By Neill Child, Wareham Museum volunteer.
“It was a rather noteworthy country town…it wore its antiquity with a sort of pride…it kept the impress of mediaeval feet, in the days when it had 16 churches and a castle to boot”.
Many Purbeck Gazette readers will have noticed in North Street a blue plaque relating to a stay in Wareham by Mrs Craik, who wrote the above passage as part of a description of Wareham – called Kingcombe in the book – in her novel Agatha’s Husband.
The plaque has recently been removed, not because she didn’t visit the town, but because it was on the wrong property!
Dinah Maria Mulock, as she was before her marriage in 1865, was born in Stoke-on-Trent in the Potteries in 1826.
In 1841 John William Pike married Mary Mayer, also from the Potteries. John was one of the Wareham-based family of clay merchants who supplied pottery manufacturers with Purbeck ball clay. The couple settled back in Dorset, and it could have been a connection with Mary that brought Dinah Mulock to Wareham.
Agatha’s Husband was published in 1853 and it wasn’t until 1857 that she wrote her most celebrated novel, John Halifax, Gentleman.
The indications are, therefore, that she visited before 1853, to have been able to set a novel in the Purbeck area.
It has been assumed that she stayed with William Joseph Pike, who was certainly living in North Street in 1851, but to me the Mary Mayer connection seems more likely.
In 1851, John and Mary were living in Parkstone but they may have moved to Wareham before Dinah’s visit. In 1861 they were living in Westport House, since demolished to build the council offices.
Dinah Craik wrote one more novel, for children, set in Purbeck. Published in 1855, The Little Lytchetts involves the clay mining industry.
That book describes the tramway the Pikes built to transport clay from the pit now known as Blue Pool to Ridge Wharf: “Here Lias stopped the spring-cart, to let a train of clay wagons pass across the road. They glided on first slowly, then rapidly…there was no need of a locomotive, they ran the whole three miles by the impetus of their own weight.”