Steven Slosberg: Wandering in Dorset, and in local history

Steven Slosberg: Wandering in Dorset, and in local history

In late September, I went wandering around the countryside in Dorset, in southwestern England, inspired by the landscape descriptions in “Rogue Male,” the 1939 suspense novel by Geoffrey Household.

Walks have been organized around the pastoral villages and towns of Beaminster and Bridport and near North Chideock and seaside Lyme Regis, based on the book. This is also Thomas Hardy country, settings for “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and “Far From the Madding Crowd.”

Of local note, the childhood home of that other Thomas Hardy — Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, who commanded the fleet of British warships during the Battle of Stonington in 1814 — is in the West Dorset village of Portesham. A monument to him is up a steep slope nearby, overlooking the English Channel coastline. It’s shaped like a massive stone spyglass.

After finishing the walks, I spent a night in Dorchester, also in Dorset, and across the road from my B&B I noticed a familiar name in lights: Westerly.

Not necessarily an unusual name, but also not one often seen outside our environs. I walked over to inquire at what was, formally, Westerly Dorchester BMW, a new and used car dealership. Westerly Dorchester, I was told by a long-time employee who seemed rather obviously uninterested in my query about the name, is part of the Helston Garages Group, based in Cornwall, and operating motor dealerships in Cornwall, Devon Somerset and Dorset, including the Westerly Exeter BMW.

The name Westerly, he said, was likely a contrived name, derived perhaps from Cornwall’s locale in farthermost southwestern England.

That, of course, jibes with the standard explanation of the origin of the name of our Westerly, which was founded in 1661. Frederic Denison, in his “Westerly (Rhode Island) and Its Witnesses,” published in 1878 and often cited as a most reliable source, has this to say about that:

“But in 1669 the whole region then embraced by Westerly contained only about thirty white families. These, during this year, in May, 1669, by an act of the colony, were incorporated, and this township, from its geographical position, received the name Westerly.”

That is virtually gospel for the naming of an area that also included Charlestown, Hopkinton, and Richmond.

However, there is another theory about the name, and an appealing one, at that. Reading on in the same chapter in Denison, the list of 24 “free inhabitants of the Towne of Westerle” as of May 18, 1669, is headed, first and foremost, by John Crandall. The list, by the way, was not alphabetized. Denison goes on to write: “The colony immediately appointed John Crandall and Tobias Saunders ‘conservators of his Majesty’s peace’ with power to summon juries and hold courts.”

Crandall, then, clearly was a man of importance. As it happened, he was born in England around 1612 (there is some debate) in Monmouthshire, and christened, on Feb. 15 or 16, 1617, at Westerleigh, in Gloucestershire.


Why not? The scant smattering of other Westerlys, according to a Google search, finds one in the heart of West Virginia, another the name of a grand house in Piffard, N.Y., in the western port of the state but hardly the farthermost extreme, and, for the record, the name of an Australian literary magazine.

Is it beyond reason that John Crandall, the first Baptist Elder in Westerly, given his documented clout, might not have influenced the naming of his adopted town? As one online genealogical account — granted, not a scholarly reading, but with serviceable attributions, suggests, “Some historians believe Westerly, Rhode Island, was named for the town in England where he was christened, or possibly even born.”

Cobbled onto that account is this, from another Crandall family researcher: “In the parish records of Westerleigh (also spelled ‘Westerley” in some places) can be found a baptism for John, ‘sonne of James Crandell, baptized 15 February 1617!’” The researcher cites as a source microfilm of Westerleigh parish records housed at the Mormons’ Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

The same account says he was arrested, with several other men, in Massachusetts in 1651 for breaking the law by holding services for Baptists. Presumably he paid the 5 pound fine to avoid being publicly whipped. He died in Newport in 1676, where he had moved because of King Philip’s War.

Adding some luster to his legacy, the account says Crandall was the ancestor of Lucille Ball, Katharine Hepburn, Julia Child, Garrison Keillor and Frances Folsom Cleveland, wife of President Grover Cleveland.

Westerly might do worse than be named for the parish cradle of this sterling fellow, John Crandall.

Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at:


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