Updated: Mar 4, 2021
The earliest known settlement in Gillingham is a lake dwelling at Bay dating from around 2500 BC. During Roman times, around 200AD, a substantial farm settlement was established in the Common Mead Lane area. Much of the evidence unearthed from this is on display in the Museum, including Roman pottery, coins and roof tiles.
Evidence of Saxon occupation, perhaps from the later 7th century, is in the form of part of a Saxon Cross to be found in St Mary's church. The town's name is of Saxon origin, Gylla being possibly the name of a local chief and ham meaning village or homestead. Gillingham is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in relation to a battle fought at Penn (Penselwood) where Edmund Ironside fought and defeated King Canute and the Danes. There is a tradition that Edward the Confessor was declared King at Gillingham in 1042.
The settlement and church of St Mary are mentioned in Domesday Book. The church was rebuilt around 1300-50. The Norman kings established a royal forest to the east of the town, later enclosing part of it as a deer park. Here King John built the moated hunting lodge known as King's Court, and visited it on several occasions. King’s Court was further extended by Henry III into an extensive palace, but gradually fell into disuse and was demolished soon after 1369. Another moated site of medieval times was the Queen’s House, now the Thorngrove garden centre.
The oldest remaining substantial building in the town apart from the church is Wyke Hall. Parts of it date from Tudor times, and although much altered over the years, it is still occupied and divided into several separate dwelling units.
In 1516 a Free school was built near the church. Its most famous pupil was Edward Hyde, First Earl of Clarendon (1609-1674), the grandfather of Queen Mary II and Queen Anne. Robert Frampton, who was later to become the Bishop of Gloucester, became headmaster of the school in 1648. In 1875 the school was superseded by the Grammar School and moved to a new site at Harding’s Lane, where it still flourishes as Gillingham School.
At the beginning of the 17th century Gillingham was still a small village. The present High Street consisted of houses and dwellings of the period with at least two inns, the Red Lion and The Phoenix. Before and during the Civil War extensive rioting accompanied the enclosure of the old forest. In 1694 a major fire destroyed much of the town.
The artist John Constable was a friend of the Reverend John Fisher, vicar of Gillingham, and visited Gillingham in 1820 and 1823. As a result he produced five oil paintings and four sketches of the area. A copy of each of these is in Gillingham Museum.
St Mary's church was largely rebuilt in the 1830s under the direction of its vicar, Henry Deane. The chancel is the only substantial ancient part, dating from the 14th century. The church is unique in that the chancel floor is lower than that of the nave. Near the church is the Vicarage School Room, used as a National School in Victorian times. Below: Buckler's 1805 engraving of St. Mary's Church.
Despite its rural setting, Gillingham has long been an industrial town. In 1769, the Gillingham Silk Co. established the silk-throwing industry (i.e. the process of preparing raw silk for the weaver). In the early years of the 19th century, around 160 people were employed in the mill itself, with girl apprentices being obtained from London workhouses.
Gillingham’s real industrial growth began with the arrival of the railway in 1859. This was followed by the establishment of Oake Woods bacon factory, and in 1865 by the Gillingham Pottery, Brick and Tile Co. A cattle and stock market developed, along with new industries serving the farming community. Dairy products could now be dispatched on the railway several times daily to London and other large towns, to arrive in a fresh condition. The High Street flourished and was furnished with a variety of shops. Some of the businesses from this period still exist today, e.g. Bracher Bros and J.H. Rose & Sons. The population grew from 1,873 in 1801 to 3,380 in 1901.
During the first three decades of the 20th century, the prosperity of the town continued. A market was held every other Monday and the calf market was the second largest in the country. There was a large dairy depot for manufacturing cheese and supplying milk to London, as well as Eden Shute’s butter factory and Slade’s mineral works. New businesses of the time included Maloney’s glue factory and several motor firms. During the First World War some of the town’s buildings were used as military hospitals.
After 1945 Gillingham began to feel the winds of change and there was a steady decline in the older industries, many of which disappeared during the 1960s. However by the late 1970s the trend was reversing and new firms – such as Sherman Chemicals, Biokil, Sigma Aldrich, Dextra Lighting Systems, Wessex Fare and Chester Jefferies – came to the town. Land was released for housing developments and the town started to grow again. The ‘Relief Road’, Le Neubourg Way (named after Gillingham’s twin town in Normandy), provided the opportunity for a supermarket, a new library and museum to be built at Chantry Fields. Gillingham’s Waitrose store soon attained the position of the third busiest Waitrose in the country, and became a focal point for the regeneration of the town’s retail trade.
Since the 1990s the expansion of Gillingham has included building and refurbishment programmes at the primary schools in School Road and at Milton and new primary schools at Wyke and Ham to meet the needs of housing during the first decades of the 21st century. Gillingham School is a modern, high achieving comprehensive school and caters for over 1750 pupils from 11 to 18 years. It has been largely rebuilt over the past few years, and now has excellent facilities for all subjects plus a fine sports complex with an all-weather soccer/hockey pitch. The quality of education provided in the town has often been the driving force for families moving into the area.
The town's sports clubs cover football, rugby football, cricket and bowls. The latest high profile development in the town is the regeneration of the leisure centre in Harding’s Lane as the Riversmeet Centre, opened in 2010. This has been the creation of the Three Rivers Partnership, a body specially formed to take on the task of fundraising, publicity and management of the project.
Gillingham is managed by the Gillingham Town Council and its 15 members meet on Mondays to discuss matters concerning the parish. Its insignia is based on the three rivers of Gillingham, its history as a royal forest, and the royal authority of earlier times. North Dorset District Council was the next layer of local government but in 2019 a new Dorset Council was formed.
Altogether Gillingham is a fine place to live in a friendly environment, still only a few minutes' walk from the countryside.
Written by David Lloyd & Peter Crocker
Revised April 2014 by John Porter