Site Map

This site explores Swanage and the Isle of Purbeck from 1066 to the 20th Century

Swanage at the time of the 1891 Census, had a population of 2,674 and approximately 300 worked in the Stone trade.

This site is divided into three major topics, the Development of the Stone Trade, the Entrepreneurs who developed the area into a seaside resort and the 19th century Geograpy of the Swanage area. The information has been rationalised into an Introduction with a more technical development of a particular sub-topic in the three sidebars.

Introduction to Portland and Purbeck stone
There are numerous examples of old open cast quarries on the Isle of Purbeck, one example is the base of the Peveril Car Park and the incline leading to the top of the downs. This was created before the Norman invasion (1066) when a large section of the Isle of Purbeck was under the custody of the Abbess of Shaftesbury. The material extracted was building stone, known as Burr or Butter stone and a layer of marble running up from Peveril Ledge. The rock was quarried by other ecclesiastical houses, such as Winchester, Romsey, Christchurch, Wimborne and Salisbury and shipped to these destinations on barges. Consequently, this created a huge open cast quarry, which is still evident today in the steep banking of the car park perimeter. The Abbess had considerable authority over her territories, for example when William the Conqueror wanted to build Corfe Castle in 1070 he had to negotiate land access. The Domesday survey records state that the Abbess of Shaftesbury gave Castle Hill and a strip of land to William the Conqueror for his castle in return for the church at Gillingham.

Corfe Castle was also built using this vein of Purbeck Stone, known as Upper Purbeck, it was quarried from Afflington, Lynch and Blashenwell. These quarries also contained the hard limestone that could be polished to form Purbeck Marble that adorns Salisbury Cathedral. This was completed in 1258 and utilised 10,000 tons of Purbeck marble and 60,000 tons of Chilmark stone. The Purbeck stone is constructed of minerals that had collected within the small fresh water snail shells after they had settled at the bottom of the Purbeck Lagoon, in the Jurassic Era 140 million years ago; in the top sidebar the first image displays the Purbeck Limestone group the most northern strip is the Upper Purbeck bed and the lagoon is displayed in second image.

There is an additional older stone bed, from the Portland group, that runs along the coast between Durlston Head and St Albans Head. This is also constructed of freshwater shells but has a different physical structure: 25% lighter than Purbeck; very much harder than most of Purbeck stone; more difficult to extract but easier to export. For example following the Great Storm in 1749 approval was granted by an Act of Parliament for the construction of a new harbour at Ramsgate Quay, the Isle of Purbeck was selected as a stone supplier. The cliff quarries supplied 15,000 tons of Purbeck/Portland to its construction, it took 52 sailing ships two years four months to complete the shipment. The stone was also used in the Napoleonic War (1799-1815) where it was used in naval defences at Portsmouth 8.

Morton Pitt the Philanthropist
From extracts of his obituary published in The Gentlemen’s Magazine, Volume 5, January to June 1836 13. Mr. W. Morton Pitt was the eldest and only surviving son of John Pitt, esq. of Encombe, a Commissioner of Trade and Plantations, Surveyor of Woods and Forests, and M. P. for Wareham and Dorchester.. In 1779, Mr. Morton Pitt was appointed Lieut-Col. of the Dorsetshire Militia. He lived at the mansion-house at Encombe in the Isle of Purbeck, which he inherited from his father John Pitt, John's father George Pit bought the Encombe estate in 1734. George already owned Kingston Maurward near Dorchester. His son, John, built the present house and left it to his son, William Morton Pitt . The latter was a considerable philanthropist who spent much of his fortune on creating employment in Dorchester and in Swanage – and in Kingston, where he established twine and sail-making jobs, ‘of a considerable loss and expense to himself yet undoubtedly of great importance to the community’, in Hutchins’s words.

