The forgotten poet of Fordham

"There are many apparently unpublished poems here which have waited the best part of 150 years to come to light." 

Unique handwritten verses from a nineteenth-century Cambridgeshire poet – who died destitute and in relative obscurity despite royal patronage – have been saved for future generations by Cambridge University Library. 

Born in Weston Colville but spending most of his life in Fordham, James Withers (1812–1892) remains one of the country’s most intriguing unknown poets.

In his heyday, he received a £50 grant from Queen Victoria and won plaudits from Charles Dickens and other luminaries of the literary world.

Now, scores of his handwritten poetry manuscripts and letters to friends, together with an autobiographical memoir of his early life, have been donated to the University Library by Withers’s great-great grandson Ren Bowen. 

John Wells, Senior Archivist in the Department of Archives and Modern Manuscripts, said: “Although Withers is not well-known, he is of particular interest as a rural, labouring poet, largely self-taught, with no formal education. 

“He is part of a long tradition of rural poets such as Robert Bloomfield and John Clare, and his papers make a fascinating addition to our already substantial poetry collections.” 

There is now a growing movement locally and beyond to ensure that Withers’s poetic legacy is recognised and given the credit it deserves.

A photograph of James Withers (1812-1892). Courtesy of Reynolds Withers Bowen.

A photograph of James Withers (1812-1892). Courtesy of Reynolds Withers Bowen.

A selection of the handwritten verses donated to the University Library by Withers’s great-great grandson Ren Bowen.

A selection of the handwritten verses donated to the University Library by Withers’s great-great grandson Ren Bowen.

The Fordham poet did not have an easy life. As a boy he earned a few pence minding cattle, stone-picking, and bird-scaring, and as an adult he mended shoes and ‘picked up a crust’ as an agricultural labourer. In the ‘Hungry Forties’ he and his young family spent some time in the Newmarket workhouse.  

It was another Fordham resident who first helped Withers on the road to publication. After Mrs Robert Dillamore Fyson read some of his work, she helped him publish his debut collection in 1854; Withers later addressed a poem to her as ‘my kind patroness’.

Further success followed with a second and third volume in print from 1856 and 1861 respectively. 

Original work by James Withers. Copyright Cambridge Independent/Iliffe Media.

Original work by James Withers. Copyright Cambridge Independent/Iliffe Media.

When a Cambridge resident, William Cumming, began to draw attention to his work, and revealed that Withers was living in straightened circumstances, financial help arrived in the shape of a grant of £50 (more than £4k in today’s money) made from ‘Her Majesty’s Royal Bounty’ on the recommendation of Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston, £50 of assistance from the Duke of Rutland, and a further £20 donated by the Royal Literary Fund. 

Home Is Home by James Withers. Courtesy of Mike Petty.

Home Is Home by James Withers. Courtesy of Mike Petty.

Sadly, Withers went on to lose whatever small fortune he had amassed by investing in Turkish bonds in support of the Ottoman Empire. Further applications to the Royal Literary Fund were rebuffed. When his Turkish investment collapsed, he was reduced to selling cabbages and driving a donkey cart, right up until his death in 1892 while under the care of his grandchildren. 

'Fire of Sticks', a portrait of Withers attributed to John Toombs (circa 1855). Courtesy of Mike Petty.

'Fire of Sticks', a portrait of Withers attributed to John Toombs (circa 1855). Courtesy of Mike Petty.

“What’s fascinating about the Withers papers is the way they give us insights into how the work of a highly talented man born with very few social and economic advantages made its way into print and was sustained in the public eye over decades.

"The manuscript poetry in the collection gives us Withers’s texts as he originally produced them, unmediated by printers’ or editors’ amendments. 

"There are many apparently unpublished poems here which have waited the best part of 150 years to come to light. The letters in the archive, and especially the documents relating to his great friend and supporter Janet Aspland, show how a network of advocates and patrons – mostly women – helped him obtain the notice of a large readership.

"It’s an important poetic archive but also a window into the literary life of Cambridgeshire and the wider world. We are hugely grateful to Ren Bowen for his generous donation, and to the tireless Mike Petty for helping it come about. This is an archive that will be of value to researchers and poetry-lovers for years to come.”

John Wells