Wareham Quay is the highest point of navigation on the River Frome. It is for this reason that the riverside town of Wareham has a history which spans over 2,000 years. The town which lies between the Piddle and Frome is surrounded on three sides by earthen defenses dating from the time of Alfred the Great. The town having been captured by the Vikings in 876, who over wintered here. The defenses were refurbished during the Norman period and were even heightened on the west during the Second World War.
In the southwest quarter of the town is a large mound with a Victorian house on it. This was the site of Wareham castle. No medieval buildings survive, but the castle was probably built soon after the Norman conquest. It was probably in an earlier building on this site that Edward the Martyr was staying before he was murdered at Corfe Castle some three miles away in 978.
The weather had been hot and dry for several weeks and there was a south-westerly breeze blowing when, at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon on Sunday 25 July1762 an event occurred that was largely responsible for the largely 18th century Wareham we see today. A servant at the Bull's Head in the centre of the town threw some turf ashes onto a dung hill. The ashes had not been fully quenched, and when combined with the dryness everywhere, the breeze, and the fact that almost every building was thatched, a fire sprang up which was almost immediately out of control. It is stated that the fourth house to perish was the rectory, which was home to the Dorset historian, John Hutchins. He was away in Bridport at the time and had it not been for the great presence of mind of his wife, his great manuscript would have been lost forever.
One of the few survivors of the great fire is St Martins Church. Located in the middle of the north wall it is believed to be built on the site of a Roman Temple. It is remarkable in that it is the only Saxon church in Dorset which survives in anything like its original state. The original building dates from 1030. As an added bonus it also houses a magnificent effigy of Lawrence of Arabia (T.E. Lawrence) who was killed nearby at Clouds Hill in 1935.
The main church in Wareham is St. Mary's, which until 1840 had a large late Saxon nave, when it was then demolished to make way for a very plain new one. The chancel is basically 14th century and contains two 13th century Purbeck marble effigies of Knights. To the south is the medieval chapel of St. Edward.. The murdered King's body was here for a year before it was taken to Shaftesbury for burial. There is also a plaque to the Rev. John Hutchins who was rector from 1744 to 1773.
Only two of the original that cottages survive in the town amongst the 18th and 19th century houses which line the main streets. Also surviving are the 1741 almshouses in East Street opposite the town museum. Further east the street is mostly residential with a small market at the end. There is a Market on Thursdays. In the centre of town is the town hall which was built in 1870. Also of interest is the Rex Cinema in West street, a gas-lit early cinema which is still in business.