Our Story

The Museum began by collecting natural history and archaeology.

Literature, fine art, textiles, costume, local history, and photography collections grew over time. The Thomas Hardy collection was a major bequest in 1937.

Today the Museum looks after an incredible four million objects.

Dorset Museum Building


Who Started The Museum?

The Museum was founded by figures, who wanted to protect Dorset’s heritage and antiquities as the Industrial Revolution and new railways brought changes to a rural county.

Founder | William Barnes (1801-1886)


A poet and school teacher, who believed in education for all, mastered over 60 languages, had gifts for music, literature, art, and the classics.

William Barnes was born in Bagber and educated at Sturminster Newton. Working as a young clerk in Dorchester, he fell in love with Julia Miles. He began a career in teaching, keeping a school at Mere for several years before he and Julia married in 1827. After returning to Dorchester in 1835, he became friends with Thomas Hardy and published Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect in 1844. An interest in archaeology and geology led him to become a co-founder and member of the Council of the Dorset Museum.

In 1847 he was ordained deacon of Whitcombe, near Dorchester. Julia died in 1852, and ten years later he gave up his school to become curate of Winterborne Came. He was a popular local figure, trudging out to help his parishioners in all weathers wearing a cassock, wide-brimmed hat, knee-breeches, and buckled shoes. His poetry in the Dorset dialect of his youth reflects his deep love of the countryside, country ways, and country people, and is still loved today.

William Barnes

Founder | Revd Henry Moule (1801-1880)


A radical reformer who fearlessly campaigned for the poor, an early conservationist and environmentalist. His courage made him a local hero.

Moule opened schoolhouses in Dorchester and often funded projects himself. During the Dorchester cholera epidemics of 1849 and 1854, he and his wife visited afflicted households in Fordington. He organized a campaign of burning infected clothing and opened sluices to flush the disease from the poor housing.

Moule was also an inventor and designed the dry-earth closet to help improve sanitation. Launched in 1860, Moule’s earth closets sold in their thousands to private houses, schools, hospitals, military camps, and extensively in India. He advocated green principles and ran the vicarage like a self-supporting commune, growing vegetables, running a hothouse, and keeping cows. He also encouraged a plan for extracting gas from Kimmeridge shale. Henry and his wife Mary had seven sons and supplemented their income by taking in sons of the gentry to prepare them for university.

Henry Moule

First Curator | Henry Joseph Moule (1825-1904)


An artist and a friend of Thomas Hardy, he was the first curator of Dorset County Museum from 1883, classifying, arranging and supervising the collection.

The oldest of the seven surviving sons of the Reverend Henry Moule and Mary Moule, Henry grew up surrounded by siblings and boarders. The young Thomas Hardy was also a frequent visitor – Henry taught him to paint and they remained good friends.

Committed to the education of ‘artizans’, Moule lectured about Dorset to the Working Men’s Institute. He corresponded with specialists such as John Ruskin, organised outings of the Dorset Field Club, and led sketching parties. He painted several thousand water colours – walking out into the local area every day to sketch the landscape. His work is a unique record of 19th-century Dorset and evokes the Wessex of Thomas Hardy’s books.

A highly effective curator, Moule arranged the collection of the famous antiquarian William Cunnington, successfully campaigned to have extra galleries built, and was still rearranging the new displays at the time of his death in 1904.

Henry Joseph Moule

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