18th Century Tourists in Dorset

July 13, 2006

The village of Fontmell Magna is situated about mid-way between the two market towns of Shaftesbury and Blandford. Today the busy A350 joins these two towns, but in the 18th century the north-south routes were not at all direct, and it was only with the arrival of the toll roads in the mid-19th century that Fontmell farmers gained easy access to these towns. In the 18th century the main coach roads were east-west, with Shaftesbury and Blandford as alternative over-night stops on the London to Exeter routes.

Two writers have left us brief accounts of their journeys in Dorset, one

Map of Dorset

Map of Dorset

through both Shaftesbury and Blandford, and one only through Blandford. The first was Daniel Defoe (best known as the author of ‘Robinson Crusoe’) whose ‘A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain’ was published in 1724. The second was John Byng, 5th Viscount of Torrington, whose ‘Diaries’ include his Dorset visit in 1782.

Defoe possibly commands the more flamboyant style of the professional writer. He was often as much interested in the people he encountered as the places he visited. Typically he states ‘I cannot help saying, if my opinion may bear any weight, that the Dorsetshire ladies are equal in beauty, and may be superior in reputation … such as I no where see better in all my observation through the whole Isle of Britain’. He then adds, in the interest of balance, that the ‘Dorsetshire ladies, I assure you, are not nuns, they do not go veiled about the streets, or hide themselves when visited; but have a general freedom of conversation, agreeable, mannerly, kind and good’.

Mitre Inn

Mitre Inn, Shaftesbury

His opinion of Shaftesbury, however, was less polite. ‘This Shaftesbury is now a sorry town upon the top of a high hill’ is about all he can say of the ancient Saxon settlement. In the 18th century there were as many as 25 inns or taverns in the town catering for travellers as well as for locals. The Mitre Inn was one of the oldest and is still in business today. In the picture you will see that the Mitre was built at the east end of the Parish Church. At the west end

Plaque on former priest's house

Plaque on former priest's house

there was another, called the Sun and Moon, occupying the site of the priest’s house which may not have survived the dissolution of the monasteries. The tavern itself did not endure into the 20th century but it would certainly have been active in Defoe’s time.

The Grosvenor Hotel

The Grosvenor Hotel

Probably the biggest inn in Shaftesbury, however, was the Red Lion, formerly known as the New Inn, and now known as the Grosvenor (rebuilt by Lord Grosvenor in 1820). The Red Lion was famous as a major posting inn on the Great West Road. Defoe went on to comment that ‘it cannot pass my observation here, that when we are come this length from London, the dialect of the English tongue, or the country way of expressing themselves, is not easily understood, it is so strangely altered’. Defoe was clearly out of his depth at times, and remarks ‘that though the tongue be all mere natural English, yet those that are but a little acquainted with them, cannot understand one half of what they say’.

Blandford is better treated. Defoe described it as ‘a handsome well built town’ and this was before the Great Fire of 1731 destroyed most of its centre. When Byng visited it in 1782 he wrote in his diary that ‘this town is risen from the ruins of the old town, burned down fifty years ago’ and added wistfully that the area did seem somewhat prone to fires.

Defoe thought Blandford was ‘chiefly famous for making the finest bonelace in England, and where they showed me some so exquisitely fine as I think I never saw better in Flanders, France or Italy’. Never lost for words of admiration, he added that ‘it is most certain that they make exceeding rich lace in Dorset, such as no part of England can equal.’

When Byng stopped in Blandford he was in search of his mid-day

The Crown Hotel

The Crown Hotel

meal. His diary records that ‘wishing to avoid the Crown (the great inn) I stopped at the Greyhound, but that was shut up, so I entered the Bear, where I found myself in a most miserable ale-house’. The re-built Crown is still flourishing in West Street.

The Greyhound Inn

The Greyhound Inn

The Greyhound had a prominent position in the Market Place, but although the fine 18th century building still survives it has since served as a bank and then shops and offices. The present Greyhound pub

The Greyhound Pub

The Greyhound Pub

is immediately behind the old inn. The Bear Inn was probably the old Black Bear in Salisbury Street which disappeared in the late 19th century.

At the Bear Byng was greeted by the mistress who said ‘she could get me beans and bacon, which being a novelty I waited for’. But never one to waste time he ‘surveyed the town, at the entrance of which, at the meadows, on the left hand, is the new-built house and grounds of Mr Portman, which are not yet finished.’ After looking at the church he ‘returned to my alehouse and the beans and bacon, when the mistress took her place opposite, and dined with me. She was very stupid, but her charge was cheap’.

Bryanston House

Bryanston House

‘Mr Portman’s house’ was the James Wyatt-designed Bryanston House begun in 1778. The Portman dynasty (later acquiring a peerage) replaced the 18th century house with an even bigger one designed by Norman Shaw and completed in 1897. In 1927 it was sold and became Bryanston School.

If you know of any other accounts of early visits to Shaftesbury or Blandford, please get in touch with us through our contact board. We would be delighted to hear from you.

Author: Durotriges