> > History

The Dorchester Gallery

Dorset County Museum was established in 1845 to save the natural history and archaeology of a county felt at risk from the effects of the Industrial Revolution.

The coming of the railways in the 1840s saw Dorchester’s Roman sites at Poundbury and Maumbury Rings threatened with destruction. The poet, William Barnes, and the vicar of Fordington, Reverend Henry Moule, decided to form an organisation that would protect these sites and the natural history of the area and on 15th October 1845 the Dorset County Museum and Library was founded.

It was originally housed on the south side of High West Street in the building where the ‘bloody assizes’ took place following the Monmouth Rebellion. It then moved to Trinity Street and later to the site of the Old George Inn, a former public house on High West Street. But this temporary accommodation meant the Museum suffered from a lack of space and could only open on Thursdays and Saturdays – with predictable effects on visitor numbers.

To alleviate these problems in 1883 the move to our present site was made. A purpose-built, gothic inspired museum was built and Henry Moule (son of the Reverend Henry Moule) was appointed as the first full-time curator.

Reverend Henry Moule DNH&AS

Torge’s Church, Fordington in Dorchester from 1829-1880. He was a radical reformer and fearlessly campaigned for the poor. As chaplain to Dorchester Barracks he crusaded against vice and put a stop to Dorchester Races in 1830. He visited prisoners in Dorchester Gaol and comforted those sentenced to death. He opened schoolhouses in the town and often funded projects himself. In the Times Moule promoted his idea of for self-supporting boarding schools for the poor, intended to equip them for life by providing an intellectual, religious and industrial education.

During the cholera epidemics in Dorchester of 1849 and 1854, he and his wife fearlessly visited afflicted households in Fordington. He organized a campaign of burning infected clothing and opened sluices to flush the disease from the poor housing After this he wrote a series of letters to the landlord, the Prince of Wales, decrying the terrible housing conditions of the poor and accusing the Duchy administrators of neglect. Sadly he received no reply. Later this area became the model for Thomas Hardy’s Mixen Lane in the Mayor of Casterbridge.

Diagram showing the Henry Mouleís earth closet works

His courage made him a local hero. Moule was also an inventor, and by 1860 had designed the dry-earth closet as a way of improving sanitation. When the handle was pulled, a little dry earth or peat was spread on top of human waste, this neutralized the ammonia, and helped it to decay. When the bucket was full the contents were dug into the garden to continue decaying or sold as manure. This was patented as Moule’s Earth Closet, No. 1316, dated 28 May 1860, in partnership with James Bannehr. Together they set up the Moule Patent Earth-Closet Company (Limited), with more expensive models made of mahogany and oak. Further patents were in 1869 and 1873. Moule’s earth closets sold in their thousands, for use in private houses, schools in Dorchester and elsewhere, hospitals, military camps, and extensively in India.

Reverend Henry and Mary Moule with their family at Fordington Vicarage

Over 150 years ago Henry Moule was an early conservationist and environmentalist. He advocated green principles and wrote them in a number of magazines. He ran the vicarage like a self-supporting commune, growing vegetables, running a hothouse and keeping cows. He also advocated a plan for extracting gas from Kimmeridge shale.

Henry and his wife Mary had a large family of seven sons. To supplement their income they took in sons of the gentry to prepare them for university. The lessons had a strong emphasis on the classics, Hebrew and music.

Henry Moule was anxious to protect Dorset’s heritage and its antiquities. He responded to the threat posed to them by the building of the new railways by becaming a founder member of the Dorset County Museum in 1845. He died at Fordington vicarage on 3 February 1880.

Henry Joseph Moule sketching, 1880s

Born in Dorset, Henry Joseph Moule was the oldest of the seven surviving sons of the Reverend Henry Moule and Mary Moule. He grew up in the lively but studious vicarage full of siblings and boarders all playing music, sport and studying. (Pic vicarage) As a young boy the writer Thomas Hardy was a frequent visitor to the Moule’s Vicarage and between 1856 and 1860. (link to Hardy pic) Henry taught Thomas Hardy to paint and they remained good friends until Henry’s death.

Henry Joseph Moule was the first curator of Dorset County Museum in 1883 classifying, arranging and supervising the collection. Committed to the education of ‘artizans’, he lectured about Dorset to the Working Men’s Institute there. Henry corresponded with a wide circle of specialists including John Ruskin and the geologist Osmond Fisher. He organised outings of the Dorset Field Club and as Honorary Secretary of the Dorchester Sketching Club took sketching parties around Dorset.

Title page from Dorchester Antiquities, Henry Joseph Moule, 1901

During his curatorship of the Dorset County Museum he arranged the collection of the famous antiquarian William Cunnington. Thomas Hardy, as a member gave the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club Society a set of his novels. Moule was a highly effective curator and successfully campaigned to have extra galleries built. Following their construction he was rearranging the new displays at the time of his death in 1904.

Fordington from Cokerís Frome, Henry Joseph Moule, watercolour, DNHAS

His lasting legacy is the astonishing collection of several thousand watercolours he painted. The result of walking out into the locality and countryside every day to sketch the landscape, he later mounted many of them in more than 12 volumes. Moule’s sketches are a unique record providing us with a vivid insight into Victorian Dorset and strongly evoke the Wessex of Thomas Hardy’s books.

After the First World War the Museum began to suffer from under-funding, so in 1928 it was decided that the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, whose members regularly used the Museum, would formally amalgamate with it and become responsible for its upkeep and collections. The Field Club was renamed the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society and it continues to manage and care for Dorset County Museum to this day

In 1937 the Dorset County Education Committee gave its first grant to the Museum, to encourage it to build links with local schools, and Dorset County Council continues its support today. A new Geology Gallery also opened in 1937, while the following year Thomas Hardy’s papers and the contents of his Max Gate study were bequeathed to the Museum.

Following the Second World War, while other museums around the country were struggling, Dorset’s growing tourist industry meant that Dorset County Museum was able to expand. A new Natural History gallery was built in 1952 and was praised by the national press for its innovative display techniques. A new extension, built in 1973, housed a Multipurpose Gallery and conservation laboratory, and a new Archaeology Gallery was completed in 1984 landing Dorset County Museum a prestigious National Heritage ‘Museum of the Year’ award.

With the advent of Heritage Lottery Funding since the 1990s many galleries have been added and refurbished. The Writers’ Dorset gallery opened in 1997, winning us a further Museum of the Year award, while the Dorchester Gallery opened in 2003 and the Jurassic Coast Gallery (celebrating England’s first natural World Heritage Site) opened in 2006.