Gillingham, the most northerly town in Dorset, has a long history, as the Longbury Barrow (a mile north-west of the church) dating from the New Stone Age can testify. In the 2nd and 3rd century AD, Romans and Romano-British people lived in the area of Gillingham, leaving remains which are still being discovered and uncovered today. However it was the Saxons who really established the North Dorset town.
The a name is of a particularly interesting and early type, and indeed the only one of its kind in Dorset. It is first recorded in an Anglo-Saxon charter from the 10th century as Gillingham, and is also mentioned with this spelling in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in the anal for 1016 describing a battle between Kind Edmund and the Danish Vikings. In the Domesday book of 1086 it is Gelingham, and later spellings include Gellingeham in 1130, Gyllingeham in 1152 and Gilingeham in 1209.
The early spellings indicate a meaning 'homestead or village of the family or followers of a man called Gylla', from an Old English personal name with -inga- (genitive case of -ingas 'family or followers of') and ham. The name implies settlement by a tribe or group of people dependent on their leader and is thus no doubt to be associated with the earliest phases of the Saxon occupation of Dorset in the 7th century. Gillinghamn in Kent (in spite of its different pronunciation of the initial G-) and Gillingham in Norfolk are probably of identical origin.
In the Middle Ages, it was the seat of a royal hunting lodge, which was visited by Henry the First, Second and Third, and the latter's father, King John. They hunted in the nearby royal forest, where land was set aside for the King's deer. The lodge was destroyed in 1369 by Edward the Third as it had fallen into disrepair, and the stone used on royal properties elsewhere in the South of England.
It was a Gillingham man, Edward Rawson, who became the first secretary to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a post that he held until his death in 1693. In this position he was instructed to issue The First Thanksgiving Proclamation (June 20, 1676)
Gillingham grew as a centre for the local farming community, and also as a mill town for silk, from 1769. The town's grammar school was one of the first proper schools in Dorset, established in 1526.
Gillingham's church is a large building of which only the chancel - of the 14th century - is original; the rest dates from the 19th and 2Oth centuries. The tower, with its typical Somerset tracery, is a reminder that we are near the county boundary. Several monuments are of interest (one of them by John Bastard of Blandford), whilst the 1920s reredos was carved by the man who did similar work in both Truro Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.
Various residences in and around Gillingham date from the 17th or 18th centuries. The Tudor Wyke Hall has been largely rebuilt in recent times but has retained the same style. Lime Tree House, near the Church is of the Queen Anne period. The Vicarage of 1883, a house that hints of Webb in its style, has now been incorporated into a sheltered home for elderly persons.
The arrival of the railway at the end of the 1850's saw a growth in local prosperity - industries including brick making, butter and cheese production, printing, soap manufacture and even an early petrol engine plant grew up by the end of the 19th century. Gillingham's position on the railway, now the only one in the district, has led to a steady growth in recent years. It has always been a commercial and industrial town but many new industries have come here.
The town is also a shopping centre for a large surrounding area and its facilities include two large modern supermarkets and a wide range of assorted retail and service businesses. A new library with a large book stock has recently been completed in the Chantry Fields development. Three primary schools within the town feed the recently rebuilt and excellently equipped Comprehensive school catering for education through to A level courses. The town has a Youth centre.
An annual event is the Gillingham & Shaftesbury Agricultural show now held on its permanent showground at Motcombe - mid way between the two towns.
Sports facilities are available at the North Dorset Leisure Centre which has an indoor swimming pool, squash and badminton courts, sports halls and a fitness suite. A six rink indoor bowling club is complemented by a long established outdoor bowling green. The Gillingham Football Club and North Dorset Rugby Football Club both have grounds and modern club houses. The Comprehensive school has an all weather floodlit pitch available for hire for football and hockey matches. Anglers are catered for at Lodden lakes and the active fishing club has rights over several miles of river bank around the town. Nearly 100 clubs and societies thrive within Gillingham to cater for interests and pastimes for all age groups.
A new Museum (1996) has been built adjoining the new County Library in Chantry Fields which chronicles Gillingham's history. The exhibition covers the town's past from the prehistoric period through the occupation of early man, Romans, Saxons and the Medieval Royal Forest. The Victorian development and industrialization triggered around the coming of the railway and the town's history up to the second world war is illustrated in a series of displays. Copies of the work of John Constable are on show. Constable visited Gillingham on a number of occasions in the 1820s and painted several pictures in the vicinity, including 'Old Gillingham Bridge' and 'Parham Mill' which now hang in the Tate Gallery