Shaftesbury is a town in Dorset, England, situated on the A30 road near the Wiltshire border 20 miles west of Salisbury. The town is built 718 feet (219 metres) above sea level on the side of a chalk and greensand hill, which is part of Cranborne Chase, the only significant hilltop settlement in Dorset. It is one of the oldest and highest towns in Britain.
In 2001, the town had a population of 6,665 with 3,112 dwellings, only a small increase from 1991. There are currently 2 primary schools and an enlarged secondary school. Major employers include Pork Farms, Stalbridge Linen (a commercial laundry), Guys Marsh Prison, Wessex Electrical and the Royal Mail.
In Bimport stands the Westminster Memorial Hospital, a small community hospital which has about 20 beds, an accident and emergency department (not 24 hrs) and a range of out-patient clinics. It was constructed in the mid-19th century with a legacy from the then Duke of Westminster.
Many of the older buildings in the town are of the local greensand, while others built from the grey Chilmark limestone, much of which was salvaged from the demolished Shaftesbury Abbey, and have thatched roofs. Tourism is one of the main industries in the town.
The town looks over the Blackmore Vale, part of the River Stour basin. From different viewpoints, it is possible to see at least as far as Glastonbury Tor to the northwest.
The town is famous for Gold Hill, a steep cobbled street featured on the cover of countless books about Dorset and rural England. It was perhaps most famously used as the street in the popular Ridley Scott-directed Hovis bread advertisement used through the 1970s and 1980s. The hill most recently featured in a Morrisons supermarket advert, also for bread. The town is also famous for its ruined abbey and nearby Wardour Castle.
A market is held in the town on Thursdays. The Blackmore Vale is Thomas Hardy’s Vale of the Little Dairies. The town features in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex with the names Shaston and Palladour, of particular significance in Jude the Obscure.
Actor Robert Newton, best known for his portrayals of Long John Silver and Bill Sikes in the 1948 David Lean film Oliver Twist, was born in Shaftesbury.
Although Shaftesbury’s recorded history dates from Anglo-Saxon times, it may have been the Celtic Caer Palladur. Its first written record as a town is in the Burghal Hidage. Alfred the Great founded a burgh (fortified settlement) here in 880 as a defence in the struggle with the Danish invaders. Alfred and his daughter Ethelgiva founded Shaftesbury Abbey in 888, which was a spur to the growing importance of the town. Athelstan founded three royal mints, which struck pennies bearing the town’s name, and the abbey became the wealthiest Benedictine nunnery in England. On February 20, 981 the relics of St Edward the Martyr were translated from Wareham and received at the abbey with great ceremony, thereafter turning Shaftesbury into a major site of pilgrimage for miracles of healing. In 1240 Cardinal Otto (Oddone di Monferrato), legate to the Apostolic See of Pope Gregory IX visited the abbey and confirmed a charter of 1191, the first entered in the Glastonbury chartulary.
King Canute died here in 1035. In the Domesday Book, the town was known as Scaepterbyrg; its ownership was equally shared between king and abbey. In the Middle Ages the abbey was the central focus of the town.
In 1260, a charter to hold a market was granted. In 1392, Richard II confirmed a grant of two markets on different days. By 1340, the mayor had become a recognised figure, sworn in by the steward of the abbess.
In 1539, the last Abbess of Shaftesbury, Elizabeth Zouche, signed a deed of surrender, the (by then extremely wealthy) abbey was demolished, and its lands sold, leading to a temporary decline in the town. Sir Thomas Arundel of Wardour purchased the abbey and much of the town in 1540, but when he was later exiled for treason his lands were forfeit, and the lands passed to Pembroke then Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, and finally to the Grosvenors.
Shaftesbury was a parliamentary constituency returning two members from 1296 to the Reform Act of 1832, when it was reduced to one, and in 1884 the separate constituency was abolished.
The town was broadly Parliamentarian in the Civil War, but was in Royalist hands. Wardour Castle fell to Parliamentary forces in 1643; Parliamentary forces surrounded the town in August 1645, when it was a centre of local clubmen activity. The clubmen were arrested and sent to trial in Sherborne. Shaftesbury took no part in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685.
The town hall was built in 1827 by Earl Grosvenor after the guildhall was pulled down to widen High Street. It has been designated by English Heritage as a grade II listed building. The town hall is next to the 15th century St. Peter’s Church.
The major employers in the 18th and 19th centuries were buttonmaking and weaving. The former became a victim of mechanisation, and this caused unemployment and emigration.
The five turnpikes which met at Shaftesbury ensured that the town had a good coaching trade. The railways, however, bypassed Shaftesbury, and this influenced the subsequent pattern of its growth.
In 1919, Lord Stalbridge sold a large portion of the town, which was purchased by a syndicate and auctioned piece by piece over three days.
Most of the Saxon and Medieval buildings have now been ruined, with most of the town dating from the 18th century to present. Thomas Hardy, whose Wessex name for Shaftesbury was Shaston (or Palladour), wrote:
“Vague imaginings of its castle, its three mints, its magnificent apsidal abbey, the chief glory of south Wessex, its twelve churches, its shrines, chantries, hospitals, its gabled freestone mansions—all now ruthlessly swept away—throw the visitor, even against his will, into a pensive melancholy, which the stimulating atmosphere and limitless landscape around him can scarcely dispel.”
During the 1950s and onwards a large amount of low-cost housing has been established around the outskirts of Shaftesbury.
Shaftesbury has a successful small economy with many independently owned shops on the High Street and elsewhere, as well as some national shops. In addition to cafés and antique shops, there are also several clothes shops and estate agents, as well as a butcher, bookshop, travel centre, and other amenities, including a swimming pool. Shaftesbury’s main source of revenue is tourism. Significant employers include Pork Farms, Stalbridge Linen (a commercial laundry), Guys Marsh Prison, Wessex Electrical and the Royal Mail. Wincombe Business Park houses some small enterprises.
A site has been identified for a projected parkway station on the West of England main line. The station would be situated to the north of the town, beneath the A350 road, and a bus service would connect the station with the town.