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17th Century Dorchester

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1610 Map of Dorchester



The purpose of this study is to research and link together as many of the inhabitants as possible from the Dorchester, Dorset, England during the 17th century. Some inhabitants became prominent parliamentarians playing a role in national affairs. Some left these shores to become early settlers in the 'New World'. Some bore names that were to become famous in the centuries to come. Butthe documents from the town archives , the casebook from the magistrate and plus the diaries of two citizens tell us about people from every part of the town's society . Many names that appear in the records from this period continue to appear in the parish registers over the subsequent centuries. Seventeenth Century Dorchester was a wealthy place of some importance. It was a municipal borough sending two members of the towns elite to parliament. It's main industry was cloth and was so was home to many weavers. Wealthy cloth merchants traded with towns elsewhere in England but also through the nearby ports of Weymouth and Poole in France and other countries of Europe . As the richest town in the county, it was a bustling place with many shops and inns , It held a weekly market. and four fairs a year, drawing visitors from elsewhere. The town also housed the county gaol, was a venue for the assizes, had a Free school . Some of it's richest citizens such as the Churchills and the Williams had bought estates outside the town, some of the local gentry had their town houses within it. The town and it's suburb Fordington occupied much the same space and road layout as today. Approaching from the countryside to the East a visitor will cross the bridge over the River Frome. Looking up the hill three churches are visible . The architecture has changed but these churches dominated the landscape in Seventeenth century All Saints (then called All Hallows) is to the left, then St Peter's to the right, followed within a matter of yards by Holy Trinity to the right. A glance over the fields to the left and a fourth church would be seen, that of St Georges, the parish church of the then village of Fordington, Seventeenth century Dorchester became to be dominated not just by the physical buildings but by the religious beliefs held by a group of wealthy citizens, together with the the Rector of Holy Trinity and St Peters, The Reverend John White. Together they shaped 17th century Dorchester into what has been called the most puritan town in England

The Government of the Town

In 1610, Dorchester gained a charter which formalised the government of the town. There were to be 15 Capital burgesses who had a position for life (or good behaviour). Two of their number were chosen annually to be baliffs. The baliffs together with a recorder conducted a 'court of record' which investigated non capital offences thus having control over the lives of the ordinary townspeople. The burgesses could introduce bylaws and they determined who could trade and could not in Dorchester. In 1629 another charter given by Charles 1 revised the composition of governing body of the fifteen capital burgesses from whom came a Mayor, two Baliffs , six Aldermen and six other burgesses . Though, these municipal powers were quite standard in England at the time one effect was to give a small group of people the means to set the 'tone' of a town. In 1610, there was a mix, some of it's number were the rich merchants who traditionally played a part in local affairs, men like Matthew Chubb and Richard Blachford. There were also men, also wealthy merchants but who brought to the chamber, strongly held protestant beliefs (eg Whiteway, Goulds, Parkins). It this latter group who gained overall influence during the 17th Century. The first recorder under the new charter, was Sir George Trenchard of Wolverton, just 3 miles from Dorchester. This local gent had earlier in his career been tasked with finding recusants in Dorset and with raising funds for protestants in Geneva. In his will, he refers to himself as being one of the elect, so he too was quite clearly a Calvinist in his beliefs .

Rev John White


John White arrived in Dorchester on 11th November, 1605. This was within days of the failure of the Gunpowder plot to blow up parliament, so at a time of increased fear and suspicion of Catholics. White was called by his opponents, a puritan. He would not have used the word himself. It was an insult deriving from 'precisian',someone who was thought to be overprecise in manners of doctrine and conduct. He was a member of the Church of England, the established church seeking to reform the church not to found another one.

