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Fordington Army Barracks in 19th Century

“in 1851 census Arthur Foster 23 years old who was born in Lancashire Prescott and moved back to Prescott Rainhill was at the above army barracks. 1 What is the importance of this barracks then? 2 Was national conscription compulsory then? 3 What war or area of activity do you feel they did then? 4 have you any old army photos near this year?  Any other details appreciated Ray Baird”

If you can help Ray please email and we will put you in touch.

John White of Up Cerne 1816-1844

Elizabeth Browning writes: “My g.grandmother Helen Brinson Ferris, from Cowes IOW, was married to John White born 1816 of Up Cerne. They had one son also John White in 1841.John senior died in 1845 in Up Cerne and their son died at the age of 7 in 1847/8 who is also buried in Up Cerne. If anyone has information about the family, pictures, reasons for deaths I would be grateful to hear from them.”

There is a good chance that the cause of death of father and son will be included on their death certificates copies can be obtained from The General Registrars Office. Here is a link to the online certificate ordering service; it is a straight forward process:

Here are the details you will need to complete the orders:

John White Snr. Dorchester Registration District; March Quarter 1844; Volume 8 Page 51

John White Jnr: Dorchester Registration District; March Quarter 1848; Volume 8 Page 45

If you would like to get in touch with Elizabeth email your message to and in the Subject put JOHN WHITE of Up Cerne and we will forward your message on to Elizabeth.

Job Burr of Shaftesbury 1824-1896

Judith Westwood has contacted us regarding JOB BURR of Shaftesbury (1824-1896.)

Judith would like to hear from anyone researching the same family with a view to exchanging information and photos. She is Job’s great great grand-daughter.

If you would like to get in touch with Judith please email your contact details to

and include JOB BURR in the subject line and we will forward your message on to her.

Along the Tarrant

One of the interesting, almost unique features of Dorset is a tradition of group-naming clusters of parishes after a spring or the stream valleys they occupy. Immediately coming to mind would be the dozen or so “Winterbornes” prefixing villages marking where a hillside spring dries up in winter. Another example is that of the Tarrant.

The Tarrant was first recorded as a stream under the Celtic name “Terente” in the 10th century, a word broadly translated as meaning “flooding river” or “trespasser” a variant of which recurs in the name Trent.

During the last glaciation some 10,000 years ago the Tarrant was probably part of a much more extensive drainage system fed by run-off melt-water from the western part of the chalk upland of Cranborne Chase in east Dorset. This water then cut a deep valley in which the Tarrant would flow much higher during heavy winter rainfall. This still occasionally happens today, with flooding of the road north of Stubhampton and Tarrant Gunville itself.

Because early man generally avoided the damp wooded Tarrant valley, little impact was made on the landscape until the 9th/10th centuries when Saxons settled the valley and made it a major focus of occupation. By Domesday all of the eight settlements to be prefixed “Tarrant” had appeared and thus were of sufficient importance to merit entry in this earliest of land registries. By the end of the 10th century six mills were in operation along the valley, though few traces of these survive today.

The Tarrant has been identified as having upper, middle and lower courses that collectively are of variable character. The infant stream rises as a winterborne in the western part of Cranborne Chase and this upper section occupies the valley between Stubhampton and Tarrant Launceston. From Tarrant Monkton to Tarrant Keynstone the river usually flows at its maximum height or constancy. From Keynstone the lower course then continues for a few miles to join the Stour a little downstream from Keyneston Mill, though oddly the water flow throughout this stretch is as susceptible as is the upper river to falling or even drying out completely during summer. This is believed to be the result of the Tarrant flowing over what hydrologists call a ‘perched water table’ some way above the main water table.

The upper course, which flows from a borne spring then directed into a stone-lined culvert near Stubhampton, descends the dip-slope of the chalk and flows south-eastwards past Gunville for a distance of about five miles. Throughout this stretch it flows through fertile farming country in which water meadows screened from the riverbank by thickets of alders pass upwards into arable fields on the chalk slopes.

Historian John Hutchins summed up the Tarrant country thus: “the down is rolling windswept chalk hills, many of them covered in a thin soil full of flints. The grasses are short and fine, so the traditional farming is sheep-rearing.” Since Hutchins times arable farming has largely superseded pasture, but his words still have some validity.

The valley profile is typically broad, and contains fertile loams. Near Monkton, where the Tarrant is crossed by a pristine white timber packhorse bridge, the river turns to the south-west and maintains this direction for the remainder of its course down to the Stour.

