Hardy Players actress Norrie Woodhall's memorial service

Norrie Woodhall's memorial service took place at United Church, Dorchester

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A memorial service has been held for a 105-year-old woman who was the last surviving member of a Dorset theatre group set up by Thomas Hardy.

Norrie Woodhall was among a handful of actors who performed plays based on the author's works in 1924, rehearsing at Hardy's home at Max Gate, Dorchester.

Later Ms Woodhall became president of the New Hardy Players. She died on 25 October.

The United Church, Dorchester was packed for the service.

Speaking after the service, president of the Thomas Hardy Society and Downton Abbey writer Lord Julian Fellowes said: "She was an extraordinary character, full of enthusiasm and very funny."

'An inspiration'

On its website the New Hardy Players group said it would "keep alive the spirit of the Hardy that Norrie knew so well".

Her friend Alistair Chisholm, who is also a member of the New Hardy Players, said: "It really is the passing of an era and it was a great privilege to know her.

"She always had a twinkle in her eye - she was so lively. We have an enormous amount to celebrate. What an inspiration she was and a what legacy she's left behind."

Ms Woodhall's mother is believed to have inspired the character Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

Norrie Woodhall Norrie Woodhall became president of the New Hardy Players when it was set up in 2005

And her sister, Gertrude Bugler, who was said to have inherited her mother's looks, was later given the role of Tess by Hardy.

Speaking to BBC Inside Out earlier this year, Ms Woodhall said: "Tess is described as being dark and very beautiful; my sister was.

"My mother was milking a cow, when [Hardy] saw her.

"He said later on, 'I must have seen your mother milking a cow and that put me in mind of Tess all those years ago'."

Ms Woodhall played Tess's sister, Liza-Lu, alongside her sister in a staging of Tess of the D'Urbervilles by the Hardy Players.

Hardy wrote in extra lines for her part.

The play was a hit, although Hardy never gave permission for it to be put on stage in London.

Ms Woodhall carried on performing and became president of the New Hardy Players when it was set up in 2005.

She had also been involved in fund-raising for Dorset County Museum, which has many items of memorabilia from the original Hardy Players.

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