Fonthill Old Abbey with modern house

In the footsteps of William Beckford

The 06 June summer outing of The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society brought 30 members to the site of William Beckford’s great Gothic folly at Fonthill Old Abbey. Only a fragment remains of the original cruciform pile, built on the proceeds of sugar and slavery. That the tip of the northern limb of the Abbey still stands is a credit to the current owners, the Morants, who have added a modern house in sympathetic style. In the Tower Room Sidney Blackmore of the Beckford Society outlined the ambitions of the son of Alderman Beckford, a former Lord Mayor of London and MP for Shaftesbury. William’s own dreams were frustrated by his association with scandal – he was gay in an intolerant age – and he compensated by grandiose building which later collapsed, as did his income from the sugar plantations. He was still wealthy enough to remodel numbers 19 and 20 Lansdown Crescent in Bath, where Beckford Tower is his monument. The afternoon concluded with a delicious tea at The Angel in Hindon, where members thanked Lavender Buckland for conceiving and Claire Ryley for organising a memorable outing.

Tisbury Tithe Barn and Fonthill Old Abbey

On the afternoon of Tuesday 06 June members of The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society have the opportunity to make privilege visits to Tisbury Tithe Barn and Fonthill Old Abbey. The Tithe Barn at Place Farm, reputedly the largest in England, is now a venue for art exhibitions and events. The history of the Fonthill estate will be described by Sidney Blackmore of the Beckford Society in the tower room of the surviving remnant of Fonthill Old Abbey, and in the grounds, courtesy of Mrs Morant. The afternoon concludes with tea at The Angel in Hindon. A great deal of interest in Fonthill was stirred by Professor Caroline Dakers’s Teulon Porter Lecture in October 2016 and this promises to be a fascinating follow-up. Details of membership of The S&DHS can be found in the About Us menu of the Gold Hill Museum website.

Restored Sun and Moon Sign

Sensation at The Sun and Moon November 1906

Hanging once again outside Gold Hill Museum, above the passageway down from the High Street, is the newly restored Sun and Moon Inn sign. During the winter months Shaftesbury & District Historical Society Trustee John Parker repainted and repositioned the sign, derived from the crest of the Bowles family after whom the Bowles Arms (or Sun and Moon Inn) was named. Having told us last month of the lively goings-on at the Edwardian lodging house in Sun and Moon Cottage, fellow Trustee Ray Simpson has revealed another sensational episode involving assault and possible murder in the Spring issue of The Byzant, the Historical Society Newsletter. This can be accessed in the About Us menu of the Gold Hill Museum website.


19 Lodgers at No.1 Gold Hill in 1911

Members of The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society were treated to a diverse range of local insights at their annual Tea and Talks on Tuesday 04 April. The cakes baked by Elaine Barratt were excellent too. Ray Simpson unfolded the tangled story of Pasqualino Fuoco, the Italian proprietor of the Edwardian lodging house in Sun and Moon Cottage. Business was booming at the time of the 1911 Census, when there were 19 pedlars and hawkers staying at No.1 Gold Hill, but there were later court cases and marital disputes. Jo Rutter (centre) looked at some of the occupants of Maudlin / Magdalene Lane in 1851, while Matthew Tagney (right) took as his starting point a flyer for the Sale of the Liberty of Alcester in 1809. The revenues from this Liberty to the south-west of Shaftesbury supported the Abbey of the original Alcester in Warwickshire. By judicious comparison of maps Matthew was able to identify many of the convenient buildings and exceeding rich meadowland for sale in 1809. The eagle-eyed Richard Clarke (left) pointed out differences between published versions of the 1615 Map of Shaftesbury. Members departed amused, informed and refreshed.


Gold Hill Museum Opens For The 2017 Season

From Saturday 01 April to Tuesday 31 October Gold Hill Museum will be open to visitors between the hours of 10.30a.m. and 4.30p.m. Newly installed in the centre of Room 8 is a case displaying a fascinating range of objects collected by the Heritage Lottery Funded Shaftesbury and the Great War Community Project. Next door the Large Exhibition Room hosts In Praise of Wood, an exploration by Janet Swiss of the multiple uses of timber in human and especially British history. The unique characters of native British trees are illustrated, while hidden in the colourful panels are drawings of 10 woodmice for the child in all of us to find. In Praise of Wood has been kindly sponsored by Peter and Judy Westgate.

Dorset Yeomanry

Do You Know These Men?

A photograph recently acquired by the Heritage Lottery Funded Shaftesbury and the Great War Community Project shows a group of local men, possibly at the Wimborne St Giles camp, who had enlisted in the Dorset Yeomanry. On the left (seated) is Frank Pickford from Melbury Abbas, and behind him is Ernest Foot from Compton Abbas. But who are the others, and what happened to them? Ann Symons and Claire Ryley will be delighted to hear from anyone who can help identify these soldiers of the First World War. Ann and Claire will be reporting on the progress of the Project to members of The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society, and anyone else interested, at Gold Hill Museum on Tuesday 07 March at 2.30p.m. If you can’t make it to their presentation, they can be contacted by phoning 01747 852157 or emailing

“I do not think any two boards remained together.”

Dorchester author Philip Browne gave a graphic account of The Unfortunate Captain Peirce and the Wreck of the Halsewell as The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society’s February lecturer. The Halsewell, an outward bound 800 ton East Indiaman, foundered beneath the sheer cliffs of the Purbeck coast in the early hours of 06 January 1786, in the teeth of a ferocious winter storm. By daybreak, so the Reverend Morgan Jones reported, the ship had been smashed to pieces. Over 160 crew and passengers had drowned, including Captain Peirce and his daughters and nieces, who were perhaps hoping to find eligible husbands among the British in India. News of the tragedy had enormous impact, evoking responses from artists, poets and composers, and King George III made an excursion to the clifftop from Weymouth in 1789. There is a mass grave but no memorial, as the East India Company – consistent with its current fictional depiction on TV – was less than generous in its treatment of the disaster.

Philip Browne describes his struggles, first to find a publisher and then persuade bookshops to stock his admirable book, in the current issue of The Historian, the magazine of the Historical Association. His book is available from Hobnob Press.

florence 2011

Turn of the Year Exacts Heavy Toll

A few winter weeks have seen the passing of three strong supporters of The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society. The death of Rachel Caldwell was followed on 28 December by that of Trustee and Treasurer Marjory Kellett (above).  A graduate of Glasgow University, Marjory taught A Level Maths in Hamilton, Carlisle, Sherborne and Shaftesbury, and began to apply her facility with numbers to the finances of Gold Hill Museum in 2014. Always calm, good-humoured and friendly, Marjory could also be found stewarding at Museum Reception and helping husband Ian in the Museum garden. A talented pianist blessed with a fine singing voice, Marjory became the long-serving organist at Bell Street United Church, Shaftesbury, where a Service of Thanksgiving for her life starts at 2p.m. on Friday 20 January.

In January another Museum stalwart to fall was former Trustee, Secretary and fellow Scot Alex Selbie. Alex did sterling work organising the Museum library and answering queries, while dealing with floods in the basement and then the upheaval of redevelopment.  The S&DHS, and indeed the town, are the poorer for the passing of these three.