A Sherborne man on a mission – Looking back

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Roger Guttridge reveals plans to provide a fitting memorial to a largely forgotten pioneer of press freedom and help for the poor

Today, the Goadby burial plot is marked by a wooden fence and a young oak tree. Image: Roger Guttridge

Thousands drive past every day, unaware that barely a stone’s throw from the A30 lie the remains of one of 18th century Dorset’s most influential figures.
For reasons unknown, publisher, author and bookseller Robert Goadby and his wife Rachel chose to be buried not at Sherborne Abbey, with which they had close ties, but in unconsecrated ground a couple of miles away at Oborne.
Robert certainly loved the spot, and is said to have walked there most days from his home in Long Street, Sherborne. He loved nature and admired the view from Oborne (which is now obscured by a railway embankment).
But his affection for the place doesn’t explain why, some time before his death at the age of 57 in 1778, Goadby acquired a burial plot not within the churchyard that surrounds the ancient chancel at Oborne but on glebe land (an area of land within a parish used to support a parish priest) ten yards outside it. The chancel – protected by the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) – is now the only surviving part of what was once St Cuthbert’s Church.
For almost exactly 200 years, the Goadby plot was itself appropriately protected by an iron fence.
Inside the fence was an inscribed headstone praising nature as our link to God and describing a fir tree that originally grew out of the grave.
By the mid-20th century, the original fir had long since given way to a mature elm (image opposite, top).
The elm eventually fell victim to Dutch elm disease, and when tree surgeons arrived to fell it in 1977, they also removed the railings and most of the shattered memorial stone. A wooden fence has since replaced the railings and a young oak now grows on the spot once occupied by the fir and the elm.
Only fragments of the memorial stone remain.

A giant elm tree marked the plot until it succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease in 1977

Private, keep out
Fortunately, a group of heritage enthusiasts has been working to provide a fitting memorial to the Goadbys once again – although even this has proved more challenging than expected.
‘Our original plan was to erect a new gravestone to replace the one that was destroyed in 1977,’ group member Barbara Elsmore told me in 2019. To this end, a grant was obtained from the Simon Digby Trust, only for the group to learn that a new headstone was out of the question, as the site was on private land and there was no public access.
Instead, the group proposed to erect an information board on a pew in the chancel.
Four years – and lots of negotiations – later and the group has finally been given the go-ahead, not only for the noticeboard remembering Robert and Rachel but also the publication of a booklet featuring articles and other information about them.
Although born in London in 1720, by the age of 21 the go-getting Goadby was already running his own bookshop in Bath. In 1744 he moved to Yeovil and launched his first newspaper, the Western Flying Post and Yeovil Mercury.
Five years later, he bought Dorset’s first newspaper, the Sherborne Mercury, moved his operation to Long Street and merged the two titles to become the Western Flying Post or Sherborne and Yeovil Mercury.

The Goadby burial plot in unconsecrated ground prior to the 1977 removal of the elm tree

Freedom of the press
Goadby campaigned tirelessly for press freedom and was motivated by a desire to educate the public and help the poor.
An inscription above the door of his Long Street printworks read: ‘The liberty of the Press and the liberty of the people fall together. Long may heaven avert it.’
The second edition of Hutchins’ History of Dorset, published in 1796, said of Goadby: ‘Few men have been more generally known in the West of England than he was, and few have had more friends, or more enemies.
‘Truth was the object of his researches, in the pursuit of which he was indefatigable … His knowledge was of course considerable, and he was well versed in several languages…The productions of his press were numerous; almost all of them of a moral or religious tendency.’
As well as newspapers, Goadby’s many other publications included the long-running Book of Fairs and, in three volumes, The Family Library. He was heavily involved in civic life, serving as a warden of Sherborne Grammar School and also as a surveyor of the local highways.
He founded a subscription library in Cheap Street.
When he died, he left £200 to the poor people of Sherborne and £2 a year to the town’s vicars on condition that they preached an annual sermon ‘on the wisdom and goodness of God in creation’.
It was still being preached 100 years later.
Rachel and Robert’s personal life was tinged with tragedy. Their only child, also Robert, died in 1756 aged seven and is buried in Sherborne Abbey.
Rachel died 12 years after her husband and was buried alongside him.

  • Next month, Roger Guttridge will look at the fascinating history of Dorset’s first newspaper (which Goadby bought) and its early successors.

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