Of Stubhampton, the nearest settlement to the Tarrant-borne, there remains only a string of small farmsteads along the valley to testify to the fragmentation of a once more populous community.

Each of the eight Tarrants are notably settlements with their own distinctive character. Tarrant Gunville, the first T-group village the infant stream flows past, was once the location of Eastbury House, the finest of the county’s country mansions in its day. This residence was designed by the architect Vanbrugh for George Bubb Doddington, but after his death and that of his nephew three-quarters of this voluminous house were demolished in the 1770’s and 1780’s after becoming unwanted and falling derelict. Only the stable block, since converted into a private home, remains today.

The stream actually flows beneath one of Eastbury’s gatehouses before continuing on its way for almost another mile towards Tarrant Hinton. This is a much-prized village of cob-walled thatched cottages clustered around the medieval St. Mary’s Church. Here also, the stream has been canalised in brick to direct it through a culvert under the Blandford to Salisbury road.

At Tarrant Launceston there is another packhorse bridge over the Tarrant, this time built with three arches in the 17th century, to link this village to Monkton. A little way downstream from this bridge the course of the river convulses into a sequence of neat filigree meanders flowing through meadows. Near this point too, is The Cliff, a harder, more resistant band in the chalk which commands a fine north-facing lookout point for the valley. From here one can see the gradation of land use in the valley: from the half-concealed Tarrants, across the arable downland and pasture to the distant royal hunting woodlands of The Chase.

The Tarrant next reaches and passes Rawston where the restored church, now a private chapel, is sheltered by a fine brick and greensand farm. Near to the bridge serving Rawston Farm the river plunges over a weir close to a miniature waterwheel in a brick wheelhouse, and from this point onward a more constant spring flow has favoured a proliferation in the river’s trout population. Nearby stands Tarrant Rushton, a village of cottage homes built in a linear uniformity just above the flood level.

After passing beneath another busy road the Tarrant then reaches Keyneston, probably the most vibrant of the Tarrants, home of The True Lovers Knot pub and All Saints Church built upon higher ground to the north. In the graveyard of this church lies the Fontmell-born author and former Head of Cassells, Sir Newman Flower, who made his retirement home in this village up until his death in 1964.

The lowest part of the Tarrant valley is said to have an air of mystique about it. Here the valley road diverges from the river where it flows past Tarrant Abbey Farm, once the site of a Cistercian nunnery. Near this point on the south side stands the lowermost gem of the Tarrant valley: the Church of St. Mary, featuring preserved medieval wall paintings. The river then flows past the vineyard of Keyneston Mill before discharging its waters into the Stour amid a thicket of willow and alder. This tree-shaded confluence has something of the secluded nature of the Tarrant’s birthplace in the dry chalk upland of Cranborne Chase.

For about thirty years now flow levels in the Tarrant have generally been in decline. The abstraction of water from boreholes at Stubhampton and Shapwick by Wessex Water has been suggested as a possible cause of the fall in the river’s water table over this period. One hydrologist has reported that although the Stubhampton borehole is unlikely to have caused the low flow in the upper Tarrant, the borehole at Shapwick may well contribute to the drying out of the lower Tarrant. Yet much pleasure is still to be derived from tracing this ancient chalk waterway’s journey to the sea.





The Tower of the Winds

Nowadays Clavell Tower is available as a holiday let. This article was first published on the original Dorset Ancestors web-site when the plans for saving the tower were first discussed.

The wealthy need to show off their riches; nowadays a collection of fast cars, a private jet or at the very least a helicopter will do the trick, but in times past, the building of a folly fulfilled the need. These usually tall buildings very often had no purpose other than to be seen, and today we benefit from a legacy of eccentric structures that have become part of the landscape and an important part of our heritage.

For one of Dorset’s follies, The Tower of the Winds or Clavell Tower, as it is better known, perched perilously close to the edge of Hen Cliff at Kimmeridge, time is running out. The sea and the weather are conspiring to erode the ground from under its foundations and consign it to a watery grave. Unless help arrives soon the tower will slip over the edge and fall into the sea.

The cavalry is on its way led by The Landmark Trust, a building conservation charity founded 40 years ago to rescue and restore architecturally interesting and historic buildings. The trust’s projects sometimes take years to complete but here they know they are joined in a race with the elements against time.

