What we can be certain of is that Hardy’s professional experience as an architect underwrote an interest in buildings that would persist for the rest of his life. — Thomas Marks

Decorated initial The son of a Dorset master stone-mason and builder, Thomas Hardy was articled in 1856, at the age of sixteen, to local "architect and church-restorer" John Hicks. The facts are well known: "Having seen Thomas Hardy junior when his father conjointly with another builder was executing Mr. Hicks’s restoration of, it is believed, Woodsford Castle, and tested him by inviting him to assist at a survey, Hicks wished to have him as a pupil, offering to take him for somewhat less than the usual premium" (Hardy 34). A natural enough progression for someone born into a builder's family, this nevertheless indicated aptitude and potential. It was a first step on the ladder to a career which, like so many others, was gradually becoming professionalised during the nineteenth century. But this young pupil was also acquiring knowledge, skills and interest which he would carry over into his later career as a writer.

Both the autobiographical and architectural elements in Hardy's work have now been extensively studied. Kester Rattenbury, for instance, has interpreted Hardy's Wessex as nothing short of a campaign, which drew on the full range of his professional knowledge — "its visionary tools, its written polemic, its working details, its actual construction, its immersive experience and its assembly of information" — to champion the rural vernacular (81). This sounds Ruskinian, but Rattenbury sees the unflinching recognition of realities in Hardy's work as far removed from, and indeed opposed to, any notions of rural life as "picturesque" (61). Ruskin's views on the picturesque are much more complex than this might suggest. But more recently, too, Jody Griffith looks at Hardy in two of the four main chapters of her Victorian Structures: Architecture, Society and Narrative (2020), taking The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure as a critique of Ruskin and his influence. Certainly, in the very first chapter of the latter, Hardy writes scathingly of a new Gothic Revival church designed by a London architect to replace the crumbling old one of the village of Marygreen, effectively erasing the true record of the past. But what troubled Hardy most here, and in his poetry, went much deeper than the question of style, and encompassed even more than the trampling on history that might accompany it: it was the disjunction between the work of the hand and the bafflement of the spirit by external forces.

Left to right: (a) View of Winborne Minster (author's photograph). (b) The jack-o'-clock on the north side of the western tower (photograph by Michael Day). (c) The astronomical clock in the baptistry (photograph by Lex McKee). The last two photographs were kindly made available on Flickr on the Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) Creative Commons Licence.

The ancient Minster Church in Wimborne, Dorset, was the perfect place for an aspiring architect to copy Gothic details. Besides its twelfth-century and later medieval features, it was also (as it still is) "exceptionally rich in curious features ... a museum of antiquities" (Harper 271-72). Among these antiquities is an astronomical clock in the baptistry, thought to date back to 1612, with its quarters sounded by a "quarter jack" in the north window of the west tower. This little figure, thought to date back to 1612, strikes the bells on each side of it one after another, every fifteen minutes. It was transformed into grenadier in the early nineteenth century (see Inventory). Apart from that, the historic Minster has more than its share of important historical associations. Early interments here include King Ethelred, brother to Alfred the Great; Elizabeth I's godmother, Gertrude Courtenay, and the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort. The clock and some of the tombs or memorials are mentioned in the poem that Hardy wrote later, apparently taking material from the days of his pupillage.

Copying Architecture in an Old Minster

How smartly the quarters of the hour march by
That the jack-o'-clock never forgets;
Ding-dong; and before I have traced a cusp's eye,
Or got the true twist of the ogee over,
A double ding-dong ricochetts.

Just so did he clang here before I came,
And so will he clang when I'm gone
Through the Minster's cavernous hollows - the same
Tale of hours never more to be will he deliver
To the speechless midnight and dawn!

I grow to conceive it a call to ghosts,
Whose mould lies below and around.
Yes; the next "Come, come," draws them out from their posts,
And they gather, and one shade appears, and another,
As the eve-damps creep from the ground.

See - a Courtenay stands by his quatre-foiled tomb,
And a Duke and his Duchess near;
And one Sir Edmund in columned gloom,
And a Saxon king by the presbytery chamber;
And shapes unknown in the rear.

Maybe they have met for a parle on some plan
To better ail-stricken mankind;
I catch their cheepings, though thinner than
The overhead creak of a passager's pinion
When leaving land behind.

Or perhaps they speak to the yet unborn,
And caution them not to come
To a world so ancient and trouble-torn,
Of foiled intents, vain lovingkindness,
And ardours chilled and numb.

They waste to fog as I stir and stand,
And move from the arched recess,
And pick up the drawing that slipped from my hand,
And feel for the pencil I dropped in the cranny
In a moment's forgetfulness.

The poem was first published in in 1917. Noting that it was "little known and never anthologised," Dennis Taylor analysed it at the very beginning of his book on Hardy's poetry (1). It was then picked up by others, including Joanna Cullen Brown, who also found in it "an imitation of a whole life, or even of the pattern of human history" (92). The key to such a reading is the ricochetting of the quarter-strokes, marking the swift passage of time in which, nevertheless, old and new continually interact. The fabric of the minster, with its late medieval Gothic cusps and ogee arches, expresses and frames the history of individual builders, masons and carvers, and all who have gathered here, in life or in death. As it marks the passing of time, it tells of the very centuries that have passed, and continue to pass, as the context of all individual experience. But as the "eve-damps" creep up from the ground, and Hardy hears the thin, thin voices of the long-dead, it also whispers unnervingly to the young trainee architect of the "foiled intents" of human effort.

Anthony Etricke's tomb, Winborne Minster, emblazoned with seven heraldic shields — one of the curiosities of the minster: Etricke's appointed time came later than he had expected, and the date on his tomb had to be altered. Source: Harper, facing p.270.

In such surroundings, with their existential dimensions, the speaker's melancholy has full play: he wonders if the spirits of the long dead, that the young draughtsman sensed around him and that the clock seemed to summon ("Come, come"), might wish to warn the "yet unborn" of the disappointments of this world — of how personal aims and yearnings are alike thwarted, and love itself is doomed to fade. Yet what does the speaker (the remembered self) do? He moves from "the arched recess" and feels for his dropped pencil. Despite its melancholy recognition of the wearing down of heart and hope, the ending of "Copying Architecture in an Old Minster" can be seen as a declaration of intent, even, possibly, as hinting at a redirection of his skills.

The "Hardy Tree" in the old St Pancras graveyard, steadily growing into the many headstones placed around it when Hardy was supervising their clearance for Arthur Blomfield.

For the time being, however, the pencil in that resolute hand would still be largely devoted to architecture. Hardy's career as an architect was no brief stop-gap. In 1861, he was well advanced in draughtsmanship, as demonstrated by his elevation of gothic terrace houses in Greenhill, Dorset, kept in the Dorset County Museum (and reproduced in Briggs 31). After serving his pupillage with Hicks, he went to London in 1862 and soon secured work as an assistant in the offices of one of the most respected architects of his age, known for his Gothic churches and Gothic restoration work. This was Arthur (later, Sir Arthur) Blomfield, who had been made President of the Architectural Association just the year before. Hardy began working for him on 5 May 1862, and remained with him for a good five years, until late July 1867 (Bailey 13). He acquitted himself well, winning two architectural prizes, the first for a design of a country mansion and the second from the Royal Institute of British Architects for his essay "On the Application of Coloured Bricks and Terra Cotta to Modern Architecture" (Briggs 29). As Blomfield's assistant, he would have had some hand in the projects of those years. He recalled, for instance, being sent to supervise the clearing of graves from beside St Pancras Old Church in late 1865, for the development of the Midland Railway service there (see Hardy, Early Life, 58). But there would have been more architecturally challenging tasks. He was certainly involved in Blomfield's All Saints, Windsor (1863-64), and also his chapel at the old Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford (1864). Michael Milligate has suggested that he would probably only have been responsible for "details here and there" (79), but at the former, the removal of some panelling in 2016 revealed an intricately patterned reredos thought to have been designed by Hardy's own hand (see Marks). As for Oxford, he clearly absorbed a great deal there: the city unmistakably informs Christminster in Jude the Obscure (1895).

