Tarrant Gunville


Written by Mervyn Wright

The Tarrant Valley is historically, very much a typical Dorset agricultural area, with sheep grazing on the downs and mixed farming in the valleys. Although this practice has tended to changed somewhat in modern times with the general switch to more cereal production.

The River Tarrant is characteristic of many of the Dorset streams, which feed down from the hills of the chalk plateau and rely on the local water table. In winter they can carry so much water as to produce local flooding and in the summer they can almost dry up. It is born at Stubhampton Bottom half a mile northwest of Tarrant Gunville where three valleys from the surrounding chalk downs of Cranborne Chase come together. The river gives its name to the valley and to eight villages along its ten-mile length before it reaches the River Stour at Spetisbury.

The first two villages, Gunville and Hinton, lie in a quiet backwater north of the A354 Blandford - Salisbury road, with no through traffic, the local roads only serving the two villages. The other six villages -- Launceston, Monkton, Rawston, Rushton, Keyneston and Crawford are spread down the valley to the A350 Poole - Blandford road. Tarrant Gunville spreads for half a mile along a single lane with many attractive thatched cottages and an attractive church, which was rebuilt in the 19th century. There is no village shop or hostelry. The Parish covers an area of 3,469 acres.



The whole of this area is steeped in history with numerous Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman sites situated within a few miles of Tarrant Gunville. Evidence is even found of early Stone Age habitation in Dorset, the main finds are remains of flint tools and latest information suggests that the area was widely settled during the period 8,500 - 4,000 BC. About 4,000 BC changes began to occur which were to lead to modern Dorset -- people learnt how to farm and keep animals. Early farming was, obviously, very basic and probably only entailed the keeping of wild animals and re-sowing the seeds of the wild growing plants. This had two effects -- it led to a more settled existence, with the ground being cleared for cultivation, and it gave the people free time to do other things such as build monuments and causewayed camps. These were not camps in the accepted sense and their exact usage is not certain although it does appear that they had ceremonial functions.

The other main remnant of this age is the long barrows. There are four close to Tarrant Gunville and over 60 in Dorset in total; these barrows are much larger than the later round barrows and were communal burials. One other feature from this time is worthy of note because it is close to our area, two miles to the south east, and unique. This is the Dorset Cursus -- it is seven miles long running from Thickthorn Down to Pentridge and varies in width from 300 ft to 400 ft. Once again its usage is not understood, although it must have served some form of tribal ritual. The round barrows mark the next period --the Bronze Age -- and these are the only surviving relicts of this time. There are over 2,000 in Dorset concentrated mainly on the chalk uplands, which appear to have been the most populated areas. Excavation of sites in the area by General Pitt-Rivers early in the 20th century has shown that the early inhabitants were a race of Britons of small stature -- standing about 5 ft tall. From about 1,000 BC it is possible to still see the remnants of ancient field systems and settlement sites. These are what we now see marked on Ordnance Survey maps as 'Celtic Field System' and they represent a form of farming which lasted for over 1,400 years until after the Roman period. There are two sites of settlements close to Tarrant Gunville- one a mile east on Tarrant Hinton Down and one a mile and a half northeast on Chettle Down. There is a Celtic field system 2 miles northwest where the Wessex Ridgeway runs NE-SW; earthwork remains are situated on Thickthorn Down.

In the eighth century BC iron tools made their appearance and this signalled the start of the Iron Age and the introduction of the Celtic language to Britain. It is thought by archaeologists that there was a widespread immigration to Britain at this time. Many new artefacts, as well as iron, all appear to date from this period and many can be traced to the continent. Four miles to the west of the village are the twin peaks of Hod and Hambledon Hills. These are two of the finest Iron Age forts in the county and a characteristic feature of the Iron Age in this area but not so frequent or grand in other parts of Britain. Hod Hill contains, within its ramparts, the remains of a Roman Legionary fort. By the end of the Iron Age all the best estimates tell us that Southern Britain had a population in excess of one million. There is hardly a parish in Dorset that does not contain signs of field systems and farms. In the lead up to the Roman invasions, the ruling tribe of our area was the Durotriges; they had a rudimentary coinage system although it would appear that they were illiterate. Up to the time of the Roman invasion they were trading with the continent through their port at Hengistbury Head and they were accomplished pottery makers with their own distinct style.

