THE HARDY TREE

THE HARDY TREE

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In 1856, shortly after his 16th birthday, the son of a well-known local builder started his articles in the office of Hicks’ architects practice in Dorchester. Later in ‘Florence Emily Hardy: The Life of Thomas Hardy 1840-1928 she says “…if he had his life over again he would prefer to be a small architect in a country town, like Mr Hicks at Dorchester…” (p433). However, Hardy was to leave Hicks and Dorchester in 1862 to try to  make his way in London. By this time he was already writing poetry. His earliest surviving poem “Domicilium” was—he claimed—written when he was 18.

He arrived in London in July 1862 carrying a return ticket between Dorchester and Paddington (just in case) and two letters of introduction to London architects, one of them by his father. One of his letters resulted in his being referred to Blomfield’s, an architectural practice, one of whose specialities was ecclesiastical renovation. His prior experience in this field when at Hicks’ must have counted much in his favour and he started at  Blomfield’s office in St Martin’s Place just off Trafalgar square in the first week of May 1867. Arthur Blomfield was one of the most successful architects in London. A young—he was 33—and fashionable figure, a member of the establishment, well educated, good at sport and President of the Architectural Association; he must have impressed Hardy greatly. Even though his friendship with Horace Moule in Dorchester had introduced Hardy to a new and different intellectual world, he still must have felt provincial and out of place in his new urbane and metropolitan milieu. The practice comprised Blomfield, six articled pupils, perhaps three assistants and Hardy and it wasn’t long before Blomfield recommended his new pupil for membership of the AA. 

At this time the building of Midland railway line into St Pancras station was under way and involved much disruption to the surrounding area. The new line was to cross several churchyards and Blomfield was engaged to oversee the exhumation and reburial of the occupants of the many graves affected. The Bishop of London had been disturbed that previous exhumations had not been conducted with due dignity and consideration. There had been rumours that bags of bones had been sold to bone mills. Blomfield was the son of a late Bishop of London and the current Bishop charged Blomfield with the task of ensuring that further exhumations were carried out in a proper manner. St Pancras parish church, next on the list, was one of the oldest sites of worship in London. Indeed during earlier excavations remains of a Roman building (probably a temple) had been discovered.  Blomfield had no hesitation in appointing his new employee to oversee the exhumations, paying not only planned regular visits but also unannounced ones. The work was to be conducted at night under lamplight. During one of Hardy’s calls he was shown a broken coffin in which there was one skeleton but two skulls. Biographers have noted the many mentions of churchyards and graves in Hardy’s work and how important they often are so this find must have appealed greatly to Hardy’s sense of the macabre and the the incident clearly stayed with him. Fifteen years later the by then established literary figure was reintroduced to Blomfield whose first words to Hardy were: “Do you remember how we found the man with two heads at St Pancras?” and their friendship was reignited.

There were also sensitivities surrounding the exhumations as there were buried there several well-known figures, among them the architect Sir John Soane, J. C. (the “English”) Bach and Mary Shelley’s parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, whose monument was still there although Mary had already had their remains moved. She and Percy Bysshe Shelley used to meet there in secret when they were courting, seated by her parents’ grave. Hardy got on with the task but the problem emerged as to what best to do with the headstones as they could not realistically be kept with the reburied remains, and in any case the churchyard was to be turned into a public park. It’s not clear whose idea it was—probably Hardy’s—but the headstones were gathered close together around the  base of a nearby tree in an upright position. Over time the tree growth has incorporated the closest stones and they are now embedded in the trunk. 

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It’s a strange story, a piece of social history and an incident that clearly left a lasting impression on the budding young novelist and poet so it’s surprising that of the many Hardy biographers the only mentions seem to be by Florence Emily Hardy (and we know that this was written by Hardy himself to be published posthumously by Florence), James Gibson and the splendid Claire Tomalin.

 

 

Bibliography

The Life of Thomas Hardy 1840-1928, Florence Emily Hardy, 1962, Macmillan & Co Ltd

Thomas Hardy: A Literary Life, James Gibson, 1996, Macmillan Press Ltd

Thomas Hardy: The Time Torn Man, Claire Tomalin, 2006, Viking

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