In the footsteps of Treves: Blandford and Blandford St Mary
Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Sir Frederick to a Georgian town which owes its fine looks to fire
Published in September ’15
‘Blandford Forum takes its name from being a market-place situated upon one of the chief fords of the Stour. It is a brown, prim, comfortable town on a slope leading to the river. As Mrs. Gummidge mourned over the ‘old ‘un,’ so Blandford mourns – but with a finer melancholy – over its fires. It developed the habit of having fires in 1579, when it was nearly destroyed. During the Civil War, in the year 1644, it was sacked and plundered for its loyalty. Then came other fires in 1677 and 1713, and finally that conflagration in 1731 which was to merit the title of the Great Fire. It broke out at 2 pm of a June afternoon, at a tallow-chandler’s house, and it never ceased until it had destroyed all but forty houses in the place. Small-pox happened to be raging at the time, and to the fire may be given the credit of stamping out the epidemic…. The church was destroyed, but the distressed inhabitants at once erected a “tabernacle of boards” for temporary worship.’
Treves’s rather odd reference to ‘Mrs Gummidge’ and the ‘old ‘un’ is a nod to Charles Dickens’ book David Copperfield, where the aforementioned would constantly refer to how she missed her late husband – the ‘old un.’
It’s probably true to say that the reason Blandford is considered one of the country’s finest examples of a Georgian town is as a consequence of its fires. The last fire, the ‘Great Fire’, left fewer than forty houses standing in the town. This called for a major rebuilding program and the Bastard brothers took on the task; what we see today, in the centre of Blandford, is the impressive result. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described the work of John and William Bastard in reconstructing Blandford as ‘one of the most satisfying Georgian ensembles anywhere in England’. As if to confirm this statement there can be found writ on the paving slabs in front of the town hall this inscription:
‘Recipe for regeneration: take one careless tallow chandler and two ingenious Bastards’
One doesn’t have to read many lines by Treves in Highways and Byways in Dorset to find him making derogatory comments about something he doesn’t like; in Blandford Forum’s case it’s the church of which he doesn’t approve: ‘Near by the church – which is ugly, and only tolerable from a distance – is a classic fountain, erected “In remembrance of God’s dreadful visitation by fire. 1731.” The fountain sheltered by this pillared shrine appears to have been represented by a pump, for an inscription states that in 1768 John Bastard gave £100 “to keep this pump in repair and supplying the lamp with oil and a man to light the same every night from Michaelmas to Lady Day for ever.” For ever! Alas! The pump has long since been replaced by a pipe and a tap from the waterworks, while there is no oil lamp for any to light from Michaelmas to Lady Day, yet scarcely 140 years have passed since it was to have been tended for ever.’
Treves isn’t complimentary about the church; being a connoisseur of Dorset churches he fills his book with vivid descriptions of the inside and outside of the various ecclesiastical buildings he came across. Blandford Forum’s church, then less than 170 years old, was possibly too modern for Treves’ taste and didn’t merit his attention, however, rather than just not mention it he decided to besmirch it. Today’s more enlightened church admirers consider the building one of the best examples of its type; it has been described as the finest Georgian church outside of London. Sad to say, therefore, that Blandford’s church of St Peter and St Paul is in dire need of repair work, if it is to retain this accolade.
The fountain pump that Treves says ‘has long since been replaced’ was actually replaced in 1897, less than 10 years before he visited. Despite those changes it doesn’t appear to have been modified since.
Treves continues and has a slight change of mind regarding the church: ‘As may be supposed, there is nothing ancient left in Blandford. It is simply a bright, flourishing country town, and a good halting place for any who are exploring the shire. The town is seen at its best when viewed from the grey many-arched bridge which crosses the Stour. The river here is a lazy stream, flecked with water-lilies, fringed with rushes, and so overhung by trees that the swallows fluttering over its surface seem to be sporting in a green cloister. Between the river and the town is a “level mead”, yellow in the spring with buttercups, which creep up to the very garden walls. Beyond the meadow is a medley of red gables, brown roofs, and clumps of trees, out of which rises with some dignity the tower of the church.’