The Roman invasion army landed at Chichester and established a base camp in the territory of a friendly tribe. They then pushed westwards and were opposed by the Durotriges who appear to have defended their land hill fort by hill fort until they were eventually conquered. Excavation evidence has produced evidence of the violent battles that took place before the Romans finally quelled all resistance. The Roman road from Badbury Rings to Bath runs north east just half a mile to the east of the village. Unfortunately this road, unlike many others in the area, is lost for large sections of its route and is only marked by a dotted line on the Ordnance Survey map. Its route is northwest from Badbury Rings across the downs at Tarrant Rushton towards the Tarrant valley. It touches the current valley road at a point 1/2 a mile south east of Tarrant Monkton on a sharp left hand bend. It then immediately continues on its straight line leaving the valley road on it's left to cross the A354 300 yards north of Tarrant Hinton. Its route is then on across Cranborne Chase passing 1/4 mile east of Ashmore and dropping down into Wiltshire at Donhead St Mary before crossing into Somerset and reaching Bath. We are fortunate, however, in being able to trace short sections of the road on the ground -- near to Eastbury Park and again at Bussey Stool Woods through to Ashmore Common. The site of a Roman building half a mile south of the village confirms further evidence of the Roman occupation of the area.

There were two ancient camps in Bussey Stool Woods, on the left of the track from Tarrant Gunville to the Larmer Tree Grounds and about one mile from the entrance to the woods at Bloody Shard Gate. The larger camp stands on the top of a level plateau about 450 ft above sea level. A broad outer ditch encloses it 6-8 ft deep on the Northwest side; there are two narrow entrances -- one on the Northwest and the other on the Southeast. The entrance on the Northwest is interesting because the ramparts turn outwards, instead of the more normal inwards, and this indicates that it was a defensive structure. It is interesting to note that this camp is known as 'Caesar's Camp'. About 200 yards away is the site of a smaller enclosure. It lay on either side of the upland valley that slopes down towards the Tarrant; it cannot now be traced as ploughing in about 1912 destroyed it.

There are various mentions of parcels of land in the Tarrant Valley in Doomsday Book. It is difficult to apportion them to specific sites, but evidently the valley was well inhabited and farmed at this time. Following Doomsday Book the manor was held by Mortimer Earl of March and then Richard Earl of Cambridge. King John had a hunting lodge at Tollard Royal; it was restored by General Pitt-Rivers, and dates from the time when the Chase was a Royal hunting forest. During Henry VII reign it came to Queen Elizabeth and in Henry VIII reign, first to Queen Catherine Howard and the to Queen Catherine Parr. In Queen Elizabeth's reign it was held by John Swaine whose ancestors were originally from Blandford Forum and were merchants there.

The old Elizabethan manor house was situated in the water meadows close to the present entrance to Eastbury Park. At one time the village was said to comprise four cottages -- the old forge cottage at the corner of the road up to the church; a cottage in the centre of the village; Yew Tree Cottage under which the River Tarrant rises; and the cottage at Stubhampton, formerly an old Inn. A special china clay used to be found in the area and there is still a lane called China Lane. The famous potter Thomas Wedgwood used this clay. All of this goes to show that this area has had human habitation for at least 4000 years and probably much longer.



The area, along with all of Dorset, was totally dependent upon farming. The county split into three distinct type areas. The southern heath landswere the least productive and it was a continualstruggle to clear and improve them. In the West the Blackmore Vale and the other vales were grazing country supporting large herds of dairy cattle with root crops being grown for animal feed and corn as a rotation crop. The third area, including Tarrant Gunville, covered the chalk uplands of the central and northern areas -- the high parts were the open downs inhabited by shepherds and their flocks of sheep. The farms and villages were down in the valleys along with the arable fields and the two parts worked together.  The sheep were brought down to the valleys in winter to feed and fertilise the soil for the summer crops.

Water meadows played an important part in feeding the sheep early in the year. The chalk valleys are particularly suited to this type of development and from the 17 th century onwards most Dorset chalk valleys saw these advancements. Elaborate systems of weirs, hatches and channels were built in order to ensure a shallow film of moving water flowed over the fields. This had the multiple effects of protecting the grass from frost, ensuring good drainage and the silt carried by the water enriched the soil to encourage early growth. This in turn produced fodder at just the right time for the sheep and their manure was prized as fertiliser for the spring sown crops. This chalk land farming system worked as an integrated whole and was the backbone of the economy.

