third Reform Act of 1885 resulted in the borough of Wareham being abolished and merging with with East Dorset.

Let's continue our travel through Wareham's history...!

Prehistoric Period

Prehistoric evidence has been found in Wareham, from worked flint to ancient huts…
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Roman Period

Take a trip back to the Roman age, where a Roman villa has been found…
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Saxon Age

King Alfred the Great’s battles against the Vikings, and the building of Wareham’s famous walls...
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Norman Age

During the ‘Anarchy’ civil war Wareham is again at the centre of British events…
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Renaissance period

Tudor to Stuart Period. Clashes in Wareham between the Roundheads and Cavaliers during the English Civil War, and the bloody executions on Wareham’s walls…
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Georgian Period

The Great Fire of Wareham and why Wareham was described as a ‘Rotten Borough' during this period… !
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Victorian Era

The industrial revolution results in a workhouse being built, but also later a brickworks, a pottery factory, and a brewery...
Let's go!

20th Century

Wareham plays an important role in the two World Wars, and later in the century, while it loses industries, it gains thousands of tourists…
Let's go!

Useful links / Further reading…

Henry’s Buttons

  • Interesting website with a history of the Dorset Button Industry.

Sandford Pottery

  • Wareham Museum’s page on Sandford’s old Pottery works.

The woman who tackled poverty with Dickens

  • A great article about an amazing Victorian lady, Lady Burdett Coutts, who helped establish the Sandford Pottery Works.​​

The History of Parliament

  • The History of Parliament: Includes a history of Wareham and interesting details of  the administration of the town from 1386 – 1868.

Wareham Town Museum

  • Located at the Town Hall in East Street, the museum has an interesting display of finds.
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