Thomas HARDY and VOSS of Dorset

The Dorset novelist Thomas Hardy set many of his stories in fictitious Melstock, actually modelled on his beloved Stinsford, just west of Dorchester.  In Under the Greenwood Tree or The Melstock Quire one member of the quire, Voss, seems to have got tasked with the carrying of the refreshments.  In chapter 5 he writes:

“And, Voss,” said the tranter terminatively, “you keep house here till about half-past two; then heat the metheglin and cider in the warmer you’ll find turned up upon the copper; and bring it wi’ the victuals to church-hatch, as th’st know.”

and in chapter 6:

They now crossed Mellstock Bridge, and went along an embowered path beside the Froom towards the church and vicarage, meeting Voss with the hot mead and bread-and-cheese as they were approaching the churchyard.

I understand that, while Hardy often modelled his characters on those he knew, he normally changed their names.  There really were, or had been, Vosses living in Stinsford where they had a smithy.  In 1783 disaster struck in the form of an outbreak of distemper, which killed no less than six Vosses within ten days.  One can only imagine the poor sanitory conditions that must have prevailed, and the impact of losing so many family members, emotionally and economically.  The widow of one victim had to depend on parish relief thereafter.  Vosses remained in Stinsford even after this disaster.

Contemporaneous with Thomas Hardy was one Thomas Havilland VOSS (1806-1889), a brick layer, painter and plasterer by trade, who lived in Dorchester and was a friend.  A newsletter reads:

Members of the Thomas Hardy Society visited the Westgate on 20th April to view a display of photographs of Winchester buildings mentioned in various works by Hardy. Also on show was a selection of death masks from the Museum’s collection (see article in this Newsletter). Thomas Hardy [jnr, b. 1840] had a particular interest in these gruesome objects. He remembered, as a child, visiting his father’s friend, Thomas Haviland Voss, who made death masks in Dorchester.

And from Hardy’s biography:

T. Voss used to take casts of heads of executed convicts. He took those of Preedy and Stone. Dan Pouncy held the heads while it was being done. Voss oiled the faces, and took them in halves, afterwards making casts from the masks. There was a groove where the rope went, and Voss saw a little blood in the case of Stone, where the skin had been broken, — not in Preedy’s.


Return to VOSS from Dorset

4 thoughts on “Thomas HARDY and VOSS of Dorset

  1. Friend, could you please supply a more definite reference for Thomas Voss and the death masks? You mention Wesgate Museum. Which Westgate would that be? You mention a biography–which one would that be? You mention the Newsletter. I suppose you mean the Thomas Hardy Newsletter (now the THJournal). Which one would that be?

    I appreciate any help.

    Wayne Pounds
    Aoyama Gakuin Univ., Tokyo

  2. Hi – thanks for your enquiry. I regret that the URL reference for this quote is no longer valid. I am sure the visit was to the Westgate Museum in Winchester and that the newsletter was that of the museum. I think I saw this quote in the journal of the Somerset and Dorset Family History Society – but it was some years back.

    I am away from home and cannot consult my back numbers of that journal. I suggest you try the museum. Sorry I cannot be more helpful,

  3. Tony, thanks for the quick reply. It gives us a start. I’m working with some people in the U.S. who are descendants of the Charles Fooks hanged in Dorset in 1862. Voss made Fooks’ death mask. Fooks had a son Matthew who migrated to the States about 1866, and there followed in his father’s footsteps as a stonemason and a killer. Matt specialized in wives. We know of three dead wives and think there may be a fourth. Still digging, so all this is timely. Let us know if something else occurs to you. Many thanks.


  4. Many years ago went with my parents to the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. We were taken down to the vaults and looked at these heads. My mum’s gran was Carrie Voss of Dorchester. Later on in my research came across a connection to one them fooks, he shot dead his cousin. Wonder if they are still there.

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