History of the Arts Centre Prologue: A Brief History of Shaftesbury

Shaftesbury’s centre for the thriving local arts scene is housed in the old covered market in the centre of the Saxon Dorset hilltop town.   In existence for more than seven decades, it is widely recognised as one of the best volunteer membership-led arts centres in South West England.

A Brief History of the Market Town of Shaftesbury

The iconic Gold Hill and the marvellous ruins of the once mighty Shaftesbury Abbey lie at the very heart of this hilltop town with magnificent views in every direction across the Blackmore Vale and beyond and has inspired artists, writers, musicians and pilgrims for centuries.

Model of how the Abbey might have looked in the 15th century by local historian Laura Sydenham

The Abbey had many royal connections over its 651 years of existence.  The Benedictine nunnery was founded by King Alfred – he of the burnt cakes – in the last years of the 9th century.  On 20th February 981, the relics of Edward the Martyr, the teenage King of England murdered in Corfe Castle, were transferred from Wareham to the Abbey, turning Shaftesbury into a major site of pilgrimage for miracles of healing.  King Canute died in the Abbey in 1035.  Grants of land from the monarchy increased the wealth of the Abbey from Dorset to Wiltshire, Somerset, Sussex and as far away as Berkshire.  The fields below Layton Lane once housed the Abbey’s vegetable gardens and fishponds, stocked with an abundance of carp and tench.

In 1260 a charter to hold a market was granted and in 1392 Richard II confirmed a grant of two markets to be held in the town on different days.  By the 15th century, Shaftesbury also had lively cloth and button-making industries, although the arrival of industrialisation led to 350 families leaving for a new life in Canada.  Many of those remaining turned their hands to malting and brewing beer.

As the town sits on top of a steep hill, water was always scarce.  It was carried up by donkey and cart from the springs at Enmore Green, for which a yearly tribute of local produce had to be paid to the Lord of the Manor of Gillingham, on whose land the springs were situated. From around 1655 the tributes took the form of a gallon of ale, two penny loaves of wheaten bread, a calf’s head and a pair of gloves (a highly regarded present).  The ceremony lasted a week but ended in 1830 possibly because of the high cost to the corporation of all that feasting and drinking.  The payment itself was discontinued following the installation of a pumped and piped water supply from Barton Hill.

High Street c 1860 with Market Hall archway visible.

Dorset has always attracted creative people and was much admired by Georgian visitors.  In his “Natural History of England”, Benjamin Martin declared: “There is no want of any Thing, that is necessary for the Maintenance and Support of Man; since both Sea and Land seem to vie with each other, and strive which shall indulge his Appetite most, and yield the greatest Abundance.  To All this we must add, that its fine Beer and Ale are universally admired, and by some preferred before the wines of France.  And as it abounds thus with Provisions of all sorts, which are to be procured likewise at very reasonable Rates, it is no great Wonder, that such a Number of Families, even of high Distinction, make it their favourite Place of Abode; and that notwithstanding its Capital is above one hundred miles from London, its Inhabitants are as gay and polite, as those in our Metropolitan City.”

The Commons c 1890

Shaftesbury became a thriving market town on the busy coach road connecting London and Falmouth, and traders soon needed a market hall.  In 1855 Richard Grosvenor, the 2nd Marquess of Westminster, provided a new Market House, which was made up of a Lower and Upper Hall.  The entrance for the Lower Market Hall was through elegantly designed ornate iron gates in the High Street (now Shirley Allum Fashions) and a less ornamental entrance for the Upper Hall in Bell Street (now the Shaftesbury Arts Centre).

Trade was further improved in 1859 when a train station opened in Semley, two and a half miles north of Shaftesbury.  Transport there and back was offered by a rather expensive horse-driven coach which picked up passengers outside the Grosvenor Hotel.

Grosvenor Hotel c 1920

Shaston and Wessex: the Land of Thomas Hardy

The poet and novelist Thomas Hardy was convinced that “it is better for a writer to know a little bit of the world remarkably well than to know a great part of the world remarkably little.”  His little bit of the world was Dorset and the surrounding counties for which he adopted the name of the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex.  He was fascinated by Shaftesbury, calling it “The city of a dream… one of the queerest and quaintest spots in England… breezy and whimsical.”  The gentle, undulating Blackmore Vale was the backdrop for much of his vividly imagined, lyrical writing about nature whilst his last three novels  -Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, “Jude the Obscure” and “The Woodlanders” – are largely based in the area.

Hardy made great use of local market produce.  His cook and parlour maid left accounts of his daily life in the 1910s and 20s when he was in his seventies and eighties.  For breakfast there was tea (for Hardy) or coffee (for Mrs Hardy), bacon sprinkled with brown sugar and eggs or sometimes kippers, boiled eggs or kedgeree, and then toast and marmalade.  On Sundays there were sausages.   Lunch was the main meal, with lamb and caper sauce a favourite.  Every day Hardy had a baked custard for pudding.  Tea consisted of wafer-thin bread and butter cut into squares, and small homemade cakes.  If there were no visitors, dinner was mutton broth made from scrag-end of lamb and vegetables, prepared daily, and two boiled eggs.  Dorset Knobs and Stilton cheese finished the meal.  Burgundy was served with lunch and dinner.

Shaftesbury: a Centre for Leisure and a Magnet for Travellers

Meanwhile in 1880 General Augustus Pitt-Rivers, a keen archaeologist, built some pleasure gardens at the nearby Larmer Tree, an extraordinary example of Victorian extravagance with a temple, bandstand, outside theatre and a dining hall for 200 people.  Locals were invited free of charge to summer picnics to view his menagerie of strange animals.  Alongside the Larmer Tree he built a race-course, tennis courts and a golf course.  Festivals and weddings still take place there to the haunting sounds of peacocks.

Tourists were soon flocking to the town.  Because of its unique hilltop situation, Shaftesbury was advertised to Victorians as a health resort “where the air is pure and bracing.”  An eminent Victorian physician, Sir Frederick Treves, said: “The health giving properties of Shaftesbury air were on par with the air in Switzerland.”

Crowded cottages on Gold Hill c 1905

Meanwhile in 1902, Mr J Jeffery revived the market on the high street site with small sales and livestock in the outside market.  At this time travellers would look for overnight accommodation on market days, found in the less salubrious doss houses throughout the town.  There were lots of these, especially down Gold Hill which, along with St James, was one of the poorer areas of Shaftesbury, with small, hugely over-occupied cottages.

This all changed in 1919 with the famous “Sale of Shaftesbury” during which, over three days, most tenants bought their own houses and shops.  Waterworks, parks and allotments were all bestowed by Grosvenor whilst the Town Council bought the Hall.

Read Part 1: Arrival of Moving Pictures and Creation of the Arts Club

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