Dorset Ancestors Rotating Header Image

Thomas Hardy

Melbury Osmond

The father of the bride did not approve of his daughter marrying the young man from Affpuddle but Betty Swetman went ahead anyway and married George Hand at St Osmond’s church, two days after Christmas 1804.  Mr. Swetman’s fears proved unfounded and the couple appear to have enjoyed a happy marriage and had several children. 

In 1835 their fifth child, Jemima, on returning from a stay in London, went to live near Stinsford, a parish a short distance from Dorchester, where she met a builder who she married on the 22nd of December 1839 at St. Osmond’s church. There is a framed copy of their marriage certificate displayed in the church. The following year the couple’s first child was born; he was given his father’s name and was destined to become Dorset’s most famous son: Thomas Hardy.

This unspoilt and picturesque village is approached along a weaving lane, lined with thatched stone cottages, many of which have stood here since the 17th century. The lane continues to a shallow ford where there is a small footbridge over the water.

The parish church dedicated to St. Osmond stands in the village. The west tower was built in the 15th century but, except for the tower-arch and some walling above it, this and the whole of the rest of the church was rebuilt in 1745, the cost born by Mrs Susanna Strangeways Horner. The chancel was rebuilt during restoration works in 1888 by Sir Arthur Bloomfield, in the style of the 13th century.  The work was commissioned by the 5th Earl of Ilchester.  Arthur Mee relates that in the 19th century “a font thought to be Norman was found built into the wall and is now in its place again, looking almost too new to be true.” The tower was home to five bells; in 1954 two of the bells were recast and the remaining three were retuned. The following year a new bell chamber was constructed and in 1967 a new treble bell was added.

In addition to the church the RCHM found a dozen 17th century cottages and several other buildings worthy of mention. In its history there was an extensive trade in plated buckles and horn buttons; dowlas (a course cloth) was manufactured here. Melbury comes from the Old English ‘maele’ and ‘burh,’ translated this means ‘many coloured fortified place,’ the suffix a reference to the dedication of the church.
In his novels and short stories Thomas Hardy called this village, “Kings Hintock and Little Hintock”.

The Parish Church of St. Andrew – West Stafford

The parish of West Stafford lies to the east of Dorchester and south of the River Frome its 1,000 acres dissected by the Winterborne, which flows north east across the parish. Within the parish boundaries there are several important houses including Stafford House parts of which are dated from 1633, with a more recent west front designed by the eminent Victorian architect Benjamin Ferry.

The present church survives from the 17th century but there are many indications of an earlier building. The west end of the south wall of a 15th century nave and the west tower built in the 16th century remain.

There is no structural division between the nave and chancel, rebuilt to a simple rectangular plan in 1640; the south porch was added at the same time. Further structural alterations were made in 1898 when the present chancel was added; the chancel screen was moved eastward and the 17th century chancel became a part of the nave. In the east wall of the chancel is a re-used 15th century window.

One of the two buttresses on the north wall of the nave is inscribed ‘John Dashwood 1640.’ The north doorway is blocked off and the easternmost window of the nave is of 1640 and the second window is of 16th century while the third window, which has a moulded oak lintel, also dates from 1640.

The south wall of the nave is dated 1640 but the western end is 15th century and the 16th century south doorway has stones numbered for rebuilding. The easternmost window and the third window in the south wall are 15th century but the second window is 16th century and similar to the second window in the north wall.

The roof of the nave (1640) is divided into panels by moulded ribs with turned pendants at the intersections. The elaborate panelling in the two easternmost bays shows the extent of the original chancel. At the back of the nave to the left of the door is a medieval baptismal font an octagonal straight sided bowl and notched square stem. The pews in the nave have been restored but date from 1640.

The three storeys of the 16th century west tower are divided externally by a moulded string course and have a moulded plinth, parapet string and embattled parapet and diagonal buttresses on the west end. A stair turret projects on the north side and rises higher than the main tower. There is a west doorway to the tower above which is a window: the second storey window in the east wall is 15th century. There is a window in each wall of the bell chamber, which houses three bells all by John Wallis, two are dated 1620 and one 1595.

The nave gives the impression of being smaller than its 45ft x 20ft dimensions; the panelled ceiling and the number of large wall and floor slab monuments is perhaps responsible. On the north wall a monument to William England, Archdeacon of Dorset 1835 and to Margaret his widow 1837; John Gould of Milbourne St. Andrew, erected by his executors in 1727. Hanging in the chancel is a brass candelabrum inscribed ‘The Gift of John Gould Esqr. Anno Domi 1713.’ The Royal Arms of King James I painted on wood panel with a painted frame. On the south is a wall monument to Richard Russell 1638, Richard Russell 1660, Richard Russell 1667, Rectors and patrons, erected by Elizabeth Russell in 1674. On the north and south walls of the nave the remains of theDecalogue and Creed in black lettering 1640.

There are several brasses on the nave walls including on the north wall, to Giles Long, patron of the living, 1592; and on the south wall to Robert White 1680; to Robert White, grandson of Richard Russell, Rector and patron. In the chancel there are four 18th and 19th  century paintings, copies of old masters.

Literary scholars will tell you of West Stafford’s associations with Thomas Hardy. St. Andrew’s is the setting for the marriage of Angel Clare to Tess and a little to the east of the village on Talbot’s Mead is Talbothay’s Lodge, which Hardy designed for his brother. Travel a little farther east and you will come across Lower Lewell Farm, the place where Angel and Tess met, in Hardy’s novel it is called Talbothay’s Dairy.

Tryphena Sparks 1851-1890

She was born on the 20th of March 1851. Seven days later her mother went to the Registry Office and formally declared her daughter’s arrival in to the world. She was the sixth child so her parents were by now quite used to taking their children to St. Mary’s church at Puddletown for baptism and they were quietly confident this would be the last time – mother then being 46 years old. Although Tryphena was not baptised until she was six years old.

Fit and healthy, the girl sailed through school and at the age of 15 became a pupil teacher.  Her parents were justly proud when at the age of 18 she went on to a teacher training college in London.  On completion of her course in December 1871 she immediately applied for and was offered the position of headmistress at a day school for girls in Plymouth, Devon.  This was a prestigious post with a salary of about £100 a year – a princely sum for someone from a rural background well used to living amongst people scratching a living from the countryside.

Six years later she resigned her teaching post at Plymouth and married the proprietor of a public house. The couple had a daughter followed by three sons. After the birth of her last child there were complications from which she never fully recovered. Her health deteriorated and she passed away on the 17th of March 1890, just three days before her 39th birthday. She was buried at Topsham in Devon.

Her life had been full, interesting and worthwhile but not remarkable, which begs the question: why, when we enter her name into an Internet search engine, are we offered thousands of entries? Being the cousin of Thomas Hardy would not alone account for Tryphena Sparks’ posthumous celebrity.

In 1890 on hearing of her death Hardy penned a poem he entitled ‘Thoughts of Phena at News of Her Death’ in which he referred to her as “…my lost prize.”  The poem was first published as part of Wessex Poems in 1898 but  interest about a relationship between Tryphena and Thomas Hardy really took hold in 1962 with the publication of ‘Tryphena and Thomas Hardy’ by Lois Deacon in the ’Monographs on the Life, Times and Works of Thomas Hardy’ series.  Deacon claimed the couple had a child together and suggested Tryphena was the daughter of her “supposed elder sister,” Rebecca.  In 1968 Lois Deacon and Terry Coleman published their book ‘Providence and Mr Hardy’ repeating the sensational claim about their being a child.

A few Hardy scholars came out and supported Deacon in her claims and by the early 1970’s even the pages of The Dorset Year Book became part of the battlefield for warring scholars. The claims have been given no credence by Hardy biographers and we have failed to find any hard evidence such as a birth certificate, baptism register entry, census record, or death certificate and conclude that Lois Deacon read too much between the lines of the novels and poetry of Thomas Hardy and relied too much on the memories of a very old lady, Mrs. Eleanor Bromell, Tryphena’s daughter.

Accountants, we are told, can make figures say whatever you want them to say and so it is often the case with family historians who are tempted to bend the facts to fit in with their wishful thinking. It seems Lois Deacon may have fallen into this trap and read far too much into three little words and in the process elevated a young Dorset born school teacher into something approaching cult status.

There are photos of Tryphena Sparks in the photo gallery

Mrs Bligdon’s Bakery and the Birth of the Dorset Knob

This is the story of a Dorset woman who owned and ran the bakery where the first Dorset Knobs were baked. Maria Bligdon could not claim to have conceived the recipe for the delicacy but she was certainly instrumental in its birth and growth in popularity, particularly in West Dorset, where it is still produced.
In 1815, Fordington was a densely populated parish on the edge of the county town of Dorchester. Living conditions there were filthy and squalid, so it is difficult to imagine what could have brought William Pitcher to this place from Powerstock, where he would have enjoyed a rural lifestyle with fresh air in abundance. The same could be said of Maria Longman who came from Rimpton Mill near Yeovil, just over the county border in Somerset. It is possible these two young people knew each other previously or may even have travelled there together because on the 22nd of March 1815 they were married at St. Georges Church.

After marrying they didn’t linger in Fordington; they travelled through Dorchester they headed west, settling in the parish of Litton Cheney. Here, they would have been more at home. The stone and thatched cottages, many dating back to the 17th century at ease beside the twisting lanes and busy streams, would have been much more to their liking than the over-crowded tenements of the Dorchester suburb.
William and Maria would have worshipped here at the original church dedicated to St. Mary; what we see today is the result of an extensive restoration completed in 1878. It is at St. Mary’s their children were all baptised: Jesse on 11th of August 1816; Mary Brown on 31st of May 1818; John on 5th of March 1820; Nimshi on 13th of October 1822; Levi on 26th of March 1824; Daniel on 9th of September 1826; Maria Brown on 11th of August 1828; Elizabeth Martha Longman on 25th of July 1830 (Buried on 10th of May 1836); William Longman Brown on 19th of May 1833; and Jane on 18th of December 1834 (Buried on 4th of January 1835.) Brown is a reference to grandmother Pitcher’s maiden name.

William Pitcher was born at Powerstock, where he was baptised on Christmas Day 1789. William was the first son of Samuel and Mary Pitcher and he was a miller. Maria Longman, his wife, was born in 1795 at Rimpton Mill, which is near Yeovil and not so very far away from the Dorset town of Sherborne.
William handed down his knowledge of milling and baking to his children. In 1851 we find his eldest son, Jesse, working as a journeyman miller at Malassie Mill, St. Savior, Jersey; Levi was working as a miller at Notton Mills, Maiden Newton and William was a Journeyman Baker still living with his parents. One son, William, was a tailor by trade and lived at Portesham.

But it is their daughter Maria who is of particular interest to us. By all accounts she was a formidable woman with striking looks and great strength; reputedly she could handle a sack of flour as well as any man and was known for having her own way.

Early in 1852 Maria married John Bligdon, a man born and brought-up in Litton Cheney, where he was a boot and shoe maker. Soon after their marriage, Maria, who until then had been working as a servant, was able to persuade her husband to let her start a bakery business in the village, which became known as White Cross Bakers and later as White Cross Grocer and Baker Shop.

The business started in a small way with one assistant but quickly grew. Bakery products were delivered by horse and cart to villages with in a radius of about ten miles. In 1881 many villages in Dorset were cut off for days because of deep snow. To meet the pressing need of some of the villages her horses were shod with special nails that prevented slipping, the bread was packed into panniers slung on each side of the horses and a convoy set off on its difficult journey to reach some of the more distant customers.

In 1881 Maria Bligdon employed three bakers and two servants, all living on the premises. Her husband continued his business as a cordwainer. One of these bakers, a Mr Moores, brought with him a recipe for Dorset Knobs, a round savoury biscuit that quickly became a favourite with the customers. It is named after the Dorset knob button. The recipe consists of bread dough to which extra sugar and butter are added. The dough is then shaped by hand and baked three times; the result is very crumbly and similar to a rusk.
Nellie Titterington, Thomas Hardy’s, parlour maid, revealed that the author “would most enjoy a cup of soup, followed by two boiled eggs. He finished his meal with Dorset knobs and Stilton cheese, both favourites of Mr Hardy, Dorset knobs especially.”

With fat bacon the Dorset Knob formed the main diet of the men employed by Maria Bligdon at her Litton Cheney bake house and the biscuits were despatched to Dorset soldiers fighting in Africa during the Boer Wars.

Pound Cake was another speciality of the bakery and sold for sixpence a pound; her gooseberry tart was also very popular. A custom from the old days was the making of dough cake; the dough was supplied by the bakery to the villagers who made it into cakes which were baked at the bake house.
Those less fortunate, living off parish relief and seeking employment, were given penny bread tickets, which the bakery accepted towards the cost of a loaf of bread, at that time about four pence. The bakery would accept about £5 worth of tickets every month. Given that in those days there were two hundred and forty pence to the pound we can see Mrs Bligdon’s bakery was very busy.

Maria Bligdon was buried at Litton Cheney on 8th of January 1891 aged 63. Her husband, John, died in 1896. It is said that one of their sons took over the business and closed it in 1916. We have found no record of any children and believe it was a nephew who took over the business.

When Mr Moores left the bakery he went to Morcombelake where his sons started a business and produced Dorset Knobs. That business is still in existence today and during January and February the firm continues to bake Dorset Knobs, which are retailed mainly through smaller grocery outlets and exported.

St. Martins – Broadmayne

Straddling the main Dorchester to Wareham road, Broadmayne, it has to be said, is not one of the prettiest of Dorset villages. In the 18th century there were kilns here producing bricks made from local clay so it is surprising that only one brick-built cottage of the period, dated 1732, has survived here and you will not find many other examples from this period in the county. Don’t be fooled by the appearance of the 13th century Manor house; what appear to be bricks are simply tiles added in the 19th century for protection. Modern housing detracts from the few surviving older cottages.

Dedicated to St. Martin the parish church is at the north-west end of the village, visible from and alongside the main road.  The walls are faced, roughly squared and coursed rubble with ashlar dressings, all of Portland stone; the roofs are tiled, with stone-slated verges. Depending on your point of view the church benefited or suffered from extensive restoration during the Victorian era. The architect Thomas Hardy, later novelist and poet, while articled to the Dorchester firm of J. Hicks, drew up the plans for the work in 1865-66 and his drawings are on display in the vestry.

St. Martin’s is unusual in that it has a south tower with the lower stage ground floor doubling as a porch where there is a piscina and stoup and on the outside wall, east of the door, is a scratch dial. The positioning of the tower was probably dictated by the land, which slopes away quite sharply to the west of the church. The tower is of the 13th century but the upper stage was rebuilt late in the 15th century or early 16th century.

 The entrance is through the porch into the 14th century nave. The window by the font and the large west window over the west door are 15th century in the Perpendicular style. The font of Portland stone is of the 15th century and has been restored. There are stoups outside both the south and west doorways. The north aisle, north arcade and vestry were added during the 19th century restoration and the entrance to the vestry from the north aisle is through the original 14th century chancel arch.

Hardy’s plans for the restoration work clearly show that there were galleries on the north and west sides of the nave. The windows in the north aisle are all of similar design and of the 19th century with the exception of the most easterly one which, though of the same design, is 14th century.

Dating from the 13th century the chancel is the oldest part of the church with original windows. From the outside it is possible to see the priest’s door in the south wall – now blocked up. The chancel arch is Victorian; the original 14th century arch, as we have seen, is still employed in the church.

In the 12th and 13th centuries this place was known as Maine Martel and the Martel family were the Lords of the Manor. In the north aisle is a 13th century coffin lid that was found in the churchyard during work on a 1980’s road widening scheme. The floral cross carved on the lid can still be made out. Other monuments within the church include ones to Eliza, wife of John Gardiner 1834; Laura Hussey 1845; several to members of the Urquhart family during the 19th century. In the churchyard William Gatch and his wife 1691 and 1698; John Sherren and his son Henry and Thomasine, Henry’s wife, 1714, 1752 and 1761; Jeremiah Pount 1692; John Tibbes 1712;  Phillip Tibbes 1703; Phillip Bard 1700; and Jeffrey Samway 1737.

Hardy’s Wessex – 170 Years On

The 2nd of June 1990 dawned as a day of great moment for the people of Dorchester. The county town was festooned with bunting, and there was a carnival atmosphere, for that week Dorchester and its county were observing and celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Dorset’s greatest son in the world of words: Thomas Hardy.

It is not the intention here to present yet another potted chronological discourse on Hardy’s life and works. For that one can refer to any one of about a dozen exhaustive biographies currently in print. Instead, this is a speculative account of how the great man would find his patch of native soil today, and to contrast his Dorset with today’s Dorset. Were Hardy to come back today, would he soon need counselling for culture shock? This is perhaps more than just idle speculation, because as elsewhere so much has changed in society, economics, the environment and infrastructure since the innocent carefree days of the 1920’s when a bed-ridden Hardy took his last breath during a stormy January night.

Hardy’s birth-cottage at Bockhampton has of course been pickled in aspic for posterity, but Max Gate, the home he later built for himself near Dorchester, had a virgin beginning. When the author first moved into the rather oppressive redbrick house in the latter 19th century it stood almost in the middle of nowhere, a new dwelling place on a blank field. The fringe of Dorchester then maintained a respectable distance, but the march of time has put paid to Max Gate’s isolation. Today the house, now in the care of the National Trust, became hemmed in some 30 years ago by an estate of modern housing. Not far to the north the green belt country which once separated the author from his county town has since been torn asunder by the course of the town’s southern bypass.

Max Gate was soon besieged by admirers collecting souvenirs from the garden or hoping to catch a glimpse of the author at work. To ensure his privacy, one of the first things Hardy did at his self-styled home was to plant saplings out in the front, one of which he had tenderly reared in a pot on his windowsill while he was living at Wimborne. By the night he died they were noble in-closing trees darkening the rooms, but which waved their branches in farewell in the January gale when the old man died.

The author of ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ would at least be pleased to see that the Max Gate trees have of course been protected and preserved, but over the years many other trees and hedgerows countywide would have succumbed to disease, neglect, vandalism or development. The manageable farm holdings of Hardy’s day have fallen prey to the post-war industrialisation of arable agriculture, with its powered machinery such as combine harvesters and suction milking machines, laying off milkmaids from milking sheds and the many who once harvested the crops with scythes and slaked their thirst with cider swigged from stoneware flagons brought onto the field. They were the agrarians who needed no pesticides, herbicides or artificial fertilisers; they would never know the meaning of BSE, CJD, Scarpie, Wine Lakes, Butter Mountains or paperwork from Brussels.

From Max Gate, Hardy could look towards his ancestral parish of Stinsford. It was here in St. Michael’s Church that his parents met and fell in love while playing together in the Church band. Thomas Hardy Sr. was a fine violinist, an instrument his famous son also took up when he too joined the family band. At that time St. Michael’s had high-backed pews and a minstrel’s gallery where the band played during the services. The gallery has long since been removed to accommodate the organ and the pews too, have been replaced by single seats. (Note: New gallery and organ installed in 1996 – see Parish Church article.)

At the time of Hardy’s death there were still some communities in the remoter parts of the county without electricity. Electrification did not come to Whitchurch Canonicorum in the Marshwood Vale, for instance, until the 1920’s. Today every village, if not every home can tap into the national grid, so releasing its share of CO2 to the global warming debate. In the days of Hardy’s youth such energy profligacy would not have been possible, and the highly efficient insulating effect of thatching would have made the typical Dorset cottage of the early 19th century a very low emission home!

Furthermore, it would have been (almost) zero-emission in waste. Those were the days when dustbins were for dust – or the cinders raked from the previous night’s fire. Vegetable peelings from the kitchen would likely have paled into insignificance the number of food containers left over from the simple purchases at the village corner shop. And if Hardy were alive today he would surely look back with nostalgia on the days when so much more food was produced and consumed locally.

But even living in his own time the author could never have imagined or even dreamed that within 60 years of his death people would be forced to travel several miles by bus or car to shop at an out-of-town multi-national hypermarket taking up the space of two football pitches. Similarly that he would witness a rash of takeaways blighting the green urban fringes to dish out fast meals of convenience, or a countryside blighted by power pylons, phone masts, vulgar advertising hoardings or distracting road signs. Besides the visual pollution the author would have been shocked by the elevated decibels of noise as well.

Another great change, this time in the landscape of the county, which would likely have appalled the writer was the commercial afforrestation of the heaths. Hardy had long been captivated by the mystic, enchanted atmosphere of his Egdon Heath at dawn and dusk. So much so that he once invited the Cheltenham-born composer Gustav Holst to visit and get a feel for the heath with the intention of capturing its essence in a composition. Back at work in Gloucestershire Holst’s score became his popular orchestral tone-poem ‘Egdon Heath.’ This heath retains something of its primordial atmosphere today; sadly though, the economic imperative of needing to replace timber stocks after the First World War became paramount, and other heath land was to disappear under conifer plantation managed by the Forestry Commission within the last decade of Hardy’s life.

Compared with Hardy’s day it might be thought that today’s Dorset is a place more selfish, uncaring and destitute of moral rectitude. Certainly during the late 19th century a remarkable evangelical revival was underway, turning people’s thoughts back to the wise council of the scriptures as a guide in their daily lives. The reward for this observance was a prosperity that grew and blossomed in a climate of public order and deference to authority. Yet  Hardy’s later friend and fellow county-man, Newman Flower, could write in ‘Just as it Happened’ that as late as the 1890’s people were being thrown into Poole Harbour at election time, gamekeepers were being shot at in woods, and horsemen were being ambushed by robbers “of Dick Turpin order” on the highways.

It would however, not entirely be correct to think that the comparison between the Dorset Hardy knew and the Dorset as we know it concerns two distinct sets of conditions with no margin for overlap. From what has gone before, a definite conclusion emerges. It is that the socio-economic changes which have culminated in the “shock of the new” making the England of the 1990’s and now the 21st century what it is had already begun in Hardy’s lifetime. This is because he could bear witness to the negative effects of the aftermath of the Great War, which began to appear incrementally in society in the decade following the armistice. And it did not stop at the decline of morals and the advance of electrification, petrol-driven vehicles and telecommunications. Hardy still lived to see the first five years of radio broadcasting and even the first lowly beginning of television transmission.

But overall technology was still at a comparatively primitive level in Victorian England, and hi-tech was virtually unknown. Bearing this in mind it may come as no surprise to some that it was only gradually that Hardy overcame an inherent predisposition to technophobia. He balked at the new technology and revolution in travel brought about by motor cars when they arrived, declaring that legs were in our gift for walking on, not to wrap up in a fur to operate pedals! Even the telephone became an object of suspicion. Years went by before he used the telephone installed at Max Gate, and only then was his resistance broken when a lifelong friend rang “Dorchester 43” one day and insisted on speaking to him personally. Once this rubicon was crossed, however, he was ever after faithful to the invention.

In conclusion it is perhaps best to say that, on balance, the changes in Dorset over the past 170 years have been an inevitable double-edged sword of the bad and the good, of both progressive and retrograde steps.

Monolith on Batcombe Hill

Above the village on Batcombe Hill, an area of outstanding natural beauty offering views over Somerset clear to the Bristol Channel, there stands an upright stone pillar a little under four feet in height.

This pillar, which is a monolith of hard oolithic stone, with fragments of fossils appearing on its surface, stems from a rectangular base, chamfered at the four angles, measuring about 7 inches by 8 inches, the longest sides facing to the east and west. It is difficult to make out but above this base runs a semi-circular moulding. Rising from this moulding is the major part of the pillar; its statistics measured by circumference being 34 inches at the lower part, 33 inches in the middle and 28 inches at the top of the shaft. The overall height is just 46 inches. These measurements were taken on the 16th of July 1889. Round the top of the shaft runs another semi-circular moulding similar to that at the base and it is topped off by a spherical capital.

This stone known as the Cross-in-Hand has been described as mystic, it has been suggested it could be the site of a harrowing murder or perhaps a miracle; on the other hand it may just be a mislaid boundary marker. It has been stated that a devotional cross once stood here and the pillar or stump is all that remains. No recognised authority has said what its purpose is or what it represents.

Nevertheless over the years it has attracted much interest. In his novel ‘Tess’ Thomas Hardy’s character Alex D’Uberville claims that the pillar is a “Holy Cross” but turn a few pages and a passing shepherd suggests to Tess “…’Tis a thing of ill-omen miss…”

In 1889 the Revd. C.R. Baskett related a legend, which he credited to a Mrs Cockeram “whose whole life was spent near Batcombe Hill, and whose memory was stored with Dorset legends.”

The legend has it that back in the middle ages, one dark and stormy winter’s night the Batcombe priest was called out to administer holy communion to a man close to death. Taking pyx and his service book the priest set off travelling through the storm across Batcombe Down to the sick man’s house. On arriving he found that he had dropped the pyx on the way and so he ventured forth back into the storm faced with the hopeless task of finding it.

Back on Batcombe Down he saw a pillar of fire reaching from heaven to earth and shining in the night. He could make out cattle kneeling in a circle around the pyx and the steady beam of light. According to Mrs Cockeram the stone is all that remains of a cross that was set up here. Hardy’s poem ‘The Lost Pyx’ is based on this legend.

Nellie Titterington – Maid of Max Gate Pt.2

Whatever happened at Max Gate now that her master was dead, Nellie knew she would not be working there for much longer; she would have been thinking about how to keep her pregnancy a private matter.

Nellie’s employment at Max Gate was full time and she lived in. Her hours of work being 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. with one half day off during the week and she had either Sunday morning or Sunday afternoon off  leaving little time for romance. Besides her employer the only other male in the household was the gardener Mr. Bert Stephens: he didn’t live in. There was a procession of distinguished men who regularly visited Hardy and later in her life Nellie commented about some of them quite warmly but most likely the father of her child was a lad from Dorchester. Whoever he was Nellie kept his identity to herself.

The widowed Florence Hardy shut up Max Gate and moved to London where in the closing days of August 1928 she took a flat or suite of rooms at the Adelphi Terrace. She wrote to Nellie telling her she needed the companionship of someone she could trust– Nellie later said this was quite a change of heart for, at Max Gate, Florence trusted no one. Mrs Hardy would have been surprised and taken aback not to have received a reply to her offer of a position.

For Nellie this was a dream job, an opportunity to be reacquainted with her mistress’s celebrity friends from the literary and artistic worlds, albeit from below stairs. So what kept the maid from skipping to the post box with a letter of acceptance?

While Florence was moving into her London accommodation her maid was in Dorset County Hospital, Dorchester where, on the 28th of August 1928, she gave birth to a baby girl.

A member of the extended family has told me “…her family wouldn’t let her keep the child and it was given to….” The birth was registered on September 20th and a certificate issued by the Registrar Mr F.J.Kendall.  In the margin of the certificate is a one word declaration signed by the Superintendent Registrar, Mr Henry Osmond Lock: the word is “Adopted.”  The arrangements for the adoption were well advanced before the arrival of the child who filled a gap in the lives of the adopting couple and ensured the child would be out of sight if not out of mind.

Nellie’s dramatically altered circumstances meant that later when she opened her front door and saw the mistress of Max Gate on the step she could accept Florence Hardy’s repeated offer to join her in London. The move from the steady pace of life in the County town to all the excitement and hurly-burly of life in the capital was just the tonic Nellie needed and she would be free of all the knowing glances and gossiping neighbours speculating in whispers about who was the father of her child.

In case you are wondering, Nellie named her daughter Florence Maxina Eunice, which tells us something of how she felt about her time with the Hardy’s, but later in life she said her days at Max Gate were not the happiest of her life. The inclusion of Eunice in the child’s name confirms Nellie knew who was going to bring up her child. We are left to wonder if Nellie followed her daughter’s life from a distance and if she knew the girl married and had four children.

The extent of Hardy’s fortune came as a complete shock to the two women but the gaiety of London life brought about a dramatic change in Florence. She became an altogether happier, less inhibited person, able to spend her miserly husband’s legacy. During this time Florence forged a friendship with Sir James Barrie, for whom Nellie would cook simple dinners at their flat. When a later quarrel ended the friendship with the author of Peter Pan, Florence and Nellie returned to Max Gate and soon after Nellie left Max Gate for good.

In the spring of 1941 Nellie’s mother passed away. Later in her life Nellie recalls that Hardy would often ask her to post letters for him at the General Post Office in South Street, Dorchester. Florence Hardy used to apologise for this cycle journey into the town, but Nellie didn’t mind because it gave her a chance to look in on her Mother for a few minutes.

In one edition of the Dorset Yearbook there is an article, which is the story in effect a biographic testimonial as related to a woman called Hilary Townsend, by Nellie towards the end of her life when in service caring for the author’s invalid mother. Despite becoming more infirm through arthritis she rarely left the old woman’s side, and still carried out all the domestic duties. One day she told her charge’s daughter: “If I stopped coming to you ma’am I shall die – I know I shall.”

Indeed, her words proved to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. One Saturday in 1977 Nellie Titterington missed her regular visit, saying that she was unwell. By Monday she was dead. The following day, the 24th of May, her younger sister Margaret Grace Hocking went to the Registrar’s office to record that Ellen Elizabeth Titterington a domestic servant of 1 Marie Road, Dorchester, had died.

So departed a highly intelligent, ever cheerful, unforgettable domestic servant who would be delighted to know that people are still talking and writing about her.

[We have looked at the Hardy biographies (Seymour-Smith, Millgate & Tomalin,) the Monographs, Dr Marguerite Roberts work ‘Florence Hardy & the Max Gate Circle’ and Hilary Townsend’s article in the Dorset Year Book series as well as civil registration and census records and found nothing to suggest Florence Hardy knew about Nellie’s child.]

[We have placed a photograph of Miss Titterington in the photo section.]

Nellie Titterington – Maid of Max Gate Pt.1

She was a domestic in a class apart: a kindly, no-nonsense servant living towards the tail end of the age of domestic service. But Nellie Titterington was not just another woman in service in a household of the gentry or privileged upper class. She was privy to the private life and foibles of Dorset’s – and one of the worlds – most noted literary figures. For Nellie was the last, the longest serving, most understanding and probably the best parlour maid Thomas Hardy employed in his household.

Nellie Tetterington’s story begins with her birth on the 30th of March 1899 at 5 Brownden Terrace, Fordington, Dorchester. She was named Ellen Elizabeth but known as Nellie. Her parents were John Joseph and Mary Ada (nee Masters) Titterington: her father, a house painter was born in Malta in 1871; he was the son of an Irish soldier who was stationed there. Her mother was born in 1874 at Tolpuddle.  Nellie had an older brother, William, and three younger siblings Doris, Henry and Margaret.

Nellie is likely to have been a bright, high-spirited and pretty child, active and interested in everything and everyone around her. Certainly as an adult she had an interesting life, which she talked about almost incessantly. Nellie was said to have been “alert and neat, with a clean, well cared for complexion and white hair set off with hats.”

What is known is that in the last year of the First World War, when she had just turned eighteen, young Miss Titterington had made up her mind to enlist in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Having filled out her application documents she left them on the mantelpiece, intending to discuss her move beforehand with her mother. Next day however, an interfering aunt had it in mind to post off the forms without any prior consultation or authorisation from her niece. Only a week later Nellie was amazed to find call-up papers in her letterbox; soon after she was to find herself serving as an orderly to a WAAF officer.

Following the Armistice, Nellie remained in the officer’s service as housekeeper after the officer had moved to a new home in Kent. But Dorset-born people living away from their native patch are especially prone to homesickness, and the officer’s servant was no exception. Put simply, in Nellie’s case the pangs of loneliness she felt emanated from the feeling that she was too far and remote from her beloved mother.

Then in 1921 Nellie’s prospects rose dramatically. Through an acquaintance, Alice Riglar, who appears to have been in service at Maxgate, Thomas Hardy’s country home near Dorchester, she learnt that the position of parlour maid at the house had fallen vacant. Alice then initially recommended Nellie for the position to Hardy, and then informed her of her recommendation in a letter. Before Nellie could begin the job however, Alice wrote again, saying she had second thoughts and asked Nellie not to come after all. It seemed that Alice, concerned about the gloomy, oppressive atmosphere at Max Gate (due mainly to the several trees Hardy had planted so close to the house when moving in) warned Nellie that it would not be “the best of places” as it had “an air of silence.” However, by then Nellie had made up her own mind and was in no way dissuaded by her friend’s misgivings. She therefore left the service of her WAAF officer and returned to Dorset.

Miss Titterington was soon to find Hardy an introspective man who, she said, regarded women not as women but as “shadowy figures fitting into a space like a jigsaw.” Nellie studied him intensely and in time came to understand and respect the writer’s intensely introverted nature. But she also discovered that Hardy was mean with money, had no hobbies and never discussed politics with anyone, though he had a deep, almost mystical reverence for nature.

His parsimony became apparent when Nellie learnt that Hardy would only give each of his staff a Christmas bonus of 2s/6d in an envelope – and even then the cook was instructed to leave hers unopened until later in the day. Hardy’s wife Florence later secretly topped up these bonuses to 10/-. Nellie also spoke of one particular winter evening when Florence had accompanied Lawrence to an event at Glastonbury, leaving Hardy alone with his servants. On this occasion Nellie had stoked up a particularly good fire in the dining room but on checking on its progress a little later she found Hardy removing the coals lump by lump with the tongs and arranging them neatly on the hearth!

Nellie also responded positively to the great man’s love of nature. At one time Max Gate had five owls roosting in the trees over winter and the parlour maid would fetch Hardy to see them. Once, when a hare from adjoining Came Wood strayed into the garden Hardy, Nellie and the gardener together caught it in a net; but then the writer lifted his corner of the net to let the animal escape. On the day of her master’s funeral Nellie noticed that some of the mourners were wearing red fox hunting jackets. Had he been able to see them, Hardy, a fervent abolitionist regarding foxhunting, would have been incensed.

There was one animal at Max Gate however that Nellie probably lost no love over but had to suffer not gladly all the same: Hardy’s rough-haired terrier Wessex. The dog was of a disposition that was both peculiar and nasty, being fiercely protective of his master and as jealously suspicious of most other people as he was evidently devoted to Hardy himself.

Nellie’s approach to dealing with her mistress took much the same form as that towards her master. Florence Hardy was a socially insecure woman with a difficult temperament and other clearly discernable faults. Almost madly suspicious, she would trust no one else with the house keys, and would often accuse one or other of the servants of breaking something or even stealing it. Over time Nellie became accustomed to her awkwardness, and came to pity this second-time-around wife, who married Hardy after the death of his first wife Emma. One particular skill Nellie possessed was flower arranging. Yet when, as often happened, a visitor asked Mrs Hardy in Nellie’s presence who was responsible for the floral display the parlour maid would silently dare the mistress of the house to take the credit for the work. Florence, though much younger than her husband, was nevertheless accustomed to reading whole tracts of books aloud to him in the evenings. It was this devotional side of her nature that made Nellie feel sympathetic towards Florence.

Thomas Hardy died on Wednesday, January 11th, 1928. The following morning Nellie cycled over to ‘Talbothays’ at West Stafford to deliver the news of Hardy’s passing to his sister Kate. Away from Max Gate she had time to think about a growing personal problem.

Nellie was pregnant.

To be continued…..

Dorset County Gaol

A prison sentence today has been cynically likened by some people to being at Butlins when compared with the austere conditions of penal servitude in the 19th century. Assuredly, conditions were a lot harsher then, and nobody living at the time would likely have doubted that one stretch in prison was an effective deterrent against recidivism. But what would conditions have been like in the county goal at Dorchester during the period from about 1800 to 1950? What follows is an account of those conditions based on documentary research.

Dorchester’s present prison stands behind a high and thick redbrick wall just off the town’s North Square. In 1773 the penal reforms of Thomas Howard were about to change the nature of incarceration here as everywhere else. Prior to 1795 the gaol was a much smaller institution in a ruinous condition elsewhere in the town which, in 1784, prompted William Tyler of Vine Street, St. James, to draw up plans for an entirely new penitentiary for an estimated £4,000. Howard had a strong link with Dorchester, and plans were drawn up for a larger, more secure prison on the present North Square site, the building contract being secured by John Fentiman of Newton Butts for £12,000. By a contractual agreement the work was scheduled for completion in March 1792, but the building was well in arrears by December 1793. It was eventually opened for occupation by inmates in 1795.

When viewed in elevation from the front (beyond the perimeter wall) the main building comprises three elements: a central, five-storey block flanked by three-storey wings to each side. In the central block the floors are accessed via a well of alternating metal staircases. In the north block however, the stairwell is positioned at the end, while in the south block it runs up the middle. In total the prison was constructed in six blocks, the entrance block comprising the keeper’s office, brewhouse and bath-house, all within the retaining perimeter wall. This part fronted by a broad, high archway in austere Portland stone ashlars and with thick, double doors painted black, accesses three courtyards, one each for the keeper, the women felons and the women penitentiaries.

The centre block houses the keeper’s quarters, the prisoner’s visiting rooms, the debtor’s custody area and several single working cells. Above them on the first floor are the chapel, the cells for condemned and refractory prisoners, the debtors sleeping rooms and single sleeping cells. At each corner of this main block are four smaller blocks having single cells for working and sleeping. There are seven inner courtyards for separating each category of prisoner.

According to the penal system and administration of prisons at the time convicts were distinguished both by sex and as felons (those awaiting trial for either jailing or transportation.) Besides these there were other categories such as those in prison for debt, bigamy, vagrancy, idleness in domestic service or apprenticeship, for breach of contract or under the terms of a bastardy order. As far as was possible all these categories were kept apart from one another and the building had separate sleeping cells each 8’5 x 6.5 x 9 feet in size. The debtors had working cells, a day room 18 x 13.5 x 12 feet in size and slept four to a room though they were not kept in separate confinement.

It is noted that the prisoner’s daily rations of food consisted of one-and-a-half pounds of bread, though this was a day old, despite being baked in the prison itself using flour from which bran had not been extracted. Those prisoners who worked however, were entitled to an extra ration of food and from the Keeper’s account records it appears that 9d worth of meat was permitted, later increased to 2/6d worth a week. However, it is probable that this increase reflects the sharp rise in the price of bread caused by the French wars early in the 19th century rather than any increase in amount of the ration.

By 1813 the special meal that had cost 6d in 1794 had risen to 2/6d. Broth to the value of 10d was also served. Children were fed on a special diet, but prisoners were treated to a special meal at Christmas and Whitsuntide. Prisoners brought to the sessions were permitted to buy meat, fish, fruit and pastry, but following conviction only bread was allowed. Sick convicts were given food and drink of better quality, including jelly, wine and gin. In addition to a special diet when ill, prisoners were given rush-lights or candles; those “affected by itch” were given special nightshirts.

Because of sickness special measures were taken to ensure the prison was kept clean. The gaol appears to have been organised into eight wards, each of which was overseen by a warder responsible for sweeping out the cells and washing them out once a week. Several women cleaners were also paid to carry out this work. Sometimes gunpowder was used for fumigating and, once a year, parts of the building were lime-washed. Prisoners themselves were washed upon admittance and provided with clothes. Prisoners working outside the gaol were issued with “small frocks” bearing the lettering “DORSET GAOL” on the back. Women prisoners were issued with dresses, aprons, petticoats and bed gowns, while men had shoes, shirts, trousers, shifts, hose and clogs bought for them.

The cells were furnished with iron bedsteads fixed four inches from a wall and equipped with straw-filled bedding. Prisoners could be subjected to enforced discipline by means of solitary confinement in a dark cell, though the governor was under an obligation to visit such prisoners at least once a day. The Chaplain would have read prayers three times a day and distributed religious books as thought necessary. He had to visit and counsel the prisoners in private to assess their mental states and keep a log of his findings. To prevent escapes, all prisoners had their clothes confiscated each night.

Of course, until as late as 1965 when the death penalty was abolished in Britain, prison would often be just a temporary custody facility pending a time of execution to be fixed for those sentenced to death. As in other county gaols Dorchester would have had its own facilities for carrying out executions: in this case, gallows set up outside the main building. Consequently, the current “cell-block” or overcrowding crisis now facing the penal system could never have arisen over a century ago. At Dorchester those sentenced to death were kept in cells near the chapel. Early in the 18th century, long before the present prison was built executions were very public affairs in public places. Until 1766, when the gallows there were removed, hangings were routinely carried out at Maumbury Rings on the outskirts of Dorchester, that of Mary Channing in 1706 being a particularly high-profile case of the time.

But notable executions were carried out behind the present prison wall as well. Especially tragic was the highly public hanging of Elizabeth Martha Brown on August 9th, 1856, attended by a crowd of several thousand including a 16-year-old apprentice architect called Thomas Hardy. Martha had been found guilty of bludgeoning her husband to death with the kitchen wood-axe in anger upon discovering his adultery. James Seale was hanged on August 10th, 1858, for the murder of a girl called Sarah Guppy, but the last execution of all in Dorchester took place in 1887.

Today, under the prison’s present governor, Serena Watts, its operational capacity is about 260, with all males except category A being held there. There is no segregation unit. The regime includes provision of workshops, and the prison is currently running a programme of full education including courses on thinking, life and social skills and substance awareness. Strong emphasis is also placed upon physical education.

In conclusion, one interesting feature of the prison’s location is the fact that it was built where a Roman townhouse had once stood, but this was either disregarded or overlooked when the foundations were laid. It was not until the grave of Martha Brown was being dug within the prison precincts 64 years later that a floor mosaic was uncovered, though this was not lifted and removed to the County Museum until the burial of James Searle two years later re-exposed it.

Note: Fuller accounts of the Channing and Brown cases can be found on the site.

Note:  The last execution to be carried out at Dorchester was on the 24th of July 1941, when David Jennings was hanged; our thanks to John Grainger for bringing this to our attention.