The Drax Mausoleum

Written by Luke Mouland

Holnest church now stands in a seemingly empty churchyard, with only a neighbouring house for company. However, for many years it was almost obscured from the main road by a colossal mausoleum, built by a local landowner of great wealth and with an overweening idea of his own self-importance.

The landowner in question was John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Erle-Drax (1800-1887), of Holnest House. A man of truly eccentric habits, he had become obsessed with the idea of his own mortality since the premature death of his wife in 1853, and had built the grand mausoleum for his own interment at Holnest some 15 years before his death.

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The Drax Mausoleum at Holnest. © Sherborne Museum

This enormous monument was erected in the mock-Byzantine style; the outer walls were constructed of stone and brick, embellished with Corinthian columns in marble, with eleven carved stone medallions and Doric arches above the door. The four principal windows were of stained glass and depicted the virtues Faith, Hope, Charity, Wisdom and Fortitude. The inside of the building boasted a tessellated floor and, on the west wall, a striking painting of the Assumption of the Virgin. The vault in which Drax was to be interred was in the centre of the room, surmounted by a large memorial stone on which all the particulars had been inscribed before his death, except for the date. His oak coffin was also prepared before his decease by a Mr. Long, of Sherborne.

It is said that, a month of two before he died, Drax carried out a rehearsal of his funeral in “full and elaborate detail.” He watched from an upstairs window in Holnest House as workmen from the estate carried the weighted coffin down the steps, chastising them in “unparliamentary language” for not keeping step. When the day finally came, the mausoleum was draped in black crape and a large congregation was present.

The building remained for many years afterwards, though not everyone approved of it. Frederick Treves (1853-1923) in his Highways and Byways in Dorset, commented that, “it is almost as large as the humble church, which is overshadowed by its vulgarity.” He went on to liken the mausoleum to a Victorian pumping station. The funds left by Drax for the upkeep of the building were insufficient, however, and the interior suffered extensive damage in the winter of 1928-29. Considerable sums of money were required to make the necessary repairs and the Drax family, who had by then retired to their principal seat in Kent, were not prepared to foot the bill.

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Drax’s grave in Holnest churchyard. © Graham Bendell

In 1935, a faculty was obtained from the diocese and work began to demolish the structure. The stone and marble pillars were sold locally, and the windows, mosaics and bronze sarcophagus were sent to dealers for disposal. Drax’s body was taken from the vault in which he had lain for nearly 50 years and re-interred within the site of the mausoleum without any clergy or members of the family present. The stone slab with his memorial inscription was used as a tombstone, and this can still be seen in the churchyard today – though the lettering is almost indecipherable due to weathering.