Writer #4 – The foremost poet of his generation

Please note that William Cowper suffered with severe mental ill health and that this may be a difficult read for this reason.

A 1792 portrait of Cowper in later life by Lemuel Francis Abbott.

William Cowper was born in Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire and was the first surviving child of Reverend John Cowper and Ann Donne Cowper. The Cowpers illustrate the closely connected society formed by the gentry and nobility; on his father’s side his family tree included an Earl who was Lord Chancellor of England, whilst his mother’s family were descended from Henry III and included John Donne amongst their ancestors.

Aged six, William’s mother died and he was sent to a boarding school where he was badly bullied. These two experiences would factor into a life-long battle with mental ill health. He progressed to the Westminster School and hence to the Middle Temple where he begun working and training as a lawyer, he was called to the bar in 1754, but “was never much inclined” to the legal profession.

Instead he spent a good deal of time at his uncle’s house in London, spending time with his cousins, especially Theadora Cowper with whom he begun a relationship in the early 1750’s. His father did not approve of the relationship, and William broke it off in 1755. The whole affair was to be the basis of his first work of Poetry “Delia” which was not published until 1825.

Cowper does not seem to be too downcast about the stymied relationship. In the years following, his surviving correspondence detail a thriving social life moving in literary and social circles with old friends from the Westminster school and new acquaintances including editors of the satirical paper “Connoisseur”. He wrote “several halfpenny ballads” and other topical political articles, none of which survive. His only original poem at this time was “Doom’d as I am in solitude to waste” following the death of Sir William Russell in 1757 – otherwise his published works are translations of Latin and French texts.

In 1763, Cowper had his first serious mental breakdown. Having secured a lucrative position as Commissioner of Bankrupts, a second position (a clerkship of the Journals of the House of Lords) was organised for him. His suitability was challenged and another candidate put forward, so to settle this, a formal examination was to be held. The stress drove William to attempt suicide, however having failed he ended up at Nathaniel Cotton’s Collegium Insanorum. He would spend 18 months detained here, troubled by religious fears and convinced of his predestined damnation. By the time he was released in 1765 he was a convinced evangelist.

William came to Huntingdon, and was much taken with the town, describing it as “one of the neatest towns in England”. At first he lived alone in rented rooms, but later in 1765 he moved in with Revd Morley Unwin and his wife Mary. The house he moved into was a contemporary house on Huntingdon high street. We now know it as Cowper House. William seems to have been very happy with the Unwin family, mixing with gentle society and writing letters to friends. In one such letter, he details past times offered in the town including “a card-assembly, a dancing-assembly, and a horse race … and a bowling-green”.

Cowper House in the early 20th Century, the building outwardly is practically unchanged today

Tragedy struck in 1767 when Revd Unwin fell from his horse and died. Grief stricken, William and Mary moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire in early 1768. The move was to meet and work with the village curate John Newton, a slave-trader turned clergyman who later penned the hymn “Amazing Grace”. Cowper collaborated with Newton in the early 1770’s on the “Olney Hymns“; Cowper producing 67 hymns across the two years many of which are still in popular use.

Title Page from the Olney Hymns, this edition from 1779

In 1773, he was a steady man with a fierce faith who was contemplating marriage to Mary Unwin. Unfortunately, he had a second breakdown, following a dream where God seemed to condemn him to eternal damnation. That autumn he attempted suicide for a fourth time, and his relationship with Mary Unwin broke down to the point that she moved out of Olney. Cowpers’ faith was utterly lost – he would not speak a prayer or enter a church for the rest of his life.

Secluded at Olney under Newton’s care he begun to seek diversions in carpentry, gardening, animal husbandry, drawing and eventually poetry again by 1774. In 1780, John Newton moved to London, and Cowper, living alone at Olney, now begun writing more seriously. His first published volume of poetry, “Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple”, was published in 1782 to wide acclaim.

Around this time, Lady Austen moved into the vacant vicarage in Olney. This new acquaintance would prove to be one of the most influential people in Cowper’s literary life. A story she told in 1782 would become the “The Diverting History of John Gilpin”, a comedic ballad which in Cowper’s words; was popular enough to become “hackney’d in ev’ry Magazine, in every News paper and in every street”.

The Diverting History of John Gilpin is a comic ballad about a draper who rides a runaway horse, this illustration is from the 1878 reprint illustrated by Randolph Caldecott.

In 1784, she jokingly suggested he write a poem about her sofa. Cowper’s somewhat bizarre poem “The Task” was published in 1785, this Homeric epic stretched to 5,000 lines across six books. Starting as a mock-heroic account of a wooden stool developing into a sofa, it would meander on through a multitude of subjects examining man, nature and the place of an individual in the world. It was a run-away success.

Sketch of Mrs Mary Unwin

Following the publication of “The Task”, he moved away from Lady Austen and from Olney, to the village of Weston where he worked on translating Homer. Again, he suffered increasingly with mental illness, as well as declining physical health, so in 1795, reconciled with Mary Unwin, they moved in together near a cousin in Norfolk. Following her death in 1796, he fell into a depressive episode, plagued by black dreams and hallucinations which would end with his death in 1800.

One of the most beloved poets of his generation, his work is relatively unknown in the modern day, however several everyday phrases are taken from his work including; “God moves in mysterious ways” (from a hymn of his in the Olney Hymns), “Worse for the wear” (from “The Diverting History of John Gilpin”) and finally “Variety is the spice of life” and “the cup that cheers” (both in “The Task”).

Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.

This is the fourth and final post in a series of posts about writers with a connection to Huntingdonshire, you can find the other three at the links below:

(You can find our first post on T.S. Eliot here if you missed it –

(You can find our second post on Samuel Pepys here if you missed it –

(You can find our third post on Lucy Boston here if you missed it – )

Academy of American Poets, “William Cowper”, 2020, Via:, Accessed On: 16th April 2020

Akeroyd, A & Clifford, C. “Huntingdon: Eight Centuries of History”, Breedon Books Publishing, Derby, 2004, 1st Edition

Anon, “William Cowper”, 2020, Via:, Accessed On: 17th April 2020

Brunström, C “How Did Cowper Love Women?”, The Cowper and Newton Museum, 2012,Vol 3, Via:, Accessed On: 17th April 2020

Burn-Murdoch, B “What’s so Special About Huntingdonshire?”, The Friends of the Norris Museum, Hunstanton, 1996, 1st Edition

Flavell, L & Flavell, R. “Dictionary of English Down the Ages”, Kyle Cathie Ltd, London, 2005, 1st Edition

Historic England, “COWPER HOUSE”, 2020, Via:, Accessed On: 17th April 2020

The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, “William Cowper: British Poet”, 2020, Via:, Accessed On: 17th April 2020.

Wickes, M “A History of Huntingdonshire”, Phillimore & Co. Ltd, Chichester, 1985, 1st Edition

Writer #3 – Author of Outstanding Fantasies

Lucy Maria Wood was born on 10 December 1892 in Southport, Lancashire to passionately Wesleyan parents. She was one of six children, three boys and three girls. Brought up almost entirely by Nurse, seeing their parents once a day at Family Prayers and twice on Sunday with Chapel followed by Sunday lunch.

Image of Lucy Boston from the cover of her memoirs
Perverse and Foolish” (1979)

Father died in 1899 so mother, who once told Lucy that she wished she had never had children, was left to cope with this family of strong-minded individuals.  Mother really preferred her work amongst fallen women, but this made her fear that Lucy, with her high spirits, could end up being a fallen woman. Lucy spent much of her life proving to herself that her mother was completely wrong.

Lucy and the second daughter, Frances were sent to secondary school as far south as possible in order to get rid of any trace of a Lancashire accent.  They were regarded as oddities by the other girls who had never heard a Northern accent. Lucy went on to read Classics at Somerville College, Oxford, having been told very firmly by her older brother Jas that he wouldn’t be able to live down having a sister at Girton, Cambridge.  War broke out during her first year at Somerville and, like so many of her generation, she left in order to train to be a nurse.

While waiting to be told which military Hospital to go to in France she went to visit Jas and Frank, the two older brothers at Cambridge University.  One day they all decided to drive out from Cambridge to hire a punt at Giddings Boathouse in Hemingford Grey. They punted upstream and passed The Manor.  Lucy was very taken with the tranquillity of the house in its untouched meadow beside the river and often thought of this house over the next twenty four years.

Hemingford Manor

Early in 1916 Lucy got her offer of work in a French military hospital in Houlgate, Normandy.  The hospital was chaotically run and at times life was not easy. Music was very important to Lucy and while working there she found an empty room in one of the buildings, put up a notice saying that on this day at this time she would be in that room playing her gramophone and anyone would be welcome to join her. These sessions proved to be hugely important in the lives of both the staff and any walking wounded who were able to get there.

A family friend of long standing, Harold Boston, discharged from the army having been badly injured in a motor bike accident was now working as a chauffeur to a specialist who toured the military hospitals in France.  Lucy and he were now on the same side of the Channel and they often met when they were off duty. They met up again when both were on leave in England, Harold by this time having joined the Royal Flying Corps. They decided to marry in Oxford by special licence in 1917.  Lucy sent a telegram to her mother to tell her and Mother post haste sent the older sister, Mary, down to Oxford to take a message. Mary, very embarrassed at having to be the messenger stayed only long enough to deliver it. She had difficulty finding the words but eventually she brought out “Mother says, if it’s for that, don’t.” They obviously ignored her mother.

After the war Harold went back to working in the family tannery and their first home was at Norton Lodge in Cheshire, near Norton Priory the home of the splendid, medieval statue of St Christopher which was to feature so importantly in her Green Knowe books in later years. Their son Peter was born in September 1918.

The marriage failed in 1935 and Lucy took herself off to the musical capitals of Europe and ended up living in Vienna.  Here she took painting lessons with Robin Anderson.  

When it looked as if war would break out, she returned to Cambridge where Peter was an undergraduate, and took lodgings on Kings Parade.  Here she continued to paint fairly prolifically. She wasn’t allowed to sketch, paint let alone photograph inside Kings College Chapel, so she would sit there and study the interior with great care and then return to her lodgings to paint.

Harold had promised to buy a house for her so she was vaguely house hunting.  One day she was told by a friend that there was a house for sale in Hemingford Grey.  She immediately summoned a taxi and, with her young Austrian friend who had come over to England with her, went straight to the house that she had been remembering all those years. They knocked on the door and Lucy told the McLeods that she understood their house was for sale.  They were astonished as they had only discussed selling The Manor that morning over breakfast. The house mentioned to her by the friend was in fact an entirely different one.

According to the house deeds Lucy got possession of the house on 31 May 1939, in her autobiography she says 1938. This house, built in the first half of the 12th Century and one of the two oldest continuously inhabited houses in Britain, was to become part of her.  It was her life for the next half century.

Hemingford Grey Manor in 1965

The villagers didn’t know what to make of this 47-year-old woman living in the house on her own and word went round that she was a spy.  It took a long time for her to be accepted by the village as a whole. She did have a handful of friends who ignored the local gossip and she had any number of friends in Cambridge who often came out to visit her.

She decided to restore the house as near as possible back to its Norman original, having an extension removed and a floor and a partitions taken out.  The front door was moved to where it is now.

When all the restoration work was finished in 1941, remembering how important music had been in the hospital in Houlgate, she contacted the welfare officer at RAF Wyton, the local RAF station, offering the house for convalescence, hospitality and particularly music.  She started to give gramophone record recitals in the old Norman hall. These were so popular that she gave them twice a week right through to the end of the war. The most visitors, recorded in the Visitors’ Book, in one evening was 36; these evenings were a wonderful opportunity for the men to get away from the horrors of war. She also frequently had young men to stay who needed to have a break. The station would phone if they needed them back.   

During the war she mostly planted trees but started to give serious time and thought to the garden once the war was over.  She was advised by Graham Stuart Thomas whom she had met when he was at the Cambridge Botanic Garden. While he was at Sunningdale Nurseries he searched out special roses and irises for her.

While Lucy was living at Norton Lodge, she wrote M R James type ghost stories, two of which were published in magazines of the time.  In the early 1950s she took up writing again and had two books, Yew Hall and The Children of Green Knowe published in 1954 when she was 62.  Lucy found her true vocation as an author of children’s books, all but The Sea Egg were based on her very special house which also became the house of Green Knowe in the series of six books (pictured below).

She was writing at the same time as a collection of other talented writers were also writing serious literature for children. In 1961 she was awarded the Carnegie Medal for A Stranger at Green Knowe.

Spring, Summer and Autumn were spent gardening vigorously.  Her writing was mostly done in the winter. Also in the winter she made patchworks, inspired by the mending of curtains bought for the house from Muriel Rose’s Little Gallery. Her patchworks have become very well known internationally, particularly the Patchwork of the Crosses which is now amongst the top 10 best known patchworks in the world.  People travel from far and wide to The Manor to see her creations and go home inspired by her artistic eye and particularly by her imaginative use of the printed or woven pattern in the fabric to create intricate new patterns in patchwork.  She was way ahead of her time in what is now called fussy-cutting.  

She was still writing in her 90s and made her last patchwork when she was 92.  She died in her beloved house in 1990. Letters came from all over the world from people saying how their love and choice of music had come from her wartime recitals, their choice of plants in their gardens had been inspired by visits to her garden, patchworks were made because of her enthusiasm and, of course, their love of the Green Knowe books which would last them through their life. Her talents rippled out to influence people worldwide, like the ripples from a stone dropped into a pool.

Diana Boston
The Manor, Hemingford Grey
March 2020

This is the third in a series of posts about writers with a connection to Huntingdonshire, look out for our post next Saturday!

(You can find our first post on T.S. Eliot here if you missed it –

(You can find our second post on Samuel Pepys here if you missed it –

Writer #2 – The Greatest Diarist of All Time

Samuel Pepys was born February 25th 1633, the fifth of eleven children. Despite local tradition that he was born at his uncle’s house in Brampton it seems most likely he was born at his family home in London. Pepys’ father was a tailor and his mother a butcher’s daughter, this may sound like a very humble beginning but amongst his father’s cousins were Sir Richard Pepys, a Baron of the Exchequer (later Lord Chief Justice of Ireland) and Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich. Samuel Pepys’ was a boy with connections, which he would capitalise on later in life.

Interior of the Huntingdon Grammar School in the late 1860s or early 1870s.

Sometime in the early 1640’s Samuel left his parents home for the Huntingdon Grammar School, doubtless this was intended for his safety, London at this time fearing siege at any moment by the King’s forces, furthermore Huntingdon was conveniently close to his uncle at Brampton. The Grammar School in Huntingdon was of course the alma mater of Oliver Cromwell at this time a regimental officer in a cavalry regiment.

Samuel returned to London and attended St. Pauls School by 1645, and was not in Huntingdon during the storm of the town by Charles I. In 1649 and aged fifteen, Samuel attended the execution of Charles I. Politically, Samuel was a “great roundhead”; he remarked to a friend on the day of the execution “that were I to preach upon him [Charles], my text should be – ‘the memory of the wicked shall rot’”.

In 1654, fresh from Cambridge where he had studied at Trinity Hall and Magdalene colleges, Samuel was employed by Edward Montagu. It was the first step in a career that would take him to the very top of the burgeoning civil service.

Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich, Admiral and Patron of Samuel Pepys – Portrait by Peter Lely c. 1660-1665

In December 1659, Samuel purchased a paper covered notebook from John Cade in Cornhill London, he ruled a left-hand margin down each page in red-ink and on January 1st 1660 penned the opening line of the most important eye-witness account to the 1660’s. In 1660, Samuel – aged 27 – was secretary to Edward Montagu. Over the course of this first tumultuous year, Samuel’s patron would become the first Earl of Sandwich, whilst Samuel would become Clerk of Acts to the naval board, moving with his wife into their first home and accompanying the fleet that restored Charles II to his throne.

His diary would run to over a million words and cover the 9 year period from 1660 to 1669. In its pages can be found the restoration, the second Dutch War (where his position offered him insight into the “miscarriages” of the war), the Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of 1666 where he buried “the papers of my office … my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine” and his life in all its detail.

The diary was written in shorthand and partially in code. It was never intended for publication, hence the frank accounts of his extramarital affairs, complaining about his superiors and colleagues and his own introspection on his fears, weaknesses and worries. These give the diary the human touch which has endeared it to so many readers over the years.

The first page and entry of Pepy’s Diary, note the year is recorded as 1659/60 as was the convention at time, the English New Year officially begun on March 25th not January 1st.

Unsurprisingly, Huntingdonshire features in Pepys’ diaries on multiple occasions; his patron lived at Hinchingbrooke House and Samuel had close family living in Huntingdonshire. Samuel met friends at Huntingdon pubs as in 1661 where at The Crown “we sat and drank ale and were very merry til 9 at night” and again in 1667 at the Three Tuns where he lunched with friends. He walked around Portholme meadow, commenting on “the country-maids milking their cowes there”, visited his sister and her husband at Ellington and saw first his uncle, then his father at the house in Brampton. The farmhouse and 74 acres of land would be inherited by Samuel in 1674 – the only home he ever owned.

Pepys’ House at Brampton in the early 20th century

Perhaps the most famous incident at the Brampton house occurred in June 1667 when, in fear of a Dutch invasion following their recent successful raids on both the Medway and Thames, Samuel sent his wealth to his fathers house to be buried in the gardens safe (he hoped!) from misfortune. His wife took £1,300 in gold to be secretly hidden, the deed was done and the wealth safe.

Four months later Samuel came to retrieve his gold, but found his wife and father could not remember the exact location it had been buried! When it was eventually found (just 6 inches under ground to his chagrin) the bags had split open, as a result, Samuel and his friend

with pails and a sieve, did lock ourselves into the garden, and there gather all the earth about the place into pails, and then sift those pails in one of the summer-houses, just as they do for dyamonds in other parts of the world”

Most of his wealth was found, but some was unaccounted for. In 1842, a pot of Elizabethan and early Stuart half crowns was uncovered in the grounds that had been part of the Pepys plot, and were given over to the incumbent Earl of Sandwich – were these the last of Pepys’ treasure?

His diary comes to a close in 1669, as he feared that the writing was harming his eyes, but Samuel himself was to go on a long way yet. He became an MP in 1673, was appointed Governor of Christ’s Hospital, elected a Master of Trinity House and soon after elected a Master of the Clothworkers Company. In 1674, he became Secretary of the Admiralty, where he instigated examinations for naval officers to be promoted to lieutenant, a first step towards the professionalisation of the Navy which was sorely wanted.

The Battle of Solebay, June 7, 1672, just after two o’clock in the afternoon, viewed from the northwest. – Willem van de Velde the Elder

Pepys career was nearly cut short in the midst of the “Popish Plot”, a supposed Catholic conspiracy to kill Charles II. Pepys was arrested and imprisoned on fabricated charges of Treason, Piracy and Catholicism, and found himself in the Tower of London. These false charges were dropped in 1679 and Pepys was released.

Having lost his positions and with various personal affairs to deal with in Huntingdonshire (his father and brother-in-law both having died) he remained out of Public Office until 1683. This year he went on a secret assignment with Lord Dartmouth, to evacuate the ailing colony at Tangiers. This remarkable endeavour has quite the local connection which will be explored in a blogpost later this year!

The title page of Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” with Samuel Pepys’ recorded as President of the Royal Society.

