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.



Sale Re-enactment.

A first meeting of the ‘cast’ for the Re-enactment took place last Monday.  This was for Helen Hewitt to run through how it would all unfold and to answer questions.  Garry Batt, our auctioneer was present and he had some useful points to make based on his background, all of which will contribute to a lively and fun event.  If you are coming along as a spectator, do dress for the occasion if you have some suitable clothing, even if it’s just to wear a waistcoat or similar.

Exhibition Stewards

Thank you to all those who have signed up to take turns at being stewards during the Exhibition.  There are still spaces for people to put their names down, particularly on the early October dates. We would like to see three people for each time slot. There will be a briefing for stewards on the 23rd September, the day before the Exhibition opens.

Thankfully, all the material for the Exhibition has now been finalised and is off to be printed.  It’s been a huge effort to bring all this together and I am confident that visitors will be impressed with the result.

Re-chalking of the Giant

You will know by now from the article in the parish magazine, that the Giant is to undergo one of his periodic cleans starting on 27th August and taking about ten days.  This is in advance of next year’s celebration to mark the National Trust’s centenary of ownership. The Pitt-Rivers family donated him to the NT in 1920. As you may have seen from the article in Monday’s Dorset Echo, the Trust do encourage volunteers to take part – and this time families may do so.  Additionally, if anybody from the village wishes to help on any day that work is taking place, you are asked to go to an information point at the Giant View carpark where you will be registered and receive the obligatory health and safety briefing.  The Trust will have a team of their own staff and volunteers on site every day as the core work force.

BBC Countryfile will be filming on the Giant on 30th September. This is scheduled for the morning and the presenter will be Ellie Harrison.  This is all weather dependent of course. Last Friday, in the midst of the monsoon, three of the Countryfile production team came to Cerne on a recce.  As they had come all the way from Bristol, their visit would have been wasted without going on to the Giant.  Together with Natalie, the regional manager for the NT, five of us slid across the fields in their Chelsea Tractor. 300 yards short of the Giant, we had to stop.  We couldn’t drive any further, they hadn’t done a risk assessment!  We walked as far as the tip of the Giant’s club so they could look at the terrain and the steepness of the slope.  Needless to say, we were completely soaked within 30 second as the rain drove horizontally in our faces.  Driving back, the vehicle got stuck. With four wheels spinning it didn’t look good.  Natalie to the rescue.  As part of her work with the NT, she had to undergo 4-wheel drive training and she had the technique to extricate us.

I didn’t get soaked in vain.  The upshot of the visit is that both Natalie and I have been invited to appear on camera.  This is a great opportunity to promote our Exhibition.  I asked if I would be allowed to wear a Giant tee-shirt, but this may have to be referred to higher authority within the Beeb.  As part of the filming, they will use a drone and a time-lapse camera will be fitted on top of Casterbridge Care Home which will take a photograph every hour while the work is taking place.  The programme is scheduled to be broadcast on 15th September, ideal timing for us.

Tickets for Events

As you will know from the leaflet in the last parish newsletter, for some of the events in the week following the Re-enactment, you will need a free ticket, available form the village shop from 1st September.  This is so we can control the numbers of people we can expect.  All you need to know about everything taking place is on the leaflet which appeared with the last parish newsletter.  You will notice that instead of taking place in the village hall, our scheduled Historical Society evening on 26th September will be in the Church along with all the other events. If you have queries about anything to do with the programme, please contact either myself or Gordon Bishop via the Contact Us form on this site.


The Horticultural Society introduced an early 20th Century flavour into their annual show on 10th August.  Thank you to the organisers, exhibitors and visitors  for rising to the challenge.

Mike Clark, Chair CHS

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