Already, though, there were signs that life as an architect would not satisfy him. Bookish at school, he was now reading widely, from Elizabethan poetry to Darwin. In the spring of 1865, he enrolled to study French at King's College, London, continuing his evening classes there for the academic year. For the amusement of Blomfield's pupils, he wrote "How I Built Myself a House," which he offered to the Chambers Journal in 1865 — this would be his first publication. Around the same time, he considered going to Cambridge to embark on a career in the church, and even tried his hand at acting, appearing in pantomime in The Forty Thieves and a "representation of the Oxford and Cambridge boat-race" at Covent Garden in 1867 — though only as a "nondescript" (Hardy, Early Life, 72). And by now he was writing poetry. But it was still several years before he could devote all his time to a literary career.

Left: Church of St Juliot, near Boscastle. Right: Memorial plaque to Thomas Hardy in the church.

Not in the best of health, and clearly with other possibilities in mind, Hardy left Blomfield and returned to Dorset in 1867. However, he soon agreed to work on a temporary basis with Hicks's successor in Dorset, George R. Crickmay (see "History"). Crickmay was another Gothic architect, who had worked with A. W. N. Pugin's fellow pupil, Benjamin Ferrey. He was now taking on the projects that Hicks had left uncompleted. It was on a mission for Crickmay in the early spring of 1870 that Hardy visited the church of St Juliot in Cornwall, where on 7 March he met and fell in love with the vicar's sister-in-law, Emma Gifford. Not that Hardy had severed ties with London. With marriage and its responsibilities in mind, he turned back to architecture more purposefully than before. Despite or because of making a shaky start to his writing career, he applied himself to work offered by Blomfield and other architects in the capital. One of these architects was Raphael Brandon, whose office featured as Henry Knight's rooms in A Pair of Blue Eyes (Hardy, Early Life, 102). Even in 1872, Hardy was spending much of his time as an architect, now assisting Thomas Roger Smith (1830-1903) in London, helping with the great boom in school-building after W. E. Forster's Education Act of 1870. Smith was another intellectually gifted architect — he was later to become a Professor of University College, London.

But Hardy's prospects of earning a living as a writer were now improving. Desperate Remedies had been published in March 1871, and Under the Greenwood Tree in June 1872, and when A Pair of Blue Eyes began to appear in serial form in September that year, Hardy was well and truly launched in his literary career. There is little to show now for his services to architecture, apart from his architectural notes, of which one notebook remains; the directions written on the design for the reredos at All Saints and the recently discovered reredos itself, which matches the design; the restoration work and rebuilding for which he did architectural drawings, and which he subsequently supervised, at St Juliot; and Max Gate, the house he designed for himself in Dorchester, which has been variously assessed by architectural historians. But there is no doubt at all that his time as an architect, his knowledge and appreciation of Gothic architecture, his many hours in medieval churches and the issues surrounding their restoration, were all potent sources of inspiration for him, across the whole range of his writing. This is evident not only in the number of characters in his novels who are architects (such as Edward Springrove in Desperate Remedies, Stephen Smith in A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) and George Somerset in A Laodicean (1881)), or in his descriptions of the built environment, most notably of Christminster in Jude, but in the subjects and settings of some of his poetry, and, much more subtly, in his very approach to writing.

Concern about the constraints on an individual's self-expression permeate Hardy's poetry as thoroughly as his fiction, if not more so. Taylor has shown how "functional" his awkward juggling of archaisms and metrical forms can be, dramatising the way in which "his language and rhythm are being influenced by forces outside his control" (4-5). At a different level, the play of fate (often through inborn traits) and social demands on a given character operate similarly. Such constraints and conflicts are well illustrated by two other poems that draw heavily on his knowledge of churches. These are "The Church Builder" and "The Chapel-Organist." Both end in suicide. It may be worth noting here that during his London years, Hardy was unfortunate enough to be friendly with two men who committed suicide: Horace Moule, of Queen's College, Cambridge, a Dorset man whom he had known previously, and met again one day in London (see Hardy, Early Years, 115), and Brandon himself. Moule took his own life in 1873, and Brandon in 1877. Hardy also kept brief articles about some local Dorset suicides in his notebook. One, reported in the Dorset County Chronicle (April 1882), concerned a vicar who "hung himself to bell rope in belfry" (qtd. in Bailey 183). But, since Brandon was a fellow-architect engaged in church-building, the last act of the despairing speaker in "The Church Builder" might well owe more to him.