On inheriting the Smedmore Estate in 1817 the Reverend John Richards changed his name to Clavell. It was not long before he started work on what has been described as a sun house, a lookout, an observatory and folly, completing the building in 1830; he died in 1833. The tower, visible for miles around, commands magnificent views of a stretch of Dorset’s coastline awarded World Heritage Site status.

Built of brick and rubble covered with stucco and with ashlar dressings the circular tower comprises three storeys above a semi-basement. A colonnade, for which the basement forms a projecting landing, surrounds the first stage. The upper stages are divided by a moulded stringcourse, and at the top is a cornice with a parapet. Each stage has four round headed windows providing panoramic views of the sea and countryside.

Thomas Hardy used it as a frontispiece for his Wessex Poems and courted Eliza Nicholls here. It caught the imagination of P.D. James for her novel The Black Tower and she auctioned a signed first edition to raise funds for the project.

The Landmark Trust plans to move the structure 25 metres inland – brick-by-brick. The project will take a year to complete and then probably for the first time, it will have a real purpose. To meet the costs for its future upkeep the tower is to be-let as holiday accommodation and there will be periods during the year when the tower will be open to schools and the public with displays detailing the tower’s history.

Planning permission and listed building consent having been granted. An award of £436,700 from the Heritage Lottery Fund added to £121,918 already raised sees the project ready to proceed and 80% funded. The total cost of the project is £714,297. £155,679 is still needed before work can start and you can help by sending a donation to The Landmark Trust, Shottesbrooke, Maidenhead, Berkshire.



Bridport On a War Footing

Bridport was on a war footing, and a total of 800 evacuees were billeted in the town, local villages receiving another 600. Most were children but the youngest had mothers to look after them. The senior pupils of the grammar school met a party of infants. Air raid precautions were in full swing and the town was blacked out. Seven couples rushed to the registrar to apply for special marriage licences. You could be fined for showing a light at night. Who knew what the war had in store?

William ‘Gordon’ Parsons was just one of the khaki-clad soldiers stationed in Bridport during the Second World War. Most never went back there, but Gordon did, in fact he fell in love with the south Dorset town and its West Bay seascape – and he has vivid recollections of the two months he spent in the town in 1942 – on duty for his country and the free world.

He tells of a ‘recce’ he made to West Bay with his Pal Jim Ripley (later killed in Sur Andre sur Ome.) As they walked along they passed women making fishnets on the pavements. Then, smelling the sea, they struck out across the fields – and met two Yeovil girls coming from the beach, with whom they had a drink at the Bridport Arms. This inn became Gordon’s lodgings, although he was actually posted not to the Bridport Arms but to the Bridport Armouries!

One memory is that of being one of a party which moved the belongings of the wife of Gordon’s Officer Commanding, Major Jack Kindersley, to a mansion in the neighbourhood of Piddlehinton, another the large melees of soldiers in the centre of Bridport after an evening ‘pubbing’ in the town. A radio officer, Gordon drove the platoon officer around in a jeep.

He made a lifelong friend of John Powell of Melpash, who he got in touch with again through the Legion magazine. Before leaving the town as a soldier, he was given a 21st birthday party at the Bridport Arms, and later went back there on leave. He met local fishermen Harry Hawks and his brother who used to bring steaming bowls of winkles into the lower bar at the Bridport Arms, telling of their rejuvenating powers.

During one of his leaves at Bridport Gordon went out in a rowing boat with Harry to salvage some bales of raw rubber, which had floated away from a torpedoed freighter, beaching them on the West Cliff, from where they were washed back out to sea in a gale, and some were stolen. ‘Hawks’ may have been a nickname, as Gordon knows of no one by that name at West Bay although Hawkins is a local name.

During the preparations for the landings at Dieppe, the famous movies star Lieut. Commander Douglas Fairbanks came ashore from one of the American ships in the flotilla. “There was much giggling, oohing and ahhing.” When some residents got back to their rooms… they were surprised to find exhausted Canadian soldiers in full battle gear asleep on their beds.

The Dieppe Force, which consisted mainly of Canadians, trained in and off the Isle of Wight. A force of 5,000 Canadian, 1,057 British, about 50 American rangers and a handful of Free French took part in the raid, but some of the landing craft missed the target beach, German armed trawlers attacked one of the gunboats, landing craft had to scatter for safety. Twenty-seven light tanks were landed but were destroyed, together with many of the attacking servicemen, who were pinned down on the narrow beach by an accurate and murderous fire.

