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Curiosities of Wimborne

Joël Lacey finds that there is a wealth of historical artefacts available to the keen-eyed pedestrian in Wimborne

Take a wander round Wimborne and you do not leave the pavement in order to see some of the rich and curious history of the town. You can see a host of interesting items – without paying an entrance fee or having to worry about opening hours – as long as you know what you are looking for.

Wimborne Town Map 2005

1            Isselburg Plaque

Those expecting Wimborne to be twinned with Isselburg, on the basis of the presence of a plaque in the wall opposite the Minster, may be somewhat surprised that this is not the case; Wimborne is in fact twinned with Ochsenfurt, whose patron saint, Thekla, came from Wimborne’s Monastery in 750AD. So why is there a cast-iron plaque celebrating the town of Isselburg? In the early 1970s, the Queen Elizabeth School Wind Band visited Isselburg and the good burghers of that town, in industrious fashion, had made a commemorative plaque to present to the band. The plaque, along with the town’s coat of arms, proudly displays Stadt Isselburg’s three main features: Rathaus (Town Hall), Wehrturm (fortified tower) and a windmill (Isselburg is about 10km from Holland). Why is it in the wall? The band did not know quite what to do with it, the wall next to the Minster was being refurbished, and so the craftsman refurbishing it added the plaque.

2            Flood line

The flood line on Poole Road at no. 6 is generally believed to be the line at which the 1894 flood peaked. However, this oft-quoted fact is rather undermined by the fact that the line appears already to be on the house in a photograph taken in 1894 – actually during the flood – in which the water level is clearly a foot below the marked line. It would appear that either the flood line predates 1894, and that a more significant flood had already occurred, or while the road was flooded, someone painted at the top of the waterline and the picture was taken later; or it could just be local folklore.

An insurance company fire mark

An insurance company fire mark

3            The home of Nicholas Wanostrocht (Felix)

Nicholas Wanostrocht, or Felix as he was known in cricketing circles in the 19th century, was a bit of a polymath: schoolmaster (he used his ‘Felix’ cricketing nom-de-guerre so as not to have his pupils’ parents knowing he was engaged in such a frivolous activity), inventor of a bowling machine and of rubber batting gloves and author of the seminal: Felix on the bat; being a scientific inquiry into the use of the cricket bat. He retired to 1 Julians Villas, on Julians Road, and was buried in Wimborne cemetery. His grave ten yards from Montague John Druitt – once suspected of being Jack the Ripper.

4            Fire mark  in the Cornmarket

An 1823/24 business directory of Wimborne lists three fire agents in the town. These agents were responsible for selling insurance, which allowed for attendance of the fire brigade should the policy-holder’s property be on fire. Prior to publicly-run fire brigades, fire-fighters would only attend the fires of those who were insured, and prominently displayed their insurance status by means of a fire-mark (usually a metal shield bearing the emblem of the insurance company). Insurance documents held at the Priest’s House Museum list various policyholders from the mid-18th century (including a dealer in tea and spirituous substances in Longham, which is described as being in Hampshire). Fire marks became obsolete once house numbers were commonplace – and thus houses could be more readily identified from records – and more importantly, as the brigades moved out of the private sector to being a public emergency service.

Miss Orman or Ormond’s tree, once in the school playground

Miss Orman or Ormond’s tree, once in the school playground

5            Horse chestnut bollard

Opposite the new site of the Wimborne Model Town is a short-stay car park with an unusual, if not terrifically helpful, feature. Feeding off the main car park is an additional, smaller parking area leading to the Minster, that has a narrow entrance. It is made even narrower by the presence of a very large horse chestnut tree, separating, indeed almost straddling, the ‘In’ and ‘Out’ lanes. The tree was originally in the playground of the former school, whose building adjoins the car park. Now the tree presents a clear and present danger to large 4x4s. The limb overhanging the ‘In’ channel bears the scars of those who have ignored the warning signs about the restricted height. In an oral history gathered in 1941/42, a pupil at the school said it was called Miss Orman’s (or Ormond’s) Tree; Miss Orman/Ormond had been one of the teachers at the National School, later referred to as the Girls’ School.

6            Wimborne railway station

Once the busiest station in Dorset, there is virtually nothing left now to show it ever existed. The Dorset railway system had 170 miles of track and 55 stations at its peak and 57 services a day stopped there, and a passenger could leave in any one of five directions from Wimborne Station. The station opened in June 1847 and he last train (an engine and car to clear the railway yard) ran in May 1977. If you walk to the end of Station Road, there is at least some remaining evidence of its existence: there is a commemerative plaque and opposite that, on the small remaining section of embankment, iron rodding that used to control the signalling lurks in the undergrowth.

A plaque celebrating what was once the busiest station in Dorset

A plaque celebrating what was once the busiest station in Dorset

7            Leper hospital/almshouses

In the 11th and 12th centuries, many hospitals for lepers were founded and then converted to other uses as the disease died down. The Chapel of St Margaret and St Anthony was one such hospital and was mentioned in 1245 in a papal bull from Pope Innocent IV. On 15 June 1276, in the patent rolls of Edward I, the hospital was granted the King’s protection and a ‘clause rogamus’ – a licence to beg – issued for three years to ‘the brethren of the of the House of St Margaret the Virgin and St Anthony, Wymbourneminster.’ On 30 April 1885, the chapel was re-opened after falling into decay.

8            Thomas Hardy in Wimborne 1881-1883

While in Wimborne, Thomas Hardy wrote his ninth novel – Two on a Tower – described variously as ‘the worst the author has written’ and ‘the work of a writer who has a finer sense of his art than any living English novelist’. There is no doubt that he remembered living in Wimborne later in life, recalling Avenue Road in verse:

‘They are great trees, no doubt, by now,

That were so thin in bough

– That row of limes – When we housed there,

I’m loth to reckon when.

The world has turned so many times,

So many, since then.’

The ‘there’ referred to is a house at 16 Avenue Road called Llanherne, where Hardy lived in his early forties. While living here, he visited Locks in the High Street for a haircut and a shave; the chair in which he sat for that is now in the Priest’s House Museum.

Fourteen almshouses and a chapel where once was a leper hospital

Fourteen almshouses and a chapel where once was a leper hospital

9            Royal stained glass window

John Beaufort and Margaret Beauchamp, Duke and Duchess of Somerset were the parents of Margaret Beaufort, and this the grandparents of Henry VII. Their tomb is inside the minster and the Duke’s regal connections shown by the Royal Standard within the left pane of the stained glass window nearest the Isselburg plaque. As well as giving birth to the future monarch, the Wimborne legacy of their daughter, Lady Margaret, was to build a chantry for the souls of her parents, which ultimately became the Grammar school.

The Beaufort/Beaumont window in Wimborne Minster

The Beaufort/Beaumont window in Wimborne Minster

10            British Legion houses (Earl Haig Homes)

As demonstrated poignantly this year with the death of 20-year-old Andrew Howarth, Wimborne has a strong connection with the armed forces. The Royal British Legion, along with other service charities, raised sufficient funds to build ten three-bedroom houses for ex-service personnel to coincide with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. The curiosity about these particular ‘Haig Homes’ off Cowgrove Road is that there is a very unusual cross-section of services for whom the homes are nominated: five are for the Royal Armoured Corps, one Royal Artillery, one Royal Navy and one Royal Air Force. The houses alternately bear one or two badges commemorating the various services’ contributions to Great Britain in World War 2.

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