Dorset Ancestors Rotating Header Image

Lyme Regis

The Sinking of HMS Formidable

Everyone has heard of Lassie the super-intelligent ‘doggy’ film star. Few realise that the part was originally based on a rough-haired collie owned by the landlord of the Pilot Boat Inn, Lyme Regis. That Lassie has always been credited with saving a sailor’s life. An enduring Hollywood serial has indeed a Dorset ring to it.

It was the first day of January 1915, in the early hours. The battleship HMS Formidable had been training and exercising in Lyme Bay with other ships when she was struck with two torpedoes. The magazines blew up.

Two hours after the first strike her crew of 780 was ordered to abandon ship. Only 233 were to survive the savage, ice-cold water. It was a major disaster not long after the opening of the First World War. A lifeboat capsized in the swell, but other ships in the squadron took off 114 men. Then the big ship went down, deep by the bows.

An empty boat was found at Abbotsbury and another came ashore at Lyme Regis with some sailors dead from exposure. One other man was to have his life saved by the dog Lassie. He had been taken into the Pilot Boat Inn, apparently dead, but Lassie kept licking his face for half an hour and he revived. The dog was awarded two animal medals. Forty-eight survivors reached Lyme Regis in all.

Hollywood got on to the story of Lassie and as a result of that her name will live forever….  But a second dog figures in the tale, for at Abbotsbury Gardens a headstone marks the grave of the captain’s dog Bruce, whose body was washed up on the nearby beach a day after the disaster.

Many sailors are buried in Lyme Regis churchyard and two at Burton Bradstock cemetery.

There are about 30 identified wrecks in Lyme Bay, most of which can be reached by divers, and some have been.

There was an intensification of U-boat activity after the sinking of the Formidable, and many thousands of tonnes of British shipping were lost off the coast of Dorset; however, six U-boats were sunk. Towards the end of the war two merchant ships were attacked in September 1918. The Gibel Hamam was torpedoed off Abbotsbury and 21 of her crew were lost. Another ship, the S.S.Ethel, was attacked and sank while being towed to Portland.

Lyme Regis – The Church of St. Michael the Archangel

St. Michael the Archangel is a church steeped in history, yet one that seems perilously close to being lost to the sea. Although it was suspected the Saxons built a church where St. Michael’s now stands, until 1994-5 there was no proof of this. During that time repairs to the tower uncovered a window dating from about 980 in a wall of the belfry chamber. This find made it probable that the lower two-thirds of the tower is Saxon. When the Normans rebuilt the remainder of the church about 1120, they largely retained and updated the Saxon stonework.

This and other later developments and alterations made any description of the first church or chapel on the site a matter of conjecture. Certainly the present porch supersedes the foundation of the Saxon nave. The Normans however made their church plan cruciform, and there is some evidence that the nave had an aisle on the north side and an aisle or chantry on the south side. The tower was probably situated centrally with transepts and an apse at the east end. The present porch is all that remains of the Norman nave. It once extended ten feet further west than today, but the extension was demolished when the road outside was widened in 1824.

A room known as “The Old Vestry” formerly occupied the floor above the porch, but was removed during a phase of restoration in 1933. At this time the contractors took the opportunity to reveal as much Norman masonry as possible. They rebuilt the west front, intending to add new north and south aisles to the sides of the porch so that the original 12th century arches could be shown off to best advantage.

When viewed from outside, this end of the church has an unfinished appearance. The work was apparently left incomplete when funding dried up, and because of inflation it is considered unlikely that the work will ever be completed. The various structural alterations to the church over the centuries are also clearly in evidence when the building is viewed from the east (seaward) end of the churchyard. For example, the apex of the nave/aisle roof stands about one metre above the apex of the chancel roof, the elevation being faced with dark shingles or bricks seen no-where else in the church’s fabric or structure.

From the porch the visitor enters the Baptistry under the tower. Standing in the centre must be one of the most sumptuous and elaborate fonts in the county and beyond. The font is the parish’s memorial to the Revd. Frederick Parry-Hodges, who was vicar of Lyme during most of the Victorian period. Beyond the Baptistry the nave is entered through the Norman chancel arch, while the arches to the north and south, though walled up, are 13th century and infused into the earlier Saxon tower. This re-ordering is further complicated by the upper levels of the tower, which were added in the early 16th century, raising its height to the present 58 feet.

The present nave, though roughly contemporary with the elevation of the tower, is in stark contrast to the austerity of the porch. It is well proportioned and spacious, and was pitched at a slight upward gradient towards the high altar. The nave has been restored several times, the most recent being in 1885, when the upward slope was replaced by broad steps which originally spanned the whole church. But the rest of the re-ordering of 1885 was concerned with rendering the interior suitable for the worship of the time. The exterior too, has needed and received frequent restoration work. The nave has six bays, the two easternmost forming the chancel. There are some fine carvings around the pillars, and there is a fine set of roof bosses. The ceiling of the chancel was embellished with a painting of the Raising of the Cross in about 1850.

There are no original stained glass windows remaining in St. Michael’s. The window on the left side of the porch is a memorial to Thomas Coram, a wealthy Lyme captain and merchant seaman who ended his days in penury. The second window along the north side of the nave portrays Sir Galahad’s vision of the Holy Grail. The east window was once nearly twice its present length, but was reduced during the restoration of 1885. But the first window along the north side is particularly interesting, for although she is not portrayed within it, the window is in memory of Mary Anning, Lyme’s pioneering woman fossil collector and dealer of the early 19th century.

The church has two examples of Jacobean wood carving in the west gallery and the pulpit. The chancel screen commemorates the Revd. George Barlow. Among the memorial brasses can be seen the bell from HMS Lyme Regis (1942-1948) which in 1944 took part in the Second Front D-Day landings in Normandy. Most church plate is modern, and the organ was acquired from St. Mary Major church, Exeter, in 1939. Further down the nave on the north side can be seen the most remarkable and enigmatic possession of the church. This is the highly controversial Lyme Tapestry, widely supposed to be the work of Flemish weavers around 1490.

Lyme Church is remarkable for its ring of bells, which today actually number twelve. In their structural alterations to the tower the Normans specifically intended it should house bells, though nothing is known of those which preceded the first new ring of six bells hung in 1770. The fourth of these bells was re-cast in 1843 with the inscription “O Sea Spare Me.” The ring was re-hung in a new oak frame in 1911, when two more were added. Then in 1953 all eight were re-cast again and dedicated to the Bishop of Sherborne. A further four bells (two large and two small) were added in 1988.

The main bells made local news when they had to be lowered into the tower by a Sea King helicopter hired from RNAS Culdrose. The two small bells were mounted in a frame designed and constructed by the ringers themselves.  All the bells are noted for the quality of their tone, and campanologists from all over the country come to Lyme to ring them. In 1995 a record was set when the longest unaided and unbroken peal of Surprise Royal was rung at St.Michael’s.

The Church registers date from 1538 and with the exception of a single entry in 1649, there is a gap from 1572 to 1653. The pages also contain information about certain significant dates for events. For example there is one entry stating. “1759, 31st May – the sea flowed in three times in an hour at Lyme.”

The churchyard, while not overcrowded with burials, features headstones or table-tombs almost entirely worked from local Lias limestone. As in many Dorset churchyards inscriptions have become largely obscured by lichen. For different reasons two of these monuments in particular stand out from all the rest. One is the large limestone slab marking the last resting-place of Mary Anning, and which lies almost opposite her memorial window in the church. This grave, however, is not exclusively hers, for she shares it with her brother Joseph and some infant children of the family.

The other memorial is prominent by being pristine, un-weatherable red granite monument within a low enclosure in the south-east quarter of the churchyard. This is the grave of the aforementioned Revd. Frederick Parry-Hodges, incumbent at St. Michael’s from 1833 to 1880. It can be assumed therefore, that it was this minister who would have presided over the burials of Mary Anning and her family.

The Lyme Tapestry

On the north side of the nave of the parish Church of St. Michael the Archangel in Lyme Regis there is a piece of craftsmanship in embroidery on display which has been the subject of much controversy ever since it was acquired for the church in the latter 19th century.

This possession is the Lyme Tapestry, widely supposed to be the work of Flemish weavers around 1490, but still veiled in uncertainty over the identity of the people involved in the marriage or betrothal the tapestry portrays. Some authorities hold that it depicts the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, while others consider it could equally represent that between Henry VIII (or his brother Prince Arthur) and Catherine of Aragon. However, the work shows a pomegranate – the emblem of the recently conquered Granada and a clerical figure presumed to be Cardinal Wolsey – a high churchman unknown in Henry VII’s reign.

Whichever is correct this textile has had a chequered history. The connection with Lyme began on the day in 1886 when the vicar, the Revd. Edward Peek bought it for the church from an obscure source for £20. The story goes that until the time of the purchase the tapestry had been concealed behind a false wall at the Somerset home of a Royalist anxious to secure such a treasure from plunder by Cromwellian forces during the Civil War. The tapestry hidden for over 200 years; the house however, has never been traced.
In January 1912 the Revd. W. Jacob was informed after consultation with a valuer that the tapestry was worth between £1,500 and £2,000. Over the next 41 years there followed a long series of correspondence and consultations between the Church Council and a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum about the possible acquisition of the tapestry for the Museum.

Then in 1953 the President of the Royal Academy of Arts wrote to the vicar of Lyme asking if the tapestry could be loaned for an exhibition to mark the Coronation. As the piece was only insured against fire and the church had no money for its upkeep, the tapestry was not released on this occasion; the exhibition was cancelled. Twenty-two years later the Revd. Nicholson, concerned about the tapestry’s condition and maintenance costs, sought to donate it to a museum, but the tapestry did not come to be moved on this occasion either.

Following this the Church Council decided unanimously to place the work with a museum or art gallery in the southwest, and in 1977 an arrangement was made to place the tapestry in the custody of the National Trust at its Barn Restaurant property at Trerice in Cornwall. Here it remained until 1996 when, following negotiations with the Trust and some preparatory conservation work undertaken at Hampton Court, the Lyme Tapestry was returned and re-hung in St. Michael’s.

Thomas Coram (1668-1751)

On the 14th of August 1739 a charter incorporating the Hospital for the “Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children” was signed by King George II. This was the culmination of seventeen years of determined campaigning by Thomas Coram, who was concerned about the number of abandoned and dying children on the streets of the capital. On a bleak November day in the same year in a room at Somerset House, London, the Governors of the Foundling Hospital convened for their first meeting.

We have to search his later correspondence for glimpses into the early years of Thomas Coram. He was born in Lyme Regis and we believe he was the son of John Coram who was in the merchant shipping business and traded from Lyme Regis.  John Coram was baptised in 1629; his wife, Spes, died in 1677. Thomas wrote that his mother had died when he was a young boy; his father had remarried and moved to Hackney. Thomas went to sea when he was eleven and later his father apprenticed him to a shipwright.
At the age of 24 he was appointed by the government to audit tonnage and supply transports for Ireland and this brought him to the attention of some London merchants, who put him in charge of a plan to establish a new shipyard in Boston, Massachusetts. The colony was Puritan and Coram was an Anglican; he acquired enemies and an attempt was made on his life during the ten years he was there. He married Eunice Wayte on the 27th of June 1700. Correspondence with his wife’s family suggests it was a happy marriage but childless.

Coram returned to England in 1704. His interest in the North American colonies led him to identify Boston’s need for a lighthouse and fraud in contracting navel stores from there.  In 1712 he was elected to a role in the private enterprise, Trinity House, which combined public responsibilities with charitable works. He was considered a diligent and reliable public servant as well as a businessman. In 1735 Horace Walpole told his brother Robert, then Prime Minister, that Coram was the “honestest, the most disinterested and the most knowing person about the plantations I ever talked with.”

In England he pursued his business and charitable interests from his home at Rotherhithe. He regularly travelled into the city and on those journeys he saw abandoned, dying and dead children on the streets. In 1722 his moral and civic spirit compelled him to take action.

He had a wealth of experience and many acquaintances, some of them with great influence while he had persistence; against him was his rough-manner and rather blunt way of speaking. Initially there was little interest in his attempts to promote a foundling hospital – indeed, some were positively hostile to the idea on the grounds that it would encourage more illegitimate births.

The situation improved in 1729 with the ‘ladies petition,’ which was signed by peeresses and had the patronage of Queen Caroline, but it took until the 21st of July 1737 for Coram’s petitions to be laid before the king in council. A committee of the Privy Council was set up to consider the proposal, while Coram was given the responsibility for finding the first governors.

It was Coram who looked for suitable sites for the hospital, designed its seal and researched similar institutions in Europe. The hospital opened on the 25th of March 1741 at a site in Hatton Garden. The first two children to be baptised were named Thomas Coram and Eunice Coram (it was usual for children to be given a new name when they entered the hospital). Mothers left a token to identify their child should they wish to claim them later.

Coram’s involvement in the governance of the hospital ended in 1742 under a cloud: he was said to have been indiscreet in his criticisms of other Governors and how the hospital was run. A new hospital was built at Lamb’s Conduit Fields and began to receive children in October of 1745.  The hospital continued into the 20th century, moving out of London to Berkhamstead in Berkshire in 1926; it finally closed as a hospital in 1954. Over the centuries the institution cared for over 25,000 children; the ideals and work continue to this day as the children’s charity known appropriately as “Coram”.

The Foundling Hospital prospered and surprisingly became a meeting place for fashionable society, who by then supported the project. People came to admire works of art donated by prominent artists such as William Hogarth, Francis Hayman and Joseph Highmore; George Frederic Handel organised annual concerts at the hospital from 1750.

Thomas Coram’s career had been at the sharp-end of life. Hands-on, dealing mostly with ordinary men, he was not equipped with the airs and graces necessary to mix easily with London society in the 18th century; his bluntness and straight-forward speaking did not sit comfortably with those he wished to gain influence with.  Nevertheless, his achievements were significant: Boston harbour had a new lighthouse, the Georgia trustees permitted female inheritance, and a civil settlement was established in Nova Scotia. All these things Coram had campaigned for.

In his good works he often used his own resources, with little thought for his own needs. He was not ashamed to admit “in my old age, I am poor.” However, his friends and supporters raised a pension to see him through his last years free from want.

The Monmouth Rebellion

Dorset could have played a vital part in a return to Protestant dominance in England in the late 17th century. The Duke of Monmouth arrived on Lyme Regis beach from Holland, impelled by volatile evangelicalism in that country, and soon gathered an army of thousands which marched north, only to be defeated by King James II’s forces at Sedgmoor.

It was an army of peasants or serfs, armed with farm implements, and stirred to action by the death of Charles II and the arrival of a Catholic king on the throne. The attempt, in the summer of 1685, did not have the support of the Whigs as it might have done, and it was cut down among the Somerset rhines, the drainage canals in the moors, by a smaller but more professional force led by John Churchill, later the First Duke of Marlborough.

Monmouth and Lord Grey made for the Dorset coast, hoping to get away by sea from Poole. They abandoned their horses, disguised themselves and separated but Monmouth was caught in Cranbourne Chase and within weeks he was executed for treason at Tower Hill, London.

An associated rising planned in Scotland, a stronghold, like the West Country, of the burgeoning Protestant religion, resulted in defeat. It was left to William III of Orange to sail from Holland three years later, put ashore at Torbay with an army and eventually to be made king by Parliament once James II had sailed away to France.

The political and church scene at this time was mercurial and transient. The Civil Wars, which were intended to straighten things out, were not long over. The death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 led to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Draconian rules were in force governing worship, and Baptists and others were meeting in the woods. A century later the situation was somewhat similar, before there began to be an acceptance of the Roman Catholic Church once again. Things were going round in circles.

One James, Duke of Monmouth, aged 36, bastard son of Charles and claiming the throne in the place of his uncle the Duke of York, had stepped ashore near the Cobb at Lyme Regis, his Declaration was read out at the ancient cross. He had a high profile supporter in Anthony Ashley Cooper, First Earl of Shaftesbury. Monmouth’s followers were euphoric, yet there were many Dorset men in the king’s forces, which were soon to harry them.

The end was very violent and very sad. At the Bloody Assizes in September 1685, based in Dorchester, Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys took revenge in a courtroom said to have been draped in red. The Oak Room, still preserved, and now a rather select tearoom, overlooks an alley thoroughfare not far from the town’s tourist information centre. The judge’s lodgings in the town’s main street are also now tearooms. Altogether 292 people were condemned to death and 800 were transported to the New World.

Four years later, following William’s “Glorious Revolution”, the ‘hanging judge’ himself died rather ignominiously in the Tower of London.

Everything was against Monmouth: a badly equipped army, quarrelling amongst his chief officers, poor preparation, and an inept skirmish at Bridport. By midnight on the landing date Mayor Gregory Alford of Lyme Regis was at Honiton ordering an express message to Whitehall, and two Lyme Customs officers were also on their way to London to raise the alarm.

Taunton and Bridgwater welcomed the rebels with flower lined streets. The rebels wished to take Bristol, then the second city in the kingdom, but were easily discouraged and made their way through Frome and Shepton Mallet to Wells, and to Bridgwater again. By this time the people were losing heart and Taunton asked the rebel army not to return.

Monday July 6th 1685 decided things. Monmouth decided to attack the king’s army near Weston Zoyland, but was defeated by the rhines and the accidental or treacherous firing of a pistol in the dark by one of his own side.

The duke had hatched his plans with the fugitive Argyle and some hotheads in the Netherlands. Argyle was to start an insurrection under the Covenanting banner in the Borders and Campbell territory. The idea was that they would then both march on London. Argyle landed in Kintyre but the Marquis of Atholl occupied the countryside there and he was eventually captured when approaching Glasgow, and executed.

This activity north of the border had caused Parliament to vote money for a professional army. More troops came from the Continent, and help even came from William, showing that while their aims were similar, he had no time for Monmouth.

The strange thing is that four years earlier; Monmouth had toured the West Country and was led to expect massive support from the gentry. But his ragged army was one mostly of farm labourers and cloth workers. Even the supplies he had brought from Holland were seized.

Later, hundreds were caught as they ran from the battleground, cut down or hanged on the spot. A garrison newly returned from Tangiers was sent in, and retribution in nearby towns such as Shepton Mallet and Taunton followed.

Maurice Ashley, in “The English Civil War” (1974) set the scene for the Monmouth fiasco and what followed very well:

“Lastly, because Parliament won the civil wars it henceforward became an unchallengeable part of the British constitution. The Church of England ceased to be the sole religious institution because, in spite of heavy penalties imposed upon them, dissenters – known as nonconformists – emerged as a permanent feature of public life and influence on society.”

There was never to be another civil war in England. And when it began to seem that Roman Catholicism would hold sway again, along came William of Orange with his armed force to reverse the situation again. King James II fled to France and the nation remained Protestant.

George Somers – Seaman Extraordinary

Having regard to Dorset’s geographical situation as a coastal county we should not be surprised that numbered among its famous sons should be several master mariners. Sir George Somers was one of these mariners, but he occupied a key position among the county’s seafarers, rising from an obscure background to earn a reputation as a swashbuckling buccaneer of the ocean waves. And it was Somers who was to lay the foundations of what was to become the colonies of Virginia and Bermuda.

Somers was born in 1554, though it is not known for certain whether this was at Lyme or Whitchurch Canonicorum. Equally deficient is what is known of his earliest years, but he proved to be a worthy man of the sea, a bold adventurer in an age when England’s navy was effectively brought to birth under Tudor patronage. Somers therefore was there at the start of the great enterprise.

Ever since 1584 various abortive attempts have been made to colonise the North American territory which ultimately became Virginia. Somers too focussed his enormous energies in this direction, establishing in association with the Earl of Southampton and others, the London Virginia Company in 1606. He went on to command many naval expeditions to the Spanish Main, West Indies, and the Americas, and in 1597 joined Raleigh in a notable expedition to the Azores. On his return, however, he settled for some years back in Lyme Regis, where his notoriety seems to have helped in his election to Parliament when he stood to represent the town. He was elected Lyme’s Mayor two years later.

Somers did not remain at his home-base for long, for in 1609 he took command of an expedition to establish further settlers in the fledgling colony of Virginia (the name Virginia originally applied to all the colonial land along North America’s eastern seaboard until the designation of the 12 other states.) The colony of Roanoke had been founded only two years before. Jamestown and the voyage of the Mayflower to Cape Cod were to follow in 1620.

For this voyage Somers set sail in his Flagship Sea Venture. But after being at sea for two months the small fleet was struck by a hurricane, which dispersed the ships. Sea Venture thus became separated from the others and was damaged, causing it to spring a leak. Water then rose rapidly in the hold, but Somers’ exhausted crew were unable to cope with the flooding. For some time there was every likelihood the ship would sink.

Then Somers realised he was in reach of a group of islands not far away, encircled by a treacherous reef – a great danger in a rough sea. The coral shoals were much feared by Elizabethan sailors, who called them the “Isles of Devils”. Located 100 years earlier by a Spanish navigator, Juan Bermudeth, the islands were named in his honour. Somers and his crewmen would be stranded on Bermuda for 10 months.

Somers had to come to a decision whether to risk a landfall or perish on the reef. Spotting what appeared to be a sandy bay the captain drove the ship straight towards it, but the Sea Venture struck a pair of submerged rocks before becoming wedged between two further rocks. From this point the ship’s crew was able to disembark, without difficulty, as by then the storm had abated. The cargo was landed without loss, but Somers’ ship could not be saved. The shipwrecked crew also had a wholesome food supply and local fresh fish, birds and wild pigs. Clear, fresh water lay a few inches below ground. In fact, Somers and his men soon came to realise that the island was a virtual paradise, and set about constructing rudimentary dwellings using palmeto leaves.

The marooned mariners stayed on the island for almost a year, by which time some of them didn’t want to leave. But conscious of duty Somers and his officers set about repairing one of the Sea Venture’s boats in preparation for leaving. Fourteen men volunteered to make the 600-mile crossing to the mainland, but were lost on route and never heard from again. The rest of the crew with their captain managed to leave the island by constructing two pinnaces from cedars growing on the island. In May 1610 the party reached Virginia.

Before leaving, Somers took possession of the island for England, to be known as Somers Islands (they were re-named in honour of Bermudeth only later.) The captain was then made Admiral of Virginia, and with the colony suffering a severe food shortage, he sailed back to Britain to procure fresh supplies at the behest of Lord de la Warr. On the grocer’s errand however, Somers’ ship was again caught in a severe storm. Soon after returning to Bermuda, the great seaman sickened and died from eating, it has been said, an excessive amount of pig meat. The local coinage had a pig engraved on one side and a ship on the other.

After his death Somers’ heart was removed and buried in Bermuda. His body was brought back to England in a cedar chest because of a maritime superstition stored on board without the crew’s knowledge. The Admiral’s home at that time had been Berne Farm near Whitchurch Canonicorum. It is therefore fitting that this story should end where it began, with his burial beneath the old chantry in St. Andrews Church in Canonicorum.

In this part of Dorset Somers had long been regarded as Lyme’s most distinguished and respected citizen. It has been said that Shakespeare’s inspiration for the Tempest owes something to Somers’ adventures, in the likeness of Prospero and his island to Somers and Bermuda.

In 1996 Lyme was twinned with St.George in Bermuda. On the 23rd of July 1999 there was a commemorative parade in memory of Somers, leading onto the Cobb. Those attending the non-civic lunch were treated to the national drink of the Caribbean island: a blend of dark rum and ginger beer known locally as Dark ‘n’ Stormy.

The Bennetts of Lyme Regis

Sometime in the year 1774 or possibly 1775 a young man still in his teens bade farewell to his parents at the family home in Chard, Somerset, and walked the twelve miles towards Lyme Regis on the south coast, to begin a new life of independence. Since it is thought that the boy already had an aunt living in Uplyme, just over the Devon border to the north of Lyme, he first lived with them, though he would later move down to become a man of property and renown in the town itself.

The youth was John Bennett, and his move to Lyme sometime after 1776 proved to be the starting pistol for a productive life spanning almost eight decades in the service of the town. However, John was just the outstanding ancestor; for he went on to sire a kind of dynasty of civic notables who in no small way through their own family lines temporarily replenished Lyme’s dwindling population during the years of its early 19th century revival as a health resort. Lyme built ships, caught fish, mended nets, wove silk, and traded cloth; here also William Pitt lodged, Jane Austen danced, Princess Victoria stayed and Mary Anning hammered fossils out of rock. Bennett’s arrival clearly coincided with an auspicious time for civic betterment and reconstruction.

From his relation’s home in Uplyme John would descend the steep hill to the town to work as an apprentice to a cordwainer (shoe-maker). This was an honourable trade of seven years indenture or training, and Bennett was no exception to the tradition of literacy and erudition among its practitioners; indeed he was noted for his steady handwriting and signature. John was also a competent violinist, who was soon playing at dances held at Lyme.

In September 1788 John Bennett married Maria Denning, a local women the about 25 years old in St. Michael the Archangel Church. Their first child was Henry, born in 1790, who was followed by Maria (1791); Elizabeth (1793); William (1794); Eleanor (1796); Mary (1797); Sarah (1798; Ann (1799); John (1801); Thomas (1803) and William (1804). Five of these children would survive childhood, but the first William died as a baby, as did Mary and Sarah in infancy soon after.

By 1800 Mr Bennett’s shoe-making business was prospering and in 1802 he rented a house on Bridge Street, off Cockmoile Square, next door to the home of the Anning family. Fossil-collector Mary was then just three; the two families never inter-married however, Mary dying a spinster. However, it has been suggested she may have fostered an interest in fossils in some of the Bennett grandchildren.

For another local family it was a different matter. Mr & Mrs Govis, regular customers of Mr Bennett, had a daughter, Mary, to whom Henry was strongly attracted – so much so that their first child, Henry Jr. was actually conceived before his parents wedded in November 1812. By this time Mr Bennett had deeply committed to administering St Michaels as a churchwarden and as a member of the town council. As Lyme became something of a mecca for health-bathing, he took possession of one of the town’s three public baths. When he wasn’t pre-occupied with his business, the Corporation, and the Church, Mr Bennett had to fight a lifelong battle defending his other properties from storm damage and coastal erosion.

Henry and Mary’s second son Edwin was born in December 1814, being followed by John (1817); Emily (1820); William (1821); Frederick (1824); Caroline (1825); Elisha (1829) and Augustus (1832). Of all John and Maria’s 11 children, Henry was the only one of two to establish solid, contiguous lines of descent. The other was John, who after his marriage to Eleanor Woodman in July 1825 had six children by her: Ellen-Kate (1826); John (Woodman) (1827); Charles (1830); Maria (1831); Joseph (1834), and Rose (1836). Born in Cerne Abbas in 1799, Eleanor came to know John as a friend of his younger sister Ann, with whom she entered into partnership running a millinery shop in Lyme. Between them these Bennett brothers would disperse the Bennett genes to other parts of the country and abroad.

Contrary to his father’s hopes. Henry Sr evidently had no leanings towards a cobbler’s life, finding his true vocation as a schoolmaster; being also a talented musician, he filled the position of organist at St Michaels and taught children music. His younger brother was not so fortunate. Mr Bennett taught his son the cordwaining business, but in 1837 John drowned when a boat returning him from Charmouth capsized in a squall.

Soon after their marriage John and Eleanor bought Malabar House, a fashionable property where in later years Eleanor was to become a warm-hearted mother-figure to her own children and some nieces and nephews. Now a widow she kept up her shop, though in 1832 Ann had married widower, Richard Cox, a saddler by trade in Bridport, and moved with him to that town, leaving Eleanor to run the millinery shop on her own. By Richard her sister-in-law had three children: John (1834); Emily (1836) and Richard (1838).

Of John and Eleanor’s own children Ellen-Kate married john Sharpe, a solicitor’s clerk from Norfolk in August 1853. She bore him seven children: John Woodman; William, Eleanor; Alice; Charles; Clara and Rosalie, between 1854 and 1858. Eleanor Bennett’s Charles married Elizabeth Smith in 1852 and emigrated to Australia, but died only eight years later from wounds sustained in a bizarre shooting accident in 1860. Buried in Geelong Cemetery, Melbourne, he left Elizabeth with two sons and a daughter to bring up. Maria, Eleanor’s second daughter, married Richard Loveridge, a London cheese-monger in May 1856. The couple had grandparents in common, for Richard’s grandfather, also called Richard, married old Mr Bennett’s sister Eleanor; he was therefore, Mr Bennett’s great-nephew. Richard and Maria had four children born between 1857 and 1862: Eleanor, Anne, John and James, but by the latter date these children were orphaned. They were adopted by grandmother Eleanor, and so went to live with her at Malabar House.

That left John, Joseph and Rose. John married Sarah Longhurst in Hackney in October 1870; at the time he was living and working with Joseph in Devizes, who like him had not remained in Lyme beyond childhood, but unlike him, had no recorded issue. Joseph married Jane Wing, a London girl, in the capital in January 1857. They had seven daughters and four sons. Rose married Thomas Brown, Lyme ironmonger, in January 1862. Their son and daughter were born in a house on the Cobb before the couple eventually went to live in London.

Of Henry and Mary’s branch of the family, Henry Jr married twice: first, Priscilla Loveridge in April 1835, and after her death, Martha Murley in October 1846. By Priscilla (apparently un-related to Mr Bennett’s sister’s family) Henry had three children: Henry Alfred; Esther, and Myra, between 1838 and 1841. He too became a schoolmaster and succeeded his father as organist at St. Michaels.

Henry’s brother Edwin married Emma Dunster, daughter of a local builder, in October 1834. The Dunsters, however, were better known as a Lyme family in the printing trade, and for a time Edwin went into partnership with them as Bennett & Dunster. By 1839 they had left Lyme, leaving the business to Daniel Dunster. Edwin and Emma had five sons and five daughters.

William, fourth son of Henry Sr married Elizabeth Spear, a London-born Bridport woman 20 years his junior, on Boxing Day 1864. The couple had four children: William Henry; Mary; Esther; and Minna, between 1865 and 1883. William became a prominent figure in Lyme and by 1880 he would be almost the last of the Bennetts still living in the town. One of his later duties was to collect harbour dues, but he was a gifted painter, mainly of the local land and seascapes, though he also painted portraits of his grandparents, old John and Maria.

Elisha married Sarah, though it is not certain who she was, whether Sarah Longhurst or someone else. After his brother’s re-marriage Elisha became a master mariner in South Shields. According to the recorded selective genealogy of the family neither he nor his siblings John, Emily, Frederick and Caroline, are shown as having any descendants, and of these, only Elisha married.

With the death of William in 1881 and Elizabeth’s move to Bridport with the children, the perpetuation of the Bennett line effectively ceases. Henry Jr’s last son Augustus is a progeny of particular significance, for he was the last Bennett to be living in the town at the time of his death in 1911. Eleanor Woodman Bennett, the home matriarch of Malabar House, died April 28th, 1873 in her 74th year.

As for John and Maria, the patriarch and matriarch of the extensive Bennett clan, they died in 1852 and 1831 respectively – but not before seeing about 20 of their 72 descendants born. Demographically, the family is interesting in that it appears to buck the trend for the period in two respects. Not because of the size of the generations, for ten to twelve children was the norm in the late 18th and 19th centuries. It is that at least one Bennett bride –Henry senior’s Mary – did not go to the altar as a virgin, and also the atypical longevity of John Bennett himself, in that he lived long enough to become a great-grandfather.

However, any diligent search for Bennett graves in the churchyard is likely to be futile. Although family members were buried in Lyme cemetery and at St Michaels, the area of consecrated ground at the latter that formerly included the Bennett plot has been reclaimed by the sea through landslipping.

Mary Anning of Lyme Regis

Mary Anning the famous collector of fossils

Mary Anning the famous collector of fossils

Princess Victoria’s Tour of Dorset

July 1833. Fourteen years before the first railway tracks are to be laid in Dorset, travel is by horsepower or by sea and at Weymouth the population is in festive mood, excited at the prospect of greeting a 14-year-old Princess who will one day be Queen. It was the start of a royal tour to acquaint the people of Dorset and Devon with the woman who one day would rule over the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

Guns were fired as her yacht appeared off St. Alban’s Point and as the ship dropped anchor off the Esplanade buildings and the royal party came ashore in the royal barge, Royal Salutes were fired

Princess Victoria’s home was Kensington Palace, but Norris Castle on the Isle of Wight was her summer base. Accompanied by her mother, the Duchess of Kent, the yacht “Emerald” was towed by a naval steam packet from Portsmouth. With the Princess was her adored King Charles spaniel “Dashy”. The Duchess was “dreadfully” sea-sick on the journey along the south coast, according to Victoria’s diary, which she kept assiduously throughout and which is today preserved at Windsor Castle.

The townspeople of Weymouth turned out and greeted their royal highnesses as illustrious visitors.  It seemed the whole population was proceeding from the King George III statue to the Quay. God Save the King was played as the royal party mounted the King’s Stairs used by King George III on his frequent holidays in the resort; they were then driven in carriages to the Royal Hotel facing the beach.

The following day after an official reception the princess and duchess travelled in a carriage to Melbury House in north Dorset to be entertained there by the Earl of Ilchester.  They were accompanied out of town by many of the inhabitants and a detachment of Lt.Col. Frampton’s Troop of Dorsetshire Yeomanry. Every prominent building in Dorchester was decorated with flowers, and there were flags waving and the sound of bells and cannons as horses were changed en route to Maiden Newton and Melbury, where according to Victoria’s diary they arrived at about 5 p.m.

A visit to Sherborne Castle had been suggested but did not take place. While at Melbury their royal highnesses ascended a tower and had the shapes of their feet cut on the leads. They enjoyed the park, the lake, the great house, and the church.

After a two-night stay the party was on the road again at 9.15 a.m. on August 1 to be “enthusiastically received” at Beaminster, where there were arches of flowers across the road. The carriage passed through the recently opened Russell Tunnel. The Dorset County Chronicle told of “spontaneous outbursts of enthusiasm” being received everywhere the royal party went.  This was at a time when there was pressure for a republic; it was the period of the Reform Act and agricultural disputes, which in a few months would become illuminated as several agricultural labourers from a small Dorset parish would emerge to become those Dorset heroes forever remembered as the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

At Bridport the ‘royals’ were given a hearty reception by the inhabitants but, according to Hine’s History of Beaminster, were angry that they were “not received by the Mayor and Corporation”.  Then onto Charmouth and Lyme Regis, where there were triumphal arches – and where the “Emerald” was waiting. Every boat in port was filled with paying spectators. Here, in 1685, the Duke of Monmouth landed to lead a revolt against King James II. Mayor John Hussey, in his public address, noted that the princess’s visit was taking place on the anniversary of the Protestant Succession to the throne.

Here, as she boarded the yacht, Princes Victoria was reunited with Dashy her dog. Sailing to Torquay, she remarked on the beautiful coastline and cliffs but both she and her mother were sick on approaching Torquay. From there, after an overnight hotel stay it was off by sea to Plymouth for several days in Devon.

On August 7 an informal return trip was made by coach, changing horses at six places including Bridport and Dorchester, with a military escort from Winfrith to Wareham and Swanage. Passing Corfe Castle, the princess noted in her diary some of the climactic events in history that had taken place there. The reception at Swanage was unforgettable for the young princess, and she must have been sorry to leave Dorset as she embarked with her mother on the “Emerald” for “dear Norris.”

It had been close on six weeks of strenuous activity since they left London. The ‘Royal Progress’ was one of a number leading up to the crowning of Queen Victoria. When that happened, exactly five years after her tour of Dorset, the county must have been proud to have been part of the grand design.. In Sturminster Newton, Gillingham, Cerne Abbas, Sydling, and Evershot, there were demonstrations of loyalty on the occasion of the “beloved Queen’s” coronation, but most of all perhaps in those communities the Queen had visited as a girl. Celebratory dinners were held in Ilchester and Lyme Regis, and at Dorchester there was a ball and much merriment at the King’s Arms and a gathering at the Antelope Hotel and a band wound its way around the streets.

Residents of an almshouse in South Street were regaled with roast beef, plum pudding and beer. At Weymouth, meanwhile, all the shipping in the Bay and Portland Roads was gaily attired and there was a procession along the Esplanade. Along the coast at Poole no less than 2,000 Sunday school children gathered for a “substantial dinner”, while vessels at Bridport Harbour were dressed overall.

Victoria, who first learned of her destiny at the age of 10, moved into Buckingham Palace. Her marriage to Albert was to come. She served as queen until 1901, becoming Empress of India in 1876, creating a new ceremonial style of monarchy, with social rather than political emphasis, and thus preserving it, and giving her name to a whole new age of modernism and expansion.

Notes: Extract from Dorchester’s Municipal Records relating to this story:

1833: Aug 2nd. Locket, for ringing on occasion of the Duchess of Kent and the Princess Victoria passing thro’ Dorchester (Per order of the Mayor) £1.0s.0d.

Paid Oliver, Churchwarden of The Holy Trinity (Per order of the Mayor) expenses incurred on the above occasion £1.17s.0d.

Lyme and Christchurch – A Comparative Study of Dorset’s Bookends

One interesting aspect of studying towns is how the local geology can so often influence their development. This can be expressed either in topographical terms or in economic terms (such as earth resources providing the raw materials for certain industries.) Dorset furnishes us with a quite unique example in the pair of towns marking the extreme western and eastern ends of the county along the south coast. Lyme Regis and Christchurch could be regarded as the county’s bookends, though they are very different in character. And this distinction can be explained as a reflection of the stark contrasts in the nature of their terrains, or geology of their environments.