Something that must always strike the visitor to Blandford Forum, should they stop to ponder the river Stour from the bridge, is the number of trees on the banks of the river – the ‘cloister’ is still to be found and the descendants of the rushes, water lilies and swallows (it was June) are all here. To the left of the bridge, as you enter the town from Blandford St Mary, are meadows that Treves would recognise, on the right it is the drab grey tarmacadam of a large car park covering, probably, the ‘level mead’. It is interesting to note that the view of the town Treves talks of is no more – not due to building development but due to the large number of mature trees that block the view.
Treves now describes an idyll that no longer exists: ‘There are no suburbs, happily, to Blandford. Beyond the last line of houses is the untrampled country, so that a window on the fringe of the town will open over a corn field, and cows will rest under the shelter of orchard walls.’
Blandford cannot now claim to possess ‘no suburbs’ as the town has expanded to cover the cornfields Treves saw. In the 100 years since he was here the population appears to have at least quadrupled. As well as large amounts of housing Blandford now also possesses a number of industrial estates, all covering what he called ‘the untrampled country.’
There are a couple of notable pre-great fire buildings, as Treves now tells us: ‘Two houses at least, which escaped the great fire, serve to show what manner of place Blandford Forum was before the last trouble fell upon it. One is Ryves’s Almshouse, a long, comely, wrinkled building of brick in one story [sic], bearing the date 1682. The other is an old red brick mansion, a solid, self-assertive house, with imperious chimneys, a very high roof, and haughty windows. There is a rugged, un-English look about it, which some ascribe to the influence of a certain German doctor, Frederick Sagittary, who lived here before the fire. He graduated at Oxford in 1661, and was so gratified with Blandford that he caused his son, John Sagittary, to succeed him in his practise in the place.’
The two houses mentioned by Treves are still to be found – Ryves Almshouses, founded in 1682 for 10 poor persons, apparently are now 5 dwellings and the ‘old red brick mansion,’ known now as the ‘Old House’ is situated on the south side of The Close some 200 yards north east of the church. The place was built during the mid-1600s by Dr. Joachim Frederic Sagittary, so Treves was apparently correct in saying that ‘some’ ascribe the house as influenced by the German doctor. It is a most unusual looking house, especially in Georgian Blandford and those ‘imperious chimneys’ and ‘haughty windows’ are still there. The single, diminutive dormer window in a rather steep front facing roof also looks a little out of place.
Blandford and Blandford St Mary can claim to be the birthplace of numerous worthies as Treves explains;
‘Blandford can boast of many eminent men. Notably of Bishops William Wake (1657-1737), Archbishop of Canterbury, Samuel Lisle (1683-1749), Bishop of Norwich, and Thomas Lindesay (1656-1724), Archbishop of Armagh, were all natives of this town. Of the last named it is tersely recorded that “he was of loose life but of ready wit”. By Blandford St Mary there lived at one time “Governor” Pitt, grandfather of the first Earl of Chatham… Governor Pitt lies buried in the little rustic church of Blandford St Mary where a tablet discourses in Latin upon his virtues’.
‘Governor’ Pitt was grandfather to Pitt ‘the elder’ and great-grandfather to Pitt ‘the younger,’ both Prime Minister during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Treves tells the story of Thomas ‘Diamond’ Pitt (as he later became
known) and how he bought a diamond of 410 carats for £20,400 and sold it to the Duke of Orleans (then Regent of France) for £135,000, in 1717. This set up the Pitt family fortune which undoubtedly helped in raising the family’s political profile.
Treves doesn’t tell us anything of Blandford St Mary, which sits on the other bank of the Stour from Blandford. There has been development – a large superstore with its DIY superstore neighbour, a much larger brewery site than Treves would have known and the bypass running nearby, all add to the feel of a 21st-century settlement.
The area around the Stour Inn opposite the imposing gates to Bryanston, however, must be much as Treves knew it; there is a housing estate not far away but the old buildings and mature trees give a sense of the timeless to this spot.
The church of St Mary, with its 14th century tower – the ‘little rustic church’ has unfortunately been cut-off from most of Blandford St Mary by the A350 bypass road but in the delightful building can still be found the memorial tablet to Governor Pitt. ◗