• Jill Durnford


‘Swanwich’ was mentioned as early as 877 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which describes the Danish invasion of Wareham. The Danish navy sailed “until they met with a great mist at sea and there perished one hundred and twenty ships at Swanwich”. This greatly assisted King Alfred in his task of relieving Wareham of its Viking invasion.

Situated right on the Dorset coast, it is unsurprising that one of its oldest industries is fishing. However, there is also evidence of quarrying here since Roman times at least. They used the Purbeck marble to enhance the interiors of buildings as far away as London. After the Romans left (AD410) it appears that quarrying stopped until the 12th century. Purbeck stone had always been used locally as it is harder and more suited for the exterior of buildings. Purbeck marble (a softer limestone) was used extensively and to great effect inside the many great churches and cathedrals built after the Norman invasion of 1066.

The Great Fire of London of 1666 resulted in much rebuilding and Purbeck stone was used extensively for paving with the marble used for churches and other grand buildings. Until this time, stone had been taken to Poole for shipping but from around this time ships started to load directly on Swanage seafront.

Swanage really started to develop into the the town we see today during the 19th century. Local MP, William Morton Pitt encouraged tourism and converted a mansion into a luxury hotel. This was aided by the presence of two local builders: John Mowlem and his nephew George Burt. A large part of Moslem’s building work was in London and he imported stone from Purbeck. The empty ships then needed ballast for the return journey so he filled them with relics and monuments from London which were taken to Swanage.

Between them, Mowlem and Burt were responsible for the first pier, the Mowlem Institute, the gas and water works and the Durlston Estate. Burt also encouraged the railway to come to Swanage and it was opened in 1885. This made the town even more popular with visitors, especially those from London. In 1895 a new pier was built especially for the pleasure steamers. Swanage’s transformation from fishing village to tourist town was complete.

A plaque showing some of the highlights of Swanage. Below is the lock-up - not currently in use!

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