Sales of Shaftesbury

A Hundred Years Since The Sale of Shaftesbury – The Town They Sold Three Times

At the end of the First World War, most of Shaftesbury was sold – three times! And next year, Gold Hill Museum and the Shaftesbury Chamber of Commerce will mark the centenary of this major event in our town’s history with a special exhibition.
If you live or work in one of the town’s older buildings, you’ll be able to see how auctioneers presented your property. Exhibition organiser, Matthew Tagney, says that we should thank three visionary residents who decided to protect the spectacular scenery that we enjoy today. “I think that the green spaces in Shaftesbury are one of the most precious aspects that make this a great place to live,” Matthew said.

It’s hard to imagine someone purchasing an entire town, but that’s what happened to Shaftesbury, as Matthew explained. “In 1918, Lord Stalbridge sold off all of the property that his ancestors had acquired, in order to buy votes when this was a rotten borough. Then, you could get yourself elected to Parliament by bribing and cajoling the people who had to pay rent.
“Lord Stalbridge was more interested in racehorses. He owned a Grand National winner. At the end of the First World War, the Liberal government had increased taxes on the rich. Landowners wanted to divest a lot of land. Stalbridge wanted rid of it. He was going to auction everything but a week before the auction, he sold practically all of Shaftesbury to a speculator,” said Matthew.
It’s been suggested that the purchaser, Mr White, was a made-up name – a ‘cover’ for two men, Benton and Gaskain. Those speculators sold their new acquisition in just four days to a local syndicate made up of the Mayor, Dr Harris, the ex-Mayor, Mr Borley and a shopkeeper called Viney. But they didn’t hold on to the property.
“In 1919 there was a third sale, where these three gentleman, in a very public-spirited way, put it all up for auction in individual lots with the assumption that only the tenant would bid for each property. It was a gentleman’s agreement,” said Matthew. “This was a chance for tenants to become owners of their own home or business premises.”
We should thank this trio, especially Dr Harris, because the men had the foresight to take Castle Hill out of the third sale. The Council continued renting the green space for a while, before it was given to the town. “I think it is worth commenting on this gesture,” said Matthew. “They could have auctioned it off to somebody as grazing but they didn’t. They kept it out of the sale and they eventually gave it to the town. And people were generally able to buy their own properties.”

Lord Stalbridge sold the entire town of Shaftesbury for £80,000. In today’s money you may consider that a bargain. “This year is the centenary of Cecil Chubb giving Stonehenge to the nation and he bought it for £15,000. I read recently that was equivalent to nearly half a million pounds. So the £80,000 for Shaftesbury would be equivalent to a couple of million pounds in today’s money. For a town it is good going. For Shaftesbury, it’s very good going,” Matthew said.
The centrepiece of next year’s exhibition at Gold Hill Museum will be a huge map of Shaftesbury, as it was in 1919. The auction house produced this detailed chart and different lot numbers are highlighted using various colours. You’ll be able to see whether your home went under the hammer and, if so, there should be corresponding property information in the sales documentation.

“It is part of the sale catalogue by Fox and Sons. They are still going, in Southampton. We want to focus in on some of the individual lots,” said Matthew. “Prices have changed massively since 1919 and we want to show what a house was worth then, compared to the kind of prices they are now. Amenities have changed, too. In those days it was remarkable if there was an inside loo. It was something special. We would like to look at some of the individual houses, large and small, and the pubs. Some of them are still going of course.” Matthew said.
The substantial, neatly presented prospectus reveals that Enmore Green’s Fountain Inn was being sold, complete with outbuildings offering stabling for six coaches. The property was let to the brewery, Hall and Woodhouse, at £45 per annum at the time of the sale. The Crown Inn on the High Street and the Fox and Hounds Inn at St James have since closed, but the Ye Olde Two Brewers, then an Ushers brewery house, was offered in the auction. The agent highlighted the pub’s ‘large yard with carriage entrance’, garden with ‘rose arches’ and outside scullery in the sale particulars.

“We would like to look at some of the shops,” Matthew continued. “That will evoke lots of memories, especially for people who have lived here for a long time because some of those shops will still have been around in the memory of living people now.” Shaftesbury Chamber of Commerce will contact its members to encourage them to take part in the commemorations next year by displaying information about the traders operating from the premises 100 years ago.
Matthew’s also keen to look at the open spaces in the town as well as some oddities. “There was a soup kitchen in Parsons Pool,” he said. “The gasworks and gasometer at Bimport were also auctioned off. The inclusion of Lot 96 may well cause outrage today. The sale document offered the Shaftesbury Abbey excavations as an item of ‘special interest to archaeologists and antiquarians.’ The three-quarters of an acre lot was promoted as the ancient site of the Benedictine Abbey to which the bones of Edward the Martyr were removed for holy preservation.”

