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Down my way: Thomas Hardy and Martha Brown

Fanny Charles on the inspiration for Tess of the d’Urbervilles and a mystery that continues to fascinate

A picture of Thomas Hardy taken three years after he saw Martha Brown hang

‘I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back.’ So said Thomas Hardy when looking back to a sight that haunted him into later life: the hanging at Dorchester Prison on 9 August 1856 of Martha Brown. She was the last woman to be publicly hanged in Dorset. He was just sixteen when he witnessed the hanging and wrote seventy years later that he was ashamed to have been there.
By 1851, the previously widowed Martha was working on a farm in Purbeck where she met John Brown. They married and moved to Birdsmoorgate in the Marshwood Vale. Martha suspected that John was having an affair with a married woman, Mary Davies, who lived nearby. After John’s death, Martha maintained that his horse had kicked him in the head but the prosecutor at her trial at the Old Crown Court in Dorchester said she murdered him with an axe after he attacked her with a whip, and the jury found her guilty of murdering her husband.
The story of Martha Brown is believed to have influenced Hardy’s most popular novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the story of another beautiful young woman from a poor family who kills the man who has ruined her life.
During the 1960s, the antiquarian James Stevens Cox interviewed people who had known Hardy. James ran a small publishing company, the Toucan Press, which published monographs on ‘the life, times and works of Thomas Hardy’ including Thomas Hardy and the Birdsmoorgate Murder 1856 by Lady Hester Pinney, who lived at Racedown in the Marshwood Vale.
In the late 18th century, the Pinneys of the day loaned Racedown to Wordsworth, and his friend and fellow poet Coleridge and sister Dorothy Wordsworth came to stay. Later Racedown became a place of pilgrimage for students of literature and among those who came to visit in 1925 was Thomas Hardy, who ‘signed the pilgrim’s end of my visitor’s book,’ recalled Lady Pinney.
‘After doing so,’ Lady Pinney recalled, ‘he cleaned the pen on the striped lining of his waistcoat, a thing I remember seeing my father’s business friends do. “It’s a very nice pen, my dear,” he said to his wife, “do use it.” We had been talking about the years gone by, and as he was leaving and being hurried home by his careful wife, he turned to me and said, “Can you find out about Martha Brown? She lived over there” (and he pointed towards the west). “I saw her hanged when I was sixteen.” He was bustled into the car, before there was time for more.
As a Poor Law Guardian, Hester Pinney used to stay behind after the meetings to visit the old and bed-ridden in the Beaminster Infirmary and asked them about Martha Brown. ‘They told me that she was a “wonderful looking woman with beautiful curls.” Martha was about twenty years older than her husband, who, they said, had married her for her money – £50.’

From The Ballad of Martha Brown

Martha kept a general shop, like the other woman in the story, Mary Davies. One day Martha looked in at Mary’s window and saw her sitting on John Brown’s knee. John Brown went to Beaminster on a Saturday with a load of poles and ‘came back in liquor very late at night’. He and his wife had a quarrel and, while he was bending down by the fire, untying his boots, Martha hit him in the head with a hatchet. Later she called in a neighbour and said that she had found her husband dying at the door from kicks from his horse. The story was not believed and Martha was hanged.
According to Lady Pinney, ‘Mary Davies started to walk the 25 miles to see the hanging, but when she reached the village of Broadwindsor – three miles away – the people threatened to mob her and she turned back.’
Jim Lane of Blackdown, told Lady Pinney of his childhood memories: ‘Martha came to the door and said – “The horse have kicked poor John and killed he.” She was not a bit sad – as bright as ever I’d see’d her.’ Jim blamed Mary and thought she ‘ought to be hung instead because she did uphold a man to her house.’
Mrs Hardy also wrote to Lady Pinney: “Of course the account TH gives of the hanging is vivid and terrible. What a pity that a boy of sixteen should have been permitted to see such a sight. It may have given a tinge of bitterness and gloom to his life’s work.”
Lady Pinney visited Hardy at Max Gate in the following winter and sat with him by the fire as he talked about Martha and Tess, “whose stories have much in common, just as if they were in the next room. His sympathy for these unhappy women was wonderful.”
❱ For more information on The Ballad of Martha Brown, visit

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