Max Gate was the house which Thomas Hardy designed and his father and brother built, between 1883 and 1885. He and Emma moved in in June 1885 and it remained his home for over forty years, until his death in 1928. He bought the 1 acre site, on the high windswept ridge a mile from the centre of Dorchester, from the Duchy of Cornwall. It cost him £450, a huge sum in 1886!
When first built, Max Gate was much smaller than the present house – Hardy literally built a ‘two up, two down’ Victorian villa. It comprised a dining room, hall and drawing room, with a small kitchen and scullery behind the dining room; upstairs were the master bedroom above the dining room and Hardy’s large first study above the drawing room. There was a small bedroom/boxroom above the kitchen and a flushing WC above the scullery – but no bathroom!
Sometime after the publication of The Woodlanders (1887), Hardy moved out of the master bedroom into the first study as his bedroom and moved his study into the poky little boxroom at the back. By the early 1890s was complaining about a severe shortage of space, but it was not until 1895, after the financial success of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, that he set about seriously enlarging the house. At this point he added a large alcove to extend the dining room, a new east tower to extend the drawing room, and a huge amount at the back of the house, including a much larger, kitchen and scullery. Above the kitchen he designed a large, purpose-built study, and, at Emma’s request, a suite of rooms for her, in the new attics. Later improvements included the remodelling and enlarging of the porch in 1908 and the addition of the conservatory in 1913.
Max Gate became a magnet to the great and famous of the worlds of literature, art and music, of politics and academia. Hardy’s guests included Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, W.B. Yeats and Henry Newbolt, Mrs Patrick Campbell, A.E. Housman, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Gustav Holst, Sir James Barrie, Siegfried Sassoon, T.E. Lawrence, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, Marie Stopes, Ramsey Macdonald, The Prince of Wales and many others.
Sadly, Hardy’s marriage to Emma seriously deteriorated at Max Gate, and she retreated more and more to her attic suite, to keep out of the way of her husband and his many visitors. She died here in November 1912, at the age of 72, a lonely and resentful woman. Hardy’s discovery of her diaries after her death led him to write his greatest poetry, the Poems 1912-1913 in her memory - poems of grief and remorse, many of which are set in the house and grounds.
In 1914 he married his secretary cum researcher, Florence Dugdale, to whom he left the house on his death in January 1928. Florence ordered the house to be sold after her death in 1938, and the proceeds to be placed in the Dugdale Trust. Hardy’s sister Kate bought the house to prevent it falling into the wrong hands, and it was she who left Max Gate to the National Trust in 1940.