When fire ripped through Blandford on June 4, 1731, it was a catastrophe for the town and a personal disaster for most of its inhabitants.
But the destruction of almost the entire town centre also paved the way for a magnificent phoenix to rise from the ashes.
During the following years and decades, Blandford brothers John and William Bastard designed a new town centre that to this day is seen as a model of Georgian planning and architecture. Among other things the brothers had the vision to create a wide- open space at the heart of their development.
It wasn’t like that before 1731.
A cluttered place
From Malachi Blake’s contemporary sketch illustrating the extent of the fire, we know that pre-1731 the Market Place was a cluttered environment. The Shambles, the old Town Hall and four cottages called Middle Row stood parallel to the present-day Corn Exchange and adjoining shops but further out. Occupying a sizeable site at the junction of the Market Place and Salisbury Street was the Market Cross, where cheese and butter were sold.
A document dated 1644 refers to a set of scales ‘which the cheese was weighed with at the Cross’. The stone cross probably survived the fire but was cleared away soon after along with the charred debris all around – although the spot was still known to locals 100 years ago as ‘the Cross’.
In the late 19th century, workmen digging up the road discovered some worked stones that had originally formed part of the cross. By 1906 they were said to be ‘piled together in a small enclosure near the Rectory’. Does anyone know where they are today? These two pictures, taken 120 years apart, underline the versatility of Blandford’s open Market Place, which is variously used for car parking, market stalls, the May Fair and ceremonial events.
Then and now
The former Posting Office (far left) is now W H Smith & Son. The poster on the wall is advertising
a show. At the time of the earlier picture, about 1900, Greyhound House – the original Greyhound Inn – was the National Provincial Bank, which it remained for many years. Part of the ground floor is now vacant following the closure of Beaton’s Tearoom last year. The other part is a florist’s. In the background of both pictures can be seen the Crown Hotel, looking much the same in 2021 as it did in 1900.
by Roger Guttridge