Upon his return Samuel was appointed Secretary of the Affairs of the Admiralty by Charles II. He also became President of the Royal Society; during his presidency, Newton’s Principia Mathematica was published by the society.

Following the death of Charles II, Pepys continued in his senior naval positions throughout the reign of James II, he quit following the Glorious Revolution, when James lost his throne. With his previous links to the Stuart monarchy making him circumspect as a senior civil servant, he also lost his Parliamentary seat. Samuel slipped into a quiet retirement, gathering books for his library, materials for his great naval history (never finished) and corresponding with friends and acquaintances.

He died in 1703 aged 70 in his house in the quiet village of Clapham (now of course a London suburb). His 3,000 volume library, including his diary, were left to posterity and eventually became the property of Magdalene College, Cambridge University. His remarkable diary was only published as a full translation of the coded shorthand in 1899.

Portrait of Samuel Pepys in 1666 by John Hayls.

This is the second in a series of posts about writers with a connection to Huntingdonshire, look out for our post next Saturday!

(You can find our first post on T.S. Eliot here if you missed it –

Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.

Akeroyd, A & Clifford, C. “Huntingdon: Eight Centuries of History”, Breedon Books Publishing, Derby, 2004, 1st Edition

Anon, “Samuel Pepys – Brampton House” Via:, Accessed On: 8th April 2020

Anon, “The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Daily entries from the 17th century London diary”, Via:, Accessed On: 8th April 2020

Burn-Murdoch, B “What’s so Special About Huntingdonshire?”, The Friends of the Norris Museum, Hunstanton, 1996, 1st Edition

Jeannine, “The Next Chapter of Samuel Pepys“, 2012, Via:, Accessed On: 8th April 2020

McCrunn, R. “The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time: No 92 – The Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660)”, 2017, Via:, Accessed On: 8th April 2020

Partridge, C. “In no hurry to move? Take a Pepys at this”, Via:, Accessed On: 8th April 2020

Rodger, N.A.B. “The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815”, Penguin Publishing, London, 2004, 1st Edition

Tibbs, R. “Fenland River: The Story of the Great Ouse and its tributaries”, Terence Dalton Ltd, Lavenham, 1969, 1st Edition

Tinniswood, A. “Pirates of Barbary: Corsair, Conquests, and Captivity in the 17th Century Mediterranean”, Riverhead Books, New York, 2010, 1st Edition

Wickes, M “A History of Huntingdonshire”, Phillimore & Co. Ltd, Chichester, 1985, 1st Edition

Writer #1 – The Most Influential English Poet of His Time

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in 1888 in Missouri, to a distinguished family. His family tree includes three US presidents and a president of Harvard university! Eliot’s family had only recently moved to Missouri from Massachusetts when he was born and as result he felt an outsider, something that would influence his entire life and creative work.

A young T.S. Eliot

He was an intelligent young man studying for a bachelors and masters degree at Harvard, and then studying further at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and Oxford University in 1915. His application to enlist for the army in WW1 was rejected multiple times due to him failing the medical examinations.

Moving to London in 1916, he begun to mix in literary circles, and his first published poem “The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock” was published in 1917. As well as poetry and plays he wrote articles and literary criticisms to supplement his meagre salary. In 1922, following a complete breakdown and with his marriage failing apart, he published “The Wasteland”, arguably the most important of post first world war poems.

In 1927, Eliot became a British Citizen and a member of the Church of England; he described himself as an “Anglo-Catholic” and became a member of the Society of the Charles the Martyr. He would continue writing articles and poetry throughout the 1930’s, his Modernist style challenging some more traditional poetic styles and conventions. His poetry increasingly dealt with ideas of death, rebirth and emerging from the twilight, ideas that would reach their epitome in his masterpiece “Four Quartets”.

Pamphlet attacking the Ferrar Community published in 1641


Three hundred years previously in 1626 the Ferrar family had moved from London to their newly purchased estate at Little Gidding, where they planned to live a life “dedicated to prayer and piety”. The high-church nature of their community, in line with Archbishops Laud’s form of Anglicanism, would have ruffled local Puritans. However, the household does seem to have got along with its neighbours; local gentry sent their sons to study with the Ferrars and the poor came for alms. The biggest problems for the fledgling community were the popular pamphlet press in London and the attentions of Parliamentarian soldiers during the civil war.

