CHAPTER V. WEYMOUTH AND PORTLAND
The fashionable Weymouth of to-day is the Melcombe Regis of the past, and quite a proportion of visitors to Melcombe never go into the real Weymouth at all. The tarry, fishy and beery (in a manufacturing sense only) old town is on the south side of the harbour bridge and has little in common with the busy and popular watering place on the north and east. Once separate boroughs, the towns are now under one government, and Melcombe Regis has dropped its name almost entirely in favour of that of the older partner.
How many towns on the coast claim their particular semicircle of bay to be "the English Naples"? Douglas, Sandown and even Swanage have at some time or other, through their local guides, plumed themselves on the supposed resemblance. It is as inapplicable to these as it is to Weymouth, though the latter seems to insist upon it more than the rest. Apart from the bay, which is one of the most beautiful on the coast, boarding-house Weymouth is more like Bloomsbury than anywhere else on earth, and a very pleasant, mellow, comfortable old Bloomsbury, reminiscent of good solid comfortable times, even if they were rather dowdy and dull. Not that Weymouth is dull. In the far-off days of half-day excursions from London at a fare that now would only take them as far as Windsor, the crowds of holiday-makers were wont to make the front almost too lively. But away from such times there are few towns of the size that make such a pleasant impression upon the chance tourist, who can spend some days here with profit if he will but make it the headquarters for short explorations into the surrounding country and along the coast east and west, but especially east.
The first mention of Weymouth in West Saxon times is in a charter of King Ethelred, still existing, that makes a grant of land "in Weymouth or Wyke Regis" to Atsere, one of the King's councillors. Edward Confessor gave the manor to Winchester, and afterwards it became the property of Eleanor, the consort of Edward I. The large village slowly grew into a small town and port.
Wool became its staple trade, and in 1347 the port was rich enough to find twenty ships for the fleet besieging Calais. At this time Melcombe Regis began to assume as much importance as its neighbour across the harbour. The only communication between the two was then a ferry boat worked hand over hand by a rope. Henry VIII built Sandsfoot Castle for the protection of the ports, and while Elizabeth was Queen the harbour was bridged and the jealousy between the towns brought to an end by an Act passed to consolidate their interests. Soon after this the inhabitants had the satisfaction of seeing the great galleon of a Spanish admiral brought in as a prize of war, the towns having furnished six large ships toward the fleet that met the Armada.
During the reign of the seventh Henry a violent storm obliged Philip of Castile and his consort Joanna to claim, much against their will, the hospitality of the town. The Spanish sovereigns, who were not on the best terms with England, were very ill, and dry land on any terms was, to them, the only desirable thing. They were met on landing by Sir Thomas Trenchard of Wolveton with a hastily summoned force of militia. King Philip was informed that he would not be allowed to return to his ship until Henry had seen him, and in due course the Earl of Arundel arrived to conduct the unwilling visitors to the presence of the king. As we saw while at Charminster, this incident led to the founding of a great ducal family.
It is to George III that Weymouth owes its successful career as a watering place, although a beginning had been made over twenty years before the King's visit by a native of Bath named Ralph Allen, who actually forsook that "shrine of Hygeia," to come to Melcombe, where "to the great wonder of his friends he immersed his bare person in the open sea." Allen seems to have been familiar with the Duke of Gloucester, whom he induced to accompany him. So pleased was the Duke with Melcombe, that he decided to build a house on the front - Gloucester Lodge, now the hotel of that name - and here to the huge delight of the inhabitants, George, his Queen and three daughters came in 1789. An amusing account of the royal visit is given by Fanny Burney. The King was so pleased with the place that he stayed eleven weeks, and by his unaffected buorgeois manner and approachableness quickly gained the enthusiastic loyalty of his Dorset subjects. Miss Burney's most entertaining reminiscence of the visit is the oft-repeated account of the King's first dip in the sea. Immediately the royal person "became immersed beneath the waves" a band, concealed in a bathing machine struck up "God save Great George our King." Weymouth is in possession of a keepsake of these stirring times in the statue of His Hanoverian Majesty that graces(?) the centre of the Esplanade. It is to be hoped that the town will never be inveigled into scrapping this memorial, which for quaintness and unconscious humour is almost unsurpassed. A subject of derisive merriment to the tripper and of shuddering aversion for those with any aesthetic sense, it is nevertheless an interesting link with another age and is not very much worse than some other specimens of the memorial type of a more recent date. It has lately received a coat of paint of an intense black and the cross-headed wand that the monarch holds is tipped with gold. The contrast with the enormous expanse of white base, out of all proportion to the little black figure of the King, is strangely startling.
Not much can be said for St. Mary's, an eighteenth-century church in St. Mary's Street which carries the Bloomsbury-by-Sea idea to excess. The church has a tablet, the epitaph upon which seems quite unique in the contradictory character it gives to the deceased: