1858: James Seale, on the heath with Thomas Hardy

On this date in 1858, an “unusual incident” occurred in the life of then 18-year-old architect’s apprentice Thomas Hardy, as related by Hardy’s second wife, Florence.

He probably could have used a Thomas Hardy’s Ale.

One summer morning at Bockhampton, just before he sat down to breakfast, he remembered that a man was to be hanged at eight o’clock at Dorchester. He took up the big brass telescope that had been handed on in the family, and hastened to a hill on the heath a quarter of a mile from the house, whence he looked towards the town. The sun behind his back shone straight on the white stone facade of the gaol, the gallows upon it, and the form of the murderer in white fustian, the executioner and officials in dark clothing and the crowd below being invisible at this distance of nearly three miles. At the moment of his placing the glass to his eye the white figure dropped downwards, and the faint note of the town clock struck eight.

The whole thing had been so sudden that the glass nearly fell from Hardy’s hands. He seemed alone on the heath with the hanged man, and crept homeward wishing he had not been so curious. It was the second and last execution he witnessed, the first having been that of a woman two or three years earlier, when he stood close to the gallows.


The man in question was James Seale (or Searle), and this was not only to be the last hanging Hardy witnessed — it was the last in Dorset full stop.

The London Times‘ Aug. 11 blurb of the hanging noticed that

the wretched culprit was tried … for the wilful murder of a young woman named Sarah Ann Griffy, at Stoke Abbotts, on the 30th of April last, and also for having set fire to the house in which his victim resided. The prisoner is a very young man, not having reached his 20th year, and had been working as a labourer for some time past in the vicinity … On the day of the murder … when all the parties, who were farm labourers, were at work, excepting the deceased, the prisoner entered the house, and, after maltreating her, inflicted a most fearful gash in her throat, nearly five inches long, with a clasped cheese knife, and other injuries on the hands, arms, and breast, and then set fire to the house.


As implied by Hardy’s ability to remember the hanging at breakfast, find the telescope, and get to his observation point before the trap dropped at 8 a.m., the youth was an early riser. Michael Millgate’s biography of Thomas Hardy notes that

[b]y eight o’clock in the morning, the time when Seale’s execution took place, Hardy would have been up reading for two or three hours before setting off for Dorchester and Hicks’s office: when only candles were available for indoor illumination it was necessary to keep a countryman’s hours and take advantage of all the available daylight. He had now added the study of Greek to his continuing study of Latin: the signature in his first copy of the Iliad is dated 1858, and he seems to have worked persistently through it until some time in 1860, marking the passages that he had read — and that Jude Fawley, much later, would be described as reading in Jude the Obscure.

Part of the Themed Set: Thomas Hardy.

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