Market town and administrative headquarters of Dorset, southern England, on the River Frome, north of Weymouth, 192 km/119 mi southwest of London; population (2001) 16,200. It is the service centre of an agricultural region and has light engineering industries. Tourism plays an important role in the town's economy. The hill fort Maiden Castle to the southwest was occupied from about 4000 BC, although the first identifiable settlement dates from 2000 BC. The novelist Thomas Hardy was born nearby.
Dorchester occupies the site of the Roman town of Durnovaria, established in about AD 70. In 1685 Judge Jeffreys held his ‘Bloody Assizes’ here after the Monmouth Rebellion and the Tolpuddle Martyrs were sentenced in the local courthouse in 1834.
Roman remains The line of the town's Roman walls is marked by avenues known as ‘The Walks’. The foundations of a Roman villa with a mosaic floor, discovered in 1937 in the grounds of the county hall, are preserved. Maumbury Rings, a prehistoric earthwork dating back to 2000 BC, was converted into an amphitheatre for the Roman town, seating an audience of about 10,000; later the site was used for public hangings until 1705.
History In the 17th century the Puritans gained control of the town, using money gained from the town brewhouse monopoly to pay for poor relief from 1622. In 1642 Dorchester was a centre of Parliamentary revolt, but was captured by the Royalists in 1643.
Features The Dorset County Museum contains collections illustrating the archaeology, natural history, and geology of Dorset. Judge Jeffreys is said to have held his Bloody Assizes in the Oak Room of the Antelope Hotel. In the Shire Hall of 1797, the room where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were tried is preserved. St Peter's church dates from the 15th century; and Napper's Mite was formerly a 17th-century almshouse. The Keep Military Museum includes displays on the Dorset and Devon regiments. Dorchester contains the only museum in Britain totally devoted to dinosaurs, and the only permanent exhibition on the ancient Egyptian king Tutankhamen outside Egypt.
Literary associations The poet William Barnes, who published poems in the Dorset dialect, lived in the town. Thomas Hardy was born 5 km/3 mi from Dorchester at Higher Bockhampton in 1840, and lived for the last 50 years of his life at Max Gate, which he built on the outskirts of the town. Dorchester featured as ‘Casterbridge’ in his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge.