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In the Footsteps of Treves — Wimborne St Giles

Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Sir Frederick to what he called a ‘north-east outpost of the county’

Travelling across Cranborne Chase in the north-eastern corner of the county, Sir Frederick Treves comes to the village of Wimborne St Giles: ‘Near by [Edmonsham] is Wimborne St. Giles, the seat of the Earls of Shaftesbury. The house, a square, uninteresting block, dates from the sixteenth century, but has been the subject of many additions and “improvements”. It stands in a magnificent park, through which the Allen River flows.’ The family of the Earls of Shaftesbury, the Ashleys, still own the estate but the gatehouses are in a ruinous condition, the house itself looks in desperate need of repair and the park has been neglected for a number of years. Treves, it seems, saw the estate in happier times.

Commenting upon the village itself, Treves notes: ‘The village, composed mainly of modern red-brick cottages, is severely prim and tidy, and parades the air of being much pampered and well endowed. By the roadside, in a state of extreme senility, are the village stocks, which have long outlived any reminiscence of roistering and beer-swilling. About the only contemporary of the stocks remaining is the ancient almshouse, covered with roses and wisteria – a picture of a beautiful and dignified old age.’

Wimborne St Giles appears to be largely as Treves would have seen it, with very little additional building during the last 100 years. The ‘modern red-brick cottages’, now over a century old, have mellowed into their surroundings but one could say that Wimborne St Giles still exudes an air of being ‘much pampered’. It is quite remarkable that the village has resisted modern encroachments, given its proximity to Wimborne and Poole.

Joseph Pennell’s drawing of the almshouse and church at Wimborne St Giles for the original edition of Highways and Byways in Dorset

The village stocks remain a feature. Apparently not repaired or restored in any way since Treves’s visit, they are still just about recognisable as being a means of securing an individual by the ankles. They are now fenced off and roofed to delay further decline into ‘extreme senility.’ The ancient almshouse seems to have largely done away with the roses and wisteria but can unreservedly still be called ‘beautiful and dignified’.

Passing in front of the almshouse, Treves enters the church: ‘The church, rebuilt in 1732, is elaborately decorated inside with much painting, with copious gilt and overwhelming ornament. It is crowded with monuments to the Ashley family, among which is a very beautiful memorial to Sir Anthony Ashley (who died in 1627) and his wife. There are among other miscellanea an archaic effigy of a knight in chain armour, accredited to Sir John de Plecy, who was gathered to his fathers in 1313, as well as a female statue carved in Naples four hundred years later, representing “polite literature mourning the death of her most distinguished votary” in the person of the third Earl. This very ornate church seems out of place. It would rather belong to a pompous town than to a secluded hamlet, and affords a jarring contrast to the humble sanctuaries in the country around.’

Sir Frederick would have called at Wimborne St Giles in around 1904/5 while compiling his book, Highways and Byways in Dorset. Whilst, as he states, the church had been restored in 1732, it had also been subject to some further restoration work, namely the nave arcade in 1887 by G F Bodley, carried out in the Victorian Gothic style. Externally, the church is fundamentally as Treves would have seen it, but in September 1908 there was a disastrous fire, caused by soldering work on the church roof. The church was severely damaged, losing its roof and much of the internal woodwork and receiving damage to many of the monuments remarked upon by Treves. Several of the things Treves had admired were lost, though not the effigy of Sir John de Plecy in chain mail, mentioned by Treves, which lies by the south wall of the church, in remarkable condition considering it is nearly 700 years old.

Fortunately, most of the monuments were restored, including the ‘very beautiful memorial to Sir Anthony Ashley’, when the church was renovated by John Ninian Comper (1864-1960). Coincidentally once one of Bodley’s employees, he carried out a radical restoration of the church, now considered one of his finest restorations. A number of sources declare this to be one of the outstanding village churches in Dorset and it would be difficult to disagree. It is ironic that Treves considered the church overwhelmingly ornate when he visited; it would be interesting to know what he would say now that it is even more flamboyant!

‘The austere house in the park, the birthplace of that Anthony Ashley who was the leading member of the Cabal, is associated with many queer stories. If any could have visited the mansion on a certain night, in the times of the Stuarts, they would have come upon a curious spectacle. They would have found the hall and the long dining-room deserted but for a few giggling servants. In the cellar, however, they would have discovered a party of gorgeously dressed gentlemen sitting around certain casks from which they were drinking. In the centre of this group was a King, in the person of His Majesty Charles II.’

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‘The Cabal’ was a group of five ministers, including Lord Ashley of Wimborne St Giles, who advised Charles II from 1668 to 1674. The initial letters of the five individuals happened to spell C-A-B-A-L, a coincidence noted at the time.

Treves continues with the story of the party in the cellar: ‘The company were generally hilarious, and among them was a certain Edward Hooper of Boveridge, whose jollity was so exuberant as to make him especially noticeable. So delighted was the King with his drolleries that he bade the facetious Hooper kneel before him and to rise “Sir Edward”. That the wag rose with some difficulty is probable, since the historian states that “in the event the whole company were completely drunk”. He further adds that “His Majesty paid his obeisance to the centre cask, to perpetuate which piece of good fellowship a crown was placed in the middle of the cellar arch, which remains to this day.”

‘This same Sir Edward Hooper, the knight of the cellar, lies buried in Cranborne Church under a fair and imposing monument. He died at the age of forty-eight, and it may be that his excessive merriment had not a little to do with is somewhat early decease. As to whether a crown still adorns the middle arch of the cellar at Wimborne St. Giles, I have no knowledge.’

Investigations into this ‘payment’ by King Charles II to the centre cask reveal that there is no crown. The house is not open to the public but a member of the Shaftesbury Estate Office kindly made a visit down to the cellar on my behalf, in order to ascertain ‘whether a crown still adorns the middle arch’. The answer, unfortunately, is that there is no crown to be found. But the knighting of Sir Edward seems factual and the King certainly visited the house.

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