Heavy loss of life took place. It was one of the war’s worst disasters. Gordon and his buddies returned to enjoy the friendly atmosphere of West Bay and Bridport, where several roofs, including those of the Bridport Arms and the Methodist Church, were set on fire by smoke shells fired during practices. Landmines were laid on the beach.

One night, looking out of west-facing windows at the Arms, “I was witness to the exciting sight of tracers bouncing off the cobblestones in my direction, some slamming into the building as two planes roared overhead…I watched the exchange of tracers until they faded out far to the southwest over the Channel.”

The town was to be honoured when Very Important people called there. The special visitors were none other than King George VI and his aides, who took tea at the Bull. This was supposed to be top secret, but a huge crowd watched the King leave the inn with his aides. Meanwhile, the Home Guard practised at a rifle range at Colmers Hill near Symondsbury.

War Weapon Week raised no less than £200,000 in 1940. This went towards the construction of HMS Bridport, a coastal patrol vessel. Through National Savings – one person in every three in Dorset belonged to a savings group – the target figure was reached in January 1943.

Now, one day, a ship bought with Dorset’s money will sail the seas, proud in a glorious tradition. This is a people’s war, and it will be a people’s ship!” enthused the ‘Bridport News.’ The vessel was later taken over for air-sea rescue operations. The ship’s bell was eventually placed in the Town Hall.

Early in the war, senior girls at the grammar school knitted items for the Army and a bomb did considerable damage near the Lord Nelson pub. Later, the Women’s Institute and Scouts collected a mountain of gifts for London and southeast England, which had been shattered by V-bomb attacks.

Bridport was the home of the country’s ‘Ideal NAAFI Girl.’ The NAAFI’s provided meals for the troops. Miss Eileen Bishop (21), formerly an assistant in a draper’s shop, competed with 25,000 others for the title, and when she alighted from the train at Bridport station after interviews and stage and radio appearances, she got a rousing reception.

Elsie and Doris Waters, the popular broadcasters, appeared in ‘Gert and Daisy’s Weekend’ which topped the bill at the Bridport Palace. Others who trod the boards there at this time were Charles Bickford, Barton MacLane, Harry Langdon and Betty Blythe. Among film actors seen were Gordon Harker and Sydney Howard.Farmers were informed that if they wished land to lie fallow for more than a year they had to receive permission, otherwise the land would be forcibly ploughed up. In pursuance of the food production programme pigeon shoots were arranged throughout the county.

An increase in Home Guard numbers was being called for. The Home Guard in Dorset was being described as a “formidable military instrument,” although weakened by men joining the regular forces, and an appeal was issued for every man who could to come forward.

The ‘Bridport News’ reported on January 1, 1943: “A huge tidal wave, towering 80 feet high, smashed through the famous Chesil Bank… and swept a mile inland, causing tremendous damage to homes and property.” For more than a week no trains could run between Portland and Weymouth because the lines were under water. The receding floods left enormous boulders in the gardens of homes far inland.

People indoors were knocked over as the water rushed through doors and windows. Nothing like this inundation, the paper reported, had been seen in Portland since 1824, when the seas swept over the beach and drowned 25 people.

And 10 days after this giant wave had hit the coast to the east; the sea wall was breached for 40 feet at West Way during a great gale of wind.

Peace, when it came, was celebrated in grand style, with bunting, bells and street parties. There were still 230 evacuees in the town at the end of the war, and a few families liked the town so much they made Bridport their permanent home.



A Local’s Day Out in Weymouth

Weymouth in summer and Weymouth in winter are two very different towns. Only four months ago, holiday makers packed the beach and ice creams were being consumed by the thousand. In winter, the town is peaceful and as the civic Christmas tree twinkles in Bond Street, the magnificent seasonal lights give St. Mary and St. Thomas Streets a truly magical feel.

As locals in coats and scarves move quickly round the streets and only the hardy in search of good sea air brave the seafront, we locals notice how very different Weymouth is in winter. Truthfully, most of us prefer it that way. Only a few months ago, bikinis and swimsuits were the order of the day. The popular Punch and Judy show – was knocking seven bells out of the constabulary and sausages! The red and white striped booth is the very epitome of the seaside – on “the best beach in the best bay of the best resort,” says us.

