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Saving the work of Cambridgeshire's 'English Burns'

A Cambridgeshire poet once dubbed the ‘English Burns’ will have his original manuscripts saved for future generations by Cambridge University.

The university will add the original manuscripts of James Withers (1812-1892) to its collection where they can be appreciated by scholars, including those of the John Clare Centre at the university faculty of English, once the paperwork is complete.

(L-R)Mike Petty and Ren Bowen pictured with some original work by English poet, James Withers..Picture - Richard Marsham. (15276586)
(L-R)Mike Petty and Ren Bowen pictured with some original work by English poet, James Withers..Picture - Richard Marsham. (15276586)

Mention his name outside of his home village of Fordham and you will almost certainly get a blank look in return, but now there is a growing movement to ensure his work is recognised alongside some of the country’s literary luminaries.

While, in the main, Withers remains one of our greatest unknown poets, his work received accolades from royalty – he was given a £50 grant from Queen Victoria, and mentioned in the same ilk as Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth and George Byron.

Not bad for a man who was once so poor he ended up in a workhouse before his poems became successful. But then, in an ironic twist of fate, Withers lost it all by investing in Turkish bonds in support of the Ottoman Empire and was reduced to selling cabbages and driving a donkey cart before his death in January 1892.

Cambridge historian Mike Petty said: “He is certainly in the same league as John Clare, the Northamptonshire poet who is much revered. Yet Withers died in obscurity.

“There is, however, a memorial window to him in Fordham church that was erected by his supporters and there is currently a display there.”

A photograph of English poet, James Withers..Picture - Collect. (15276651)
A photograph of English poet, James Withers..Picture - Collect. (15276651)

Withers’ family is determined to ensure his work survives and met with a librarian from the university this week to discuss the possibility of adding the manuscripts to their collection.

Mr Petty added: “Withers’ actual poems have been preserved by his family. Now they feel it is time to do something to ensure they are further preserved. Ren Bowen, who has looked after the scraps of paper on which the verses were penned, is now in his 90s and realises that they are historically significant and should be saved for future generations.”

Withers was born in Weston Colville but settled in Fordham in 1824. After a Fordham resident, Mrs R D Fyson, read some of his poems she helped to produce his first book, published in 1854.

Second and third volumes followed in 1856 and 1861 and his financial fortunes were boosted considerably as a result.

An Aberdonian, W Cumming, also drew attention to his work and after revealing that the poet was living in a humble cottage in Fordham and mending shoes, cash arrived in the guise of a £50 grant from Queen Victoria (about £4,200 today); another £50 came from the Duke of Rutland and £10 was donated from a literary fund.

Some of the original work by English poet, James Withers..Picture - Richard Marsham. (15276670)
Some of the original work by English poet, James Withers..Picture - Richard Marsham. (15276670)

Dinah Maria Mulock, wife of a publisher at Macmillans who also had a shop in Cambridge, championed his prose, dubbing him the ‘Cambridgeshire hedgerow poet’. As a result, his third volume won plaudits from Dickens and Martin Tupper.

Free of poverty for the first time in his life, everything seemed to be going well until he made the mistake of investing in the Ottoman Empire in 1867. He invested between £400-£500 in Turkish bonds, but the investment went bad and allied to the loss of his daughter, who died in 1876, Withers suffered a double blow. In 1877, and nearly 80, he was spotted selling cabbages and driving a donkey cart. He was cared for by his grandchildren until, after a period of ill health, he died in January 1892.

Six years after his death, the people of Fordham produced a monument in his honour and the church has a stained glass window paying tribute to the ‘unknown’ Hedgerow poet, who was dubbed the ‘English Burns’.


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