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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.

 

A Day Out at Blandford

It’s been called England’s finest Georgian rural market town. The streets around the Market Square are very much as they were rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1731 that started in a tallow chandler’s. I quaffed a cider on the site: it’s now the King’s Arms, just off Salisbury Road, 100 yards from the square. Only 150 yards further on, the Ryves Almshouses escaped the fire because the roof was tile instead of thatch. The building was just less than 50 years old at the time of the conflagration: rebuilding of the town took around 40 years.

In Salisbury Road over a cycle shop is an inscription in memory of Alfred Stevens who created the impressive memorial to the Duke of Wellington in St. Paul’s Cathedral. (Visit Archived Articles Section and click on ‘Alfred Stevens – Painter and Sculptor.’ Pub. July 2003. Ed.) Nearby, at the entrance to the United Reformed Church, men were converting into flats a butcher’s and a printer’s, evidence of the fast increasing population. People must like Blandford.

After a generous pot of tea in the friendly Half Crown Café, I crossed the Market place to talk to Police Constable Liz Spicer, who patrols the town with a purposeful stride. “I like getting out and talking to people” she told me. But in this Georgian show place, down the road from Bryanstone School with its grand entrance arch and drive, on this day she was talking to magazine sellers, beggars and drifters, of whom I saw less than half a dozen all day.

Well, every town has had beggars and rough sleepers over the centuries. At the end of the afternoon I nearly became one myself, when my Editor was late turning up! In this connection, one of the inscriptions chiselled in professional manner into the kerbs and pavements says: “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Well, that’s nice to know. The Rogers family are thought to have contributed to the earlier 15th century church. They owned much of Blandford and were Stewards there for hundreds of years.

Another inscription relating to the Bastard family name and a “careless tallow chandler” I would rather not repeat. It was the founders of the famous Blandford School of Architects, John and William Bastard, who rebuilt the church and Town Hall after the fire, which incidentally followed another in 1713. Only primitive ‘fire engines’ were available.

What dominates the town centre as it is on an island of high ground is this parish church of Saints Peter and Paul. Much of its contents survived from earlier times. And in the museum opposite are archaeological finds from a garden dig, which pre-date the church: they go back to the 17th century. Here is a scrap of paper with the draft wording in John Bastard’s own hand for his fire memorial of 1760, the arched construction in one corner of the churchyard. The Bastard family home is said to be nearby.

The museum has pictures of the railway station demolished in the late 1960’s and of “Blandford Forum”, the apple-green express passenger locomotive of the “West Country” class. Happy days! Unusually, there are also stone cuttings from buildings and pavements in the town and a large case entitled “Victorian Blandford.” In charge of the museum when I had a look around was a conversational Jewish lady who told me, on inquiry, that she escaped to Britain as a girl in 1938 from Vienna.

In the Close beyond and uphill from the church is one of the few buildings which survived the fire – the Old House – and the handsome Post Office and helpful library. Around the corner in Dorset Street I took a photograph of the one-time home of an honorary freeman of the borough. He was Jack Counter, who won the Victoria Cross in France in the First World War. If the Bastards were two of Blandford’s 18th century heroes, Jack Counter was one to bring honour to the town in the twentieth. His home is now Dorset House.

The Great Fire caused the deaths of 13 people and 480 families were made homeless. That is a measure of the disaster, which came upon a town, which by the previous century had become an important stage on the Exeter to London coach route. Someone has said: “The location of the town…has made it a natural centre since mediaeval times.”

Approaching it you look down on it lying in a broad valley between the grand rolling chalk downs, which have proved excellent for military exercises, and is why the headquarters of the Royal Corps of Signals is found here and has an excellent museum of its own, tracing the history of military communications.

Once there were cottage industries, making bone lace, buttons and gloves. Today sees expanding light industries, but the town actually depends on its shops and businesses.

Despite the existence of an eastern bypass, opened nearly 20 years ago, there is a constant stream of traffic through the town all day at around 10 m.p.h. which makes crossing the road hard for pedestrians, and this is where the crossings come into their own. A local motorist told me that it’s simply quicker to drive through the town, which stands the reasoning for bypasses on its head.

I asked which way to the river, was directed down a side road and was soon there. What a wonderful sward of grass, with a millstream running through it. And there was the Stour, much covered with green duckweed. Downstream the meadows were once the park of Lord Portman’s Bryanstone House, now a public school, as we have seen. No development is allowed here.

I approached the handsome suspension bridge leading to Blandford St. Mary village and its brewery, which rises up, as all breweries seem to, like some bizarre continental castle with distinctive chimney and smell of malt and hops. About 100 tonnes of barley are trucked in every week, and hops come from Kent or Worcestershire, and even Bavaria. Some 450 people work here, and at full pressure 57,000 cans or 18,000 bottles can be filled every hour. When you think that beer sales are falling as drinkers get older, this factory needs to make the most of its quality products. In fact, soft drinks are also produced, and actually account for 55 per cent of total volume.

Before leaving Blandford, the visitor should not miss the Crown Hotel and the Greyhouse and Red Lion buildings. The Great Dorset Steam fair, held near the town for the greater part of a week in the late summer or early autumn, brings crowds to visit the greatest show of its kind not only in the land but in the world, with around 100 fair organs and probably the greatest working display of steam traction and stationary engines anywhere.

In an entirely different sphere is the restored St. Leonard Chapel, a leper hospice in the 13th century as originally built, and which has apparently not been used as a chapel since 1760.

It was in the later mediaeval period that Blandford Forum, as it is generally known, developed as one of the major market towns in eastern Dorset. All through history it has been an important crossing-point of the Stour, at first by ford. Here the main roads from Poole to Shaftesbury and Salisbury to Dorchester meet. In 40 year the population has grown from 3,000 to around 9,000 – a staggering rise. People obviously like the place.

At the end of the day, from its restaurants, bistros, pubs and cafes, I chose a takeaway opposite the parish church and went home with a huge burger, salad and French fries. A cool late September breeze was blowing as we climbed the downs and distanced ourselves from Blandford and in an hour it was quite dark over the Dorset hills.

 

This article was first published on our earlier site in November 2003

Thomas Weld and The Yeomanry

The Yeomanry was formed in 1794. One of the first landowners to raise a troop was Thomas Weld of Lulworth and he became a Captain in the Dorset Yeomanry, as did other troop leaders. Later in 1794 King George III was asked to grant Commissions to all the troop leaders, but in the case of Thomas Weld he was unable to do so as he was a Roman Catholic. The Government had ordered that no Roman Catholic was to be allowed in the Yeomanry, so Thomas Weld had to resign.

The Weld’s were suspected of harbouring French refugees in the cellars of Lulworth Castle and Major James Frampton was ordered to check. Frampton was a friend of the Welds and when he arrived at the castle with his troop he was welcomed most cordially by the butler. “We have come to search the cellars, John; what have you got down there?” The butler replied “only beer, why not come in and try it?”and with that the whole troop dismounted and accepted the butlers invitation.

Major Frampton’s report made no mention of the beer and simply stated “I have visited the Cellars at Lulworth Castle. I found no French refugees there.”

Wimborne St. Giles – The Parish Church

The parish of Wimborne St. Giles extends to nearly 6,000 acres from the East Dorset heath land in the south-east north-westwards to the edge of Cranborne Chase; in the middle is the village that gives its name to the parish and in the middle of the village is the parish church.

Hutchins records that in 1732 the nave and the tower of St. Giles Church were almost entirely rebuilt. Similarities with the church of St. Peter and St. Paul at Blanford have led to speculation that the architects were the brothers John and William Bastard, although no documentary evidence exists to support this opinion. In 1887 north and south arcades designed by G.F. Bodley were incorporated into the nave and a north chapel was added. Fire struck the church in 1908 destroying everything except the tower and two walls of the 18th century nave.

A report from the time tells us that on Tuesday the 29th of September workmen had been doing lead soldering work in the tower rafters. At about eleven o’clock on Wednesday evening Thomas Blake, George Bennett and Walter Cutler, all estate workers, noticed smoke coming from the top of the tower; they obtained a key and took buckets of water up and put-out the fire. The fire rekindled itself and at thirty minutes past one o’clock on the morning of the 1st of October  the bells, which had been left in the up position after ringing practice, were released by the flames licking around the belfry; they started ringing and raised the alarm.

Many villagers turned out of bed including the Rev. J. Bouquet and Police Constable Arnold. Mr A.S. Wilbratham (the Shaftesbury’s estate manager) carried out church fittings including some recently purchased new oak benches, the pulpit, altar table and linen, thirty-five chairs and the church registers. First light revealed all that remained was a burnt out shell.

What we see today is a church rebuilt and refitted to the plans of Sir Ninian Comper but his work here has not met with universal acclaim. Pevsner in the Dorset edition of his ‘Buildings of England’ series criticises both structure and fittings. Appearing as an early Georgian building the walls are of Greensand ashlar chequered with panels of squared and knapped flint, and slate covered roofs. The church comprises a west tower, home to eight bells; nave; south porch; chancel; north aisle; north chapel and vestry.

The chancel and nave are structurally one separated by an oak rood screen which continues into the north aisle. Some are critical of the way Comper “tampered” with the inside creating a “preposterously” narrow south aisle separated from the nave by tall round piers. The seating in the nave is by Comper but the benches in the north aisle are those saved from the 1908 fire, as is the carved wood pulpit. The screen, very Gothic in appearance and also by Comper; the adjoining box is the Shaftesbury pew. Also by Comper is the West Gallery of wainscot oak; it has seating for choir and bell ringers and holds a fine organ. The Royal Arms on the front of the gallery are those of George II.

The west tower is in three stages with the lower two stages having corner buttresses. At the top a plain parapet with a balustraded panel at the centre of each side and at each corner a stone vase with a cast iron finial.  Under the tower is the west door leading into a fine wide vestibule

The east window above the altar, a memorial to the 8th Earl of Shaftesbury and Harriet his wife, is by Comper. The small window at the east endof the south wall above the Shaftesbury family entrance depicts Mary the Mother of Jesus and is a memorial to Mary Sibell, a daughter of the 9th Earl. East of the south porch entrance is a window reconstructed from fragments of German and Flemish glass collected after the fire from a window originally given by the 5th Earl in 1785. To the west of the south porch one small light commemorates the golden wedding of the 9th Earl and his wife Constance in 1949. The other light is a memorial to the Rev. Robert Harkness, Rector here at the time of the 7th Earl.

On the west wall at the back of the gallery a window of five lights is made up of two windows formerly in the north wall; they survived the 1908 fire. On the north wall in the gallery is another window by Comper to commemorate the silver wedding of the 9th Earl and his wife. Under the gallery a small window by Comper serves as a memorial to Miss Edith Milner a friend of the 9th Earl and his wife. The two large north wall windows are in memory of the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury and his wife Emily and the second is a memorial to Mrs John Ashley. The window behind the large Jacobean tomb in the North Chapel is “A Commemoration of the Coronation of King George V” on June 22nd 1911 and is also by Comper who is also responsible for the window over the Lady Chapel Altar – a memorial to the Duke of Westminster who died at St. Giles House.

To the right hand side of the Altar is an unusual memorial. It seems that during the building of the arcade in 1887 a robin nested here. The workmen of the time placed the nest and a letter in a bottle and this was discovered during the work carried out after the 1908 fire when another robin nested in the same spot. The bottle and the second nest have been replaced in the wall and the spot is known as The Robin Memorial.

Of the many monuments to the Ashley-Cooper family Pevsner says “the Ashley monuments are a splendid series, though desperately displayed. If only a museum-like mausoleum or gallery could be built for them.”

There is a memorial to the 7th Earl in the family pew in the south wall and he is buried in the family vault under the north side of the church. Also in the south wall, a much restored monument of a crusader believed to be Sir John de Plecy who died in 1313. The Plecy’s are Shaftesbury ancestors.

In the north wall is a memorial to the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury complete with a bust of the man. Lower down there are three carved female heads representing the Earl’s three wives. Other memorials recall the lives of the 3rd Earl who was a philosopher and the 4th Earl who was a friend of Handel. It was the 4th Earl who built the 18th century church. The grand tomb in the Lady Chapel is that of Sir Anthony Ashley.

Since 1672 when Anthony Ashley Cooper was created the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury the family have played an important and distinguished part in the history of England. For six hundred years the family seat has been at Wimborne St. Giles and St Giles House, the grand building we see today, was built in the mid 17th century replacing a modest manor house that originally stood on the site. The house is not open to the public but a visit to the parish church of St. Giles will tell you much about the family’s history.

 

 

 

Alfred Stevens – Sculptor

This is the story of how a Dorset house painter became so saturated with the Italian Renaissance, putting it into practice in England, that he is called a ‘descendant’ of Michelangelo himself. Yet he was a modest man.

“Look around you if you would see his memorial” is still said of Sir Christopher Wren, who, as his crowning achievement, rebuilt St.Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of 1666.

