Local History

Fontmell Magna’s Gossips Tree | Then and Now

Fontmell Magna’s Gossips’ Tree

It’s sometimes known as the Cross Tree but a more evocative name is the Gossips’ Tree – and it’s just as appropriate.

The present-day tree on Fontmell Magna’s mini village green is a lime but its predecessor was an elm which fell victim to Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.

The Gossips’ Tree c1900. Picture from the Barry Cuff collection

For much of its history the old elm was equipped with seats to help villagers catch up on the gossip.

As Sir Frederick Treves put it in his Highways and Byways of Dorset, first published in 1906, ‘In the centre of the village is a very ancient tree with seats around it, where the gossips of the place congregate to mumble over flocks and herds, and the affairs of pigs.’

Exactly how old the elm was is debatable.

One modern source suggests that it was planted on the site of a market cross in the 18th century.

But in his book The Old Stone Crosses of Dorset, also published in 1906, Alfred Pope speaks of a handful of elderly villagers who could remember the cross even then.

Joseph Pennell’s 1906 sketch of the tree, drawn for Sir Frederick Treves’s Highways and Byways of Dorset

This suggests it was still there a decade or two into the 19th century.

‘It stood in the centre of the village, and is said by the few old people who remember it, to have consisted of a “broken pillar” standing on four steps, which were about three years square at the base,’ wrote Pope.

‘Near it stood the village stocks and the Maypole.’

The ancient appearance of the elm in early 19th century pictures suggests that tree and the cross must have stood side by side at one tjime.

The Maypole survived until the 1930s and can be seen in the foreground of the early 1900s photograph.

By the 1860s the ‘once venerable cross’ had become so dilapidated that the parish authorities decided to remove it ‘as doing no credit to so respectable a village’.

The Gossips Tree today with Brookhouse in the background

Some of the stones survive in private gardens.

The lime was planted in 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

The thatched cottages in the background are now one dwelling, Brookhouse.

Across the road (behind camera) is a cottage called Gossips Tree.

By: Roger Gutteridge

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