The newly impoverished William Morton Pitt sold Encombe and Kingston in 1806 to the 1st Earl of Eldon, John Scott, who with a brief break was Lord Chancellor from 1801 to 1827. The son of a Newcastle coal merchant, he was a diehard reactionary – he implacably opposed the development of the railways, for example – and is generally regarded as a dry-as-dust lawyer

To encourage industry, and detach the population from smuggling, Mr. Pitt established a manufactory for cordage and sail-cloth, near his domain in the Isle of Purbeck and he developed the area around the pier and downs. He built Marine Villas (1825) the four terrace houses half-way up the hill of Seymer road (1832), the stone quay extension (1825), and modified the Royal Victoria Hotel. Pitt was an entrepreneur, his desire was to develop Swanage by building houses for Marine Retirement and encourage people of quality to move to Swanage

Consequently, he retained John Chapman’s house (built in 1721), then it was a mansion called Swanage House, the additional two wings were built in 1777 and land to the east. He refurbished Swanage House, by constructing a double story extention at the rear, replacing the ashlar external surface by the more fashionable Regency stucco and renamed it the Manor House Hotel, it opened in 1825. In 1833, after the visit of Princess Victoria and her mother the Duchess of Kent the hotel was renamed The Royal Victoria Hotel. 4

Introduction to John Mowlem
In 1806-7, John Mowlem a Swanage resident moved to the Isle of Wight to develop his skills by taking a job at Norris Castle Quarry on the Isle of Wight. Whilst there a sculpter/mason James Wyatt was impressed by Mowlem's work and recommended him to Henry Westmacott, a well known sculptor-mason in London. Mowlem jumped at the opportunity and moved to London and worked for him. In 1823 he set up a business of his own where he leased a wharf in Pimlico Basin, now the site of Victoria Station forecourt and started his own business importing Purbeck Limestone, York sandstone and Aberdine granite. Later he moved to offices and a yard at Paddington Basin off the Grand Union Canal, which remained his headquarters fo the rest of his life. His company had its first major job with a contract to re-pave Blackfriars Bridge with Guernsey granite setts. To ensure a reliable supply he bought an acre of land in the north of the island and moved to Guernsey and superviseded the removal and shipping to London, until the task was completed in June 1840.

In 1845, Mowlem retired to Swanage, he kept a close eye on the metropolitan paving contracts. He attended committees himself when necessary and travelled to inspect quarries throughout his retirement he died at his nephew's house, Purbeck House, in 1868 at the age of 80.

Introduction to George Burt and the Railway/Paddle Steamer
Upon taking over the Mowlem's company, Burt substantially expanded the firm's operations and later he was appointed in 1878 Sheriff of London and Middlesex; his new contacts benefited the company.

In May 1851 the firm was very successful in bidding for the London vestries' contracts, some for only hundreds of pounds, that provided nearly all the firm's work into the 1870s, earning it the nickname of London John. Work for ten major local authorities in the 1860s grossed an average of over £50,000 per annum. The company survived the financial crisis of 1866-7 and the company became a major public-works contractor. They won the contract for Queen Victoria Street in the City of London (1869), followed by Billingsgate Market (1874-7) and the City of London School in 1880 on the new Victoria Embankment 10 .

Burt, like his uncle, maintained an interest in Swanage, establishing gas and waterworks, developing the Durlston estate, and lived in a large housecalled "Purbeck House", now a hotel, on the main street. He and his wife bought the house for £550 and lived in it for 17 years. The porch is made of white Cornish granite, the mosaic floor is copied from the pavement in Queen Victoria Street, London and some of the tiles are from the Palace of Westminster.

In May 1883, Burt, John Robinson and William Landsdowne Beal became the promoters of the Swanage Railway line. They purchased and took the first delivery, from a Steamer owned by Burt, the Lord John Russell, of the railway tracks. In February 1884, the first tracks were laid from Swanage. To assist in this mammoth task, the contractor Curry and Reeve, supplied a steam locomotive from Wareham.This was hauled to Swanage using 20 Shire Horses, that struggled when ascending Kingston Hill on the Wareham to Swanage Turnpike road.The project was completed on 5th May 1885, inspected by the Board of trade and opened to passengers on the 20th May 1885.