Weymouth, which derives its name from its situation at the mouth of the river Wey, is the more ancient, and was probably known to the Romans; as, in the immediate neighbourhood, there are evident traces of a vicinal way, leading from one of the principal landing stations where the town of Melcombe-Regis now stands, connected with their camp at Maiden Castle to the Via Iceniana, or Icknield Way,
The earliest authentic documented notice of the town occurs in a grant by Athelstan, in 938AD, wherein he gives to the abbey of Milton “all that water within the shore of Waymouth, and half the stream of that Waymouth out at sea, a saltern, &c.”
It is also noticed in the Norman survey, the Doomsday Book, with several other places, under the common name of Wai, or Waia; among which it is clearly identified by the mention of the Salterns, or Salt Making areas exclusively belonging to it.
The ports of Weymouth and Melcombe, with their dependencies, were, by the charters of Henry I (1100 – 1135 AD) and Henry II (1154 – 1189 AD), granted to the monks of St. Swithin, in Winchester; from whom, by exchange, Weymouth passed into the possession of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, who, in the reigns of Henry III (1216 – 1272) and Edward I (1272 – 1307 AD), held it with view of frankpledge and other immunities.
In the reign of Edward II (1307 – 1327) Weymouth received the staple (ImportLicense) of wine, and collectors were appointed, in the 4th and 6th years of that reign (1311 & 1313), to receive the duties. Weymouth, in the 10th year of the reign of Edward III (1337), had become a place of some importance, contributing several ships towards the Fleet of that monarch’s expedition to Gascony against Phillip VI of France.
In the year 1347, it furnished twenty ships and two hundred and sixty-four mariners towards the fleet destined for the siege of Calais: in this subsidy, Melcombe, though not mentioned, was probably included.
The Earl of Gloucester’s successor, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, obtained many privileges for the town, and which, during the War of the Roses, through his heir, Edward IV (1461 – 1470 & 1471 – 1483), subsequently reverted to the crown, and formed part of the dowry of several queens of England.
In 1471, Margaret of Anjou, with her son, Prince Edward, landed at this port from France, to assist in restoring her husband, Henry VI, to the throne of England. Unfortunately, after gathering more men at a Muster at Cerne Abbas, the Lancastrian Army was destroyed at the Battle of Tewkesbury, her son Edward, Prince of Wales was killed, and Queen Margaret was captured by William Stanley. Later, she was ransomed by the King of France (Louis XI) in 1475, and eventually died in August 1482 and was buried in Angers Cathedral
In January 1506, Philip, King of Castile, on his voyage from Zealand to Spain, with a fleet of eighty ships, on board of which was his queen, being driven by a storm on the English coast, put into it for safety, intending to re-embark, after having refreshed himself from his toils, before his arrival could be known to the English monarch; but Sir Thomas Trenchard and Sir John Carew, who, fearing some hostile attack, had marched with their forces to the town, detained him till he might have an interview with the king, and for that purpose conducted him to Woolverton, the seat of Sir Thomas Trenchard.
The twin towns were united into one borough, in the reign of Elizabeth 1st, in 1571
This port, in 1588, contributed six ships to oppose the armada of Spain, and one of the enemy’s vessels, having been taken in the English Channel, was brought into Weymouth harbour.
Melcombe-Regis, on the north side of the harbour, derived its name from being situated in a valley, in which was an ancient mill; and its adjunct from its having formed part of the demesnes of the crown. It is not mentioned in Doomsday-book, being included in the parish of Radipole, which at that time belonged to Cerne Abbey; but it passed from the monks into the possession of the crown at an earlier period than Weymouth, and, in the reign of Edward I., became the dowry of Queen Eleanor, on which account it obtained many valuable and extensive privileges. In the reign of Edward III., it was made one of the staple towns (Licensed for Export) for wool, and flourished considerably; but, in the following reign, having been burnt by the French, it became so greatly impoverished, that the inhabitants petitioned the king to be excused from the payment of their customs. Edward IV., in order to afford relief, granted them a new charter, conferring the same privileges as were enjoyed by the citizens of London.
