History of Swanage and the Isle of Purbeck

Isle of Purbeck History explore the past in Swanage & the Isle of Purbeck

Swanage is a seaside town located on the south coast of England, in the county of Dorset. The town has a rich history dating back to the pre Roman era, and has been shaped by a variety of different cultural influences throughout the centuries.

Burial mounds around the common of Corfe Castle suggest that the area was occupied from 6000 BC. The earliest known inhabitants of the area were the Celts, who settled in the region around 400 BC. The common also points to a later Celtic field system worked by the Durotriges tribe.

The Romans arrived in the area around AD 43, establishing a small settlement. This settlement was primarily used as a port for the transportation of goods and people, and it is believed that the Romans also mined the nearby Purbeck Hills for minerals such as iron and lead.

After the Romans left in the 5th century, the area was settled by the Anglo-Saxons. The town of Swanage was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, and has been known as Swanawic, Swanwich and Sandwich until it was finally named Swanage.

During the Middle Ages, Swanage was a small fishing village that remained relatively isolated for many centuries. However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the town grew and developed as a popular tourist destination. The first visitors were wealthy Victorians who came to Swanage to enjoy the sea and the beautiful countryside. The town's popularity as a tourist destination continued to grow throughout the 19th century, and by the early 20th century, Swanage had become a popular destination for middle-class families.

In the 20th century, Swanage continued to grow and develop as a tourist destination, and it also became a popular spot for holidaymakers from London and the surrounding areas. The town's population increased significantly during this period, and many new homes and businesses were built to accommodate the growing number of visitors.

Today, Swanage is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful beaches, charming Victorian architecture, and rich history. The town is also home to several museums and heritage sites, including the Purbeck Mineral and Mining Museum near Corfe Castle, which tells the story of the town's industrial past. The town's popularity as a tourist destination has helped to preserve its unique character and heritage, and it continues to attract visitors from all over the world.

A brief history of the Isle of Purbeck from -8000 BC to present.


First known settlement

The first known settlement of Dorset was by Mesolithic hunters, from around 8000 BC. Their populations were small and concentrated along the coast in the Isle of Purbeck, Weymouth, Chesil Beach, and along the Stour valley.

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Burial mounds around Corfe Common

Burial mounds around the common of Corfe Castle suggest that the area was occupied from 6000BC. The common also points to a later Celtic field system worked by the Durotriges tribe.

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Stonehenge was built in several stages from 2800 - 1800 BC.

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Standing Stones at Rempstone

The bronze age Standing Stones at Rempstone erected. They are thought to date to around 2200-1400 BC


Roman Invasion

The Romans invade Britain. Evidence has been found showing Roman settlements in the Isle of Purbeck.

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Danish fleet wrecked

A Danish fleet of ships is wrecked off of the coast at Swanage.

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Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The ancient Mill House and Pond, in the heart of Swanage, was first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in this year.

18 Mar 978

Edward the Martyr

Edward the Martyr was king of the English from 975 until he was murdered in 978 probably at or near the mound on which the ruins of Corfe Castle now stand.

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Corfe Castle built

Corfe Castle was built by William the Conqueror shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066


St. Nicholas of Myra church

The St. Nicholas of Myra church in Worth was first built in about 1100


Norman Chapel built

The Norman Chapel at St Aldhelm's Head is built. The Chapel is named after the first bishop of Sherborne.

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Parish Church built

Original parish church built


First Rector of Swanage

The Rev. Henry Terry was made the first Rector of Swanage.


Godlingston Manor built

Godlingston Manor, the medieval house at the northern end of Swanage is built. It originally comprised of an open hall with a cross passage, service wing, tower and parlour. The tower is probably defensive and may predate the rest of the house.


French Invade

Swanage was burned and plundered by French raiders


The Bells

One of the earliest recorded church bells was installed in St Mary's Church.


King James 1st

King James was the last king to hunt in the Isle of Purbeck.


First siege of Corfe Castle

First siege of Corfe Castle

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Second siege of Corfe Castle

The second siege, in 1646, was resisted for two months before the castle was betrayed by a member of the garrison. After its capture, the castle was slighted (destroyed) with some explosives and mainly by undermining to ensure that it could never stand again as a Royalist stronghold.


Manor of Swanage

The Manor of Swanage, later the Royal Victoria Hotel was built by Thomas Chapman


Congregational chapel

Congregational chapel built, rebuilt in 1837


John Wesley preached at Swanage

John Wesley preached at Swanage. He stayed at a house in the High Street, The house was later named Wesley Cottage. It was destroyed by a German bomb in world war 2


The Square and Compass

The Square and Compass Pub at Worth Matravers built.


Old mill was rebuilt

The old mill was rebuilt


Major Fire at Wareham

In 1762, a fire destroyed two thirds of the town, which has been rebuilt in Georgian architecture with red brick and Purbeck limestone, following the Roman street pattern.


Wareham South Bridge rebuilt

The southern bridge at Wareham was rebuilt to replace the one which dated back to the 11th century.