If you want to see the memorial to Blandford sculptor Alfred Stevens, you should go to the same place. Wren created the perfect majestic setting for the famous sculptor’s memorial to the Duke of Wellington – the nave of the cathedral is the only place for such a massive construction.

On a visit there in April 2003 I found it coated in white dust, which is understandable as the building is undergoing a facelift expected to last several more years. Thankfully it had not been covered with dust-sheets.

Starting life as a house painter and decorator in his father’s business, art-mad Stevens began a nine-year sojourn in Italy in 1833 at the age of 15, thanks to the patronage of a friendly Dorset clergyman, the Hon. And Rev. Samuel Best, rector of Blandford St.Mary; some people can sense greatness.

There in that sunny land, year after year, he was able to feast his eyes on 14th century paintings and visit Naples, Florence, Pompeii, Capri, Rome and Milan, studying the great painters and the architecture of the land.

It is said that the reversion towards Romanticism which occurred in the 19th century led in the West to an acceptance of conflicting standards and every style and taste, with little regard for skill or talent in the visual arts and literature.

However that may be, the man who was sculptor, painter, decorator, draughtsman, and designer of beer mugs, stoves, lamp posts – and memorials – was to use his Italian experience supremely well for he has even been compared to the greatest artists of the Renaissance suh as Michelangelo. He brought their intuition and skill back to his native land and we have it forever, thanks to a son of Dorset.

Stevens had his own pupils, and much of his work is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in west-central London and is apparent in the construction of the Royal Albert Hall nearby.

Perhaps for many the crowning glory of the great memorial of St. Paul’s is that a Dorset horse was modelled for the equestrian stature of Wellington, mounted in triumph on the battlefield. It was due to such statesmen-soldiers that the United Kingdom is free today and not under a tyrant. No wonder it was called Great Britain… Yet if for nothing else, many Dorset people must have gone to St. Pauls’s to see the horse. Alfred Stevens never forgot his roots.

However, it is only truthful to add that he died before completion of the work and the horse was added later, to his design, topping the whole gargantuan pile. In creating the monument, he also drew upon mediaeval paintings in Salisbury Cathedral, another local touch.

The monument, including 12 Portland marble columns all the way from his native county, was moved from a side chapel to a more dominant position alongside the central aisle and seating of the great nave. This is one of the great buildings of the world.

Wellington was created duke on the surrender of Napoleon and was appointed Ambassador Extraordinary to the Court of France. After Napoleon’s escape from the island of Elba, Wellington conducted his last military campaign, which culminated on the field of Waterloo in June 1815.

Stevens has been pictured as a humble man who missed his chance to be really great, but there are not many whose work is on display to millions every year. It was Waterloo that ‘made’ Alfred Stevens. Starting work on the memorial in 1858, he worked on it for the rest of his life.

The central feature is the bronze of Wellington, with two allegorical groups: Valour triumphing over Cowardice, and Truth pulling out the tongue of Falsehood.

By contrast, there are two Stevens mosaics in the huge dome. He was also responsible for the decorations in and around great buildings in the capital, including the impressive lions on the British Museum railings.

A small carved wooden Gothic tower, modelled by Stevens on the tabernacle at Milton Abbey, was bequeathed to the Dorset County Museum, while Chettle House near Blandford has another example of his work.

One writer says “…his ambition was to give London great art in this Renaissance form.” It is that 30-feet-high monument, the biggest indoor monument that most people have ever seen, showing one of the illustrious heroes of England in his prime, that sticks in the mind.

It contrasts with those Latin-style paintings in the dome, where Steven’s work compliments that of another Dorset man, Sir James Thornhill.

For 17 years, while he worked on his great masterpiece at ground level, his health was failing and he suffered a paralytic stroke in 1872, dying three years later at the comparatively early age of 57. His London studio at Haverstock Hill would see his exacting standards no more. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery, north London, along with many other well-known figures.

Said ‘The Times’ obituary: “He left neither wife, nor children, nor riches. He was insanely devoted to his art.” Most of his personal papers were destroyed by the executor.

Here was a man who might just have gone in an entirely different direction, perhaps a negative one. During the Reform Bill riots in Blandford, he unhorsed a dragoon; he was in the firing line in skirmishes in Italy; ands he visited villages, which were devastated by cholera. He even saw the inside of political cells.

On his return to Britain from Italy he returned to his home town and spent his time on long walks and over the drawing board. A director of the Tate Gallery said of him that he was the most masterly interpreter of the Classic tradition England has seen.