Holidaymakers once came on a Saturday and left the next Saturday, but there is a new breed these days. Usually car borne, they leave decisions to a much later stage and if they see a dark cloud in the sky, they won’t go near the coast. Worse still, if the previous day’s forecast is bad, they decide at that point not to come.

Situated in a magnificent bay surrounded by a ring of hills, Weymouth has its own microclimate – it can be fine here and raining through much of the hinterland. Three television franchises border Weymouth and their misleading forecasts often refer to areas fifty or more miles away.

Summer brings other problems. Traffic is the major difficulty in season – sometimes at a standstill five miles back over the Ridgeway, almost as far as Dorchester. All this traffic pours into a small medieval street plan, on a narrow tapering sandspit, limited by the River Wey and the sea. Space is precious and car parks soon get filled. That’s good news for local council taxpayers who pick-up £2.3 million from parking – assisted by razor sharp enforcement from the Borough’s traffic wardens. As a local, it can be frighteningly difficult to get around in summer.

Back to my favourite seafront seat by Brunswick Terrace, from which so much of Weymouth Bay is in view. The pretty Greenhill Gardens are to the north. Queen Victoria’s statue stands outside St. John’s Church of 1854 – whose magnificent spire is one of the town’s greatest landmarks. The now-demolished seaward platform of the Pier Bandstand on concrete stilts, used to host events as diverse as Miss Weymouth and wrestling.

Of more sombre purpose is the Cenotaph, where on Remembrance Sunday in November and on Veterans Sunday in June, traffic is stopped while the Mayor leads the town’s homage to locals who died in conflict. Walking south, the Jubilee Clock of 1887, built to mark Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, is another of Weymouth’s landmarks. On New Year’s Eve, revellers dance round the tower. Hereabouts, the shingle beach changes dramatically to sand. It’s an accident of geography that Weymouth’s seafront faces east, unlike most south coast resorts.

This is a good place to look at the Esplanade, a magnificent terrace of Georgian buildings that run from St. John’s Church to the Pavilion. They are protected by the borough council from unwise development and decoration; indeed many are municipally owned, leased to hoteliers and other traders.

The King’s Statue of 1809 marks the centre of the town. Weymouth’s only Grade 1 listed structure commemorates the 50th year of the reign of King George III, who did much to popularise sea bathing and Weymouth in particular. The King and the royal family spent many happy years at the resort from 1789, at the nearby Gloucester Lodge – now flats with a noisy pub in the basement.

As we reach the Alexandra Gardens island, note the Rex Hotel – today one of the top hotels in town, but once summer residence of the Duke of Clarence – third son of George III, who later became king William IV. At the south end of the Esplanade is the Pavilion Theatre and Ocean Room, the undisputed cultural centre of the borough, where all the big shows and events take place.

The long-term commitment of Condor Ferries to continue operating out of Weymouth has been questioned. Since 1794 and only 70 miles from Guernsey, Weymouth was always the departure port for the ships that took post, passengers and goods between the Channel Islands and the mainland. Most now goes by air.

Adjacent to the Pavilion is the Quay railway station, terminus of the 1865 Weymouth Quay Tramway, which runs mainly through the streets for almost a mile to join the main line at Weymouth Junction.

Of course we are not really in Weymouth but Melcombe Regis, but more of that another

Horton: The Parish Church of St. Wolfrida

We often find reference in the archives to Horton with Woodlands but in the 19th century what was a large parish was reduced by the separation of the parish of Woodlands. Nowadays the plan view of Horton is ‘L’ shaped and consists of about 2,800 acres.

The parish church stands in the middle of the village on the site of an old Priory founded here in 961; St. Wolfrida was the Abbess of a nunnery and she died at Horton. Here in 1685, after the battle of Sedgemoor, the Duke of Monmouth is said to have been found in a ditch hiding under a cloak. An ash tree known as Monmouth’s Ash commemorates the event.

The church is surrounded by a large unattractive churchyard where mostly the graves are in regimented rows. This building is unusual and not at all like other Dorset churches. It is mainly Georgian: Pevsner refers to its “quite thrilling north tower” while Hutchins describes it as “a very ugly edifice.” Visit the church and see if you side with Pevsner or Hutchins.

Enter by the north transcept door above which is a round headed window and above that in the gable is a small bull’s-eye window. An adjacent stone bears the date 1755. Inside, to your right, are the font and two effigies – a knight in Purbeck marble and a lady in Ham stone. The knight, Sir Giles de Braose (1305), in mail and surcoat bearing a shield; the lady in cloak and wimple. Ahead of you the wall is curtained floor to ceiling concealing the entrance to the nave.