Early opposition to Rev. White

When he arrived, he was a controversial figure and his extreme Calvinistic views caused dissension. Soon after he arrived, a series of 'libels' appeared in the town written on pieces of paper where they could be found As each was discovered, they were brought to the attention of Matthew Chubb (abt.1547-abt.1617)]] Matthew Chubb, one of the bailiffs who seemed to be always on hand. He read them out aloud. It is not surprising that the whole town quickly knew all about the libellous tracts. None named White, though one mentioned a sermon 'preached in the church by a puritan prelate' another accused a puritan minister elsewhere in Dorset of an affair with the wife of John Conduit, a local tailor. The writer Robert Adyn , a member of a prominent local family; his father and brother were bailiffs, his uncle an MP for the town. Adyn was recusant who had already spent time in Dorchester gaol for his outspoken beliefs. The matter became subject to a case in the Star Chamber where Chubb was charged with having been behind them. Chubb was it appears not found guilty but he seems to have remained bitterly opposed to White and all he stood for . In 1608, other locals must have become tired of the situation and made the pair sit down to dinner together and for them to sign a deed of reconciliation.

The Great Fire of 1613

White's influence increased after b1613 when the town was devastated by a great fire with a 170 houses burned down within Dorchester itself together with Inns and shops , some houses were even burned in Fordington. There was only one life loss but the economic losses were high.The person officially put in charge of the collection and aid fund was none other than Matthew Chubb himself, who gave £1000 of his own money (to officially be paid back by government; it wasn't) there were many complaints concerning his handling of the funds and there is some evidence he used the disaster to make profits for himself . He bought up the lease of the George Inn after it's owner defaulted on rent and lost the lease . The leaseholder had only been granted £45 against losses of £500. The Rev. White on the other hand appears to have increased his reputation during this period and it was he, together with burgesses of similar persuasion to himself set about reforming the town entirely.

The Most Puritan Town in England

Under the influence of Rev. White and the puritan burgesses, the town that rose from the ashes, became ' the most puritan town in England' . It became a place where a strict morality was enforced. In most towns people enjoyed visiting players and puppet shows, in Dorchester plays could not be performed on any day of the week. If someone was heard uttering a curse, the number of swear words uttered were carefully counted and a penalty paid for each one. It became a place where the length of church services resulted in older people that had to leave before thelong sermon ended were being fined for their transgression as were boys who played marbles on the Sabbath.

At the same time, it became one of the most generous towns in England with large collections for the relief of fire and disease elsewhere in the country. It set up a school for poor children and was ahead of its time by employing a woman as the teacher. Money was found to provide some health care for the poor including incredibly paying for a cataract operation. A scheme was set up to sell cheap fuel for the poor. These 'social services' cost money and to fund them the town turned morality on it's head building a successful municipal brew house, the profits of which were invested to pay for the improved care for the (deserving) needy.

Dorchester England to Dorchester Massachusetts

John White' influence spread beyond the confines of the town. He set up the Dorchester company whose members were mainly prominent Dorchester citizens. The company initially financed a group of fishermen ,in 1623,sailed across the Atlantic and set up a settlement at Cape Anne. The settlement was not a success but seven years later, a group of colonists gathered from the west country by the Rev. White embarked on the Mary and John for a new life in the colony. There were several Dorchester natives amongst them. The settlement they founded was named after the home town, Dorchester (Massachusetts)

Dorchester and Parliament

Other citizens came to prominence nationally, with it's Members of Parliament, in particular Denzil Hollesand Denis Bond played parts in the events leading to the Civil War and later. John White himself, died in 1648 before the execution of King Charles the 2nd unsurprisingly Dorchester was a parliamentarian town during the conflict.

The Civil War

empty at present

Bibliography and Resources

Because of the destruction of many parish records in the early 17th century, it may be difficult to trace ancestry back before this period but many of the families remained in the area with the same names appearing in the 19th Century Censuses. There are also those in the USA whose ancestors were amongst the small group who left the town in the 17th century

The town though possesses many other records from this period The preserved municipal records include lists of mayors, capital burgesses freemen and apprentices. There are many 'charters' which contain details of property left in wills or transferred by bond. The records cover the free school, the hospital and the municipal brewhouse and the gaol. A large number of these documents were transcribed and published by C.H. Mayo and now available online at Archive books. This transcription though an enormous achievement, was selective and did not include the whole archive.

