The Owld White Harse Wants Zetting to Rights
Steve White on the history, disfigurement and ultimate restoration of one of Dorset's most recognisable icons
Published in October ’11
After passing through Osmington village, anyone driving along the A353 towards Weymouth will be struck by two eye-catching features: first, the Osmington White Horse appears on the right, then the majestic sweep of Weymouth Bay and Portland fills the view to the left. It is the White Horse that probably catches a visitor’s imagination the most; why was it carved and who does
The White Horse is a representation 280 feet long and 320 feet high of a horse and its rider cut out of the chalk on the side of the hill between the villages of Osmington and Sutton Poyntz. The figure, cut in 1808, represents King George III on his favourite grey charger, Adonis. The King visited Weymouth on several occasions between 1789 and 1805 and would ride along the top of the hill on which the horse is carved.
The key people involved with carving the monument were John Wood, a Weymouth bookseller, Robert Serrell Wood, who owned the land the horse is sited on (the family owned the land until the 1970s and a descendant still lives in Osmington), James Hamilton, then a prominent Weymouth architect and John Rainier, who funded the project. Due to this being a private venture, the date of carving was not officially recorded, fortuitously however, a letter by John Wood to the then famous antiquarian Sir Richard Colt-Hoare dated 19 August 1808, describes an important archaeological find ‘discovered in cutting out an Equestrian figure of the King in the side of Osmington Hill in this neighbourhood not far from Sutton Points (sic)…’
James Hamilton, the architect in charge of planning the figure also designed the plinth for the King’s statue, having his name writ large on that very plinth. He was required to use his architectural prowess for the design, as the curvature of the hill meant it was not simply a case of cutting a horse shape. It is probable that Hamilton used the men he employed for his regular work as manpower for the cutting.
Why John Rainier financed the White Horse is still a mystery. His brother, Admiral Peter Rainier, had died a wealthy man early in 1808 and left a very large sum to John. Perhaps Rainier paid for the carving as some kind
of memorial? His brother would have appreciated the gesture – after all, the monument can be best seen from the bay. In the 1800’s the White Horse is described as a ‘seamark’ in Admiralty charts, further strengthening this maritime connection.
Many legends exist concerning the White Horse and those who set it upon the hillside;
In The Trumpet Major Thomas Hardy writes of Ann Garland (the heroine) and John Loveday (the Trumpet Major) walking over the hill towards Overcombe (Sutton Poyntz) in 1805, where a group of navvies, in the area due to the expected invasion by Napoleon’s forces, were cutting the turf on the side of the hill. Consequently 1805 has erroneously been accepted by some as the date of cutting of the figure.
In the book ‘The White Horses of the West of England’ by Rev. W C Plenderleath, (1885), it is stated; ‘This [the horse] was cut about the beginning of this century by a soldier whose regiment happened to be quartered near,…’ There are in fact a number of stories suggesting that a single soldier cut the White Horse. This would have been an incredible feat for one man; the scale of the digging would have given him no time for his soldiering duties and would have taken him a protracted period of time to achieve.
Of all the stories told, possibly the most popular is that King George III objected to being portrayed riding away from Weymouth, he therefore never visited the town again; there is even a quote supposedly uttered by the King – ‘But damme, sirs, why am I shown riding out of Weymouth?’ Legend also has it that the man responsible for this oversight, hearing the King was angry, hanged himself in the trees at the bottom of White Horse hill. None of this is true: firstly King George never saw the figure as it was not cut until three years after his last visit to the town in 1805. Secondly, regarding the suicide of the carver of the Horse, John Wood, Robert Serrell Wood, James Hamilton and John Rainier all died of natural causes.
With the outbreak of war in 1939 an attempt was made to confuse the German Luftwaffe by obscuring the White Horse underneath camouflage netting (the fact that Portland is a rather large landmark seems to have been overlooked!). This was short-lived however, Ken Miller, who owns land adjacent to the monument, remembers cows grazing the site becoming tangled in the netting, necessitating its hasty removal.
