Currently Completed Counties – Dorset

The next county review takes a look at the settlements listed in the 1968 Gazetteer in Dorset. In 1954 Beresford lists 13 clearly identified deserted sites in Dorset as well as listing a range of decayed churches (Beresford 1954: 347-349). In the 1968 Gazetteer, 42 settlements are listed. There are notes in the Medieval Village Research Group Annual Reports from the late 1980s of a Dorset county list of deserted and shrunken settlements being compiled. In 1988 it was noted the list totalled 254 separate sites (Higham 1988: 15). Since this point there has been continuing work on deserted settlements in the county. A detailed summary of ‘Lost Villages’ was published by Ronald Good in 1979. This divides settlements into various groups: those classed as deserted villages (43 sites); those now represented by country houses (26 sites); those represented by farmsteads (90 sites); existing villages which have changed (31 sites); and villages submerged by modern buildings (47 sites) (Good 1979). The total list of settlements reaches 237, excluding a complex landscape of settlements at Milborne St Andrew, an increase of 195 since 1968.

Deserted settlements in Dorset listed in 1968
Deserted settlements in Dorset listed in 1968

One clear source for the study of the landscape of Dorset has been the volumes published by the RCHME which reviewed known earthwork remains (available from British History Online). This has provided an excellent corpus of surveys published between 1952 and 1975. Sites with earthwork surveys include: Bardolfeston, Bingham’s Melcombe, Little Piddle and Milborne Brook.

Bingham's Melcombe  Copyright English Heritage (RCHME 1970)
Bingham’s Melcombe Copyright English Heritage (RCHME 1970)

Unfortunately Dorset does not feature heavily in recent reviews of medieval settlement in the South West (e.g. Rippon and Croft 2007). One reason for this may well be due to its variety. The pattern of settlement in medieval Dorset is not a unified picture and hence generalities are difficult to tease out. As Taylor noted ‘It is the variety of landscape in Dorset which gives the county its great charm and which has resulted in the equally varied landscape history’ (1970: 21). In places the chalklands take on a more nucleated pattern with villages and open fields, in other areas such as the heathland, a dispersed pattern of farmsteads and enclosed fields prevails (Taylor 1970). The divide between the Central Province and South East province identified by Roberts and Wrathmell cuts through Dorset following very much this geological divide (Roberts and Wrathmell 2000). Many of the early identified deserted settlements have been found in the chalklands, and there is little evidence of desertion outside this zone (Taylor 1970). In some cases clusters of deserted settlements can be seen along chalk valleys. However more recent work and re-evaluation of the definition of settlement may well change this picture.

Deserted settlements in Dorset as classified by the website
Deserted settlements in Dorset as classified by the website

Dorset includes a range of deserted sites from small hamlets, to large medieval towns, to sites that may never have developed in the first place. A clear example of a deserted town is that of Milton Abbas, where the landowner, Joseph Damer, removed more than one hundred homes, three inns and a school to ensure an uninterrupted view from his new home (Good 1979). The town of Gotowre on the other hand may never have actually developed. Edward I planned a town which was ‘to lay out with sufficient streets and lanes, adequate sites for a market and church, plots for merchants and others in a new town with a harbour in a place called Gotowre’, however it is not clear to what extent the order was ever carried out (Bowen and Taylor 1964).

A small number of excavations have take place at sites in Dorset. The village at Holworth was excavated in 1958 by Philip Rahtz using the open area methodology. This allowed the ephemeral remains of the structures to be identified. A trial excavation in 1936 had already uncovered pottery and stone work. One of the seven clearly defined tofts formed the focus of attention in 1958 (Rahtz 1959). This uncovered pottery dating from the twelfth to the fifteenth century and a longhouse was revealed that was divided into three parts with rubble floors. Only small scale test pitting has been undertaken at the other sites in Dorset such as Bexington and Blackmanston.

It is clear that the 42 sites currently listed on the Beresford’s Lost Villages website are the tip of the iceberg of deserted settlement in Dorset and it is hoped that future updates on the website will be able to provide a fuller picture.


Beresford, M.W. 1954. The Lost Villages of England. London: Lutterworth.

Bowen, H.C. and C.C Taylor 1964. ‘The Site of Newton (Nova Villa), Studland, Dorset’, Medieval Archaeology 8: 223-226

Good, R. 1979. The Lost Villages of Dorset. Wimborne: The Dovecote Press.

Higham, N.J. 1988. ‘Research in 1988. i. Fieldwork’, Medieval Settlement Research Group Annual Report 3: 14-18.

RCHME 1970. An Inventory of Historical Monuments in the County of Dorset. Volume Three: Central Dorset Part 2. London: RCHME: 171-172.

Rippon, S. and B. Croft 2007. ‘Post-Conquest Medieval’, in C. Webster (ed.) The Archaeology of South West England: 195-207. Taunton: Somerset Heritage Service.

Roberts, B.K. and S. Wrathmell 2000. An Atlas of Rural Settlement in England. London: English Heritage.

Rahtz, P.A. 1959. ‘Holworth, Medieval Village Excavation 1958’, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society 81: 127-147.

Taylor, C. 1970. Dorset. London: Hodder and Stoughton.