The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Swanage’s Mowlem mystery

Audrey Pembroke attempts to disentangle the origins of Swanage's John Mowlem

John Mowlem

John Mowlem

John Mowlem (1788-1868) was a legendary Swanage figure. Born a poor quarry boy he left Swanage when he was seventeen to seek work as a stonemason. By 1823 he’d begun his own successful business repaving and kerbing London streets, and later became founder of the building firm Mowlem & Company.
When he retired back to Swanage, he was a great benefactor to the town, opening the Mowlem Institute in 1863, and Herston’s Reading Room in 1867; he also purchased an area of land from the Brook northwards to Ulwell and from Swanage Bay to Cauldron Barn to be used for the townsfolk’s recreation. The estate was developed by his great-nephew, John Ernest Mowlem (1868-1946) and the development included de Moulham Road.

John Mowlem's house at Herston House in Swanage

John Mowlem’s house at Herston House in Swanage

John Mowlem believed he was directly descended from Durandus who built King William’s Tower at Corfe in Domesday times, and who was given the Moulham land as a reward. A document at Dorset Records Office shows that in the 27th year of Henry Vl (1448) the late Robert Rempston of Godlingston willed ‘to Jn. Homme, clerk, (Rector of Worth and Swanwich, 1437-73) Walter Crawell, clerk, and Jn. Wymond. Gift. House with garden called Le Grofe at Moulham and meadows and closes there, all of which are usually called Moulham, in the parish of Swanewych, and were formerly, inter alia, lands and tenements of Jn. de Moulham, son and heir of Wm. de Moulham’. And then the Moulhams just disappear from official records… at least for 174 years. Alexander Mowlem, direct ancestor of John Mowlem, pops up in Studland; he was born in 1622.

Swanage wouldn't look anything like it does today without the influence of the Mowlems

Swanage wouldn’t look anything like it does today without the influence of the Mowlems

After the Battle of Hastings, King William l ‘owned’ the whole of England. The different manors were held from him by varying grades of tenants. In return they had to supply a number of fighting men including the baron himself. Each baron gave his knights an estate for himself, his family and servants.
The bishops, abbots and barons who held land direct from the King were tenants-in-chief. Those who held estates from them were called main or mesme tenants. Ida, Countess of Boulogne, held Centry (later Sentry) and Eightholds in Swanage. Centry was held from Countess Ida by the Priory of Frampton – a cell attached to Caen Abbey, Eightholds was held from Ida by the Priory of le Vast at Cluny in Burgundy.
The manor of Kingston belonged to the Abbess of Shaftesbury. Soon after the Conquest, in return for the Church of Gillingham, she gave William the Kingston strip on which to build a castle. The building of the great Tower of Corfe was begun in 1075. William the Conqueror is said to have given the manor of Moleham to his carpenter Durand, and descendents, in return for repairing the woodwork and keeping the gutters clean on his great tower at Corfe. Moleham was one hide, but Durand also held Afflington and a part of Wilkswood. Both places were quarry sites. Considering the amount of wood needed for scaffolding, let alone that used in the building and maintenance of the Keep, Durand would have been in charge of an enormous work-force. Moleham, to the east of Herston Yards and south of Godlingston must have been substantial; it had a mill where the locals were obliged to grind their corn – and pay for the privilege.

Was the carpenter Durundus, who worked on Corfe Castle, a Mowlem ancestor?

Was the carpenter Durundus, who worked on Corfe Castle, a Mowlem ancestor?

The Romans were in the area for 400 years and in Latin, mola means a mill stone, (whence molars for our grinding-teeth). In French moulin means mill and, after the Conquest, Moleham became Mouleham, whence the surname de Moulham. Durand’s descendants lived at Moleham for almost 350 years, until 1448, in the reign of Henry V, when they disappeared. So what became of the de Moulham men?
By the mid 1400s there were no more than 200 people in the parish of Swanage. Some time between 1413 and 1422 William Molhame’s only daughter married Robert Rempstone of Godlingston. In 1448, during Henry VI’s reign, the Moleham estate was willed to John Homme, rector of Swanage and Langton, by ‘the late Robert Rempstone of Godlingston’.
Four hundred years after the Benedictines were founded the monasteries were far removed from the original austerity of St Benedict. The Order of Cluny was founded in Burgundy with the idea of going back to that strict rule. The Cluniacs did no manual work, but employed servants, villagers, etc, but they gradually reached the same state as their predecessors. The Cistercian Order was founded for the same reason as the Cluniacs, and it was even more austere, at least to begin with.