The north wall of the nave has a round-headed arched entrance to the north tower. In the west wall two round headed windows and a similar window in the south wall. Seating is entirely box pews of panelled oak and there is a fine 18th century pulpit.

The north tower has a round headed window similar to that found over the entrance to the north transept and it also has a bull’s eye window above that, which now contains a clock. The tower dates to 1722 and is the work of John Chapman and says Pevsner is a “memorable piece.” One bell dated 1634 by John Danton.

The chancel contains within its walls mediaeval masonry of flint and rubble, probably of the 12th or 13th century and a similar window to those found in the north transept and tower, in the north wall.

The church was restored in 1869 and in 1900 the tower was repaired.


Drama at Nettlecombe Pt.2 – The Trial of John Hounsell

A writer commenting on Powerstock in the early 19th century leaves us with a picture of a poor village at a junction where four lanes meet. He describes the place as consisting of three or four farmhouses, the parsonage, an alehouse and some dilapidated cottages. The church and churchyard are said to be “out of repair” but contrast favourably with the miserable cottages and the filthy heaps before the doors, and the pigsties and ill-kept farmyards. Our distant writer comments that very few people besides the union doctor or a chance friend of the vicar ever came here.

Elizabeth Gale buried her 40 year-old husband at Powerstock on the 14th of January 1839. It had been a childless marriage and there was nothing, except perhaps public opinion, to stop her accepting an invitation from John Hounsell to go away with him for a few days. They went to Radipole where a proposal of marriage was made and accepted and the couple were intimate. As we saw in part one of our story it was their eagerness to marry that attracted suspicion.

Events now take us to Dorchester where John Hounsell was charged with the wilful murder of his wife and was tried on July 23rd at the Summer Assizes of 1839, before Mr Justice Erskine.

Doctors who conducted the post-mortem on the bodies of Mary Hounsell and James Gale told the Coroner that Mary Hounsell had died from a large dose of arsenic. We know that John Hounsell used arsenic in his work and we might reasonably assume he had some knowledge of its properties, so, if guilty, why would he have used so much?  During the trial it came out that the arsenic was kept in a jar on a shelf over the couple’s bed. Mr Stock, defending, argued successfully that there was no evidence that John Hounsell had administered the arsenic. He did not dispute the opinion of the “medical gentlemen” as to the cause of death but argued that “the evidence was not such as to connect the defendant with administering the arsenic.” After Mr Justice Erskine had “most ably and impressively summed up” it took the jury just a few moments of deliberation to return a verdict of not guilty and a relieved John Hounsell found himself on the pavement of High West Street, Dorchester, as a free man.

If John Hounsell did not administer the poison and Mary did not take her own life was there anyone else with motive and opportunity? Is it conceivable Elizabeth Gale acted alone? Did John Hounsell and Elizabeth Gale conspire together to do away with their spouses? Later events clearly show their relationship was more than that of good neighbours, giving Elizabeth motive.  But Elizabeth Gale can speak for herself: this is what she told the court when called as a witness:

“I am a widow living at Powerstock. James Gale, my husband, died about old Christmas last. I knew Mary Hounsell and her husband. I attended Mary Hounsell on the Monday of the week in which she died. Earlier in her illness I made a sweat for her. The prisoner was present. She was taken ill on the Sunday, and the sweat was made the Tuesday after, and on the Monday after that I was again called for. Her husband carried the sweat to her bedroom. I afterwards went upstairs; her husband was there. She said she was sick and could not take any more; she was vomiting. After Mr Hounsell, the surgeon came. On Friday I sat up with her all night. Mr Hounsell sent medicines for her, in taking which she vomited every time. On Sunday she was better; on Monday morning I went and made some broth, and afterwards gave her some tea, bread and butter. She died about twelve on Thursday night. I was not present, but present just before; her husband was then in the kitchen.”

“Prisoner sent me to Mr Roper, a chemist at Bridport, before the illness of his wife, with a note. Mr Roper gave me a small parcel in paper, which I put in my pocket. The paper broke in my pocket, and some of its contents came out. I afterwards gave the parcel to the prisoner. The day on which Mary Hounsell died I eat some pears which I had in my pocket when I fetched the parcel, and they made me sick all the afternoon and night. There was no peculiar taste in the pears. I examined my pocket the next morning, and found some white powder stuff, which I shook out near the window. I afterwards saw the prisoner. I asked him what was in the parcel I brought from Bridport.  He told me it was poison.