The population of Dorset in 1750 is estimated to have been about 90,000. At the 1801 census it had risen to 115,000 with less than one third living in towns. Dorset had about 270 villages, thirteen of which had populations of around 1,000; twenty-two more had populations ranged from 500-800, by far the majority had from 50-500 people. By the 1831 census the population was 159,385 and this was to increase to over 200,000 by 1901. However during this time there had also been a population shift -- the village parishes were contacting in size whilst the larger towns were growing.

Turnpike roads came to Dorset in 1752 and within twenty years all the major routes were operated by turnpike trusts. Transport was by stagecoach, wagon, horse, and walking. Stagecoaches ran from London to Blandford twice a week. Leaving London on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the journey took 2 days and cost 1.25 at a time when labourer's earned 8s -- 9s per week. The railways started coming to Dorset in the middle of the nineteenth century and by the end of the end of the century the main long distance travel was by the railway. The roads were no more than gravel tracks linking villages and connecting them to the railway stations.

The buildings were mainly of cob with thatched roofs in our part of Dorset. In most cases they were severely overcrowded with extended families sharing 2/3 rooms. Furniture was basic with no floor coverings and 3-4 sharing a bed. Wages had not increased since the eighteenth century and in some cases had actually decreased. These low wages stopped the agricultural labourer from building up any form of savings either to improve himself or for a 'rainy day' so existence was always hand-to-mouth

Whilst wages were improving by the end of the nineteenth century this was being offset by fewer jobs in agriculture as mechanisation increased. The 1830's saw the introduction of the threshing machine and the 1850's the introduction of steam engines. This led to emigration from the villages either to the larger towns or overseas to the colonies.

Villages were self supporting communities, particularly the ones at the larger end of the population scale, all the necessary trades were also catered for, whilst most people were employed on the land. From miller to wheelwright, baker to shoemaker plus the female cottage industries of spinning, weaving, etc. everyone contributed to the support of the village.

The population of Tarrant Gunville fluctuated during the nineteenth century from 408 in 1801 to a peak of 518 in 1841 and then dropped back to 303 by the end of the century. A survey in 1812 revealed that the parish contained 250 acres of Ash and Oak woodland.

The village was the home of Josiah Wedgwood II, son of Josiah the famous potter and he obtained much of his clay from this area. Josiah lived at Gunville House in 1799. Thomas Wedgwood, his brother, lived at Eastbury House for 5 years from 1800 to 1805. Unfortunately he was to die young, at 34 years of age, in 1805 just before the Battle of Trafalgar and he is buried in St Mary's churchyard. Thomas was one of the first pioneers of photography, laying down the groundwork from which Fox-Talbot and others were to reap the benefits. It was known that silver nitrate darkened on exposure to sunlight but he was the first to try to put this into a practicable application. He moistened a sheet of paper with the chemical solution and placed a leaf upon it, and then he exposed the whole to the sun and obtained what may be described as the first photograph. His problem, that was still to be solved, was that he could not fix the image to make it permanent. Although the chemical compound of hypo-sulphide of soda had been discovered, its property as a photographic fixing agent was still to be realised. Thomas then went on to make a prototype camera. He found that by admitting light through a shutter, shadows were produced on the paper by silver salts unaffected by the sunlight. However, he could not get enough light into his camera to produce proper images -- he died with his dream unfulfilled.

In a park to the east of the village stands all that remains of one of the finest Georgian stately homes of Dorset if not of the whole country. George Doddington, a Lord of the Admiralty, built Eastbury House on the site of a farm. He bought the farm in about 1709 and in 1718 he commissioned Sir John Vanbrugh to prepare designs for a vast mansion that was to comprise five courts with a total width of 570 ft. Eastbury came third in size among Vanbrugh's great houses -- after Blenheim and Castle Howard.

George Doddington died in 1720 with his work unfinished and he left the estate to his nephew George Bubb, as owner for life and bequeathing 30.000 from his estate to complete the work. Bubb, who took his uncle's name, was the son of a Weymouth apothecary and he finished the work in 1738 at a final cost of 140,000.

