The Oddities of Swanage

Another extract from Charles Harper’s book ‘The Dorset Coast’published in 1905 where he describes some of the monumental oddities that have made there way to this seaside town in Dorset.

The stranger to Swanage might well be excused if he hurriedly came to the conclusion that the town was an appendage of the London building and contracting firm of Mowlem & Burt, for the founders of that business were natives of this place, and have filled it with an astonishing collection of discarded oddments from London, the perquisites that fell to them in the way of their business. It is not so certain that those who delight in quaint, old-world places ought to be grateful to the memory either of Burt or of Mowlem, who are now gathered to their fathers; for largely to them is due that change from an old-world fishing and quarrying village to a modern sea-side resort, which, to those who knew the place before those changes began to be, have quite succeeded in spoiling it. To those who knew not Swanage in the old days, before the replacing of its quaintly primitive cottages by pretentious modern shops, and before the railway came, to finally modernise it, the town is well enough, and even delightful; but to those who knew the village as it was, this is a very different matter, and they feel no gratitude towards the shades of Mowlem & Burt.

High Street & Town Hall, Swanage

John Mowlem, the founder of that firm, rose from very humble quarry beginnings, but traced his descent from one Durandus de Moulham, who so far back as the time of William the Conqueror held the manor of Moulham at Godlingstone, between Studland and Swanage. The manorial service by which Durandus held that property was the finding of a carpenter to work about the great tower of Corfe Castle, whenever it required repair and the king put in his claim. In the time of Henry the Fifth, the De Moulhams and their manor parted company, for their direct line or elder branch ended in an heiress, who married one Robert Rempston, and took the property out of the family. In the course of centuries the aristocratic De Moulhams became plain plebeian Mowlems, without a rood of land to justify that territorial ” De,” which they therefore very properly dropped and discontinued the use of. But time works many practical ironies, and not only brought about the extinction of the Rempstons, but the upheaval again of the Mowlems, in the person of this strenuous contractor, who, with prosperity and opportunity serving, succeeded in bringing back a portion of the lands his family had lost over four hundred years earlier. He, however, died in 1868, aged 79, childless, and so the Mowlem reappearance was brief.

He and his partner, Burt, had a positive mania for erecting monuments in Swanage. Nothing ever happened here, however long ago, but they raised something to put people in mind of it. It is a very long while since Alfred the Great succeeded in defeating the Danes here over a thousand years, in fact, for that naval battle, which was fought in Swanage Bay, took place in A.D. 877—and Swanage had in the meanwhile existed very comfortably without any memorial of that event, but John Mowlem erected a stone pillar on the beach in 1862, to commemorate it. It is not a very imposing pillar, and it is quaintly crowned by three cannon-balls, which, in his frugal way, Mowlem chanced upon, lying about somewhere, and found a use for, quite unconscious of the incongruous character of cannon-balls on a monument to a victory fought hundreds of years before gunpowder or ordnance were invented.

When there was nothing in Swanage left to decorate in the monumental way, Mowlem was reduced to the expedient of working off his commemorative energy by recognising other than local events. Thus it is that, beside the high road out of the town, on the way to Corfe Castle, the stranger will find a large and not lovely obelisk to the memory of ” Albert the Good,” by which name the Prince Consort of Queen Victoria is indicated. It was, considering all these things, eminently fitting that when Mowlem himself was taken to his forbears an obelisk of a peculiar massiveness should have been erected over him.

The Wellington Memorial, Swanage

No Londoner can feel strange in Swanage, for there are on either hand so many relics of Cockaigne that they render the place quite homely and familiar. If one is old enough to remember Sir Christopher Wren’s old decorative stone frontage to Mercers’ Hall, Cheapside, removed in 1882, to be replaced by a newer building, it will be with a warm glow of recognition and reminiscence that the familiar frontage, with its florid garlands and podgy cherubs, is encountered on a stroll down the High Street, doing duty as entrance to the Swanage Town Hall. They, and the well-known bust of the crowned Virgin, the badge of the Worshipful Company of Mercers, over the keystone of the archway, are a good deal cleaner than they were used to be in Cheapside, and the cherubs have been rather ruthlessly scraped; but the old landmark is easily recognisable, and the clock, bracketed out from an upper storey, is too characteristic of the City of London not to be a spoil snatched from one of the old City churches.

Opposite this Town Hall rises the massive and stately Purbeck House, the lordly halls reared by Burt, whose striking, mediaevally-designed tower is surmounted by one of the flying-fish vanes from old Billingsgate Market.

But by far the most striking importation from London is the tall Gothic clock-tower-lacking a clock, which has for the last forty years been a prominent object on the seashore in the grounds of ” The Grove,” at the extreme west end of the town. It was originally built, at the cost of some thousands of pounds, as a memorial to the great Duke of Wellington, and was erected on the pavement to the south side of London Bridge. Its history is thoroughly and singularly in keeping with that of many other monuments to that great commander; doomed, like the famous Wellington memorial in St. Paul’s Cathedral, to be for ever incomplete and continually “moved on,” to be, like the hideous “Iron Duke” of Hyde Park Corner, the derision of nations, and to be at last banished to the Fox Hills, Aldershot, where it frightens the recruits; or, finally, subjected, like the equestrian Duke in front of the Royal Exchange in the City of London, to the indignity of being made president over an underground convenience.

The Wellington clock tower had not long been in its position at the end of London Bridge before it was felt to be decidedly a hindrance to the thronging traffic of that quarter, and it was removed. No one knew what to do with it, and its stones were given to Mr. Burt, who speedily had them shipped to Swanage, as a present to his friend Mr. Docwra, who then resided at “The Grove.” Although its stone pinnacle has of late years come to grief and its tapering proportions are stunted by the substitution of a copper capping, it still, with the rough stones, drying fishing-nets, and scattered lobsterpots of the beach, forms a highly picturesque foreground for the artist seeking an effective setting for a characteristic sketch of Swanage.

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1 Comment

  1. Musa said,

    October 4, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    I am currently doing my GCSE geography coursework on Swanage and whether or not tourism is the only function of swanage and suring my research i stumbled upon your website and i really like the drawings on this page. this web site has alot of stuff that is very valuable to my reasearch thanks!!!!


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