Now over 200 years old, the figure has suffered the ravages of time as well as several attempts to clean it
up, cut back the encroaching grass and scrub, or cover
it in stone chippings. Evidence shows that there have
been periods of time when the monument has all
Jarvis Harker wrote in Dorset dialect in 1878;
‘The owld White Harse wants zetting to rights, If some un ull promise good cheer, They’ll gee un a scrape to kip un in zhape, And a’ll last for many a year.’
The Dorset Daily Echo of 26 March 1947 states ‘To-day the White Horse is completely overgrwn (sic) with weed and scrub which will probably take months to remove from the bed of chalk.’ Apparently nature had achieved what camouflage couldn’t! The article continues; ‘When he was a member of Weymouth Town Council over 40 years ago [that is around 1907] ’Major J H C Devenish made himself responsible for the cleaning of the White Horse and was given the unofficial title of ‘Kings Groom.’ This was done with unfailing regularity and the cost was only a few pounds.’ The paper goes on to say that during World War 1, when labour was in short supply, a group of ‘Aussies’ set out from Springhead ‘operational headquarters’ and cleaned up the figure. Weymouth Chamber of Commerce carried on the good work afterwards with the invaluable aid of the Scouts.
The most recent of these exercises was the Challenge Anneka television programme broadcast 22 September 1989. This involved the addition of Portland stone scalpings following mistaken advice. The scalpings subsequently moved down the slope, distorting the outline.
In 2009 the Osmington White Horse Restoration Group (OWHRG) was formed. With the Olympic Games imminent and the worldwide broadcast of the sailing events meaning the White Horse would be seen by millions, the time had come for an organised and considered restoration programme to be initiated.
The OWHRG consists of the Osmington Society, local Councillors, experts from Dorset Countryside Rangers Service, the Council’s Historic Environment Service, Dorset AONB Partnership, English Heritage, Natural England and the landowners. Expert advice and technical assistance have been provided by Ordnance Survey and English Heritage’s Archaeological Survey and Investigation Team.
Stewart Ainsworth of English Heritage explains the science; ‘The experts from English Heritage and the Ordnance Survey have used a combination of modern-day techniques and good old-fashioned research to establish exactly the original outline of the figure. The ‘hi-tech’ techniques include earthwork survey on the ground using GPS (Global Positioning Satellites) and digital photogrammetric survey from aerial photographs. The results of these surveys have been used in tandem with analysis of very early photographs, 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps, and examination of 18th and 19th-century historical paintings’. This means that when work has finished the White Horse will look somewhat different to how it has looked for the last few decades; all the ‘unofficial changes’ made over the last 200 years having been remedied..
The project has been made possible by grant funding from Natural England’s Higher Level Stewardship Scheme as well as significant voluntary contributions of labour and expertise from various sources; volunteers from the Army and Royal Navy, Dorset Army Cadets, PGL (Osmington) staff, Thomas Hardye School, and Weymouth Scouts. In addition there has been an on-site contribution by the Dorset Rangers Service.
HOW THE PROJECT HAS EVOLVED
• Early 2009 OWHRG is formed
• July/August 2010 – volunteers shovel stone chippings from the figure into ‘dumpy bags’
• August 2010 – Royal Navy Sea King helicopter begins process of lifting bags of Portland stone chippings from hillside to White Horse Farm – these were recycled for use on farm tracks etc.
• October 2010 – Private Helicopter Company removes the remaining bags of scalpings. In total 160 tonnes were removed.
• May 2011 – Geophysical Survey to establish original outline
• June 2011 – Final outline agreed by OWHRG and marked out on monument
• July 2011 – Cutting out of newly marked out edges by PGL, Thomas Hardy School, Dorset Army Cadets and Weymouth Senior Scouts
• August – October 2011 – Final cutting by volunteers
So, by the time the Olympics comes to Weymouth and Portland the Osmington White Horse should look almost exactly as it did back in 1808 and the time, effort and manpower that has gone into the restoration probably equals the efforts that were put into the original cutting all those years ago.