An online facebook group (SOWAP) Save Old Weymouth & Portland, are pressing for a full archaeological excavation before any future building work is done on the plum cash-cow that is the old Weymouth High Street site and also, the retaining of those few historical/archaeological features that managed to survive the outrageous and sickening redevelopment there of the late 1960’s/early 1970s.
Almost an entire street of originally 17th century and earlier buildings were shamefully bulldozed into oblivion to satisfy the then philistine council’s desire to have a new office block with a sea view to work in and rumours still abound today of dirty deals being done at the time with one Councillor allegedly getting the demolition contract. But now it seems that those old scars are reopened as hundreds of residents have signed the groups petition and left damning comments about what happened back then on the petition page along with one very clear message for the present council .. HERITAGE AND HISTORY MATTERS IN WEYMOUTH!
The site was to be rented to a developer but is now due to be sold off instead, a decision that will bring the council a much higher price, but will leave them with no control whatsoever over what is built there. And it is this that has set the alarm bells ringing amongst the history-loving residents and visitors of Weymouth.
Rumours, backed up with photos of another major development just up the road from the one in question, clearly showed that old archaeological features such as a well and a possible tunnel entrance had been covered over without any archaeological recording or investigation being done and it is avoiding a repeat of this travesty that the group see as their first aim. The second being to save other, ‘above ground’ features such as sets of old stone steps in the Chapelhay Gardens, which is included in the sale and which could be as old as the 12th century.
An existing outline planning application has already recommended the destruction of at least one such set of old stone steps and the replacing of it with a modern alternative set in what could best be described as a large rockery !.
The old High Street site itself and indeed that entire area of old Weymouth and including neighbouring Melcombe, holds an enthralling historical secret which, up until a few years ago, was little known. It is the site of a very important battle during the English Civil War in which almost eight thousand soldiers took part, and more than five hundred of them perished in the fighting, most on one pivotal night, the 27th February 1645.
The town was held for the parliamentary side by the then unknown local Dorset man and MP for the town, 30 year old Colonel William Sydenham of Wynford Eagle, who had under his command about 1300 men. Facing him on that night was a huge royalist army commanded by the infamous cavalier general, George, Lord Goring who assumed that an easy victory would be his. But, underestimating William Sydenham was Goring’s first and biggest mistake.At midnight, and having broken through the Weymouth town gate at Boot Hill and a small barricade behind it, Gorings men eagerly advanced down the old unlit High Street past the old town hall and the Boot Inn and made their way towards Weymouth Quay thinking that victory was already in their grasp. However, when they got near the other end of the old High Street there was a nasty surprise waiting for them as described in the book, The Crabchurch Conspiracy. https://crabchurch.co.uk/
“On they came in their hundreds and as they approached the second position, Sydenham gave the order to fire. Several concealed cannon, together with countless musketeers who were stationed at every window, rooftop and doorway, poured a withering wall of deadly lead shot and iron ball in to the Royalist ranks. Confusion reigned in the enveloping darkness and the stench of black powder and blood hung thick in the chilled night air. The numerous Royalist dead and wounded at the front of the advance were trampled underfoot by their stumbling comrades, who were still streaming down from the other end of the street in large numbers, if not oblivious to what had occurred then certainly not realising the extent of the disaster and slaughter. Not content with this carnage, Sydenham’s Dorset soldiers then drew their swords or upended their muskets to use as clubs and rushed out to get to grips with Goring’s men at close quarters. A deadly hand-to-hand struggle developed as the Royalists fought desperately to extricate themselves from the trap. Eventually, Goring’s men broke and ran, Sydenham’s troops chasing them back up the old High Street and all the way out of Weymouth town.”
So, as you can see, the ground on which the new development will take place, is to some knowing souls, verging on the sacred. And, if William Sydenham and his outnumbered and beleaguered force had lost the Battle of Weymouth on that freezing cold February night 370 years ago, the whole history of the English Civil Wars and indeed of England itself could have been vastly different. For it is suspected that the King, Charles 1 was planning on bringing a huge French Catholic army into the country through Weymouth to help turn the tide of the war very much in his favour. And if that had happened, our Parliament would not have existed as it does today, the rights of the common man would, in all probability, have been set back hundreds of years and England itself may even have returned to the Catholic fold.
Sydenham himself went on to become a Commissioner for the Treasury and also, in effect, Cromwell’s right hand man. In fact at Cromwell’s death, it was William Sydenham and a lawyer called Bulstrode Whitelock who basically ran the country until the lamentable return of the monarchy a few months later with Charles 11.Sydenham was then placed on a list of the “twelve most dangerous men in the Kingdom” and never again held high office. This fierce, loyal and implacable parliamentarian, died at home in Wynford Eagle not long after. His brother, Thomas, who also fought beside him that night, went on to become the most eminent physician of the entire 17th century, discovering, among many other things, St Vitus Dance.
And so, this is just a small part of the history of this unique and very special street and area of Weymouth. An area which SOWAP have vowed to look after and to ensure it receives the respect it so richly deserves. We would also like to see a memorial stone placed there as part of the new development to mark, not only the fallen, but also the achievement of Colonel William Sydenham, Dorset’s forgotten and unsung hero.
Though, possibly not unsung as Weymouth’s own internationally renowned Celtic rockers, The Dolmen made an album in 2009 all about the amazing days of that cold month of February 370 years ago and you can check it out here.
The Crabchurch Conspiracy.
If you would like to join SOWAP, the Facebook link is https://www.facebook.com/groups/saveoldweymouth/?fref=ts
And if you’d like to sign the petition and read the many comments, the link is https://saveoldweymouth.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/sowap-old-weymouth-high-st-petition.html