 

St. Mary’s Church – Sturminster Newton

A marble plaque under the east window in the chancel informs us that the work of rebuilding this place of worship commenced in 1825. Hutchins suggests St. Mary’s was completely rebuilt and records the completion in 1827 – surely an exaggeration. This is a large church and it would have been a remarkable achievement to have completely rebuilt it in two years. However, there is no doubt major rebuilding and additions to the design of William Evans were made in the early 19th century, the cost borne by the Revd T.H. Lane Fox. It is worth noting St. Mary’s had previously been rebuilt and restored by Abbot Selwood of Glastonbury three centuries earlier.

It appears William Evans added to an existing perpendicular building comprising a west tower, the aisle walls, arcades, and the nave with its wagon roof. Evans extended the north and south aisles to wrap around the 15th century tower, which he heightened and restored giving the tower new parapets and pinnacles. Above the tower’s west doorway is an original two light window. During the 1827 works a four light window was installed in the east wall of the second stage of the tower, now inside the nave. The north and south walls of the tower each have a small window and there is a window in the west wall similar to that in the lower stage. In each side of the third stage is a 15th century belfry window but the one in the east wall is masked by the heightened nave roof and the other three by the 1827 clock-faces. There are six bells: two dated to the early 17th century, while the others were new or recast in 1827. On the south wall of the tower is a square stone dial with Roman numerals, possibly 18th century.

The nave has north and south arcades of four bays with two-centred arches, parts of these are 14th century and restored in the 19th century but the eastern most arches appear to be 19th century. Above the arcades are clerestorey windows; those over the east bay opening into the north and south transepts are of 1827 but the others are medieval. The roof of the nave is late 15th or early 16th century.

The north aisle is partly original but the whole of the west end is of 1827. The two north windows each with three lights are 15th century and in the west wall a similar window but from 1827. The stained glass in the north east window is by Webb and was installed in 1911. The south aisle is uniform in size to the north but contains the main entrance from the south porch and a small doorway at the west end of the south wall. The two windows in the south wall are similar to those in the north aisle and of the 15th century; the west window is of 1827. The stained glass in the south east aisle window is by Harry Charles of Dublin (1889-1831) and was installed in 1921.

The chancel has a two-centred window of five lights in the east wall and the north and south walls have arcades of two bays opening to the vestry in the north and the south chapel. Above each arch is a clerestorey window. The north vestry and south chapel each have east windows of three lights and the north and south walls each have two similar windows. The stained glass in the south window in the chapel is by M. Lowndes and I.L. Gloag and dates from 1901.  The north and south transcepts each contain windows similar to the east window in the chancel and in the west walls are three-light windows. The window in the west wall of the north transept is by Gibbs and is dated 1865.

Inside the church are a number of monuments and floor slabs. In the north vestry on the south wall a monument to Hamnet Ward 1705 and on the west wall a stone tablet to Rebecca Stephens 1723. In the north transcept on the east wall a white marble tablet to Elizabeth and Susan Marsh 1839 and there are monuments to Charles Salkeld 1776; Selena Salkeld 1756; Thomas and Selena Dashwood 1817 and 1828; Joseph Bird and other members of that family; John Sweet 1756; Jane Ward 1709 and others.

The Ploughman Poet

Thomas Hardy once observed that:  “…here in Dorset, there are so many poets.”  Many of them, however, more deserving of recognition have drifted into the shadows created by the spotlight being on the likes of Barnes and Hardy.

Albert Charles Bailey was born at Osmington in 1859. He was the son of Thomas and Angelina Bailey, being one of eight children. The family was poor and Albert had to teach himself to read and write; growing-up he studied the works of all the literary giants of the time. His first book of poems was published in 1896 and sold very well.

The Bailey family moved from Osmington to Sutton Poyntz. Albert married Mary Cox of Puncknowle in 1886 and we learn from the 1891 census that the couple lived at Prospect Cottage, Preston, with their four children and one of Albert’s sisters, Evangelina. The census  describes Albert as a Poulterer, Egg Dealer and Market Gardener.

Ten years on the family had grown: Albert and Mary then had four sons and three daughters and the census return suggests that his literary work was being recognised: he is described in the 1901  census as an Author and Market Gardener.  However, in 1911 he is again described simply as a Market Gardener but we should not conclude he had abandoned his literary career.

