Descriptions of Wareham from times past...
Highways and Byways in Dorset by Frederick Treves
It is always interesting to read some old descriptions of Wareham from times past. Below is a copy of a chapter from a Book called ‘Highways and Byways in Dorset’ by Frederick Treves. First published in 1906, Treves paints an interesting picture of Wareham at the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century. There are also some interesting historical notes and stories about Wareham. One of our favourites is Treve’s description of the old Saxon St Martin’s Church (see antique photo below), which at the start of the 20th century had been been abandoned for 170 years! We have illustrated the chapter with a collection of antique photos of Wareham – to help illustrate the Wareham that Frederick Treves would have seen.
About Frederick Treves, author
Born in Dorchester in 1853, he was a prominent British surgeon as well as an author. Renowned for his surgical treatment of appendicitis and was also credited with saving the life of King Edward VII in 1902. He was also famous for his friendship with Joseph Merrick called the ‘Elephant Man’ due to his severe deformities. In 1906 he published the ‘ighways and Byways of Dorset’ and in 1923 wrote the book ‘The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences’.
Wareham: The Walled Town
(Excerpt from Highways and Byways, chapter X)
“In Saxon times Wareham was among the great towns of Wessex. Its history is one long, lurid account of disaster and woe, so that it would need a Jeremiah to tell of all its lamentations. Possibly no town in England has been besieged so often and so readily, or has been so many times burnt and reduct to ruins.”
The road to Wareham is across the heath, through Lytchett Minster, where is an inn named the ‘Peter’s Finger’ with a painted signpost by the wayside to explain this unusual title. Wareham must have been one of the very earliest of human settlements in Dorset. It is unique in this: that it is a fortified town, that it lies within the compass of its own entrenchments, and that the great ramparts which still shut it in cannot be less than one thousand years old. The town stands on a ridge between the rivers Puddle or Pydel on the North and the Frome on the South. On the East lies the Poole estuary, so that the only land approach to the place is from the West, where the entrenchments are the most massive and formidable.
In ancient days the sea came nearer to Wareham than it does now; the rivers were wider, and there was a great swamp stretching seawards from the foot of the ridge. Wareham was, indeed, a seaport of a kind. When Edward III was preparing for the siege of Calais the town provided three ships and fifty-nine men for the fleet. A good deal of shipping came here, so the records say. and so the ample quay and the waterside store-houses still testify. The place, moreover, maintained an important salmon fishery.
It is probable that Wareham was originally a riverside hold, built by the Bronze Age Celts, and comparable to the fortresses of Poundbury, Duds Bury, and Crawford Castle. When the Romans came they no doubt held and strengthened the position, and gave to it many of the features which it pretends to now. The town; with its four streets at right angles, follows the plan of such Roman towns as Dorchester and Gloucester, and conforms to the arrangement of the Pretorian Camp at Rome. These Roman characteristics of Wareham have been graphically dealt with by Mr John Bellows, who states that the stronghold is ‘the most remarkable Roman camp of the first century in Britain.’
“Pirates raided it as a matter of routine, and any ruffian of Wessex who found time hang heavily upon his hands called together a company of freebooters and started from the Frome mouth.”
In Saxon times Wareham was among the great towns of Wessex. Its history is one long, lurid account of disaster and woe, so that it would need a Jeremiah to tell of all its lamentations. Possibly no town in England has been besieged so often and so readily, or has been so many times burnt and reduced to ruins. Placed near the sea, on the bight of a handy harbour and at the mouth of an ever-fertile valley, Wareham in the infrequent intervals of peace was probably well to do. Pirates raided it as a matter of routine, and any ruffian of Wessex who found time hang heavily upon his hands called together a company of freebooters and started from the Frome mouth.
The Danes were exceedingly busy with this river-encircled town. They snatched it from the Saxons in 876, with the result that for some century and a half the unhappy place was the scene of endless forays, of alarms and assualts, of carnage and burnings, and generally of battle, murder and sudden death. Sometimes the Danes held the ramparts and sometimes the Saxons, until at last Canute came down upon the town with impetous ferocity and made the place a heap of ruins. As centuries went by the besiegers of Wareham must have taken comfort from precedent, for, with exception of one siege which lasted three months, it would seem that no sooner was the town beleaguered that it fell into the hands of the enemy.
