Updated: Apr 6
Wareham is a charming small town and well worth a visit. Today it has the feel of somewhere which has been slightly forgotten about - apart from those visitors ‘in the know’.
However, this belies its importance as one of the most important towns in Dorset’s early history. Its position on high ground between the rivers Frome and Piddle with access to the sea led to its development as the chief port in the area.
Sadly, access to the sea for trade also means access from the sea by raiders and in 875 2000 Danish men arrived and sacked the town, subsequently occupying it for months.
King of Wessex at this time was Alfred, who had to muster a huge army to outnumber the Danes. He offered the leader a deal - and paid a huge sum to persuade them to leave Wessex.
The result of this formed the basis for many of Dorset’s towns. Alfred realised that he needed to set up a series of fortified towns (burghs) each a day’s march from the next in order to be able to gather an army quickly. Each town conformed to a planned layout within defensive walls.
Wareham is now one of only two towns in the country which still has remnants of its Saxon walls. One of Wareham’s oldest churches is called St Martin’s on the Walls. It is a gem, with a Saxon nave and chancel and medieval wall paintings.
By the middle of the 14th century Wareham had lost its position as the premier port in the area to nearby Poole. One possible reason for this is that the river had begun to silt up and the larger boats being built could no longer navigate up to the town.
Decline set in which was only exacerbated once the Priory was dissolved and it wasn’t until the 18th century when it was once again a thriving and busy town. This was due to the fact that it had a contract to supply the Navy in Portsmouth with goods and to the mining of ball clay for the pottery industry which was booming at that time. Josiah Wedgwood was a key customer.
So it was all the more tragic when on a warm windy day in July 1762 a fire broke out which destroyed two thirds of the town. 140 timber and thatch buildings collapsed or were pulled down in an attempt to stop the blaze. A national appeal raised money for rebuilding at which time the streets were widened and thatch was banned. The current Georgian look of the town is the very pleasing result of that rebuilding.
These days the quayside is still full of people on a hot summer day but they are enjoying the relaxing atmosphere of being next to the river rather than toiling away at one of the many industries which took place here over the previous 1000+ years.