In the reign of Elizabeth, the lords of the council, wearied by the continual disputes of these two towns, which were both boroughs, and endowed with extensive privileges, by the advice of Cecil, Lord Treasurer, united them into one borough by an act of parliament, which was afterwards confirmed by James I., under the designation of “The United Borough and Town of Weymouth and Melcombe-Regis,” from which time their history becomes identified.
Weymouth afterwards gradually fell into decay, and suffered greatly during the parliamentary war, having been alternately garrisoned for both parties. In 1644, it was evacuated by the royalists, on which occasion several ships, and a great quantity of arms, fell into the hands of the parliament, who obtained possession of it. The royalists soon afterwards attempted to recover it, but the garrison sustained the attack for eighteen days, and finally obliged them to raise the siege. An additional fort was built, in 1645, on the Weymouth side of the harbour, to defend it from the incursions of the Portlanders; and, four years after, the corporation petitioned for an indemnification for the destruction of their bridge and chapel (the latter, from its commanding situation, having been converted into a fort), and for assistance in the maintenance of the garrison, which application appears to have been disregarded; but, in 1666, a brief was granted to repair the damage; and, in 1673, another was bestowed for the collection of £3000, to repair the injury which the town had received from an accidental fire, whereby a considerable portion of it was destroyed.
The rise of the town of Poole, which was rapidly growing into importance, the decay of the haven, and the loss of its trade, with various other causes, contributed powerfully to the decline of the town, which, from an opulent and commercial port, had almost sunk into a mere fishing town, when Ralph Allen, Esq., of Bath, in 1763, first brought it into notice as a bathing-place; and the subsequent visits of George III. And the royal family, with whom it was a favourite place of resort, laid the foundation of its present prosperity.
The port formerly carried on an extensive trade with France, Spain, Norway, and Newfoundland, in the fishery of which last place it employed eighty vessels; but the war with France, after the Revolutionary Wars, put an end to its commerce with that country; the trade with Newfoundland was, in a great measure, transferred to Poole; and the accumulation of sand in the harbour, operating with other causes, considerably diminished its importance as a port. In 1781 it was decided to reclaim the land from the Old Harbour area, and only a few vessels were still employed in the Mediterranean trade and in the Newfoundland fishery; in addition to which, it carries on a tolerable coasting trade. The relocation to the main River and Backwater of the principal imports of coal, timber, wine, brandy, geneva, tobacco, and rice, for which it was made a bonding port by an order of council, in 1817: the chief exports are Portland-stone, pipe-clay, Roman cement, bricks, tiles, slates, corn, and flour. The number of vessels belonging to the port, in 1829, was eighty-seven, of the aggregate burden of seven thousand one hundred and seventy-five tons; and in the course of the year 1828, four hundred and twenty vessels cleared outwards, and four hundred and four entered inwards. Ship-building was carried on to some extent; and many persons were employed in the manufacture of ropes, twine, and cordage, and in the making of sails. The quay, on which was the Customhouse, a neat and commodious building (now the Coastguard Base of operations, is well adapted to the loading and unloading of goods, but, from the accumulation of sand in the harbour, was not accessible to ships of large burden. Three steam-packets used to sail regularly, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, for Guernsey, Jersey, and the neighbouring islands; and a cutter once a week, which is neatly fitted up for the accommodation of passengers, and the conveyance of merchandize. The market days were Tuesday and Friday and the town was abundantly supplied with fish of every description, with the small mutton from the isle of Portland, and with provisions of all kinds.
During the Victorian Era, extensive work was carried out to enclose Portland Harbour, and the story can then be followed by visiting the Nothe Fort for further information.
A Description of the towns of Weymouth and Melcombe-Regis, Dorset, England as described by Samuel Lewis in A Topographical Dictionary of England, Published in London in 1831.