He spent his whole life attempting to gain a position commensurate with his large fortune and the opulence of his residence. He courted all the leading political figures of his day -- Walpole, Frederick Prince of Wales, Argyll, the Pelhams and Bute to name but a few, together with the leading literary characters such as James Thompson, Edward Young and Henry Fielding.

Bubb Doddington was an overweight dandy decked in lace embroidery and brocade. Guests could only visit him by passing through a suite of apartments to his plush drawing room with its painted ceiling and gilt entablatures. He recorded all of his complicated dealings in a curious diary, which was published after his death. In the last year of his life success finally bestowed itself upon him when George III granted him a peerage, he became Baron Melcombe of Melcombe Regis.

The only records surviving of the original house are two oil paintings still preserved at Eastbury and the plans and elevations published in Campbell’s Vittranius Britannicus. It comprised a massive central block with a forecourt in front, with balancing pavilions on either side connected to the main building by long arcades. It is the west pavilion that survives today; this was originally the kitchen block. On Lord Melcombe's death in 1762 the house passed to Richard, Earl Temple who inherited it under the terms of George Doddington's will. It then passed to George second Earl Temple. They both found the expense of trying to maintain such a large house prohibitive and vainly tried to sell or lease the property without success. Earl Temple even offered 200 per annum to anyone willing to live at Eastbury and look after the house. The second Earl resorted to the only other option open to him and, in 1795 from his retreat in Italy, he sent instructions to dismantle the wings of the house.  His steward, William Doggett, was given the responsibility of carrying out his master's instructions and decided to take matters into his own hands. Believing that the Earl would never return to England he pulled down the south wing and the main house and sold the materials to line his own pockets. The materials were used in the construction of Bryanstone House, Ashmore Manor House and Tarrant Gunville rectory among other buildings. Lord Temple did return and Doggett realised that he would be found out and decided to shoot himself. (see later story for full details of this episode.) All that remained of the original house after Doggett's enterprise was the north wing and stables. As mentioned above Thomas Wedgwood leased the property for a short time and then in 1806 the famous sportsman, James John Farquarson, bought the property and it remains in those families hands to this day.

The church, which dates back to Norman times, has been rebuilt twice in its history. First in 1503, but by the 19th century this had fallen into disrepair and it was decided that a further rebuild was necessary. It was originally planned to restore the 16th century building but the damage was so severe that a complete rebuild was the only option. The architect T.H.Wyatt supervised the rebuilding work.  He followed the lines of the original church and retained as much as possible including the arcading in the North Aisle, which is the only surviving part of the original Norman church. The walls are 2 ft thick faced with napped flint work and random stones. Most of the stonework is in Tisbury stone but there is some Bath stone, most noticeable where repairs have been carried out. The bell tower contains three bells dated 1623, 1714 and 1843 although only one is now useable. The church was reconsecrated on 2nd October 1845.

The Chapman family built the Manor House or Gunville House, to the south west of the church, in 1798. It replaced an earlier manor house, which belonged to the Swayne family. It was extended during the nineteenth century but has now been restored to its original style by Major Roger Humphreys. To the east of the church is the Old Rectory, built in the late eighteenth century for Francis Simpson, rector from 1797 - 1827. It was last used as the rectory in 1957.

There are 23 dwellings of the eighteenth century still surviving in the parish and 5 from the nineteenth century.



It is not surprising that an area so steeped in history should have generated so many legends and Tarrant Gunville has more than its fair share.