In 1911 he became known as ‘The Ploughman Poet’ following a chance meeting with a special correspondent from a national daily newspaper who was on his way to Dorchester.  The journalist was so impressed with Albert’s work that when he arrived in Dorchester he sought out Thomas Hardy to ask if he knew him. Hardy replied “Yes, I have met him,” and added that had Albert Bailey been born in any county other than Dorset, he would have been acclaimed a prodigy.

Albert died in 1914 at the age of 55.

After the Georgian Summers

King George III’s enthusiasm for Weymouth was the making of the resort but it was the Duke of Gloucester who had first brought Royal patronage to the town when he built what was known as Gloucester Lodge on an open field facing the sea between what was then the northern limit of the town and the new Royal Hotel. In 1789 the king was advised to try the newly recognised ‘cure’ of sea bathing and the Duke lent his seaside home to his elder brother the King. In 1805 the King and the Royal Family stayed at Royal Lodge (as it had become known) from July until October but the holiday atmosphere was marred when news arrived of the death of the Duke of Gloucester, an event that deeply affected the King. On October 4th the King and his Court departed from Weymouth; he was never to return.

In the autumn of 1809 three of the King’s children returned to Weymouth and stayed from September until early November. The Princesses Amelia and Mary arrived ahead of their brother Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge. This was a quiet holiday: Amelia was already seriously ill and she died the following year. The local press reported that Amelia benefited from her stay and was taken into the bay in a bathing machine “for the purposes of inhaling the sea air in its greater purity.” Princess Mary spent most of her time with her sister, just occasionally taking short walks on the esplanade and sands, accompanied by Adolphus or other members of the Royal Family who paid brief visits to Royal Lodge during this time; they included the Prince of Wales and the Dukes of York, Clarence and Kent.

The Price of Wales – Prince Regent from 1811 onwards – did not share his father’s affection for Weymouth. His daughter, Princess Charlotte of Wales had, while still a small child, accompanied her grandparents to Weymouth. She returned to the resort in 1814 and 1815 for long holidays at Royal Lodge. There exists a report of the eighteen-year-old Princess on one occasion referring to the town “as this odious place;” perhaps she was out of sorts because she seems generally to have enjoyed her stays at Weymouth.

She enjoyed the welcome given to her by local people and found the scenery around Weymouth much to her liking, as her grandfather had. The princess would travel in her carriage to the local villages and often stopped to talk to the inhabitants, as well as visiting the houses of the leading Dorset families. She seems to have inherited her grandfather’s love of the sea and used a naval guard ship as a Royal Yacht. This was in contrast to most female members of the Royal Family: a diarist in Weymouth in the 1790’s commenting on the royal trips in the channel wrote: “The King never seemed afraid of the weather. The Queen and the Princesses always wore dark blue habits on these occasions and I have often seen them looking very miserable and bedraggled on their return.”

Princess Charlotte’s visit in 1815 was such a success it prompted the author of one Weymouth Guide to optimistically predict “…it is generally believed that Weymouth will be the future summer residence of Her Royal Highness.”  The following year Princess Charlotte Augusta married Prince Leopold of Saxe Coburg and in 1817 she died in childbirth.

On the 25th of October 1809 – the King’s Jubilee – Weymouth celebrated by laying the foundation stone to the statue of King George III, an event that was attended by the Duke of Cambridge and Princess Mary. Newspaper reports make no mention of any members of the Royal family being present when the completed statue was unveiled the following year. Later Princess Mary married her cousin the Duke of Gloucester, the son of the builder of Royal Lodge, and she was in residence there in November 1817, when the news of the death of the young  Princess Charlotte of Wales came. This was the last visit to Weymouth of any member of the family of King George III.

Following the death of George III, the Royal Lodge was sold on the 19th July 1820 for £4,000 and the Royal Pew in St. Mary’s Church was sold for £220.10s at the same time. Houses adjoining the Royal Lodge that had been used to accommodate members of the Royal family were also sold-off and reportedly fetched high prices. The furniture was sold separately and the enormous prices paid reflected the added value achieved with each piece being considered a relic of departing royalty.

The economic benefits gained by the town from the occasional royal visits after 1805 would have been small but the benefits of many years of patronage by the King were considerable. Thomas’s Weymouth Guide of 1815 says “…the inhabitants by such an influx of money have been encouraged to rebuild, beautify, and greatly enlarge the town, which in little more than twenty years has undergone a considerable transformation.”

Weymouth was now established as a seaside resort and the expansion begun in the days of ‘Royal Weymouth’ continued throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, considerably helped by the coming of the railway in 1857.