See also Shaftesbury Abbey
Shaftesbury was founded as a town c. AD 880 by King Alfred the Great. He had in mind a place that would serve as a safe haven for people living locally as well as provide a place of worship. The town was sited on a hilltop that gave good views of the surrounding countryside. It was first recorded in the ‘Burgal Hideage’, a document detailing the fortified settlements he created as protection against the Danes. He founded Shaftesbury abbey in AD 888 and made his daughter the abbess.
The town grew rich due to the abbey and its royal connections. It was the abbess who owned all the market tolls and court fines, but a mayor and bailiff saw the money was safely delivered to the abbey. The year 1260 saw the town gain a charter to hold a weekly market. After Henry VIII dissolved the abbeys, the government continued to function as before under the new owners of the land. It was Queen Elizabeth I who granted the first charter to incorporate the town; two more were granted, one by James I and another by Charles II in 1665. It wasn’t until 1835 that the old system of government was abolished, and the Municipal Corporations Act established an elected town council.
In the 18th century there were five turnpike roads that went through the town. When the railway was built, the roads became redundant, and Shaftesbury lost its importance as a transportation hub.
Tourists are attracted to the town because of its scenic, steep, cobbled street (Gold Hill) and thatched and tiled houses and its abbey. The hill was made famous by Hovis bread television advertisements that showed a boy wheeling a bike with the bread up the hill. The hill also showed up on book covers and chocolate boxes. Thomas Hardy popularized the town in his novels, calling it ‘Shaston’. Details of the town’s history are found in the Gold Hill Museum behind the town hall. Artefacts in the museum include Dorset buttons (a local 19th century industry), agricultural tools, a 1744 fire engine, and much more. A Gold Hill fair is held annually.
Shaftesbury Tourist Information Centre
8 Bell Street
Shaftesbury, Dorset SP7 8AE
Tel 01747 853514
Gold Hill Museum
Tel. 01747 852157
Open: March-end Oct, 10.30am-4.30pm, daily except Wed.
History of Shaftesbury, local button industry, and agricultural implements; cottage garden
Shaftesbury Abbey Museum and Garden
Tel. 01747 852910
Open April-Oct, 10am-5pm; park in free car park by Tesco and walk there
Audio tour, gift shop
All photos copyright by Barbara Ballard
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Some of our Dorset Articles
Athelhampton House and Garden
Sherborne New Castle
Sherborne Almshouse of SS John
Thomas Hardy’s Dorset
Riding the Swanage Steam Railway
Portland and Chesil Beach
Portland Bill Lighthouse
Lulworth Castle and Park
Minterne Gardens and House
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Kingston Mauward Gardens
Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens