English literature has given us many associations which never fail to impress as one retraces the footsteps of writers through their literary output, or indeed their own lives. Dublin is for many associated with Dean Swift, surprisingly perhaps as 300 years or so have passed since he held the Deanship of St. Patricks, during which time there have been many other writers associated with the city. Amongst those of course was James Joyce who spent his adult life away from Ireland, yet whose book Ulysses reclaims for him the right to be associated, more than anyone else, with our capital city.
In the same way that the Bronte sisters and indeed their Irish born father Patrick are forever associated with the Yorkshire village of Haworth, the villages and towns of Dorset are forever Thomas Hardy country. The English novelist who had long given up writing novels before he died in 1928 and instead concentrated on poetry, created a body of work using the places and the people of his native Dorset. I revisited Dorset last week after an absence of many years, this time in search of the Thomas Hardy connections and the places associated with him and his literary work.
Dorchester is an ancient town founded by the Romans who called it ‘Durnovaria’ and the Roman presence has yielded up after almost 1600 years an extraordinary array of archaeological artefacts which today can be seen in the town’s outstanding museum. Not far from Dorchester in a place called Upper Brockhampton, Thomas Hardy, the son of a stonemason, was born just two years before Athy’s Workhouse was opened. The thatched cottage in which the Hardy family lived is still standing, today a Heritage Trust property which receives every day a succession of visitors. Not far away is the small village of Stinsford where Hardy who died aged 88 years had wanted to be buried with his first wife and close to his parents. The village cemetery in the grounds of St. Michael’s Parish Church were only to receive Hardy’s heart, while his ashes were interned in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.
Stinsford also held another grave which I wanted to find but had great difficulty in doing so. It was the resting place of Cecil Day Lewis, English poet laureate, born in Ballintubbert just a few miles outside of Athy who is remembered each year in the Cecil Day Lewis Awards organised by Athy Heritage Centre. Day Lewis wanted to be buried as near as possible to Thomas Hardy’s grave. He had no connection with Stinsford but made his request out of his affection for Hardy’s poetry. When he died in 1972 Cecil Day Lewis was laid to rest in the quiet Dorset village cemetery near to Thomas Hardy. When I visited the cemetery last week I could find no gravestone for Lewis and spent some time looking for his grave until a local resident came to my help. Lewis’s grave had been opened just days previously and the grave stone removed to allow the burial of his second wife Jill Balcon who passed away recently.
The museum in Dorchester has been operating for many decades and the quality of its exhibits detailing the history of the town marks it out as perhaps the best County Museum I have yet visited. The Roman connection and the quite extraordinary array of archaeological artefacts on display give it a head start, but what makes the Museum unique is its exhibits of Dorchester’s literary connections.
Thomas Hardy’s study from his home at Max Gate just outside Dorchester has been relocated to the Museum, with all its furnishings, his library and those personal items with which the writer surrounded himself as he created the literary masterpieces with which his name is now associated. The Museum’s holdings of Hardy’s manuscripts and letters is also impressive but added to the cache of Hardy memorabilia are the further literary remains of William Barnes and the Powys brothers. Barnes was and is still regarded as the Bard of Dorset and his poetical works inspired Hardy. Barnes’s imposing statue is in front of St. Peters Church on the High Street in Dorchester next to the County Museum.
Only one of the literary Powys brothers was born in Dorset, although all of them would weave the Dorset countryside into their writings and spend much of their lives in the area. Llewelyn Powys was born in Dorchester and he and his brothers John and Theodore produced literary works of great merit. They were probably unique in that regard, even though the Irish born Collis brothers, John Stewart, Maurice and Robert can stand shoulder to shoulder with them in terms of literary achievements.
Irish connections with Dorset are relatively few but mention must be made of Thomas Clarke who spent 14 years in Portland Prison Dorset for involvement with the Fenians. Released under an amnesty in 1898 he was later executed as one of the leaders of the 1916 Rebellion.
Athy connections with Hardy’s ‘Wessex Countryside’ are even harder to find and come courtesy of indirect links with our historic town. John Keble, the divine and poet and one of the principals of the Oxford Movement, died in 1866 at his home in Exeter Road, Bournemouth which now forms part of a hotel. Keble and his wife were the guests of Rev. Frederick Trench at Kilmoroney House in August 1841 and officiated at the wedding of Trench’s daughter which took place at St. Michael’s Church in Athy. Trench as Rector of Athy supported the Oxford Movement and indeed encountered some difficulties with his parishioners on that account. Keble, after whom Keble College in Oxford is named, was noted by one of his biographers to have well employed his time ‘for a few days in seeing much that was interesting’ in the Athy area.
Another visitor to Athy was Richard Pococke who in 1745 noted in his journal as having seen ‘a new market house in Athy’. It was the same Richard Pococke who nine years later first noted the existence of the now famous chalk cut naked man at Cerne Abbas just a few miles north of Dorchester.
John Nelson Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethern, was an associate of Rev. Thomas Kelly of Athy who founded the Kellyite sect. At one stage it was believed that the two groups would merge, but the Kellyites continued their separate existence until Kelly’s death. In the meantime Darby created the Exclusive Brethern within the Plymouth Brethern who became known as the Darbyites. John Nelson Darby died in Bournemouth in 1882 and is buried in the Dorset seaside town.
My trip to Dorset was principally a Hardy pilgrimage, however I did make time to visit yet again, after a lapse of 15 years or so, the tiny Dorset village of Tolpuddle from where in 1834 six farm labourers were transported to Australia for administering and taking secret oaths. The six men had come together to protect their jobs as farm labourers, but their employers brought proceedings, heard in the County Court in Dorchester, which resulted in convictions. The Courtroom in which the trials took place is retained today as it was in 1834 and the fame of the Tolpuddle martyrs has passed into history. The small village receives a steady stream of visitors each year and the tiny museum located in one of the six bungalows built by the T.U.C. in the 1940s gives a comprehensive overview of the events surrounding the Tolpuddle trials and the place of the Tolpuddle martyrs in trade union history. Incidentally the film ‘Comrades’ made in 1987 which was based on the Tolpuddle story has recently been released on D.V.D.
Dorset, as you can see, is an interesting county for the enquiring mind.