In addition the quarter sessions records remain and the casebook of a 17th century recorder, Sir Francis Ashley has been transcribed and published. The town also had it's own diarist , William Whiteway, MP .His diary but not his ,common place book (preserved in the British Library) has also been published. Another prominent citizen, Denis Bond, MP and President of the council compliled a 'Chronology'( unpublished, later transcripts deposited in the Dorset History centre.)

The wealth of material available enabled historian, Prof.David Underdown to produce a detailed study of the town and it's people during this eventful period. His book provided much of the information for this introduction. *David Underdown, Fire From Heaven, Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth Century, Harper Collins 1992

Dorchester Wills

Many Dorchester and Fordington wills are transcribed on the Dorchester OPC. list on OPC page

Will transcriptions on wikitree

George Trenchard 1630/1
Profile and Will of John White
William Pitt merchant 1688

People from 17th Century Dorset

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Should this information be kept in this free space category?

Is it significant? Mostly, I was trying to find Nathaniel Hall's ancestry & descendants...

Nathaniel Hall was one of the first grantees of Dorchester lands, which in 1633, was the largest plantation of 8 Massachusetts settlements.<ref name="HoD"/>

In 1631, the first meeting house in Massachusetts Bay was built in Dorchester. Settlers in Roxbury united themselves with the Dorchester Church. Mr. Warham held a lecture there every fourth day of the week. It was the storehouse for military equipment & during crises with the indigenous peoples was pallisaded & guarded at night.<ref name="HoD"/>

In 1633, William Holmes erected a trading house on the river at Windsor, Connecticut (just north of what is now Hartford). Nearly half the population of Dorchester emigrated to the rich bottom lands of Connecticut as recommended by Nathaniel Hall & Oldham. The fields in Dorchester were rocky & many Dorchester residents engaged in the fur trade. The Connecticut patentees (Lord Brooke, Sir R Saltonstall, John Hampden & others) were preparing to take possession of their patent at the lower part of the river. By November 1635, as many as 60 Dorchester settlers had removed to Windsor. That the first winter, there was much suffering and loss of cattle. In spring 1636, Mr Warham proceeded to Windsor; his colleague, Mr. Maverick, had died in Boston the preceding winter.<ref name="HoD"/>

In 1633, Israel Stoughton built a water mill and by January 1634, the mill and a bridge over Neponset were completed and a burying ground was chosen. Israel Stoughton had an altercation with Governor Winthrop & was "explused from the house". Dorchester people tried in vain for a remission of his sentence. Roger Ludlow, a staunch defender of Dorchester, vocally protested Mr. Stoughton's reversal and campaigned to be Governor of Massachusetts Colony against the choice of Governor Haynes. By 1635, Roger renounced his public campaign against the current administration & was once again actively engaged in politics.<ref name="HoD"/>

In May 1634, the first General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony held by 24 delegates from 8 towns met & assessments were made:

Dorchester 80 pounds
Boston 48 pounds
Roxbury 48 pounds
Newton/Cambridge 48 pounds
Watertown 48 pounds
Charlestown 48 pounds
Sagus/Lynn 36 pounds
Salem 28 pounds
Medford 12 pounds<ref name="HoD"/>

In 1636, large grants of land were proffered to the Dorchester plantation to placate the disgruntled settlers. The 1636 Unquety Grant contained 6,000 acres. The New grant extended almost to the Rhode Island line. The mass exodus ceased in 1637.<ref name="HoD">History of Dorchester: pp. 33-38</ref>

posted by Richard Schamp
Hi Richard,

This free space page is a personal 'project' concerned primarily with the inhabitants of Dorchester, England in the 17th century. It covers the people who lived in the town in the period before and after the Civil war in England. The emigrants are certainly important as will be the memers of the Dorchester Company but when once they get to America it's a new and different story and project. Helen

posted by Helen (Coleman) Ford
edited by Helen (Coleman) Ford