During the civil war of Stephen’s reign Wareham had what would be called in schoolboy speech ‘an awful time’. That terrible virago, the Empress Matilda, possessed herself of the place for a while, but in 1142 – in the very year when she escaped from Oxford Castle in her nightdress through the snow – Stephen took it, and acting in according with ancient custom, reduced it to ashes. King John too had an unfortunate and inconvenient affection for Wareham. He came there often to the distress of the burgesses, for he always brought trouble in his train.
The Great Civil War and the 'life and times of the Rev. William Wake'
During the great Civil War Wareham was held by the Royalists. The holding, however was nominal as soon as it became a casual relaxation for the Parliament to lay siege to the place. Indeed the garrison of Poole appear to have regarded the raiding of Wareham as a suitable occupation for ‘a week end’ In 1646, when the Parliament was comfortably in possession of the town, a vote was passed that Wareham should be ‘slighted’. To ‘slight’ an entrenched place in those days was to pluck it down and level it with the ground. Fortunately, the work of slighting was either too heavy or too uninteresting to be proceeded with, so the pondeorus walls of Wareham were spared.
The reputation of this town has been founded mainly upon its misfortunes. It is famous for little but calamities, so that, had it not been for its sieges, its sackings and its burnings, the place would have been of small account. Wareham, the much enduring, is the Mrs Gummidge of Dorset towns, and it may be its troubles have in the latter years0 made it ‘contrairy’. It would seem as if the habit of being burnt became established in the settlement, for in 1762, after a hundred years of peace, Wareham set fire to itself with such effect that nearly the whole of its houses were reduced to ashes.
There was at times a tinge of melancholy about the place, as well as an element of the morbid in its enjoyments. Thus in the reign of Edward I. Early Gilbert pleaded for confirmation of certain liberties which he claimed that ‘he and his ancestors enjoyed time out of mind.’ The liberties which had afforded enjoyment for so many years to this distinguished family comprised ‘a gallows of infangthef (the right of the lord of the manor to try and punish thieves taken within the manor), bloodshed, hue and cry view of frank pledge (a system of mutual suretyship), pillory, ducking-stool, assize of bread and bear, a weekly Saturday market, and a fair for two days on the eve of St John the Baptist.
Something of the uneasiness of life in Wareham in the old days may be gathered from episodes in the life and times of the Rev. William Wake, the rector of the long suffering town. The days of a country rector are generally assumed to be passed in dignity and peace. There are roses in the rectory garden at Wareham0 and a trout stream at the foot of the rectory orchard. In the time of the Civil War a certain Robert Moreton of Wareham received orders to fortify and garrison the place for Parliament. On a pleasant Sunday afternoon he went to the town cross and made a declaration of the authority vested in him. He was on horseback, and a little crowd of gaping people, sadly alive to the meaning of proclamations, gathered about him. The saintly rector, who was a firm Royalist, came strolling by, listened to the man on the horse, and then, turning to his flock, begged them not to give credit to his utterances. Whereupon Mr Moreton struck the reverend gentleman over the head with the butt end of a pistol, “somewhat to his detriment”, the chronicle states. The next day the rector was returning from taking the air, from a meditative walk probably by the banks of the Frome. In the street he met Moreton, who asked the gentle parson as to what he had said at the cross on Sunday.
Before the divine could reply Moreton fired at him with both his pistol and so shot him in the head. ‘One of the bullets lodged in his forehead at the breaking of the hair, with which he fell to the ground.’ The cowardly Moreton then drew his sword and gave the prostrate clergyman ’two cuts over the heard, very large.’ In due course the rector, having received in all relevent wounds, was put in a chair by his friends and carried home. He was really rescued by a woman, for in the record the reading is a follows; ‘Meantime one Susan Bolt, a servant of Wake’s, being in a field hard by fetching of pease, came. and with her corn pike made at Moreton, who rode from her and was by her pursued to his own doors.’
