By Sara Niven.
FROM stone and spa to steam – and everything in between – the history and mixed fortunes of Swanage come under the spotlight in a new book, Swanage – An Illustrated History.
From theories about the origins of the town’s name, including suggestions of connections to a swannery or even a piggery – “swan” being a corruption of “swine” – to the concerns of modern-day residents, the book is the brainchild of an author who balances personal knowledge and affection for Swanage with a historian’s objectivity.
Jason Tomes was born in the town in 1966, attending Swanage primary and middle schools before being sent to the Purbeck School in Wareham – the only option available after Dorset County Council closed Swanage’s secondary schools in the mid-1970s.
Even at an early age he took an enthusiastic interest in town politics, encouraged by a neighbour and long-serving councillor he knew as Mrs Hammond.
“It may sound an unusual hobby for an 11-year-old, but Swanage politics were exceptionally lively and even militant in the 1970s, as the town reacted strongly against the loss of its railway and secondary schools and the downgrading of its council from an urban district to a parish,” Jason recalls. “I remember a parish meeting at the Mowlem Theatre in October 1977 as the most turbulent public meeting that I have ever attended.”
In the 1980s, he enjoyed more cultural aspects of life in the town, such as the Isle of Purbeck Arts Club Players and Swanage Choral and Operatic Society.
Although he has not returned to live permanently in the town after leaving for university in 1985, his parents remained and he has been a regular visitor ever since. It was during a family visit that he started researching local history and the idea for a book was born.
“I realised how poorly the town was covered in county histories, especially those whose authors seemed to find it difficult to fit into their narratives or even downright dislikeable,” Jason explained.
He concedes that it could be seen as slightly crazy to select a small place with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants and give it the same kind of consideration in print more often bestowed on big cities.
However, as he puts it: “It does not follow that, because a place is small, its character and development must be simple.”
See our next History column for a look at how this book covers the tension between Swanage’s industrial origins and its place today as a British seaside town.
Swanage – An Illustrated History by Jason Tomes is available in bookshops throughout Dorset and directly from the publisher Dovecote Press at dovecotepress.com.