Lyme’s position in the west of the county has always meant that its growth has been subject to some restraint because of the hilly nature of that part of Dorset. The precipitous relief is mainly due to the presence of the hard Liassic limestone of the Jurassic period, which underlies and encompasses the town. Indeed, the road running north-west in and out of Lyme has a mean gradient of about 1 in 3 and takes several sharp turns to avoid even steeper slopes.

On the other hand, Christchurch has grown up within the much more open and gentler terrain of east Dorset, underlain by much younger and softer sands and clays of the Tertiary era. This area if not one of steep hills, valleys and coombes, but of a flatter landscape giving rise to marsh, water meadows and the infertile acid heathland extending behind Bournemouth and Poole and into the Isle of Purbeck. Settlement here therefore has never experienced the topographical restraints of the west and so easy communications and access have given free reign to the growth of Christchurch as a populous resort.

Lyme Regis and Christchurch have of course a seaside situation in common and both are, for that reason, unable to expand southwards. But whereas there are no obvious or insurmountable barriers to the growth of Christchurch in the other three directions, this is not so for Lyme. Today this town is a Mecca for tourism of a predominantly thematic nature, a specialisation which has more to do with what the local rocks contain than with any difficulty of access their topographical expression may present.

The Liassic strata which outcrops in the west Dorset cliffs literally teems with thousands of fossils, principally the remains of ammonites and marine reptiles. These vestiges of Dorset’s remotest antiquity have made Lyme a honeypot for scientists and fossil collectors for over 300 years, and today the damage and erosion arising from this intensity of casual collecting is greater than ever. Because of this immensely important resource for scientific enquiry, the cliffs at Black Ven and Charmouth near Lyme form the western extremity of the internationally important Heritage (or Jurassic) Coast SSSI. This makes the town effectively Britain’s, if not the world’s capital of ‘fossil tourism.’

Yet it is these same cliffs which are impacting on Lyme’s prospects for growth in other ways. The hard limestone bands throughout the Lias deposit which are responsible for enclosing the town with steep slopes are interspersed with soft unconsolidated clays which, when waterlogged, can easily propagate landslides. Landslips, particularly the major Downlands slip of 1839 are clearly in evidence along the urban shoreline and such is their instability that they cannot be built upon, so constricting any development eastwards and westwards, as well as to the north. In addition, sea quarrying of the Lias Ledges in the early 19th century contributed yet more to the damage of the coastal sections.

As might be expected in a hill-rimmed coastal situation, evidence of Lyme’s prehistoric past is scanty. Some New Stone Age artefacts from around 3,500 BC have been found locally, and the Romans built a villa at nearby Holcombe to be closely associated with their road (now part of the A35.) The first documented reference to Lyme is from 744, referring to a manor and salt rights. Following an initial prosperity as a medieval market and trading port, it suffered a near catastrophic recession, contraction, and de-population from the mid 17th to the early 19th century, when it recovered, through the Victorian fashion for bathing and drinking seawater. Today the town is a fashionable retirement centre, where visitors and incomers regularly outnumber the long-established population by four or five to one.

One peculiarity of the old town – seen in Coombe Street – does owe its origin directly to the serious shortage of land and cramped site conditions in the borough. This is a drangway or narrow public passage giving access to courts or cottages behind, and has encouraged much of the haphazard planning favoured by modern landscape architects. It is also significant that Lyme was inaccessible to wheeled traffic until the opening of the turnpike road in 1759.

By contrast, Christchurch is in a very different league. Here there are no high cliffs or hills sheltering the town from inland. The soft underlying tertiary strata is poorly exposed and lacks the spectacular fossils of the kind that would arrest the interest of the casual collector. Instead, the town has grown up in the midst of extensive marsh and water meadows created by confluence of the Stour and Avon, which form a natural, though not inexceedable, boundary to the borough.

Not surprisingly, evidence of prehistoric settlement at this site is far richer than at Lyme and includes Old, Middle and New Stone Age implements extending back at least 12,000 years. There are also indications that the harbour was already in use as a port facility in prehistoric times. On the south side of the harbour is the promontory of Hengistbury Head, a further very significant site of early prehistoric activity. Here on this headland of grasses and bushes growing in orange-yellow sands prehistoric people constructed a double dyke across the neck of the promontory and appear to have operated a crude flint-tool industry, leaving their wasters for today’s archaeologists to find.

Just as Christchurch is richer in archaeology, so accordingly is it in the raw resources for home grown industries. For instance, on the eastern slopes of Hengistbury Head the sands contain a formation of ironstone in the form of ‘doggers’ formerly quarried and sent to Beaulieu to be smelted into iron fittings for naval ships. Removal of many of the Hengistbury doggers and boulders from the foreshore however, encouraged a problem of coastal erosion until quarrying ceased once it became unprofitable. The now abandoned ironstone pit has been flooded to create a scenic wildlife lake.

The configuration of its coastline and the presence of a long harbour also made Christchurch as favourable to 18th and 19th century smugglers as Lyme, and fishing was still important in the 19th century, as was working on the land, brewing, glove-making, hosiery and making watch chains.

The two rivers of the Frome and Avon have provided water-power for driving mill wheels, and are also noted for their salmon catches and farms. The absence of prominent hills makes the district favourable for aviation, as at nearby Hurn airport.