About twenty five years ago, we had a family holiday in Dorset. We’d been lent a little caravan, which we towed behind our car, to a campsite in Bere Regis. I dragged the girls to look round the Parish Church [St John The Baptist] where there is an area in the South Aisle known as the Turberville Chapel – believed to have inspired Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
Dorset folk are fond of their local wordsmith. He was born in Bockhampton, close to Dorchester, and his books are full of descriptions of the Dorset countryside and inhabitants. Born in 1840, Hardy married Emma Gifford in 1874 – a woman he met whilst on a visit to Cornwall. After her death in 1912, he married again in 1914, this time to his secretary, Florence Dugdale. But there was a woman in his life before that …
This church is All Saints, Hampreston, less than two miles from my new home. If you search under the trees in the churchyard, you may find a neglected gravestone with Hardy connections.
For here is buried one Flora Polian – a young woman who had grown up in this little hamlet, then was sent, aged just 13, to Dorchester in 1853 to work in the kitchens of Mr Last’s Academy for Young Gentleman. She saw the young Thomas as he studied, and fell in love with him. But although he flirted with the poor young scullery maid, he merely toyed with her affections – and completely forgot her when he was sent as an apprentice to an architect named James Hicks who practiced in the town. On her days off, Flora would follow Hardy round the streets, hoping he would acknowledge her – but he brushed her aside. At 22, he went up to London – and Flora returned to Hampreston to care for her ailing mother.
Flora never married, and tragically died of pneumonia on her 25th birthday. We have no pictures of this sad young woman. I mention her today, because this would be the 150th anniversary of the death of poor Flora Polian.