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John Mowlem born

John Mowlem was born in an ancient cottage in what is now Court Hill. He was the founder of the well known London contractors. He was a poor quarry boy until he made his way to London to seek his fortune. Guernsey granite rather than Purbeck stone brought him wealth and he retired to Swanage in 1844. He is responsible for the building of the monument on the sea front, the Albert the Good monument at the top of Court Hill (no longer there) and the Mowlem Institute. He bought land from the area which is now Kings Road to Ulwell.


Church Hill Cottages

The cottages in Church Hill built


First Census

The first census was taken in Swanage. 300 houses and a population of 1382.


First Policeman

The first Policeman in Swanage started work here.


Wesleyan chapel

The old Wesleyan chapel was built


End of quarrying at Tilly Whim

Tilly Whim was last quarried in 1810

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George Burt was born

George Burt was born. He was the nephew of John Mowlem. He brought two items from London, the Wellington clock tower at Peveril and the 17th century facade from the Mercers Hall in Cheapside which he used for his new town hall in 1864. He bought land from Sentry Fields (at the top of Seymore Road) to Durlston. George Burt provided Swanage with a pure water supply, gas, drainage and the railway.


Seafront Wall

The road along the seafront was built.

12 Oct 1826

First Cemetery

The parish's first detached cemetery is consecrated across the road from St Mary's Church.


Queen Victoria Visits

Princess Victoria, later Queen Victoria, spent a night at the Manor House Hotel. It was later renamed the Royal Victoria Hotel

16 Nov 1834

The old brewery burns down

The Old Brewery situated between the goods yard and Kings Road is burnt to the ground. The flames shot up to 150 feet and two thirds of the bay were covered in half an inch of black ash.


Town hall built

George Burt built the town hall


Blue Pool

Blue Pool started to be dug for clay works


St Marks school built

St Marks school at Herston was built

12 Oct 1856

First Cemetery

Swanage's second cemetery is built at the west end of Northbrook Road. The site coves 1 ½ acres.


First pier built

Swanage old pier built


Albert the Good

A monument in memory of Price Albert is erected by John Mowlem in the High Street above Court Hill.


Cannon ball column

The cannon ball column on Swanage seafront is erected by John Mowlem to commemorate a battle between the Saxons and Danes in Swanage Bay.


Mowlem Institute built

Mowlem Institute built by John Mowlem. He built it as a reading room "for the benefit and mutual improvement of the working class"


Population of 1173

Population of Swanage was 1173


Saint Marks church built

Herston (saint Marks) church built


Swanage gasworks built

Swanage gasworks built


Mount Scar first school opened

Swanage Combined School (now Mount Scar first school) opened.


first lifeboat

The first lifeboat, the Charlotte Mary, came to Swanage


Purbeck House built

Purbeck House built on the High Street

24 Jan 1879

Annie Margretta

The 500 ton Norwegian timber schooner Annie Margretta was lost beneath Ballard Head. Rescue efforts were hampered by strong easterly winds.


Swanage Bay Frozen

Swanage Bay was frozen in the coldest winter on record for the area.


Light House built

The light house was built

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Light House Opened

The light house was opened


Swanage railway opened

Swanage railway opened linking Swanage to the mainline at Wareham

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Durlston Castle built

Durlston Castle was built by George Burt

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Grand Hotel built

Grand Hotel built overlooking the bay

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Swanage Cottage Hospital built

Swanage Cottage Hospital was built in Queens Road on the southern side of Swanage

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Ballard Down Obelisk erected

After being demolished in London the Ballard Down Obelisk was transported to Swanage and erected by George Burt above the Ulwell Gap. It toppled over and was re-erected again the following year.


Old Harry's Wife collapses

Old Harry's Wife collapses into the sea.


New Pier built

Swanage pier was built at the cost of £10,000.

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Police Station built

The police station was built


Sea wall built

The sea wall was built


Swanage Conservative Club built

The Conservative Club in Kings Road is built by the third Earl of Eldon.


Antartic Expedition

Edgar Evans left the house he was living in at 82 High Street to travel with Captain Robert Scott and three other companions on their ill-fated Antartic Expedition to the south pole.

10 Mar 1914

Swanage Flooded

Swanage town centre was flooded after heavy rain. The rain started on Saturday night and did not stop until Monday evening.

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Emmanuel Baptist Church

Emmanuel Baptist Church, the red brick built church in the High Street opens its doors for the first time. The foundation stones were laid the previous year by Beatrice Ellen Beebe and Pastor James Wicks.

12 Jul 1933

Edward, Price of Wales drops in on Swanage

Gale force winds forced the princes plane to make an emergency landing during a trip to Weymouth. The plane landed in a field near Godlingston Farm and the Prince was given a lift to Weymouth by Captin F.R. Bacon of the brickworks.


The Mill Pond closes

The last sack of corn from Herson is ground in the Mill House at the Mill Pond off of Church Hill.


Ballard Down Obelisk dismantled

The Ballard Down Obelisk was dismantled due to the fear that it might be used as a navigational aid by German pilots.

13 Jun 1940

HMS Abel Tasman sunk

While entering the entrance to Poole Harbour the HMS Abel Tasman hit a German mine and was blown to pieces. All 11 crew members were killed.

