A SPECIAL exhibition will be held in a Dorset village next Tuesday to mark 100 years since it was put up for sale.

FOLLOWING heavy death duties and tough economic conditions after the First World War, the village of Cerne Abbas near Dorchester was put up for sale on September 24, 1919.

By a private act of parliament in 1705, Cerne Abbas came into the ownership of the Pitt family of Stratfieldsaye. It was George Pitt, later created Baron Rivers, who was to head these estates from 1745 until his death in 1803. In the 18th century, the village prospered as a market town of some 1,500 people, with its wealth partly generated by brewing. The beer was exported to the Americas, and in 1747 the village was supporting 17 public inns and taverns. Other successful industries included milling, hat and glove making, tanning, and silk weaving.

Yet the 19th century witnessed the gradual decline of Cerne Abbas' fortunes, as the depression in the agricultural industry continued and the village saw the loss of its brewing trade. There was a sharp increase in the number of people relying on help from parish rates, until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 allowed parishes to form unions and set up workhouses to manage the problem. The Cerne Union was a result of the amalgamation of 20 local parishes, and the Union Workhouse was established in May 1837, remaining in operation until the 20th century.

The population of Cerne Abbas was affected by the village's rural location. In the 1830s, a scheme was proposed to build a railway from Bath to Weymouth via the Cerne Valley, but final plans saw it run through the Frome Valley instead. As a result, coaches ceased to service the village and within 50 years, the population had halved. Movement of people and goods relied solely on the village carrier, initially using horse-drawn carts.

Thus it was the sale of the village in 1919 that brought new life to Cerne Abbas. The auction took place at 1.30pm in Dorchester Town Hall and a total of £67,402 was raised from the sale of 73 lots, including houses, shops, farms and pubs. Many of the properties were sold to the tenants, with some going to other bidders.

The sale, together with growing car ownership and increasing mobility, saw the village develop into the thriving and active community it is today. Farming became the main local industry once more, and many local business continued well into the 20th century. The village is now home to 700 residents and welcomes thousands of visitors ever year.

No mention of Cerne Abbas would be complete without reference to its most famous landmark, the Cerne Abbas Giant. The chalk figure of a naked, club-wielding man is proudly emblazoned on a hillside to the north of the village, and its origins are nothing short of a mystery. Some theorists believe the giant dates back to prehistoric times, an ancient Celtic religious symbol or a depiction of the Roman hero Hercules. Others believe it appeared as late as the 17th century, and could be a caricature of Oliver Cromwell.

The giant was donated to the National Trust by the Pitt-Rivers family in 1920, and remains in their care.

To mark the centenary of the sale of Cerne Abbas, the Cerne Historical Society is holding a major exhibition in St Mary's Church in Cerne Abbas, funded by a grant of £6,700 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The exhibition will be opened by Anthony Pitt-Rivers at 1.30pm on Tuesday, September 24, exactly 100 years since the auction began. It will provide a fascinating insight into life in the village in 1919, as well as information about the various lots in the sale, who purchased them and how much they were sold for. The exhibition will also display information about education and worship in the village, as well as details of the Union Workhouse and the surrounding farms.

Several events are also set to take place during the exhibition period, beginning with readings from the journal of Joseph Benwell Clark, an artist who was born in Cerne Abbas in 1857. On Saturday, September 28, a theatrical re-enactment entitled The Day They Sold A Village will recreate the 1919 sale of Cerne, written and directed by Helen Hewitt and performed by current-day residents.

On Wednesday, October 2, a series of talks by members of the Cerne Historical Society will be followed by a talk by journalist Kate Adie, on the social conditions in Cerne Abbas in 1919. A jazz concert by Sherborne School Swing Band and a village concert of popular and classical music from the 20th century will also be taking place.

The exhibition in St Mary's Church will run from Wednesday, September 25 until Friday, October 4, open from 10am to 5pm daily except for Saturday, September 28. Admission is free. For more information, and for tickets to certain events, visit www.cerneabbashistory.org.

With thanks to the Cerne Historical Society, particularly the chair Mike Clark, who helped provide the photos and information for this piece.