Over the years, Weymouth has been home to a number of famous people & historical characters.
In 1675, painter Sir James Thornhill was born at the White Hart pub, New Bond Street in Weymouth’s town centre. He was the son of Walter Thornhill of Wareham and Mary, eldest daughter of Colonel William Sydenham, governor of Weymouth. Although he was elected the town’s MP in 1722, he was more well known for his interior design work: the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral; the ceiling of the Great Hall at Blenheim Palace; and the wall and ceiling decorations of the Painted Hall at Greenwich Hospital to name but a few. Closer to home, James Thornhill painted The Last Supper over the altar in St Mary’s Church, Weymouth as well as a portrait of Jack Sheppard, the infamous highwayman who was hanged at Tyburn in 1724. James Thornhill was knighted in 1720.
Landscape artist John Constable and his wife Maria lived briefly in Weymouth in 1816 when they spent six weeks on honeymoon at Osmington. During this time, Constable painted several views of Weymouth Bay, the most famous being a view from Osmington looking across to Weymouth and Portland. Constable enjoyed working in the open air as it helped him to capture the changing effects of light and patterns in the clouds. His technique of rapid brush strokes and dabs of colour to conjure the figures on the beach was considered unusual at the time, and although it went on to influence the French impressionists, John Constable struggled to achieve commercial success during his lifetime.
In 1805, Admiral Lord Nelson finally defeated Napoleon’s fleet at the battle of Trafalgar but was killed in the battle and died in the arms of Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy, a Dorset man who was born just outside Weymouth at Portesham in 1769. Thomas Masterman Hardy was walking alongside his Commander-in-Chief on HMS Victory when a French sniper fatally shot Nelson. As Nelson’s Chief-of-Staff, he remained on duty during the rest of the battle while keeping his dying friend and Commander informed of the proceedings. He is the person referred to in the well-known and often debated quote ‘Kiss me, Hardy’. In recognition of his services to Nelson, he was created a baronet. He also played a major part in the state funeral of Horatio Nelson on 9 January 1806 at St Paul’s Cathedral. In 1844, a 72-foot high Portland Stone tower commemorating Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy was erected at Blackdown near Portesham, which is the highest point of land in Dorset. The tower has recently been restored by the National Trust and is open to the public on summer weekends.
In June 1628, John Endicott sailed from Weymouth, Dorset in the Abigail to found another new colony in North America. The ship arrived at Naumkeag (now Salem) on 6th September, and from this and similar ventures, many of which originated from Dorset, grew the colony of Massachusetts. Endicott became the first governor of the colony, and a memorial to him and another Dorset seaman, Captain Richard Clark (born in Weymouth), stands in the Alexandra Gardens. John Endicott was born in Dorchester, England, in 1558 and died in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, on 15 March 1665.
Sir Christopher Wren is probably most famous for being the architect of the current St Paul’s Cathedral, which was rebuilt to replace the one that had been destroyed in the Great Fire of London. However, from 1675 to 1717, Sir Christopher Wren was also responsible for the stone quarries on Portland. Weymouth took advantage of his regular visits to the area by electing him as one of its Members of Parliament in circa 1700.
Although novelist Thomas Hardy is usually associated with nearby Dorchester (Hardy’s Casterbridge), he lived at 3 Wooperton Street, Weymouth (Hardy’s Budmouth Regis) in 1870 when the architect’s firm he had been working for in Dorchester was bought out by Weymouth architects and builders G. R. Crickmay. However, Budmouth is mentioned in Hardy’s novels much more frequently than Casterbridge. In Under the Greenwood Tree, written partly while Hardy was staying in Weymouth, we are told ‘The scene was the corner of Mary Street in Budmouth-Regis, near the King’s statue’. In Far From the Madding Crowd, Sergeant Troy visits Budmouth Races on several occasions. Weymouth races used to be held at Lodmoor, which is now part of an RSPB nature reserve on the outskirts of Weymouth. In The Return of the Native, the heroine Eustacia Vye says ‘I was happy enough at Budmouth. O the times, O the days at Budmouth!’
In her novels, Jane Austen refers often to Weymouth without ever taking us there. In Sense and Sensibility, it was at Weymouth that Mrs Palmer was staying with her uncle instead of with her sister, Lady Middleton, at Barton and thus did not meet Willoughby when he visited Allenham. It was at Weymouth that Tom Bertram squandered his time and money and met John Yates, who left Weymouth to join a theatrical party which broke up, so that Mr Yates arrived at Mansfield Park ‘on the wings of disappointment and with his head full of acting’, which led to the multiple disasters attendant upon the rehearsals of Lovers’ Vows. But it is in Emma that Weymouth is most favoured. It was at Weymouth that Frank Churchill met and became secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, who was in the care of Colonel Campbell; and it was where Mr Dixon’s prompt action saved her from falling overboard in rough seas. It was from Weymouth that Frank wrote a charming letter to his stepmother, Mrs Weston, and it was partly because of his Weymouth association that Frank was considered trivial, shallow, insincere and untrustworthy by Mr Knightley. Frank recalled that a piece played by Jane on the pianoforte was played at a dance in Weymouth. And Mrs Bates’ large shawl, a gift from Mrs Dixon, was bought in Weymouth.
Thomas Burberry, the man who invented the Burberry coat (a weatherproof made of gabardine), lived at Abbotts Court in Radipole during the First World War.
In the late 19th century, Weymouth was represented in Parliament by Sir Henry Edwards, whose generous gifts to the town can still be seen today – 10 cottage homes known as Edwards Avenue on Boot Hill, and ‘Edwardsville’ in Rodwell Avenue, all designed for elderly inhabitants of the borough. Edwards also provided an annual dinner for the old people of the town, and built and furnished new premises for the Working Men’s Club in Mitchell Street. A statue of Sir Henry Edwards stands in the grounds of Edwardsville and a memorial was erected by public subscription in Melcombe Regis cemetery. The best known tribute to the man, who was MP from 1867-1885 and who declined the Freedom of the Borough, is the statue outside the Alexandra Gardens, which was erected in 1885.
Marie Stopes, made famous for her liberated views on birth control, sex and marriage, died in 1958 at the age of 78 and had her ashes scattered off of Portland Bill. In the early 1920s, she bought Avice’s Cottage at Wakeham on Portland (as featured in Thomas Hardy’s novel The Well-Beloved) and also lived at the disused Higher Lighthouse at Portland Bill. Marie Stopes proudly proclaimed that it was on the top of the lighthouse tower, surrounded by the sea, that her only child was conceived by her second husband, the aviator H.V. Roe. Her son, Harry, married the daughter of scientist Barnes Wallis, whose famous ‘bouncing bombs’ used in the Second World War Dambusters raid were tested at the Fleet, just round the coast from Weymouth.