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 and promising 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 grisly 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 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. They were reinterred in a churchyard in Bournemouth. She and Percy Bysshe Shelley used to meet in St Pancras churchyard in secret when they were courting, seated by her parents’ grave.
The grave of the Wollstonecraft/Godwins, St Peter's Church, Bournemouth. Percy Bysshe Shelly's heart is also buried there
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 and in an upright position around the base of a nearby tree.
Gravestones incorporated into the base of The Hardy Tree, Old St Pancras churchyard, London
Over time the tree growth has incorporated the closest stones and they are now embedded in the trunk, a form of inosculation. So here, in a churchyard, among the apartment blocks, close to a large in inner-city hospital is an almost forgotten memorial to one of our greatest novelists and portrayers of west country rural life.