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At the far end of the old parade ground (now a car park) stands a building consisting of a central square tower with wings to the left and right. Today it is known as the 'Little Keep.' The 'Little Keep' is now all that remains of the old Militia Barracks.
The 'Little Keep' was the entrance to these Barracks. The central portion was originally intended to be the Quartermasters stores but was commandeered by the Colonel for his own use. The right wing of the building was to be guard rooms, lock -ups, and the paymaster sergeant's quarters; the left wing was to be more lock-ups, the orderly room and the Sergeant-Major's quarters. To the rear of this building stood the new stores, separated from the 'Little Keep' by a parade ground. There were also two shops - an armourer's and a tailor's. Under the stores, below ground, was the powder magazine. Flanking the 'Little Keep' and the stores was a brick built hospital with two large wards, surgery and staff quarters. To the rear of the building was a third ward 'the itch ward' for those with scabies. Underground were kitchens, pantries, sculleries and larders.
The Militia barracks were completed in 1866. The buildings now known as the 'Little Keep' were built from Ridgeway stone with Bath stone dressing. Behind the 'Little Keep' was a brick built hospital. Entrance to the site was on what is now Poundbury Road, opposite the Royal Horse Artillery Barracks (now The Rifles TA Centre).
The History of the Militia Barracks
The Militia was the forerunner to the Territorial Army.
The Militia had been in existence in Saxon times but called upon only in times of war and local unrest. The Dorset Militia had been suspended after the Napoleonic Wars, although recalled briefly in 1830 to deal with the Swing Riots. In 1851 however President Bonaparte staged a Coup d'État in France and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III. This caused some alarm in Britain where Politicians feared that he might try to invade Belgium, which Britain was under treaty to defend. The County Militia were therefore revived and each county was given a quota to fill. In 1852 Dorset's quota was 506 men; in 1853, 308 men. A new Colonel was appointed for Dorset (Colonel Bingham) and training restarted in November 1852.
The Dorset Militia had nowhere to store its equipment. The only property available was a house in Princes's Street which was unsuitable for the purpose. There was a procedure for procuring a new store but in order to this, the Lord Lieutenant of Dorset and the Colonel of the Militia had to make a representation to The Court of Deputy Lieutenants (The Lieutenancy) to show that the stores used were 'unfit, insufficient and insecure'. If there was agreement that this was indeed the case, then more suitable accommodation would be sought. The money would have to come out of county rates. At this time Justices of the Peace administered the county via quarterly via the Court of Sessions. They agreed to ask the County Treasure to raise the required funds. This was to be done by mortgaging the rates at a rate of interest no higher than 5% and for no longer than 30 years.
The funding now agreed, the question was where to build the barracks. The first suggestion for alternative premises was to build a store in the new main gate of Dorchester jail. This was rejected by the Home Office. A request was then made to build the store on land near the jail, but the landowner, a Miss Churchill, refused to approve this. Attention then turned to the open fields which surrounded Dorchester on the east, south and west sides of the town. This was part of the Manor of Fordington and owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. The Duchy had successfully opposed any attempts to enclose these fields in the previous century and were now worried about effects on the value of the surrounding land should some of the fields be built on by the Militia. A plan for basic stores was prepared and a request for the land sent to the Duchy in April 1854. The Duchy was happy with these plans and suggested instead a field further to the north of the town which the Militia were not prepared to accept. The matter was dropped in 1854 as it seemed that there was no suitable location.
In the meantime the premises in Prince's Street became less and less suitable. By 1860 the situation had become critical and a War Office report demanded immediate action. A fresh representation was made to the Court of Sessions with Colonel Bingham. He suggested a site on the left hand side of the Bridport Road, beyond the Great Western Railway line. Again the Duchy did not approve so another meeting took place. At last Bingham and the Duchy found a mutually agreeable location close to the Bridport Road - almost the same location as the Duchy had rejected 6 years earlier - and a 99 year lease was agreed. The site was not ideal as it consisted of strips of land, some of which were held under copyhold leases for life. One copyholder refused to surrender his interest and so his strip could not be included in the final site. There were also wranglings over finance.
The lease was eventually signed on 10 Dec 1863, for 99 years at a rent of £13 6s. The rates were duly mortgaged to raise four and a half thousand pounds to build the barracks.
A local builder named Gregory won the contract to build the barracks which were completed in 1866. However the standards were not high. A Royal Engineer who inspected the premises in 1866 reported that:
'The armoury is not sufficiently secured against access at night. It is therefore recommended that an open barrier be erected, sufficient to prevent easy access to the stairs leading to the armoury and to check under fire at the foot of the stairs for assailants who may be of entered the enclosure for the purpose of taking arms. The magazine of this Depot, being underground, is damp and useless.'
Furthermore Gregory's contract did not include:
'locks and fastenings, papering, painting, lighting…fixtures, enclosing the site, forming the parade ground and Grovelling'
Surveys had not been thorough and extra costs were incurred because the site was sloping and the sub soil poor. Foundations had to be dug deeper than initially accounted for. A further £1184 had to be found by the county to rectify these problems and although officially completed in 1866 the barracks could not be used until 1870 when the repairs were complete. The Court of Sessions had not realized either that they would have to pay for fuel and services. The rooms in the barracks were damp, fires had to burn continuously and the coal bill rose and rose. They pressed the War Office to build a new Depot Barracks and take the Militia Barracks off their hands. In 1874 the War Office took over the responsibility for the day to day running of the barracks and in 1866 chose the site to be the location of the new Depot Barracks for the Dorsetshire Regiment.