It was an extremely successful weekend - the weather was glorious. Richard delivered a brilliant sermon regarding Hardy at the service at Stinsford.

THS Birthday Weekend

A walk around Victorian Dorchester and Fordington through the lens of Thomas Hardy.

It was an extremely successful weekend - the weather was glorious. Richard delivered a brilliant sermon regarding Hardy at the service at Stinsford. 

The annual marking of Thomas Hardy’s birthday by the Society fell on the weekend of the 1st and 2nd of June 2024, which turned out to be warm and sunny, adding to the enjoyment of the outdoor events.

The itinerary started on Saturday morning with a guided walk around Dorchester led by the society’s chairperson Mr Mark Damon Chutter. Mark has extensive knowledge of Dorchester’s history and its Hardy connections and gave a fascinating tour of the town. One participant remarked to me, that although she already knew Dorchester well, she always learnt something new on his walks. This time Mark had pointed out the old school in Fordington where both Hardy’s sisters had worked as school mistresses. This was a building she had passed many times before but never previously knew of the Hardy association.

In the afternoon, attendees gathered in the delightful Casterbridge Room at the Kings Arm’s Hotel, Dorchester, for the birthday lecture. This first-floor room looks out via a fine bay window to High East Steet.  It is into this window (probably from the other side of the street) that Hardy describes Susan Henchard and her daughter Elizabeth seeing Michael Henchard in his mayoral role in The Mayor of Casterbridge, a pivotal moment in the novel.

Mark gave a fascinating lecture on Hardy’s friendship with the Moule family of Dorchester. Henry Moule was the vicar of Fordington and lived at The Vicarage. Hardy spent time at the vicarage and the Moule family had a significant influence on his education and aspirations. Many years later when The Vicarage was not used for the incumbent vicar, Mark's grandmother, Faith Irene Damon, known as Dolly, lived there with her family, including her daughter (Mark’s mother) from 1942 to 1971. It was heartbreaking for his family when The Old Vicarage (then named) was scheduled for demolition to make way for a housing development. Dolly resisted to the end, barricading herself into the house, and when eventually evicted, she burnt all her furniture in the middle of Salisbury Fields as a final act of protest. There was general agreement that the demolition of this historic house with its many literary associations was a great loss to Dorchester.

The attendees then made their way to the Top o’ Town for the formal birthday wreath laying at Thomas Hardy’s statue. The Mayor and Town Council were in attendance in ceremonial robes indicating the importance of the occasion. Mark gave a short speech outlining his vision that The Thomas Hardy Society and other local societies and organisations should continue to develop and strengthen their work together to promote the cultural life of Dorchester. Several poems were read including the celebratory ‘Great Things’ by Thomas Hardy. The assembled company then proceeded down to the William Barnes statue where a wreath was also laid, and some William Barnes poems read. After a short break, the attendees gathered again in The Casterbridge Room to read and listen to a selection of Hardy poems. There followed a delicious three-course dinner and much convivial conversation.

On Sunday morning 2nd June (Hardy’s actual birthday) a service to mark the occasion was held at the church of St Michael’s at Stinsford, which is near to Hardy’s birthplace and where he and his family were involved in church life. Canon Richard Franklin, who has a long-standing close association with The Thomas Hardy Society, led the service. The thought-provoking sermon explored how Hardy invited his readers to consider the juxtaposition of moral law with religious law, and the detrimental effect on humanity when religious law was too simplistically applied, which Canon Franklin suggested was never the intention of true Christianity. Examples from the novels such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure were given. There followed another wreath laying at Hardy’s grave in the churchyard with some further poems read, bringing the birthday weekend celebrations to a close.

Lucy Brown

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