Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Thomas Hardy had nothing to do with The Hardy Tree and its legend dates from the late 20th century

When The Hardy Tree in Old St Pancras churchyard came down last December, I dutifully repeated its accepted history:

When the Midland Railway built it's line from Bedford to St Pancras, part of the churchyard of Old St Pancras Church was sacrificed to make way for it.

The man in charge of clearing the burials in the path of the line was a young Thomas Hardy. It's no wonder his novels turned out like they did.

Hardy had some of the redundant gravestones piles around the base of an ash tree in the remaining portion of the churchyard, and its roots later spread amongst them. It is this tree that has fallen.

But the current issue of Fortean Times suggests that Hardy had nothing to do with the tree and that this story dates from the late 20th century.

In support of its scepticism, the magazine cites an article on The London Dead:

There is no evidence that Hardy had anything to do with the tree named after him but even so I had, like most people, assumed that the gravestones had been arranged around the tree in the first place. 

It was with something of a jolt therefore that I came across a photograph of "St. Pancras churchyard and it’s disturbed gravestones" in 'Wonderful London' a book edited by St. John Adcock and published in 1926. 

The caption to the photo mentions the Midland railway Company obtaining an Act in 1863 allowing them to build a viaduct over the churchyard and says "the rockery made of tombstones is a result of the headstones being removed and 'dumped'". 

The photograph shows the familiar circular arrangement of headstones but with one significant difference; there is no tree! 

In 1926 the Hardy tree did not exist. The tree, presumably self-seeded, has grown since the late 1920’s and is less than one hundred years old.

The article goes on to quote an account by Hardy of his work at Old St Pancras that makes it clear he was not in charge of the exhumations but merely dropped by in the evenings to keep an eye on progress.

So where does the legend of Hardy and his tree come from?

The London Dead says:

In ‘Lights Out for the Territory’ Iain Sinclair tells us that he was working on a long London poem provisionally entitled RedEye and gives an extract from the abandoned work (‘May 16, 1973: at St Pancras Old Church. Drawn against the repetitive boredom of the pavements to investigate the building - its slight eminence....’) which goes onto to mention Hardy and his supervision of the exhumations and "his ever-recurrent interest in churchyards".  

Later he describes the photographer Marc Atkin’s fascination with the Hardy tree "with its cluster of surrounding headstones - like a school of grey fins circling the massive trunk, feeding on the secretions of the dead." 

This was in 1997 which is as close as I can get at this stage to the naming of the Hardy tree - sometime between 1978 and 1997.

It isn't just Sinclair and Atkin who had a deep interest in Old St Pancras in those years: Aidan Dun published a visionary poem about this corner of London, Vale Royal, in 1995. Like Sinclair's early books, it was published by Mike Goldmark in Uppingham.

And in 2007 I quoted a post on BLDG Blog:

I think it's from Dun – but I don't actually know; I just associate this with him - maybe I made it up? - that I heard a legend claiming that St. Pancras Old Church, stranded on its small hill behind the train stations next to the old London Hospital for Tropical Diseases, is actually the secret burial place of Christ.

The church, obviously, was built much later, as a means of marking the site - at the same time keeping silent its little secret.

I suspect The London Dead is right, and the legend of The Hardy Tree originated somewhere in this neo-Blakean, psychogeographic, Sinclairian school of literature. And the idea that his experiences at Old St Pancras had a profound on Hardy and thus his novels does seem to date from 1997 and Iain Sinclair's Lights Out for the Territory.

1 comment:

tonyhill said...

Iain Sinclair and his associates did indulge in a certain amount of pranksterism, see, for example, their boosting of obscure, and unimportant writer John Lodwick.