There is the dramatic story already referred to concerning William Doggett who was appointed steward at Eastbury House by George second Earl Temple. The appointment was somewhat of a surprise to the local community as Doggett had a reputation for dishonesty and their fears were to prove well founded. The Earl spent most of his time at a retreat in Italy, for health reasons, and sent instructions to Doggett for the two wings of the house to be demolished to reduce running expenses. Doggett left to his own devices decided to take matters into his own hands; his brother was trying to avoid bankruptcy and he believed that the Earl would not return to England again. He arranged the demolition of the south wing and the main house and would probably have demolished the rest as well if he had had the time. He then fraudulently sold off the materials to line his own pockets and help his brother with his financial problems and he took little trouble to cover his tracks. Then, according to the tale that was handed down in The Bugle Horn, the local Inn near the gates to Eastbury Park, he had the surprise news that Lord Temple had returned.  He had been seen alighting from the London Mail Coach on the Blandford Road and would be home shortly. With no time to cover his tracks and hide the evidence of his fiddling Doggett realised that his time was up, so he went into the house loaded a pistol and shot himself. He is said to have a perpetual existence at the park gates, he appears as a figure from another age at midnight wearing a wig and with knee breeches tied with yellow silk ribbon. He is waiting for his coach and this, as it arrives, has a headless coachman driving headless horses. Doggett boards the coach, which takes him back to the house where he re-enacts his grizzly suicide. In the Bugle Horn they believed that Doggett was un-dead, who unworthy of burial in consecrated ground would live on as a vampire. He would emerge from his tomb at night to drink the blood of sleeping villagers.

Another local ghost story concerns the fate of the leader of a gang of poachers by the name of Blandford. He was a Trumpet Major in a regiment of Dragoon Guards billeted in nearby Blandford. Poaching was a frequent and popular activity for the men from the local villages around Cranborne Chase.  However the situation was becoming enflamed with the keepers organising themselves into militia groups to combat the activities. The poachers were banding together into ever larger groups to try and outwit the keepers. It was inevitable that this circumstance would lead to confrontation.

Just before Christmas, on the 16th December, 1780 the inevitable happened on Chettle Common in Bussey Stool Walk a mile to the north east of the village. Seven poachers were confronted by five keepers, each side was heavily armed -- the poachers with swindgels, resembling flails to thresh corn, and the keepers with staffs and hangers.
The first blow, struck by the poachers, broke a kneecap of the stoutest man on the chase. Another keeper received a blow which broke three ribs and was the cause of his death some time later. The remaining keepers gained the upper hand and closed in on the poachers and one of the Dragoon's hands was severed just above the wrist, other poachers received severe cuts and were forced to surrender. The Dragoon was taken to a nearby lodge where his wound was dressed and he was allowed to rest until he recovered. He was then taken to Dorchester Gaol to join his associates who were mainly labourers. They were tried by Sir Richard Perry at Dorchester Assizes and found guilty.  They were condemned to be transported for seven years, but in consideration of their great suffering from their wounds, the Judge commuted the sentence to prison for an indefinite term. Blandford was not dismissed from army service but suffered to retire on half pay and when released from prison he moved to London and opened a shop selling game. Following the original incident Blandford's severed hand was buried in Pimperne churchyard. Legend has it that it is wanders at night in search of its owner and haunts the ride where the battle took place. The hand should have been reunited with Blandford's body when he died, but of course he had moved away from the area and this did not happen. In the superstitious 18th century it was considered highly ill advised for a body not to be buried complete.

We return to Eastbury House for our next tale from the late 19th century. Henry Richard Farquharson was a fanatical breeder of Newfoundland dogs and had a pack of one hundred and twenty five. Two kennel lads had the job of exercising the dogs, one taking the fifty bitches and the other taking the seventy-five dogs. Both new it was essential to keep the two groups well apart and they had separate route plans, one going out towards Chettle and the other towards Blandford. Unfortunately someone made a terrible mistake and the two groups came face to face on Chettle Down. The dogs, built like St. Bernard, started fighting and there was a catastrophic battle in which forty-five dogs were either killed outright or had to be put down. The two kennel lads were almost killed as well - not by the dogs but by Farquharson who had a remarkably quick temper. The pack had been built up over 25 years and at that time was very unusual in this country. Farquharson had brought them in through Poole port thanks to its trade links with Newfoundland and one of his dogs was to become a Cruft's Champion.

Another dog myth concerns a frequently recurring theme from many parts of the country - the mysterious black dog which was normally a warning or a death omen. Our tale features an invisible dog running through the village with a chain rattling and the chain was grabbed and instead of feeling hard like iron it was as soft as velvet.

The final story concerns the mystique surrounding yew trees, which are connected to both pre-Christian and Christian rituals. It is said that every church in England maintained a yew tree to provide timber for making the long bows for use by the army. However our story centres on the tradition that half a mile from Tarrant Gunville a silver table is buried beneath a yew. This tantalising piece of information is all that I have discovered so far, so I have no idea to any basis it may have in fact or to where it might be located.

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