The rector, who is described as a ‘merry, true hearted parson’ was after some days seized and cast into Dorchester gaol, his property was sequestered, and his wife and children turned out of doors. During one of the many changes in the course of affairs the pastor was set free, whereupon he prompty joined the King’s army. He was a Sherborne Castle when that place was besieged. As soon as it fell he was made prisoner, and with others was stripped naked and led through the town. From Sherborne he was sent as a prisoner to Poole, “where the plague then was.’ He was ‘exchanged’ to Corfe Castle, and was one of the garrison of that fortress during the memorable siege. When Corfe capitulated the rector was again made a prisoner and was ‘barbarously dealt with.’ His adventures continued, so that before the war was over he had been taken prisoner no fewer than nineteen times. His son – who was the father of a famous Archbishop of Canterbury – did not disgrace the annals of the rectory. He was only eighteen times a prisoner, but could claim the greater distinction that he was twice condemmed to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. When peace fell upon the land it is pleasant to know that the Rev. William Wake returned to his rectory in Wareham, to his roses and his fishing. He and his son must have had much to talk about over the parlour fire on winter’s nights. It is to be hoped also that quiet came again to Susan Bolt, and that she was able to once more to employ herself in the rectory field in the ‘fetching of pease.’
“It was to repel a phantom army, which was creeping upon the town like a deadly mist, that men of Wareham rose and rushed into the streets, buckling on their swords and priming their pistols.”
The very last call to arms to which the poor, war torn , battered town of Wareham responded was the most remarkable summons of all. Possibly no garrison every sprang to its feet and manned its trampled ramparts in obedience to a cry more astonishing. It was to repel a phantom army, which was creeping upon the town like a deadly mist, that men of Wareham rose and rushed into the streets, buckling on their swords and priming their pistols. The warning came at the close of a winter’s day in this wise. Between Wareham and the sea is a height called Grange Hill. It is on the way to the old Celtic camp of Flowers Barrow, which crowns the white cliffs of Warbarrow Bay. One evening in December, 1678, Captain John Lawrence of Creech, his brother, four clay-cutters, with other simple folk, were struck with horrow at the sight of several thousand of armed men marching over Grange Hill from Flowers Barrow. The brothers Lawrence and the clay cutters ran for their lives to Wareham to alarm that often alarmed town. Wareham was prompt. Before the ghostly army could draw in sight three hundred of the militia were called out, the bridge was ‘barricadoed’, and all the boats were drawn to the north side of the river. Captain Lawrence and his brother, being convinced that the safety of England was imperilled, rushed post haste to London and ‘deposed the particulars on oath before the council.’ The loyal country of Dorset, in the meanwhile, called together some thousands of armed volunteers.
Yet nothing nothing came of it all. There was no invading army marching from Warbarrow Bay. In the hurry of the preparations for defence no one seemed to have thought it well to walk over to Grange Hill and take a look at the direful force. The army that was moving that winter’s night upon unhappy Wareham was a fabric of the brain. It is conjectured by some that the delusion was brought about by clouds gliding over the downs , or that the light of the setting sun threw terrifying shadows from the boulders and the gorse bushes on the hill. No doubt the harried folk around Wareham had invading armies ‘on the brain’, had from frequent alarms become frightened at their own shadows, and so were ready to fly to the ramparts to defend themselves from an on-rolling mist. Captain Lawrence and the clay-cutting visionaries escaped punishment for this inconvenient dreaming of dreams. The story deposed on oath before the Council would have been more readily excused had not the imaginative Lawrence declared that this grey host of formless men approached ‘with great clashing of arms.’ Such was the last call to arms that rang through the streets of Wareham, a trumpet blast that summond the garrison to fight an army of shadows.
Read more about this phantom army including some other instances it was seen which it was seen near Flowers Barrow. Plus other ghostly stories around Wareham on our Ghostly Stories page.
The Wareham of the present day is a little town of two thousand inhabitants, very pleasantly placed on a strip of green meadow between two trout streams. It stands on the edge of the Great Heath, at the end of the sea inlet, with only the Purbeck hills between it and the Channel. On all sides but the south the town is surrounded by its ancient walls ten centuries of old. On the south quarter runs the River Frome. The walls are represented by immense banks, steep and formidable, smooth with grass but broken here and there by gorse and brambles or scored by headlong paths made by children.
