Dorchester Corn Exchange
This Dorchester building is the model for the Casterbridge Corn Exchange featured in both Far From the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Photograph, caption, and commentary below (2002) by Philip V. Allingham
[You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL.]
The large farmers, corn-merchants, millers, auctioneers, and others had each an official stall in the corn-market room, with their names painted thereon; and when to the familiar series of 'Henchard,' 'Everdene,' 'Shiner,' 'Darton,' and so on, was added one inscribed 'Farfrae,' in starting new letters, Henchard was stung into bitterness. . . . (The Mayor of Casterbridge, Ch. 17)
The annual, "statute" February hiring fair at which young Gabriel Oak (bereft of his flock and land by his younger dog's attack on his sheep) had such difficulty finding a job as a bailiff (farm manager) and then as a shepherd in Far From The Madding Crowd was held just across the street from the Corn Exchange, near the town cross. On market days, Bathsheba Everdene would often be seen in the Corn Exchange, holding her own in hard bargaining. She is moving through a crowd just outside "the market-house" (Ch. 48) when she hears about the death of her husband (Sgt. Frank Troy). Farmer Boldwood, "who had been observing her from under the portico of the old cporn-exchange" (Ch. 48), comes to her rescue as she faints. For specific instances in which Hardy has used the Corn Exchange as a backdrop in Far From The Madding Crowd, also see chapters 6, 12, and 17.
However, the principal novel in which Hardy utilises the setting of the Corn Exchange is The Mayor of Casterbridge (chapters 9, 17, 27, and 43 especially). In the preface to the 1886 novel, Hardy asks readers
to bear in mind that, in the days recalled by the tale, the home Corn [i. e., wheat] Trade, on which so much of the action turns, had an importance that can hardly be realized by those accustomed to the sixpenny loaf of the present date. . . .
Thus, the economic and social significance of the Corn Exchange building might be missed if one knew nothing of the Corn Laws, which from 1815 to 1845 protected domestic grain producers from a falling market resulting from the importation of much cheaper foreign wheat. Such a fall in prices had actually occurred after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, a drop from 126 shillings a quarter (eight bushels) to 65 shillings-- only if the price reached 80 shillings could foreign wheat enter the British market duty-free. (These import laws, much hated in the northern industrial towns, were finally repealed by Tory Prime Minister Sir Robert Peelin 1846 to ward off the threat of faminein Ireland.) Dorchester (Hardy's "Casterbridge") is still a Roman square, and at its very centre, at the junction of High East Street, South Street, High West Street, and North Square lies the old Corn Exchange with its distinctive clock-tower. Strolling around the building, one would like to imagine Bathsheba Everdene or her uncle, James, emerging from the side door of the Exchange, or Donald Farfrae in ernest conversation with Michael Henchard stepping out of the front portal and striding across the High Street to the market area around the town cross and down the street to his imposing mansion, "one of the best, faced with dull red-grey old brick" (The Mayor of Casterbridge, Ch. 9). Lucetta, Henchard, and later Farfrae all live within a few minutes' walk of the Corn Exchange. However, such imaginings must be kept in check, not only because these are purely fictional personages, but also because the current building is scarcely a century old, having replaced the previous Exchange building on the site, destroyed by fire.
"The Corn Exchange." F. B. Pinion, A Hardy Companion: A Guide to the works of Thomas Hardy and their background. London: Macmillan, 1968. Page 267.
"Dorchester Interactive." http://www.mp11.co.uk/dorchester/Dorchester.htm
Hardy, Thomas. Far from the Madding Crowd, ed. Robert C. Schweik. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.
_____. The Mayor of Casterbridge, ed. James K. Robinson. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977.
Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia, ed. Sally Mitchell. New York and London: Garland, 1988.
Last modified 19 August 2002