JULIAN Fellowes has thrown his weight behind calls to exhume and rebury the remains of those executed at Dorchester prison – amid fears they could be lost forever under a car park.
The remains include those of Martha Brown, the convicted murderess whose death was witnessed by a young Thomas Hardy and inspired one of his most well-known novels, Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
The county town jail closed in 2013 and planning permission for homes on the site was initially refused by West Dorset District Council’s planning committee.
But a fresh bid by developers City and Country for 185 homes was given the green light in February. Campaigners first voiced concerns several years ago over what would become of the remains of those buried in the grounds of the former prison.
And now they are once again speaking out amid claims that the new plans would see a car park with pylons to support an apartment block, where the remains of ‘one of Dorchester’s most historic figures’ lies.
Mr Fellowes became involved in the campaign through the Hardy Society, of which he is president, and said he is ‘very eager’ to ensure the writer’s legacy is protected.
“The body of this unfortunate woman in a black corset, spinning in the wind was an image which haunted Hardy for the rest of his life after he witnessed her execution at the age of 16,” Mr Fellowes said.
“Martha Brown killed her husband in a fit of rage after a long period of abuse and violence from him. Today we would say it was manslaughter at most. The idea that her body should be left under concrete seems completely unacceptable.
“I think it’s completely unacceptable for any bodies to be left there.”
Nick Gilbey, who has produced a documentary on Martha Brown, said: “I’ve looked at the plans and they are going to put a car park there, with flats over the top. I and Julian Fellowes are adamant that the decent thing to do is to exhume them, not just leave them under a car park.
“Martha has become a historic figure for Dorchester.”
A spokesman for the Salisbury Diocese said that guidelines state that human remains should be left undisturbed where possible.
“The law of the Church of England is protective and encompasses a presumption against disturbance, and a requirement that any disturbed remains be reburied in consecrated ground as close as possible to their original resting place within a specified time frame.”
Mr Fellowes said he hoped the developers would ‘do the right thing’.
“I’m not against development. The developers are going to make a lot of money and good luck to them. But the cost of moving these bodies will be a drop in the ocean to what they will make.”
His preference is for Martha to be reburied in West Stafford church, which was the inspiration for the church where Angel Clare marries Tess in Hardy’s novel, but he said this is ‘just a suggestion’.
“When I started on this it was about Martha Brown, but now I feel strongly about all of the bodies there. What do we know of their guilt? For the most part they lived wretched and degrading lives and now we are proposing to cover them in concrete.
“It’s just plain wrong.”
Richard Winsborough, associate director of planning at City & Country, said: “While we appreciate the public interest in the Dorchester Prison site, we are still at a very early stage of the project. As such, the method for excavating human remains that might be disturbed has not yet been confirmed.
“Opinions differ on the most appropriate way to treat human remains; some maintain it is most appropriate to only relocate those bodies affected by the development.
“What is undoubtedly clear is that human remains should always be treated with dignity and respect. Our approach will be informed by Guidance for Best Practice for Treatment of Human Remains Excavated from Christian Burial Grounds in England (Church of England and English Heritage 2005) and other guidance, as appropriate.”