20 Apr 1942

Air Raid on Swanage

An air raid by German bombers damaged houses in Cornwall Road and buildings in Station Road

14 May 1942

Air Raid on Swanage

An air raid by German bombers damaged Wesley's Cottage.

13 Jul 1942

Air Raid on Swanage

An air raid by German bombers injured 3 people and damaged buildings in Park Road.

8 Aug 1942

Air Raid on Swanage

An air raid by two German Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighters that were each carrying single 250-kg bombs. They machine-gunned people on the beach and promenade before releasing their bombs, one of which destroyed the Westminster Bank in Institute Road and other fell in the sea. They killed 8 people and wounded 39. Several other buildings in Institute Road were damaged as were The Narrows in the High Street and St Mary's Church.

23 Aug 1942

Air Raid on Swanage

An air raid by German bombers killed 5 people and wounded 9. Buildings in the Square suffered extensive damage including Swanage Dairies and The Ship Inn.


Purbeck Golf Club bought by Enid Blyton

The Isle of Purbeck Golf Club is purchased by children's author Enid Blyton and her husband Kenneth Darrel-Waters.


Punch and Judy

The first Punch and Judy show came to Swanage


All Saints Church

All Saints Church in Ulwell Road was built by George Parsons of Swanage.


Agglestone Rock falls over

Agglestone Rock falls over onto it's side.


Swanage railway closed

Swanage railway closed


Ballard Down Obelisk rebuilt

The Ballard Down Obelisk was rebuilt by a group of Royal Engineers.


Durlston Country Park

Durlston Country Park is opened to the public. Durlston Country Park is a 280 acre nature reserve stretched along the coast of the Isle of Purbeck near Swanage in Dorset, England. The park, which is part of the Jurassic Coast world heritage site, has been owned by Dorset county council since the early 1970s and is mostly open access.


Belle Vue Cliffs bought by National Trust

Belle View Cliffs, west of Durlston Country Park is bought by the National Trust.


Railway re-opened.

Swanage steam railway re-opened thanks to the work by volunteers.


Dinosaur footprints

30 dinosaur footprints were discovered in Townsend Road


Major Flooding

Swanage was flooded, an area covering most of the lower part of Northbrook road, Kings Road, Victoria Av was under water and the car park and King Georges field was under more than 7 feet of water. The town had to bee closed to traffic and many people were evacuated from their homes by boat.


Flood scheme jetty built

Flood scheme jetty built at the end of Victoria Avenue to stop flooding in the future.


Virtual Swanage launched

This website was first launched in 1995 with 4 pages!


Last paddle steamer

The Embassy, the last paddle steamer to make regular trips to and from Swanage made its final visit here.


First stage of flood scheme

First stage of the flood scheme finished


Top of pier rebuilt

The top section of the main pier reopened after being completely rebuilt.


Flood alleviation scheme finished

Swanage Flood alleviation scheme finished, it is supposed to stop the town from flooding ever again


Major flooding

Major flooding in the town after a day's rain !!!


Jurassic Coast Chartered

The Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site on the English Channel coast of southern England. The site stretches from Orcombe Point near Exmouth in East Devon to Old Harry Rocks near Swanage in East Dorset, a distance of 95 miles.


Major Flooding

Swanage is flooded again after heavy rain. Flood water averaging eight inches in depth flooded a number of homes, shops and businesses in the town.

31 May 2002

Large Fire

Major fire in the town centre on 31st May. The chip shop in the square is completely gutted with the top 2 floors having smoke damage.


Beach recharge scheme

Swanage Beach recharge scheme adds new sand back to the beach


Lottery grant

Durlston Country Park win £3.2m from a lottery grant


Corfe Castle repairs

Major repairs started on Corfe Castle

29 Jun 2011

Swanage Library reopens

Following an extensive refurbishment programme, Swanage Library reopened after six months of improvement work.

17 Nov 2011

Durlston Castle reopens

Work at Durlston Castle started in May 2010 with the help of a £5.5m Heritage Lottery Fund contribution. The Castle now has a new visitor centre, gallery, shop and cinema room.

Sep 2013

Swanage opens first secondary free school

The Swanage School is an independently run secondary school which will be moving to a new purpose built school on the old Middle School site in 2014

1 Dec 2013

Seafront Stabilisation Project Starts

Work started on the new seafront stabilisation project and work in the Broad Road car park to reduce the risk of land slides.

Feb 2014

Flooding and Cliff Falls

After strong storms parts of the lower High Street had flooding and large sections of the cliffs at Ocean Bay collapsed onto beach huts and the beach

25 Apr 2014

The Swanage School

The new Swanage School built on the site of the older Swanage Middle School opened.

Aug 2019

Purbeck Coast radio Station

In August 2019 a new local community radio startion was launched which is based on Swanage pier. You can listen on 101.2FM


Demolition of Swanage Grammar School

Work started on the demolition of Swanage Grammar School in Northbrook Road established in 1929 and closed in 1974. A new housing estate is planned for the old Grammar School site and fields.

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