Matthew doesn’t know how much his own home sold for. “I don’t know, maybe I should find out,” he laughed. And he intends to search through the records to see how his St James home was described and promoted.
He’s keen for Shaftesbury residents with any of the original sales literature to get in touch. “Perhaps your grandparents bought the house that you live in,” he said. “There would have been three things. Tenants of Lord Stalbridge would have had a letter saying that he was selling out. There might be a letter from the syndicate saying that they have bought it. And then there would have been a third letter asking ‘do you want to buy it?’ If anybody has got those letters in the attic, we would certainly love to see them and if people are willing we could put them into the exhibition. That would certainly be history,” Matthew said.

When you take in the view from Castle Hill towards the Blackmore Vale, you can understand why almost 100 years ago, a civic-minded trio considered this to be such a special space. And it’s obvious why Shaftesbury should celebrate the men who rejected greed and personal gain to protect locals’ homes and livelihoods and our town’s special green spaces.

You can contact Matthew through ThisIsAlfred at hello@ThisIsAlfred or via

Copyright 2018 Keri Jones

Janet Swiss and Byzant Mural

Share Your Well And Spring Stories With Gold Hill Museum

Do you have a well within your home or a spring on your land? If you’re prepared to share pictures of your water feature or stories connected to it, you could help Gold Hill Museum prepare their 2019 special exhibition. Janet Swiss is organising a display that will explain how Shaftesbury’s former residents dug down for water. As most locals know, there’s no surface water found on the rocky promontory on which the town lies. “I find it fascinating that Shaftesbury’s water only came from the rain, until recently. In the past, many of the houses had their own wells or reservoirs and I thought that it would be interesting to see where they all were.”

Janet came up with the exhibition idea after a friend discovered a well on his property when he was building a kitchen extension into his garden. “It was a flowerbed that was covered up. He wanted to go out a bit further and there it was.” He’s made his discovery into a feature. “There’s now a glass disc on it so you can look down into the well,” Janet said.
Janet has since spoken with another Shaftesbury resident who was surprised to uncover an underground water storage space. “One man told me that he was drilling a hole through the pavement and found this enormous room, which must have been one of the big reservoirs.”
Janet reckons that there will be wells beneath many properties that were formerly used as pubs. “There were a lot of pubs because we were on a major route from London to the southwest of England. They needed them to make beer, as well as everything else. It would be fascinating to know more about it.”
Janet has identified three frequently occurring styles of well in Shaftesbury. “There are some with springs, which are very low down. Others store water like a reservoir – it is held in by the sponginess of the greensand, which allows the rainwater to soak in. And then there are straight wells that just collect the rainwater,” she said.

Shaftesbury Estate Agent Chris Farrand says that he has listed properties around the town with wells and hidden water features. “We come across them regularly, often in Enmore Green and Motcombe. They are in all sorts of places, like cellars and gardens,” said Chris. “Sometimes people make a feature of them. They can be hidden and you find a hole in the ground with water in the bottom. We have had clients buy properties and they didn’t know they were there.” Chris says a well won’t add value to a property but it will add to the ‘quirkiness’ of a home. And he reckons Janet will have lots of material to work with.

There’s one well that Janet would like to locate more than any other. “I’d like the people who have done the research at the Abbey to say where the Abbey well was. I’d love to know where that is,” she said.
Janet wants well owners to reveal details like how deep their well is, whether they still contain water and how far down the water is. “If you have any information from your household deeds and can provide a picture, that would be wonderful too,” said Janet. She hopes to receive plenty of information by February, so she can plan the display ready for when Gold Hill Museum opens in March for the 2019 season.

Earlier this year, Janet helped to reinstate the Byzant ceremony, where Shaftesbury thanked Enmore Green, down the hill, for offering access to its water. Janet hopes that the spring, at the bottom of Tout Hill, could be renovated in the future. That could provide an additional item of interest for visitors to the town. Janet is also keen to list places where water flows at the base of the hill, where the greenstone switches to clay. The springs are not always in the same place. “They move about a bit,” said Janet. You can contact Janet through

Copyright 2018 Keri Jones