The Hardy Tree: An Early Work of a Great Novelist

24 July 2012

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In the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church in London, hundreds of old gravestones circle an ash tree. Of course, these were not how they were originally laid out. So, how did they get to this, their final resting place, as it were? And who was responsible?

Long before he became famous for novels like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Far From the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy (like any other aspiring writer) had to find employment with which to pay his way through the world. His chosen field was to be architecture.

However, it is unlikely that the would-be author, (pictured left at around this time) could guess what one of his firm’s projects would demand of him. He probably didn't sign up for architecture to then be sent to excavate a graveyard. Yet, like many a young man finding his path, sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

During his five years with the Covent Garden based architect Arthur Blomfield (1862-67) the railway system of the British Isles was undergoing a huge burst of growth. The lines in and around London were, in particular, demanding more room to carry people in and out of the capital.

It was during this time that an older part of St Pancras Churchyard was designated for almost total obliteration in order to make way for a new railway line. The Bishop of London gave the contract for this work to Blomfield who passed responsibility on to his young student, Hardy. Yet these objects in the way of progress could not be cleared like slums. Even progress occasionally must respect what came before and the removal and relocation of so many middle class graves would almost certainly have caused an uproar if it was not done properly..

The coffins were removed from the site with circumspection and care and were reburied elsewhere (the Victorian English had a horror of cremation). There was no need to move the headstones. Yet although the graves were old and unvisited it would not have been respectful to simply dump the headstones in to the Thames.

The process would have taken a great deal of time and young Hardy, who was 25 when he was given this commission would have spent the best part of a year overseeing the work. Perhaps his experiences in St Pancras church yard later informed some of the bleaker passages in his novels.

Some of the headstones were placed in a circular pattern around a young ash tree in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, far enough away from the site of the railway for them never to have to be disturbed again. Over the decades the tree has, inevitably grown and parts of the headstones nearest the tree have disappeared in to its growth.

There the headstones persist. Time and the elements have destroyed almost every indication of whose mortal remains these headstones once stood over. Yet as a sign of deference to the vast throngs that have circled in and around London through the centuries this arrangement seems an unquestionably appropriate memento mori.

First Image Credit Flickr User StefZ



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