Lottery Grant

Cerne Historical Society has been awarded a grant of £6,700 by The National Lottery Heritage Fund towards the cost of this year’s centenary celebrations of the 1919 auction sale of Cerne Abbas by the Pitt-Rivers family. This grant, supplemented by money raised within the village has enabled the Society to put on an Exhibition to mark the centenary of this pivotal moment in the history of the village.

On September 24th 1919 the Pitt-Rivers family, which had owned most of Cerne Abbas since 1705, put the village up for sale at auction. This took place at 1.30pm in Dorchester Town Hall and a total of £67,402 was raised from the 73 lots. The sale included houses, shops, farms, pubs and plots of land. Some lots were bought by the sitting tenant, some by other bidders.

There will be a major exhibition in St Mary’s Church in the centre of Cerne Abbas from 25th September 2019 to 4th October daily, except for the 28th September, from 10am to 5pm. Admission is free.

Using the original sale particulars and plans, maps, newspaper articles, photos old and new and recent research carried out by members of the Historical Society this fascinating exhibition takes you back in time to witness the history of one Dorset village just after World War One. The exhibition will provide details of all the properties sold in the auction and those who lived in and purchased them. Other displays will give more information on the background to the Sale, why the Pitt-Rivers family chose to sell at this point, plus a history and snapshot of the village as it was at this period. In addition, local schoolchildren will  display the results of a photographic project and other work.


Cerne Abbas for Sale in 1919

In September 2019 Cerne Abbas will celebrate the centenary of the sale of most of the village by the Pitt-Rivers family. The sale by auction at the Town Hall in Dorchester on 24 September 1919, was a major event in Cerne Abbas’s long history which spans over 2000 years.

The Pitt Family

In 1705 Cerne Abbas was owned by the Pitt family of Stratfieldsaye and it became a market town of some 1,500 people, its wealth partly generated by brewing, its underground water, making it ‘more famous for beer than in any other place in the kingdom’. At that time Cerne Abbas supported 17 public inns and taverns. There was also milling, tanning, silk weaving, glove and hat making as well as other small local industries. Sadly, the 19th century saw the gradual decline in Cerne Abbas’s fortunes, particularly for farming, reflecting a nationwide downturn in the rural economy. The population halved and it became a village again rather than a ‘town’.

“decaying and strangely silent”

Cerne Abbas reached its lowest point in the early 20th century. In his 1906 ‘Highways and Byways in Dorset’ Sir Frederick Treves described it as ‘decaying and strangely silent’; he told of grass growing in the streets, deserted houses with boarded-up windows, empty barns, gates falling off their hinges and doorways grown up with weeds.

“slugs of the Giant’s kin were in many rooms”

Things had not improved by the time the sale took place in 1919. Frederick Harvey Darton found a dismaying decay. He noted that slugs of the Giant’s kin were in many rooms. No doubt the state of the properties in the village and the lack of manpower after the Great War contributed to Alexander Pitt-Rivers’ decision to sell part of the family’s estate.

The day of the Sale

On the day of the sale the Town Hall in Dorchester was, according to the Dorset County Chronicle, packed full of farmers, gentry, humbler folk and agents, many of whom would bid on behalf of the tenants. The auction was conducted by Mr H.S. Senior of Senior & Godwin. The residential, agricultural and shooting’ properties of Cerne Abbas and Melcombe Horsey , totaling some 4,700 acres , were sold in 75 lots. Alexander Pitt-Rivers raised £67,402 from the sale. A number of properties he owned were not included in the sale but were given by him to the village, namely the school and the headmaster’s house and the old Wesleyan Chapel which later became a reading room. The gifts met with much applause when announced by the auctioneer.

The Bidders

Some of the tenants bid successfully for their properties; some, like Mr Green the butcher, even became landlords themselves by acquiring more than one property, but they were in a minority; less than a quarter of the lots went to sitting tenants. On the other hand, the spring 1919 and 1921 electoral rolls indicate that few tenants lost their properties as a result of the sale; about 80% of those who were tenants before the sale were occupying the same properties in 1921.

The Guide

The following represents a small selection of pages from the forthcoming Guide available for public purchase from the day of the Anniversary which give a flavour of the high standard of work that your 1919 CHS Committee, in collaboration with graphic artist John Fieldhouse, have been able to achieve.  All the original research work has been painstakingly collated and edited by members of this Committee.  The Guide is a practical tool to be used when visitors to the Exhibition explore the village and gives a unseen insight into the histories of individual properties.




Each original Lot Number in the Sale will be clearly identifiable by a Blue Plaque like this…

Mike Clark, Chair CHS

You can get in touch with Mike via the Contact Us form on this site.