Published in Poems of Past and Present (1901), this poem expresses the thoughts of a man who once had great faith, and spent his all, in money and in time, on building a splendid church full of rich craftsmanship and materials — only to realise, later, that all his sacrifices were in vain, and to hang himself in the chancel. Material loss, together with the anger of his sons and heirs, both consequent on his self-imposed task, follow close on the heels of its completion. The speaker had succeeded in expressing his innate spiritual needs only to see their fulfilment blighted by the larger context. As a result, he loses his faith, and descends into despair:

My gift to God seems futile, quite;
       The world moves as erstwhile;
And powerful wrong on feeble right
       Tramples in olden style.
           My faith burns down,
           I see no crown;
But Cares, and Griefs, and Guile.

"The Chapel-Organist" was published even later, in Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), but it seems to belong to the earlier lyrics, because the note "A.D. 185–" is appended to the title. This was the time when Hardy was working with Hicks. From his youth, church music was important to Hardy: his favourite sister Mary was a church organist, and even in later life he once said he would "prefer to be a cathedral organist to anything in the world" (qtd. in Hardy, Later Years, 211). In this poem too he imagines the thought processes of someone who commits suicide in a church setting, after intense devotion to a particular art associated with the church — this time, not architecture but church music. A young woman who loves playing the organ in a Baptist chapel is asked to give up her role because of her sensual nature, which she feels she cannot help. Ironically, she has (at least partly) been forced to go with men at the port in order to pay her fare to the chapel. She recognises that her pure attachment to playing the instrument has been thwarted by her own nature and her poor circumstances, as well as by the disapproving deacons and gossiping congregation. She sees that

High love had been beaten by lust; and the senses had conquered the soul,
But the soul should die game, if I knew it! I turned to my masters and said:
"I yield, Gentlemen, without parlance. But let me just hymn you ONCE more!
It's a little thing, Sirs, that I ask; and a passion is music with me!"

She now sees no escape from her situation except by death, and takes advantage of this last session to implement her plan. The shocking climax to her impassioned singing and playing is that she takes poison, before her listeners realise what she is doing.

As Marks points out: "Such fatalistic thinking was one of Hardy’s chief preoccupations, and it is there in many of his poems that have architectural settings or contexts." The strangeness, surprise, even the grotesqueness of the chapel-organist's action seem to fit the Gothic context, and remind us of something that Hardy himself recognised — that he had "carried on into his verse, perhaps in part unconsciously, the Gothic art-principle in which he had been trained – the principle of spontaneity, found in mouldings, tracery, and such like – resulting in the ‘unforeseen’ (as it has been called) character of his metres and stanzas" (Later Years, 78-79). This is evident not only in structural and linguistic elements, but in the twists and ironic turns of his narratives. Both these poems reveal the cost of that foiling of intent intimated by the cheeping ghosts of "Copying Architecture in an Old Minster." It can be quite insupportable.

Hardy never lost his interest in architecture, joining SPAB (the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) in 1881, and writing shamefacedly about his early involvement in heavy-handed restoration projects: Michael Millgate describes his "Memories of Church Restoration," a paper delivered at a meeting of SPAB in 1906, as a "kind of public confession" (57). In these later years, he was always keen to speak out against such projects. In 1920, he was elected as an honorary fellow of the RIBA. More important than this professional recognition, his architectural turn of mind pervades his work — including his poetry. In the poems, there is less of the kind of campaign that Rattenbury infers, but something much more profound than that, ingrained in his very personality and outlook, and even more keenly felt — his sense of the conflicted soul's brief sojourn on this earth, a sojourn for which he created a space in literary rather than in physical terms. Of the three poems discussed above, "Copying Architecture in an Old Minster" is the most personal, and, at the same time the most hopeful. Despite his daunting awareness of the human dilemma, Hardy himself did not succumb to despair. He "felt for the pencil" and continued his life's journey, to the great advantage of countless readers, over many years, all over the world.


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Created 21 December 2020