In the footsteps of Treves
Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Treves and the ‘trippers’ to Swanage
Published in August ’10
Having visited Swanage as a child, Sir Frederick Treves would already have known the town when he cycled through here in around 1904, researching for his book, Highways and Byways in Dorset. He begins: ‘The largest town in Purbeck is Swanage, a very popular seaside resort, on the margin of a blue water bay and under shelter of the great white cliffs of Ballard Head. All around the town are stone quarries, for from time immemorial Swanage has been the centre of the stone trade of the Isle of Purbeck….There was, and possibly still is, a very ancient Company of Stone-cutters here. The manner in which the elders of the company admitted the apprentices was both simple and convivial. “At the annual meeting,” says the record, “the apprentices take up their freedom. They appear in court with a penny loaf in one hand and a pot of beer in another, and upon paying 6s. 8d. their names are entered in the register.”’ This ceremony still takes place, just as Treves describes, on each Shrove Tuesday in Corfe Castle. Treves was right that there had been a very ancient Company of Stone-cutters in Swanage, also meeting on Shrove Tuesday in various pubs, but only until the 1850s or 1860s.
Treves goes on to reminisce of his teenage years: ‘Swanage, as I knew it some thirty-five years ago [around 1870; Treves would have been seventeen years old], was a queer little town with a rambling High Street and a jumble of picturesque cottages of Purbeck stone, whose rough roofs were much given to gable ends and dormer windows.’ Then he launches into his opinion of Swanage in 1904: ‘The curve of the sandy bay is swept by a long brick coal-shed, and is palisaded by the unlovely backs of unashamed houses. It only needs a gasometer on the beach to complete the sorry renaissance.’ Treves plainly thought that development was spoiling the town he had loved and there is no doubt that the late 1800s and the early 1900s were a time of considerable expansion in Swanage.
The impression he gives is that the coal-shed ran almost the full length of the bay. It didn’t. The building still exists and begins at the Swanage Museum, running east. It has served several purposes including, originally, a covered market. When Treves saw it in the early 20th century it was acting as a coal store for the paddle steamers. Treves now turns his attention to the occupants of these paddle steamers: ‘Swanage devotes itself body and soul to a hearty multitude called by the townfolk “the steamer people” and by the less tolerant “the trippers”. They come to old Leland’s “fishar towne” in their thousands, so that in August the beach is as “jolly” and as “ripping” as Hampstead Heath in holiday time.’
‘Steamer people’ became the vernacular for the day trippers who alighted in Swanage from the paddle steamers; introduced by George Burt, these craft first arrived in Swanage in 1871. At the time Treves was writing, the number of steamers bringing ‘trippers’ to Swanage was at its peak, with around 11,000 passengers visiting daily in ten paddle steamers, each calling several times a day. The last regular paddle steamer left Swanage in 1966. The reference to Leland concerns the journey made by John Leland in the 16th century through much of England, including Dorset.
‘For the delectation of the steamer people Swanage has made most liberal provision,’ continues Treves. ‘On the cliff’s edge is Durlston Castle, a stronghold of the Bank Holiday period, in which are combined the architectural features of a refreshment buffet, a tram terminus, and a Norman keep.’ Treves clearly disliked Durlston Castle, built in 1887 and then still relatively new. He also mocked the poetry carved on stone tablets around Durlston Park. The same individual who introduced paddle steamers to Swanage, George Burt, also owned Durlston Park and Tilly Whim ‘caves’. So influential and famous was Burt that he met Thomas Hardy, who called him the ‘King of Swanage’. Hardy was not so complimentary when writing about the meeting afterwards, however. Major refurbishment is currently taking place at Durlston Castle which should see it once again playing a main part as a tourist attraction in its new role as Visitor Centre for the Jurassic Coast; its re-opening is planned for 2011.
Treves goes on: ‘Certain unwonted features in Swanage are due to the circumstance that two quarrymen of the town, by their industry and talent, raised themselves to the position of great paving contractors in London. They were ever mindful of their native village, and showed their tender regard by bestowing upon the place a few of the miscellaneous oddments which must find their way into a great contractor’s yard. Thus along certain roads about the town will be found iron street posts inscribed, “St. Anne’s, Soho”, and “St. Martin’s-in-the-fields”.
Swanage is still full of the London legacies of those ‘two quarrymen’: John Mowlem and his nephew, George Burt. Whilst there are now fewer than when Treves saw them, iron posts (or cannon bollards) can still be found behind the Town Hall, next to the Mowlem and in other parts of the town. Durlston Country Park retains dozens of London embossed bollards. Whilst there probably was a degree of Mowlem and Burt ‘showing their tender regard’ for their ‘native village’, it is also a fact that the ships used to take stone to London could not safely return empty; they needed ballast, so the pieces of London scattered throughout Swanage were probably ballast first and ‘bestowed’ artefacts last.
‘In the High Street,’ describes Treves, ‘is the entire stone façade of the Mercers’ Hall, Cheapside, moved bodily to Swanage in 1882, balcony, doorway, puffy cherubs holding garlands, and all. This piece of the veneer of London has an odd effect in the “fishar towne”. By the brink of the sea is an elegant Gothic clock-tower, very finicking, dandified, and townish. It came from London Bridge, where it had been erected – at the cost of many pounds – as a memorial to the great Duke of Wellington.’
Swanage Town Hall proudly displays the stone façade from the Mercers Hall; magnificent though it is, it still looks oddly out of place in Swanage High Street. The story goes that the authorities in London decided that the façade, in a particularly grimy state, needed cleaning. The estimated bill was such that having a replica made of the by then 200-year-old edifice was the cheaper option – and this they did. George Burt bought the original, dismantled it, cleaned it and had it reconstructed in its present position. Ironically, the copy in London was destroyed in the blitz.
The clock tower still stands at Peveril Point. Apparently, within five or six years of its placement at the southern end of London Bridge (without the proposed statue of Wellington, which was too expensive), the tower became a traffic obstruction. Not only this, the clock was so unreliable that it became a sort of sardonic insult to the man it was supposed to memorialise; the Duke of Wellington was fastidious about punctuality. The clock tower was re-built (without the offending clock) in its current position at Peveril Point in 1867 on Thomas Docwra’s land, after it was presented to him by George Burt. In 1903, just before Treves would have visited, the original spire was replaced by the present cupola.
‘There are just a few relics of old Swanage left to show how charming a place it was before the red villas and the rows of featureless lodging-houses swept down upon it,’ complains Treves, but he would doubtless have been delighted to know that a hundred years on, those ‘few relics of old Swanage’ are still largely to be found, despite the town being considerably bigger than it was when he would have known it. The older parts of Swanage around the mill-pond remain and would be recognisable by Treves if he visited today.
[Grateful thanks go to Trev Haysom, Val Quinn, Robin Plowman from Durlston Country Park and David Haysom from Swanage Museum for their invaluable help with the research for this article.]