Remains of the hanged woman who inspired Thomas Hardy to write Tess of the D'Urbervilles to be saved from property developer's diggers

  • Remains of Martha Brown to be excavated from old Dorchester Prison site
  • She was executed in 1856 for the murder of her violent husband John
  • It was witnessed by Thomas Hardy and inspired Tess of the D'Urbervilles 
  • The site was due to be turned into homes but developer has allowed dig  

The remains of the hanged woman who inspired author Thomas Hardy to write Tess of the D'Urbervilles are to be excavated after a deal was agreed to postpone a housing development.

The body of Martha Brown is likely to be among 50 carefully excavated from an old burial grounds at the former Dorchester Prison in Dorset that is being turned into new homes.

Brown, 44, was publicly hanged outside the jail for the murder of her violent husband in 1856, a macabre event a 16-year-old Hardy was in the front row for.

Almost 40 years later, the grisly experience was at the forefront of the famous writer's mind when he wrote the ending for his best known heroine Tess Durbeyfield in his 1892 book.

The remains of Martha Brown, pictured being hanged in a reconstruction from a documentary, are to be excavated from a burial site at the former Dorchester Prison

The remains of Martha Brown, pictured being hanged in a reconstruction from a documentary, are to be excavated from a burial site at the former Dorchester Prison

Thomas Hardy witnessed Brown's execution and was inspired to write Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Gemma Arterton in Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Her execution was witnessed by Thomas Hardy, left, who was inspired by the event to write classic Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which was adapted for television in 2008 starring Gemma Arterton, right

Developers City and Country have come under pressure to carry-out a full scale dig of the site and have now agreed to the work. 

Nick Gilbey, who has been leading the campaign for a proper excavation, said research has found there are 50 prisoners buried on the site.

No plans indicate who is buried where and several of the prisoners were women - making it far harder to pinpoint which remains are Martha's.

Mr Gilbey, a Dorset TV producer who has made a documentary about Martha Brown, said: 'Unfortunately we've now discovered there are far more people buried there than we realised.

'Although it isn't impossible, it's unlikely that we will be able to identify her.'

Plans are with the council to turn Dorchester Prison, which closed in 2013, into 190 new homes.

Because it is a historic location, Cotswold Archaeology were brought in before any redevelopment could begin and they made numerous exploratory trenches which established human remains.

Dorset TV producer Nick Gilbey, pictured, who made a documentary about Brown, welcomed the news

Dorset TV producer Nick Gilbey, pictured, who made a documentary about Brown, welcomed the news

The former prison, pictured in 1856, is set to be turned into housing by developers City and Country but they have now agreed to an excavation ahead of the build

The former prison, pictured in 1856, is set to be turned into housing by developers City and Country but they have now agreed to an excavation ahead of the build

In a joint statement by developers City and Country and Cotswold Archaeology, they said: 'In light of recent public interest in the redevelopment of the former HMS Prison Dorchester, we wish to clarify the intended approach with regard to recording any human remains that are likely to be uncovered as a result of the impact of the new development footprint.

'The 18th and 19th century remains are of some archaeological significance due to scientific benefits of research into human remains, shedding light onto human demography, health, diet and disease in the past.

'However during full and appropriate field excavation and post-excavation analysis, the remains will be treated with dignity and respect in line with current guidance (Church of England and English Heritage 2005).

'It is the intention that all human remains which may be disturbed by the proposal development will be fully recorded and removed prior to disturbance, with the intention to rebury the remains following appropriate assessment

'An agreement with the Church of England will also be sought regarding the excavation, assessment and final reburial of the exhumed individuals within agreed and previously identified consecrated ground.'

Downton Abbey creator and president of the Hardy Society Lord Julian Fellowes has also welcomed the news. 

Thomas Hardy age 19
Lord Julian Fellowes

Hardy, pictured left aged 19, was one of a crowd of 4,000 who witnessed Brown's execution, while Lord Julian Fellowes, president of the Hardy Society, has also praised the excavation

The Tory peer, who lives in West Stafford, the neighbouring village to where Hardy grew up, said: 'It is marvellous news that these remains are going to be excavated and reburied.

'I am not at all against the development - it is a good re-use of a historical building - I just wanted those behind it to have a sense of responsibility for what they were taking on.

'Martha Brown is a very important part of the Thomas Hardy story and his witnessing of her hanging was a personality-shaping incident.

'I feel Thomas Hardy's story is our responsibility as dwellers of Dorchester and the surrounding area. He's our contribution to history.

'It will be very difficult to identify Martha, unless there is a name on the coffin. If that can't happen then the next best thing would be to bury all the bodies in one place and have a headstone that states among them is Martha Brown.'  

Since the publication of Tess of the D'Urbevilles, arguably Hardy's most celebrated work, Brown has been regarded as a heroine - an abused wife who killed her brute of a husband with an axe in an act of self defence.

If her case had come to court today she would most likely have ended up with a suspended prison sentence rather than be hung in front of a ghoulish crowd.

Much like Hardy's Tess, Brown endured a hard life blighted by tragedy.

Brown, pictured in Mr Gilbey's documentary, was sentenced to death for murdering her husband John 

Brown, pictured in Mr Gilbey's documentary, was sentenced to death for murdering her husband John 

She had married Bernard Bearn and lived in the west Dorset village of Powerstock. They had two children but sadly they both died of disease when they were young.

When her husband fell on hard times he disappeared and left Martha to fend for herself.

She then met John Brown, who was 20 years her junior, and they married.

After she caught him in bed with another woman the couple rowed, prompting John to storm out.

When he returned home drunk later he hit her with a whip and she retaliated by striking him over the head with the wood chopping axe, smashing his skull and killing him.

Upon her arrest she lied and claimed her husband's death had been caused by being kicked in the head by a horse.

Neither the police nor a jury believed her and she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.

Three weeks later a crowd of up to 4,000 turned out to watch Brown hang, including Thomas Hardy, who was a trainee architect at the time.

She was the last woman to be hanged in Dorset.

HARDY'S FINEST MOMENT: TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES

Widely praised as Thomas Hardy's crowning achievement, Tess of the D'Urbervilles is a hugely popular novel that managed to turn public opinion back in favour of Martha Brown. 

Brown killed her abusive husband John with an axe, allegedly in an act of self-defence, but she was convicted of murder and hanged. 

Hardy witnessed the execution and, almost 40 years later, published the story of Tess, the eldest daughter of a poor peddler sent to work for a rich family thought to be distant relatives.

What follows is a string of romantic encounters, with Tess torn between the wealthy Alec D'Urberville, whom she does not love, and Angel Clare. 

Tess has a baby out of wedlock with Alec named Sorrow, who dies shortly after birth, and she eventually leaves for a job elsewhere as a milkmaid, where she meets and marries Angel. 

But after revealing her past, Angel is unable to forgive her and leaves for Brazil, while Tess's misfortunes continue as her parents die.

She eventually returns to Alec just as Angel comes back from Brazil seeking her forgiveness. She rejects Angel, but proceeds to stab Alec to death in a fit of heartbroken madness, leading to her imprisonment and execution.

Critics have applauded the novel for its depiction of Tess as a strong female character who falls victim to the double standards of society because she is a woman. 

Her final act of standing up for herself by killing Alec helped turn the tide of public opinion in Brown's real-life situation, gaining her sympathy decades after her death. 

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