After my husband’s death I was intimate with the prisoner and went to Radipole with him. This might be a fortnight after my husband’s death. Prisoner had made me an offer of marriage; banns were published.”

Under cross examination Elizabeth Gale also told the court: “The sweat was made at the desire of the deceased. It was made of rosemary hyssop and beer. Prisoner is a cattle doctor and people went to him for such complaints as the itch. At the head of Mary Hounsell’s bed was a shelf, on which I saw bottles and pots and boxes. Prisoner and his wife lived very happily together, and during her illness he was very kind and attentive to her. Mr Hounsell [the surgeon] was sent for at his desire. Prisoner had frequently sent me to the druggist’s with notes for parcels.”

Other witnesses were called including Henry Mintern, Elizabeth Gale’s father, who corroborated parts of her evidence and Elizabeth Biles stated she knew the prisoner and the deceased woman. He was kind to her, and, against her own wish had sent for a doctor to attend her.

John Roper stated that he was a chemist at Bridport, and that he delivered to the coroner a note, found on his file, from the prisoner. He produced two samples of the arsenic and corrosive sublimate sold in his shop. Under cross examination he said “I have never known arsenic used for cutaneous diseases. Country people sometimes purchase small quantities.”

Elizabeth Gale was re-called: “The parcel I had from the druggist was like this [arsenic] I fancy the powder I had in my pocket was rather rougher than this. It was gritty like this [corrosive sublimate], but not so rough.”

James Daniel, a surgeon, of Beaminster, stated that he attended Elizabeth Gale after her eating pears “I should say distinctly the symptoms were those of poison from arsenic. There is no particular taste about arsenic. Corrosive sublimate has a peculiar burning and coppery taste.”

The prosecution case was poorly presented by Mr Bond and Mr Butt appearing for the Crown, and at the time it was thought they should have argued more strongly against the notion that this was a suicide. The Dorset County Chronicle commented “the case was not well got up and, in spite of very strong evidence of his guilt, the jury acquitted him.”

If John Hounsell was innocent he had plenty of time between February and July to speculate about how his wife came to die with sufficient arsenic in her stomach to kill six people. John Housell did not marry Elizabeth Gale after his acquittal.


Drama at Nettlecombe

Our true story begins at Powerstock, a village in West Dorset near Beaminster. You will have to decide if this tale is about the Real Lives of two lonely people seeking solace one from the other following the early passing of their spouses, or a coldly calculating couple capable of murder, twice over.

On a chilly afternoon one day early in February 1839 the Revd George Cookson, the vicar of Powerstock, found two of his parishioners at his door. They had come from the nearby hamlet of Nettlecombe to ask him to publish their marriage banns and to marry them the following month. Surprise would best describe Cookson’s reaction to this request but as he thought about the matter, surprise turned to shock.

Not twelve weeks had passed since the vicar had officiated at the burial of the man’s wife and it was just a fortnight since he had buried the woman’s husband. Those events recorded on page 60 of the parish burial register; entries 479 and 480. It is perhaps not surprising that by the following morning Cookson’s shock had turned to suspicion.

As the days passed George Cookson became increasingly vexed. He knew full well the affair would become public knowledge following the first publication of the banns and he anticipated many of his parishioners would be horrified. He was not wrong: members of the congregation at St. Mary’s considered the matter a scandal and were not slow to make their feelings known. It is no light matter to forbid the banns without good reason. The consequences could be serious but, taking full responsibility, the vicar employed someone to forbid the banns at second reading and he sent a message to Mr Frampton of Cerne Abbas, the County Coroner.

When John Hounsell and Elizabeth Gale visited their vicar they had no idea of the storm that was about to engulf them. Within a few days their dream of a married life together had turned into a nightmare that could end with the hangman dispatching them both on the long drop into eternity.

There were sufficient grounds for suspicion the Coroner agreed, and he ordered that the bodies of the departed spouses should be exhumed and an inquest take place on February 20th in the village at the Three Horse Shoes alehouse. Of what followed we have an eye-witness report.

Riding into Beaminster on the morning of February 20th our informant expecting to attend a meeting of the Board of Guardians was surprised to meet the chairman coming away from the town. “I am going to Powerstock. The doctor tells me there is an inquest to be held there this morning upon two bodies which have been exhumed and a strong suspicion of murder” said the chairman. Needing no second bidding our informant turned around and the pair was at Powerstock within the hour.