Seen from a distance the town is most picturesque. A long green rampant rises sheer out of the meadow; at the foot of the slope is a stream edged by rushes and peopled by white ducks; over the top of the bank can be seen the roofs and chimneys of a town and the tower of a church. A causeway leads across the meadow to a gap in the wall – this is the North Gate which opens upon the long street.
The whole of the town is within the walls. Indeed so much has the little place shrunken that it occupies but a part of the area enclosed by the entrenchments. The rest of the space is filled up by gardens and orchards. The summit of the wall makes an excellent promenade, much affected by children at all times and by young men and maidens on high days and holidays. From the crown of the rampart it is possible to look down upon the few houses which venture near the battlements, upon potato plots, upon pig-styes and courtyards, flower gardens and paddocks with cows. Those who know the town say that the lanes between the gardens are old streets, and that there were once houses along Mill Lane, Bell Lane and Howards Lane.
The north wall is the longest, but the west wall is the highest and steepest. One part of this west rampart, looking across the heath to the Purbeck hills, is called the Bloody Bank. It is here, they say that Peter of Pomfret was executed. This unfortunate man seems to have been a notoriety-seeker who in pursuit of his ambition took to prophecy. He ventured to declare that the reign of King John would end on Ascension Day, May 23rd 1213. This impolotic statement spread beyond Pomfret and reached the ears of the King, who was not so pleased at the announcement as were his subjects. King John carefully imprisoned this minor prophet Peter in Corfe Castle, to watch his development and to abide the event. The month of May came and went, but the reign of the King did not pass with it. To discourage prophecy in general and Peter’s efforts in particular, the drastic king cause him to be dragged at a horse’s tail from Corfe to Wareham the prophet, now probably unrecognisable by reason of dirt and blood, was dragged about the streets to please the people, and then hanged from the Bloody Bank in sight of a yelling crowd, over whose heads he could see the heather covered uplands of the moor.
Here too, after Monmouth’s disastrous rising, were hanged – by the sentence of Judge Jeffreys, Captain Tyler, Mr Matthews, and Mr Holway. Their quarters were ordered to be placed on the bridge, and their heads to be nailed to a wooden tower in the town on the completion of the mandate.
At the south-west angle of the town a spot called Castle Hill marks the site of a castle built by William the Conqueror, and probably laid low in the castle destroying reign of King John. Here died that Robert de Belesme who rebelled against Henry I. He was imprisoned in the castle for long, until indeed he starved himself to death, leaving behind him the reputation of being the ‘greatest, richest, and wickedest man of his age.’
On the south side of the town, as already said – the wall is replaced by the River Frome. The south gate, like the north is approached by a causeway over the meadows. Athwart the stream is a grey bridge of five arches, built in 1775. There is generally one man at least fishing from the bridge, while other loll over the parapet watching their shadows on the gravelly bottom of the river, or gazing seawards at the white sails beating up Poole harbour.
By the bridge is the quay – a wide, capacious square, – which was crowded and bustling when Wareham did trade with the world. It is now deserted, except for two boys who are fishing and a pedlar who has fallen asleep in the sun from the fatigue of watching them. By the river’s side, beyond the landing quay, are storehouses held up by determined buttresses as if at one time the walls were bursting with merchandise.
Overlooking the quay is the fine Church of Lady St Mary. So near is it to the river that the reflection of its tower falls across the water. There is so much of interest in the church besides the usual stone coffins and cross-legged effigies of knights in corroded armour. There are cryptic writings carved on the wall which none can read aright; a leaden font belonging to Norman times, on each of whose six sides is a little featureless Apostle black with age; a Roman alter of doubtful repute and a cresset stone or lamp with five holes in which wicks floated in oil. This rude lamp must have given out an unearthly glimmer. It was possibly used to light the cloisters at night, when the monks from the priory went to the midnight mass. Its five smoky flames would have fluttered in the wind, casting fantastic shadows of cowled heads upon the echoing wall and the glowing pillars.
