A tale of two villages
When talking of Georgian town architecture in Britain, places like Bath, Cheltenham, Buxton and even parts of London spring readily to mind. Melcombe Regis in Dorset is very little mentioned, not even as part of the port of Weymouth, yet King George III often spent his summers here. Weymouth is actually made up of two smaller ports, originally villages, that sit on either side of the mouth of the River Wey – with Weymouth on the south bank and Melcombe Regis on the north. Both were medieval settlements that competed as ports until 1571, when they were legally joined under a charter of Queen Elizabeth I and took the overall name of Weymouth. The first bridge linking the two parts was not built until 1597.
A statue of George III (who died in 1820) close to the seafront of Melcombe Regis (Weymouth), Dorset. It is now part of a traffic island
Regis derives from the Latin ‘rex’ meaning ‘king’. ‘Regis’ means ‘of the king’, and many places in England have that name, such as Lyme Regis. Melcombe Regis did not acquire this name because of George III staying there in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was a royal borough belonging to the monarch, and seems to have acquired its name much earlier, during the medieval period.
Water, water, everywhere…
Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner has the famous lines ‘Water, water, everywhere/ Nor any drop to drink’ – the ship had run out of fresh water, and the sea water could not be drunk. The exception was when sea water was prescribed as part of a health regime. In 1795 a local medical doctor (usually identified as John Crane) published a popular book called Cursory Observations on Sea-Bathing; the use of Sea-Water Internally. An earlier version may have been circulated within Weymouth, because the same title was advertised eight years earlier in the Gentleman’s Magazine. The author praised Weymouth’s water and beaches:
‘The sea water of this fine bay is quite pure, of a beautiful colour, perfectly clear and transparent; the sands under foot are soft yet firm, and entirely free from obstructions. The declivity is so gradual as to be almost imperceptible, a great security to the weak and fearful. The bay is so well sheltered by nature, that for tranquillity it surpasses what I have ever seen – scarcely any weather happening to interrupt bathing.’
By now, the possibilities of Weymouth had already been discovered by members of the royal family. In a retrospective article of 1837, the Penny Magazine told its readers:
‘In 1780 the Duke of Gloucester spent a winter at Weymouth, and was so much gratified with his sojourn, that he built a house for his own residence. In 1789 George III paid his first visit to Weymouth, and evinced his attachment towards it by visiting it several times.’
In fact, George III liked the place so much that he visited most summers until 1805. This put Weymouth on the map as a fashionable health resort, rivalling spa towns like Bath, and it was recommended that the sea water should not only be drunk but also bathed in. By now, its association with the plague had been long forgotten. Melcombe Regis actually has the dubious distinction of being the port where the first ship carrying the devastating ‘Great Plague’ (known later as the Black Death) arrived from Europe in 1348. This was the start of centuries of recurring plagues in Britain, which only subsided towards the end of the 17th century.
Bathing became very popular, primarily for health reasons, and was often done from bathing machines that were rolled into the sea and afterwards pulled out by one or two horses. The bather could descend steps on the seaward side into the water. Essentially, these machines were mobile changing rooms that allowed easy access to and from the sea. In September 1804 Jane Austen wrote a long letter to her sister Cassandra in which she mentioned her own ‘delightful’ experiences of bathing that morning at Lyme Regis. Cassandra was staying further along the Dorset coast – at Weymouth. If anything, bathing increased in popularity during the 19th century, and bathing machines continued to be used up to the First World War.
Replica of the bathing machine used by King George III at Weymouth
The Age of Elegance
Once the king and royal family began to patronise Weymouth as a summer resort, many people followed the fashion, and accommodation had to be found for them. This gave rise to the Georgian architecture that survives today in the Melcombe Regis side of Weymouth. Facing the seafront, elegant town houses were built in terraces with names like Royal Terrace, Royal Crescent, Gloucester Row (which included the house where the king stayed), York Buildings and Pulteney Buildings.
Plaque marking Gloucester Lodge, where George III stayed
The popularity of Weymouth continued to grow, even after George III’s visits came to an end, and right through the first half of the 19th century the Melcombe Regis side of Weymouth in particular expanded even more with more terraces of grand town houses – and they had names such as Frederick Place, Waterloo Place, Belvidere and Brunswick Terrace. This building boom resulted in hundreds of Georgian, Regency and early Victorian houses facing the Esplanade and the beaches.
The forgotten Georgian town
The arrival of the railway in 1857 provided easier access for visitors travelling from London and the south-east, ensuring that the attraction of Weymouth as a seaside resort did not decline. While countless visitors still flock to places like Bath to enjoy the beautiful Georgian streets, Weymouth has remained primarily a seaside resort, and so its attraction as a Georgian town has tended to be not just forgotten, but entirely ignored.
Weymouth also has many other interesting features besides its Georgian architecture. It is still a busy port, and upstream of the town bridge is a marina full of sea-going pleasure craft. In 1930, a drawbridge was built to replace a previous swing bridge, and in summer months it opens every two hours to allow tall river traffic to pass.
The drawbridge connecting the two halves of Weymouth, seen from the south bank looking towards Melcombe Regis
On the south side of Weymouth, the Nothe Fort overlooks the harbour mouth and was designed to prevent an attack by the French. It is one of the Palmerston Forts, sometimes called the ‘Palmerston Follies’, that were built along the southern coast of England on the orders of Lord Palmerston when he was Prime Minister. Begun in 1860, the fort was not opened until 1872. Like all the Palmerston Forts, it was never used. By the time it was ready, the artillery technology was obsolete – and the threat from French attack had passed.