At the gate to the churchyard they found a group of men watched by half a dozen or so old people and some children. There were the Coroner, the jury, and half a dozen doctors from Beaminster and Bridport; some had been summoned to attend others were present out of curiosity. The coroner, our two observers were told by the vicar, who had joined them, had the day before sent his order for the opening of the graves and this had been done during the night. The inquest was being held at the little alehouse and the jury were now about to view the bodies. “The bodies are in their coffins in the chancel of the church,” the vicar explained to the pair, adding that he would not go into the church and went home.

The friends, on reaching the church door, were advised by the sexton to stay outside unless their presence was required. They noticed a pile of earth against the church wall and by standing on this they could see everything through the chancel window as well as if they had been inside.

The jurors, made up of small farmers and villagers, made their way up the “damp and dreary” nave evidently dreading what they were about to witness. It was a duty but on this miserable winter’s morning all of them would have preferred to be anywhere other than this place.

The two coffins had been placed unopened inside the altar rail and the coroner, the jury and the doctors gathered around. One coffin had been in the ground for three months, the other for two or three weeks. Everyone present was filled with foreboding and was dreading what would be revealed when the coffins were opened; even the doctors had little idea what to expect.

There was a pause of some minutes, broken by the coroner asking the sexton to unscrew the lids of the coffins and remove them; this he did without hesitation. Those watching through the chancel window observed one to the other that “both bodies lay in their coffins perfectly arranged…yet they had been brought down from upper rooms in cottages, they had been carried on men’s shoulder, they had been dug up again; yet in neither was there any sign of its having been shaken or disturbed. Not only were the shrouds and grave clothes in order and in decent folds, but the little branches of herbs and evergreen which had been put upon each body were just as they had been first laid.”

When asked to remove the grave clothes from the faces the sexton refused: his courage failed him. He would not listen to either command or persuasion and according to our eyewitness “drew back in evident fear.” No one else volunteered; the doctors said it was not their business, the jury members shuffled about with bowed heads and the coroner clearly believed his part in the proceedings was to give the orders. The coroner barked out his order to the sexton who eventually and much to everyone else’s relief went to the first coffin and, turning his back and averting his eyes, removed the cloth covering the woman’s face.

“The face of the dead woman was scarcely changed…every feature was distinct, the eyes scarcely sunk, the nose and mouth were natural and her black hair plainly drawn across her forehead added to the calm and almost living expression…” There was no difficulty in identifying her.

Bolstered by this experience the sexton removed the covering from the man’s face; he had been buried not three weeks but the sight was shocking to look at and beyond recognition. No one could swear that the occupant of the coffin was James Gale. Confirmation was arrived at following evidence of the carpenter and the sexton who swore that they had seen James Gale’s body in the same coffin that had been exhumed the night before and was now before them.

Satisfied with the evidence of identity the coroner hesitated about what to do next and after discussion with the doctors two of them removed the “faded old covering from the Communion table and lifted the table itself to a more convenient position, close under the light of the chancel window.” At the realisation of what was about to take place some members of the jury voiced concern: was it not bad enough that the church was being used as a kind of charnel house? The coroner decided that what had been done so far had been “done decently and with a solemn quiet and propriety.” Had he been present George Cookson, the vicar, may have taken a different view.

The doctors were instructed to carry on and after some discussion the body of the woman was taken out of her coffin, uncovered as was necessary and laid at full length upon the table. The doctors arranged their instruments and two of them rolled up their sleeves; basins of water were called for and the post mortem commenced. Several professional men were soon busy at their work and quickly fell into their usual talk and habits perhaps forgetting where they were. More than two hours passed before the examination of both bodies was completed.

Proceedings then moved to the Three Horse Shoes, a small ale house in the village. The doctors reported they had found enough arsenic in the woman’s stomach to kill half-a-dozen people. The extraordinary preservative powers of the arsenic was responsible for the body of the women and character of her face appearing unchanged from when she passed away. The result of the examination of the man’s body was less conclusive: if he had of been poisoned it must have been a vegetable poison and the doctors found nothing to prove the case one way or the other. “Wilful murder” was the verdict of the coroner’s jury.

To be continued in Part 2 when we will tell you what happened next. You will have to decide for yourself if John Hounsell was a murderer and Elizabeth Gale his willing accomplice.