Along with George Burt, John Mowlem played a critical part in the development of Swanage from a parish of 200 souls to a thriving town

Along with George Burt, John Mowlem played a critical part in the development of Swanage from a parish of 200 souls to a thriving town

The Cistercians began near Cluny, at Citeaux (whose Latin name is Cistercium) in the early 12th century. They renounced wealth, refused the Benedictine practice of accepting gifts of populated manors, renounced luxuries like cloaks, shirts, fur-lined boots, woollen blankets and combs for the hair. Their worship was simple, without processions or litanies, only a little chanting, and few psalms, and no special services for saints’ days. The original founder of the Cistercian Order was one Robert de Molesme.
De Molesme was born of noble parents at Troyes in 1027, joined the Cluniacs and became the Abbot of St Michael of Tonnerre. By 1075 Robert was so dissatisfied with the Cluniacs’ worldliness, he led a group of 20 associates to a place called Molesme, hence his name. He intended only to return to a strict following of the Rule of St Benedict. Stephen Harding was one of those associates. Born in 1060, he was educated, at Sherborne, fled to Scotland during the Saxon resistance to the invasion then, after a pilgrimage to Rome, he joined the Cluniacs at Molesme and assumed the name of Stephen. He was 38 when Robert of Molesme, by then an old man of 71, moved to Citeaux in 1098. Robert died in 1110 aged 83.
When Stephen Harding became Abbot of Citeaux in 1109, he laid down the constitution of the new order in his Charter of Charity. He defined the qualities of a monk as humility, prayer, obedience, silence and solitude. He was responsible for the severity of Cistercian architecture, and founded several subsidiary abbeys. Stephen Harding died at Citeaux in 1134, six years after the first Cistercian monastery in England was founded at Waverley in Surrey. Forde Abbey, about 20 miles from Sherborne as the crow flies, was founded by monks from Waverley in 1141. Then they came to Lulworth in 1149, and settled to the east of the Cove where they began Bindon Abbey. When Robert de Newburgh became their patron he transferred the monks to the Bindon we know today, near Wool. That was in 1172, so the Cistercians were at Lulworth for 20 years.

The Institute named after John Mowlem, but after whom was he named?

The Institute named after John Mowlem, but after whom was he named?

The building of Corfe Castle continued throughout the reign of King John (1165-1216). He had 30 monks brought over from Citeaux to begin work on Beaulieu Abbey in the New Forest in 1204; the master mason was one Durand. Was this the descendant of Durand de Moleham the carpenter?
The National Trust book on Corfe Castle states: ‘The heightening of the Keep in 1293-4 was supervised by Brother Henry of Bindon, who also appears in the accounts as a carpenter.’ Cistercian monks were skilled workers, and called themselves carpenters because Jesus was a carpenter.
Just as the question of what happened to the de Moulham men remains unanswered, so asking what became of the de Molesme men is not simply resolved.
Hutchins gives a family tree of sorts for John Mowlem; it is disjointed and without dates, beginning with the marriage of “Edith, supposed daughter of William Newburgh, to William Molam.” A note gives the names of witnesses to the fact that the marriage did take place. Their testimony is dated 1605.
Swanage Parish Registers reveal that a John Mowlham was buried in 1568, the occurrence in the records of the name spelt with a ‘W’. There are many different spellings, but by the time of Alexander and his descendants, the name is spelled Mowlem.
This seems closer to Molesme, than Moleham or Mouleham – both depicting mills. So could it be that John Mowlem and other quarrymen are descendents of former Cistercian monks with the Corfe Castle link with Durandus the carpenter? Unfortunately, we cannot, without further links, know which or indeed either theory is correct ◗

Dorset Directory