A MUCH loved actress who formed Dorset’s last living link to the great author Thomas Hardy has died at the grand old age of 105.

Tributes have poured in for Norrie Woodhall, who acted in the original Hardy Players under the direction of Hardy and was hailed by her family as ‘a champion of Dorset’.

She died in her sleep in the early hours of yesterday following several months of ill health.

Norrie was born in Dorchester on December 18, 1905, and lived in Dorset her whole life, spending her final years at Owermoigne.

Her great nephew Michael Toms said: “She will be remembered as somebody who loved Dorset and was Dorset born and bred.

“We have been expecting it for some time, but it still leaves a hole there.”

He added: “It’s the end of an era and she will be missed by a lot of people.

“Dorset has lost one of its champions.”

Mr Toms said Norrie, who was almost certainly the last surviving person to know Hardy personally, had proved an inspiration to many, particularly for her achievements since turning 100.

Those achievements including reforming the Hardy Players acting group, which she had originally been a member of in the 1920s.

Mr Toms said: “For her, life really began again at 100 when she started the New Hardy Players.”

Friend and member of the New Hardy Players Devina Symes said Norrie would be sadly missed by all who knew her.

She said: “We all mourn the loss of an incredible, inspirational and special lady, who was one of Dorset’s great ambassadors.”

Mrs Symes added that seeing the Hardy Players reform when she was 100 years old was a lifetime’s wish come true for Norrie and she was heavily involved in much of its work.

The Players also raised more than £30,000 for the Weldmar Hospicecare Trust, Norrie’s nominated charity.

Mrs Symes said: “Thomas Hardy said that we have two deaths.

“The first is when we die, the second is when the last person who knew us dies.

“With the passing of Norrie Woodhall, Thomas Hardy has had his second death.

“What a fitting tribute to Norrie, who loved Hardy’s works and shared his great love of Dorset.”

Chairman of the New Hardy Players Andy Worth said: “She was a terrific inspiration not just to the Players but to Hardy supporters and although she is the last living link with the great man she leaves a tremendous legacy.

“We have all learned from her, we have greatly enjoyed her company and we will miss her.”

Mr Toms said that a memorial service would be held for his great aunt, but the details had yet to be finalised.

lord fellowes’ tribute to ‘living link’ between days of author and present

Oscar winning screenwriter and actor Lord Fellowes of West Stafford is among those to pay tribute to Norrie.

Lord Fellowes, who is president of the Hardy Society and once interviewed Norrie about her memories of the writer for a special event at Dorset County Museum, said it was a ‘privilege’ to have known her.

He said: “It has been such a privilege to be allowed to know a living link between the days of Thomas Hardy and the present time.

“Norrie was an extraordinary person, wise and funny to the end, and we shall all miss her tremendously.”

Norrie was a loyal supporter of the Hardy Society’s events and in June attended the start of the organisation’s celebrations of 120 years since the publication of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Following a performance of Tess by the New Hardy Players at the Corn Exchange, Norrie read a self-penned poem about the first time she saw the novel adapted to the stage at the same venue in 1924.

Hardy Society secretary Mike Nixon said: “It must have been one of her last public appearances and it was a wonderful way to go out.

“It took her right back to the Corn Exchange and Tess in 1924.

“It was a fantastic finale to the evening.”

Mr Nixon added: “It was a real pleasure to meet her and I’m so pleased I was around in the last part of her life.”

Another of Norrie’s many achievements after she passed 100 saw her heavily involved with the Dorset County Museum bid to secure a collection of Hardy manuscripts.

She spearheaded the Bring Hardy Home campaign, which raised more than £58,000 to enable the Dorchester museum to acquire the manuscripts and prevent them from going to a private collector overseas.

Director Jon Murden said staff and Trustees at Dorset County Museum were saddened to hear of Norrie’s death.

He said: “For many years she has supported our causes and fronted some of our major fundraising campaigns, such as the purchase of the Hardy Manuscripts last year. “Her presence at events was a delight – she always gathered an appreciative audience about her and had many fascinating stories to tell about Thomas Hardy and her time in the Hardy Players. “She will be greatly missed by everyone here who had the privilege of meeting her.”

Dorchester Town Crier Alistair Chisholm praised Norrie for the role she played in promoting the town’s connection with Hardy and the way she showed her passion for the town by supporting the campaign against West Dorset District Council’s new offices despite her advancing years.

He said: “She has contributed enormously the process of restoring Hardy to the prominence he so deserves.

“It’s a sad day but also a day to remember what a sweet and very determined old lady she was.”