There is a stone in the church with a Danish inscription to recall the time when the Norsemen held the town, and above all is there St Edwards chapel, built about the time of Henry III to reproduce the little wooden chapel in which the body of Edward the Martyr was placed after the murder at Corfe. Another chapel, small and vaulted, is formed within a buttress at the south end of the great east window, and is dedicated to St. Thomas Canterbury.
The town of Wareham is remarkably prim and leisurely. After all its turmoils, its raidings and its burnings, it seems to have now fallen into a peaceful sleep. Its streets lie north, south, east and west, and beyond them are the gardens and the wall. No two houses are alike; some are of stone, some of plaster, some of brick. Few are older than the great fire of 1762. The little almshouse, with its fine old roof of stone slabs, its belfry and its cramped wiondows, was rebuilt in 1741. It was endowed in 1418, and, according to a tablet on the wall, was ‘founded, time immemorial for six antient men and five women’. The streets are described as ‘airy,’ and indeed so still is the place that at the time of the mid-day meal they may contain nothing but air, together with possibly one of the ‘antient’ men from the almshouse.
Of the eight churches of the old town, but thre remain. One is used as a school room, one is the Lady st. Mary Church, and the third is a queer, ivy covered little chapel on the walls. This last named is the Church of St. Martin, in whose bare nave, the voice of the preacher has not been heard for 170 years. The place is weird, empty, vault-like, and eerie with great age. There are traces of unremembered paintings on the wall, sand on the floor, heavy roof timbers hung with spiders’ webs and grey with long-faded mould. The chancel is spanned by a Norman arch, while in the tower – with its single bell – is a Saxon window, and in the body of the chapel are other traces of pre-Norman days. The last time that the folk of Wareham came to the chapel on the wall was to find a sanctuary there from the great fire. In this ghostly, dusty vacant place, they camped for weeks, while the embers in the streets grew black.
There is a solitary tomb in the church, to the memory of a surgeon, his wife and four children. He practised in Wareham for thirty-seven years, dying in 1791, at the age of eighty-one, from an ‘apoplectic fit’. His wife succumbed in 1786 to a ‘typhus fever.’ How the doctor came to be buried in this forgotten place no record tells, for when he died the church had already been deserted for half a century. He and his family are here alone, and it is a matter of wonder that no one has seen through the chancel window, on some dreary night, the ghost of the surgeon lamenting his loneliness.
One of the most delightful walks around Wareham is through the Holme lanes, which are shaded by trees and make the most pleasant road to Lulworth and the sea. Holme is reached through Stoborough, a poor hamlet of a few houses, which was once so great a place as to boast a mayor and corporation. At Stoborough is the King’s Barrow, in the heart of which was found the trunk of a might oak hollowed out. Within the tree, was a skeleton, wrapped in deer-skins neatly sowed together. By the dead man’s side was his oaken drining cup. It would have been some such burial place as this, between the sea and the hills, that was in the mind of Louis Stevenson when he wrote this requiem:
‘Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie;
Glad did I live and gladly I die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me
Here he lies where he longed to be’
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.’
To the north of Holme is Holme bridge, which should ever be remembered in the annals of Dorset by reason of a most gallent and stirring episode. On February 27th, 1643, at this very bridge, a party of Royalists, under Captain Purton and his lieutenant, met a body of Roundheads numbering no fewer than 300 – horse and foot. Captain Purton’s force consisted only of twenty-five foot and twenty horses, but he nevertheless disputed the passage of the bridge and fought there for nearly five hours. By that time ‘the Captain and lietenant were both shot, but they ordered their men to lay them on the brink of the bridge, where they encourage the little band till, more of the King’s forces coming to their assitance, the rebles fled, leaving forty dead and eight loads of hay and provisions. The Royalists had twelve wounded, but none killed; the lieutenant bled to death, encouraging his men with great cheefulness.’
The spot where this sprightly soldier died has probably changed but little, for Holme Bridge was built early in the sixteenth century. Captain Purton and hls lieutenant may well live in history with the ‘dauntless three’ who held the bridge acros the Tiber against the army of Lars Porsena.