SHAFTESBURY, or SHASTON, a borough and market town, having separate jurisdiction, though locally in the hundred of Monckton up Wimborne, Shaston (East) division of the county of DORSET, 28 miles (N.N.E.) from Dorchester, and 101 (W.S.W.) from London, on the great western road from London to Exeter, containing, with the liberty of Alcester, 2903 inhabitants.
The origin and derivation of the name of this town have given rise to much conjecture, it being supposed by some to have had existence even prior to the birth of Christ, and to have been called Caer Palladur by the Britons: other periods have been assigned for its foundation, but that which appears to be most probable is the reign of King Alfred; in confirmation of which, Camden states, that in the time of William of Malmesbury was to be seen an old stone, brought from the ruins of a wall into the nuns' chapter-house, with an inscription purporting that King Alfred built this city (if so we may render “fecit”) in 880, and in the eighth year of his reign. Its Saxon derivation from Sceaft, signifying the point of a hill, is supposed to be in allusion to the situation of the town.
A Benedictine nunnery, founded here about the same period, has also been ascribed to various persons. Camden, following William of Malmesbury, attributes it to Elgiva, wife of Edmund, great grandson to King Alfred; whilst Leland and many other writers assert this latter monarch to be its founder, and that his daughter was the first abbess. To this abbey the remains of Edward the Martyr were removed after his murder at Corfe-Castle, and it appears to have been much resorted to by pilgrims, amongst whom was King Canute, who died here; and the extent of its endowments may be estimated from their value at its dissolution being £1166 per annum: the remains are very inconsiderable.
The importance of the abbey naturally increased that of the town, which is reported at an early period to have contained ten parish churches. In the time of Edward the Confessor three mints were established here; and, according to a survey made shortly before the Norman Conquest, Shaftesbury contained one hundred and four houses, and three mint-masters.
The town is situated on a high hill, with a gradual rise on the east and south-east, but more precipitous on the west and south-west, at the extremity of the county of Dorset, and bordering on that of Wilts: it commands extensive views over both counties. The streets, which are neither paved nor lighted, are narrow and irregular; the houses are principally built of stone, and the inhabitants are badly supplied with water: on the hill is a well of prodigious depth, from which water is drawn up by machinery worked by a horse; but the inhabitants are principally supplied from the adjoining parish of Motcomb. The manufacture of shirt buttons was formerly carried on to a considerable extent, but it has very much declined, and there is now but very little trade. The market is on Saturday, and well supplied with all kinds of commodities; and there are fairs on the Saturday before Palm-Sunday, 24th of June, and 23rd of November.
This is a very ancient borough, being described as such in Domesday-book, but it was not incorporated till the reign of Queen Elizabeth, who, according to Hutchins, granted its first charter, appointing a mayor, recorder, twelve aldermen, a bailiff, and common council; but no charter can be found prior to that granted by James I., in 1604, which, confirmed by one of Charles II., vests the government in a mayor and twelve capital burgesses, assisted by a recorder, who elect annually a town clerk, coroner, and two serjeants at mace. The mayor, the preceding mayor, and the recorder, are justices of the peace, and, with the capital burgesses, have power to hold a court of record every Saturday, for debts under £10, contracted within the borough; three of them form a quorum, the mayor or preceding, mayor, being one. A town hall, which is a handsome building, has been recently erected, at an expense of about £3000, defrayed by Earl Grosvenor. The borough first sent members to parliament in the 23rd of Edward I., and has since continued to do so without interruption: the right of election is vested in the inhabitants paying scot and lot, about four hundred in number: the mayor is the returning officer, and the prevailing influence is exercised by Earl Grosvenor.
The town comprises the three parishes of St. Peter, the Holy Trinity, and St. James, in the archdeaconry of Dorset, and diocese of Bristol. The living of St. Peter's is a discharged rectory, rated in the king's books at £11. 10. 2½., and united to that of the Holy Trinity, which union comprehends the ancient parishes of St. Lawrence and St. Martin: the living of Holy Trinity parish is rated in the king's books at £4. 1. 10½. St. Peter's church is of considerable antiquity, but contains many modern alterations: it possesses a curiously carved font, and a very ancient monument, supposed to have been removed from the abbey. That of the Holy Trinity is also ancient, and is said to have been enlarged by Sir Thomas Arundel, in the early part of the reign of Queen Elizabeth; it has a square embattled tower, ornamented with pinnacles; the churchyard is spacious, and adjoining it may still be seen the remains of the wall of the abbey.
The living of St. James' (a portion of which parish, in the liberty of Alcester, is without the borough) is a rectory, rated in the king's books at £1. 11. 0½.: the church is a small and ancient fabric. The ancient parishes into which the town was formerly divided are now comprised in the above three, the livings of all which are in the patronage of the Earl of Shaftesbury. The Society of Friends, Independents, and Wesleyan Methodists, have each places of worship here.
The free school, for educating, clothing, and apprenticing twenty poor boys, was founded and endowed by Mr. William Lush, in 1719. Spiller's spittal, for ten poor men, was founded and endowed by Sir Henry Spiller, in 1646; and an almshouse for sixteen poor women was founded by Matthew Chubb, and endowed by him and several other benefactors.
On Castle Green, an eminence near the town, is a small mount, surrounded by a shallow ditch, which some have conjectured to be the site of a castle, but of which no mention can be found; by others it is supposed to have been a Roman intrenchment. The old city, which tradition reports to have existed prior to the time of Alfred, is said to have been near this mount.
Shaftesbury was the birthplace of the Rev. James Granger, author of the Biographical History of England: it gives the title of earl to the family of Ashley Cooper.
Volume 4, page 40