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Hutchins, Dorset’s reverend historian

The history of Dorset is well documented, but the most celebrated of all versions is the one by John Hutchins. Thirty years in the making, it came perilously close to not being published at all. Colin Trueman tells the history of a history.

The Rectory in Wareham, where Hutchins lived for thirty years, was re-built after it was burnt down in the Great Fire of Wareham in 1762

The Rectory in Wareham, where Hutchins lived for thirty years, was re-built after it was burnt down in the Great Fire of Wareham in 1762

One sunny Sunday afternoon in July 1762, a maid from the Bull’s Head Inn in Wareham, without thinking of the possible consequences – she was probably overworked and certainly underpaid – threw a pile of hot ashes on to the hotel’s rubbish tip. There had been no rain recently; in fact, the previous few weeks had been hot and sunny, so the embers set the dry rubbish alight in seconds. The south-westerly breeze spread the flames over the predominantly thatched roofs. It being a Sunday, the people of Wareham were either relaxing in the sun or attending divine service in church. Legend has it that some citizens actually smelt something burning but, alas, ignored it, for some two-thirds of the town was destroyed: 133 dwelling houses and other buildings. Miraculously, no-one was hurt, but many people lost all their possessions – a disaster for those who were uninsured, which was the majority – and all the parish registers were burnt.
However, there could have been a fatality which would have affected the history of the whole county. More than twenty years of work by Rev. John Hutchins, documenting the history of Dorset, was stored in his Rectory in Pound Lane, and on this particular Sunday afternoon he was away from his home parish, conducting a service at Swyre, near Bridport. The only occupant of the Rectory at the time of the fire was Hutchins’s wife, Anne. They had been married for almost thirty years, and for most of that time he had been collecting information about Dorset, so she was well aware of the precious nature of these papers – some were transcripts in his own hand of records from the Tower of London. The story goes that this devoted wife rescued armfuls of irreplaceable documents at what must have been considerable personal risk, leaving and re-entering the building several times. One more picturesque version has her subsequently standing in the nearby River Frome to avoid the flames, holding the precious papers on her head – an image which is engaging but which could contain a grain of truth, as most of Hutchins’s documents survived. For twelve years later, The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset was published in two volumes, and since then it has been the county’s standard work of reference.

This portrait of John Hutchins by Cantlo Bestland appeared in the second edition of the History

This portrait of John Hutchins by Cantlo Bestland appeared in the second edition of the History

John Hutchins was born in Bradford Peverell on 21 September 1698, the son of Rev. Richard Hutchins, Rector of All Saints Church in Dorchester. He was educated at Dorchester Grammar School under the supervision of its master, Rev. William Thornton, the Rector of West Stafford, whom he later described as ‘a second parent’ – Hutchins’s mother had died when he was only eight years old. With such clerical influences, a career in the church was almost inevitable, and young John went to Hart Hall (now Hertford College) at Oxford (Thornton’s old college), from which he transferred to Balliol, where he graduated with his BA in 1722, which was promoted to MA seven years later. This time at Oxford was the only period of his life which this true man of Dorset did not spend in the county of his birth.

The plaque outside the Rectory commemorating Hutchins

The plaque outside the Rectory commemorating Hutchins

Hutchins was duly ordained and in 1723 he was appointed as curate to Rev. George Marsh, the vicar of Milton Abbas, where he was also assistant master at the grammar school. It was during his time at Milton Abbas that he met Jacob Bancks, the lord of the manor. It was Bancks who was responsible for Hutchins’s appointment as Rector of Swyre in 1729 and Melcombe Horsey in 1733, but Bancks’s influence was even more life-changing than these ecclesiastical elevations. He asked Hutchins to make some enquiries about his mother’s family, the Tregonwells (ancestors of ‘the founder of Bournemouth’), and this impelled him to begin examining collections of material relating to Dorset. Bancks then encouraged him to collate his findings and embark on the writing of a county history, as did the celebrated antiquary and historian, Browne Willis, a native of Blandford, when he visited the county in 1736.
Bancks died in 1738, still in his early thirties, which distressed Hutchins considerably, as can be seen by the eloquent eulogy he wrote for the London Magazine. But Browne Willis took over the role of motivator, to the extent of drawing up a set of six ‘Queries relating to the County of Dorset’, which he had printed and circulated, together with a covering letter, at his own expense. Willis had got the idea from a fellow Blandfordian, Archbishop Thomas Wake, who, while Bishop of Lincoln, devised the idea of sending questionnaires to all his clergy, asking information about their parishes. The answers to Willis’s queries were at first slow to arrive, but Hutchins was patient; indeed, the project was to occupy him for the rest of his life.

This illustration of Lady St Mary Church in Wareham, which appeared in the first edition of the History, shows it before the destruction of the nave in 1841

This illustration of Lady St Mary Church in Wareham, which appeared in the first edition of the History, shows it before the destruction of the nave in 1841

In 1744 Hutchins became Rector of Holy Trinity with St Martin’s and St Mary’s, Wareham, relinquishing the rectorship of Melcombe Horsey but maintaining that of Swyre. By then he had married Anne Stephens, the daughter of another Dorset cleric, the Rector of Pimperne, and they had one child, Anne Martha. They moved into the Rectory at the junction of Pound Lane and Trinity Lane, a short distance from Holy Trinity Church. He found that his duties as a priest were considerably increased, as there were many more parishioners in his new cure. At Melcombe Horsey he had found that he could carry on his Dorset studies with relative freedom (like Rev. Thomas Bayes with his probability theorem and Rev. Jack Russell with his dog-breeding), but, being a conscientious man, he now had to spend more time actually being a man of the church: a contemporary account states that ‘a personal attendance on the inhabitants was frequently required’. He was not noted for the quality of his sermons – the same account gives him ‘the character of a sound Divine, rather than of an eminent Preacher’, but also mentions that he was ‘so very deaf, that none but his more particular friends would bear the fatigue of conversing with him’, which was hardly an advantage for one in his position. He also had to deal with a difficult curate who was eventually sent to a lunatic asylum, not to mention Wareham’s non-conformists, who were at that time in the majority.

Holy Trinity Church in Wareham, where Hutchins was the priest, ceased to be used as a church after the fire of 1762. It is now a community café.

Holy Trinity Church in Wareham, where Hutchins was the priest, ceased to be used as a church after the fire of 1762. It is now a community café.

So progress on the great work was slow, hindered, as he explained to Willis, by ‘being remote from libraries’ and by ‘the extraordinary expenses of travelling’. Fortunately he was aided by subscribers to the History, in particular a generous one in 1761 which enabled him to travel to Oxford and London to continue his researches. Even so, the destruction of his house in 1762 caused him much distress: the fire consumed his entire library and all the furniture in the house – the only item saved was a bureau in the parlour in which were all his Dorset-related manuscripts. (This was according to Hutchins himself – no mention of his wife in the river.) The saving of his manuscripts from destruction is commemorated by a reference to Virgil’s Aeneid on the title page of the History: ‘Reliquiae Troia ex ardente receptae’: ‘relics snatched from burning Troy’. The Rectory was re-built, but his later years were marred by illness. However, he had finished work on the project by early 1770, although he never saw it in print, for he had a stroke in 1771 and died in 1773. He was buried beneath an inscribed floor-slab in King Edward’s Chapel in the church of Lady St Mary, Wareham.
The long labour of seeing the History published was carried out by Dr William Cuming of Dorchester and the antiquarian, Richard Gough, and it appeared in two volumes in 1774, complete with 56 illustrations, depicting country and town houses belonging to the gentry (many of whom had subscribed to the publication), churches, and other items of antiquarian interest. It sold at two guineas a copy, making a small profit for Hutchins’s widow.

Dorset bibliophile Colin Jones’s collection includes these beautifully bound copies of all three editions of Hutchins’s History

Dorset bibliophile Colin Jones’s collection includes these beautifully bound copies of all three editions of Hutchins’s History

However, she lived another twenty years, and she would have been destitute if it had not been for her son-in-law, John Bellasis. As a result of his service in the East India Company, he was financially able to support his mother-in-law. In addition, he took up her suggestion of a second edition of the History, and he arranged for Richard Gough to undertake the new edition, the expenses being met by himself. It was published in four volumes between 1796 and 1815, with much new material by Gough and his chief assistant, Thomas Bartlett, junior, of Wareham.
In the 1850s William Shipp, a Blandford bookseller, stationer, bookbinder and printer, embarked on a third edition with James Whitworth Hodson. There is even less of the original Hutchins material in this edition, which was published in 1873; but the name of Hutchins is always associated with this, the most indispensable of all Dorset books.

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