Eliot would have read about the religious community at Little Gidding. The strict Protestant lifestyle glorifying God would have appealed to Eliot with his strong faith and Anglo-Catholic stance. His interest in visiting the village was sparked by reading an acquaintance’s play-script based around King Charles’ final visit to Little Gidding after the rout at Naseby.

Little Gidding Church with the Tomb of Nicholas Ferrar outside.

In May 1936, Eliot visited Little Gidding with the Dean of Magdalene College, Cambridge University, of which Eliot was fellow. They visited the small church on a late May day, and his experiences can clearly be seen in the published poem;

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from, If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.

Drawing upon his visit to the place, his own experience of the London Blitz, and the loss of several dear friends, “Little Gidding”, was published as the final poem in the “Four Quartets” in 1942. A poem based around cleansing fire, rebirth, the timelessness of England and the present, and the need for spiritual salvation, it was a poem most definitely of its time. Eliot considered the “Four Quartets” his finest work and this his best poem.

The Four Quartets.

T.S. Eliot would publish no further poetry in his life. Lauded as one of the most influential living writers he received honorary doctorates and fellowships from universities across the world, and in 1948 he received the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He married a second time in 1950, and spent the rest of his life lecturing and writing articles.

When he died in 1965 of emphysema, his obituary in The Times was titled; “The Most Influential English Poet of His Time”.

You can find the poem “Little Gidding” in full at the link below:

T.S. Eliot in later life

This is the first in a series of short posts about writers with a connection to Huntingdonshire, look out for our post next Saturday!

Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.

Eliot, T.S. “Collected Poems 1909-1962”, Faber and Faber, London, 1974, 3rd Edition

Poetry Foundation, “T.S. Eliot 1888 – 1965”, 2020, Via:, Accessed April 1st 2020

Wickes, M. “A History of Huntingdonshire”, Phillimore & Co. Ltd, Chichester, 1995, 2nd Edition

Wilkinson, J. “People – T.S. Eliot at Little Gidding”, 2006, Via:, Accessed: April 1st 2020

The Wyton Wanderer – Isabella Bishop (nee Bird)

In our teeth are thrown the names of one or two distinguished ladies, such as Mrs Bishop, whose additions to geographical knowledge have been valuable and serious. But in the whole of England these ladies can be counted on the fingers of one hand!” – George Curzon, FRGS 30th May, 1893

Photograph by Fu Bingchang. Image courtesy of C.H. Foo, Y.W. Foo and Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol (

Isabella Bird was one of the most famous travel writers and explorers of Victorian England. Her trips saw her visit dozens of countries and travel thousands of miles, often alone. What is more astounding is that she spent much of her childhood an invalid and suffered with bouts of crippling depression and illness throughout her whole life.

Childhood and Early Life
Born in Yorkshire in 1831, the daughter of a Reverend (Revd Edward Bird) and a Reverend’s daughter (Dora Lawson), she inherited strong evangelical views and in her early years she moved from place to place when her father’s curacy changed. As a young child she suffered from a spinal complaint and nervous headaches and was advised by doctors to spend her time outdoors for the sake of her health; she learned to ride and spent much of her time on horseback, leading her to be an expert horsewoman in later life.

Though suffering from illness, she was a strong character at the age of six —she confronted the campaigning MP for South Cheshire (the outrageously named Sir Malpas de Grey Tatton Egerton), asking him “did you tell my father my sister was so pretty because you wanted his vote?”

In 1848, the family moved to Wyton in Huntingdonshire, where she learnt rowing on the Ouse to try to strengthen her back. Her ill health seemed to continue, so aged nineteen she had corrective spinal surgery to remove a growth from her back, and following the operation she suffered from insomnia and depression. Her doctor advised her to travel for the sake of her health and so her father gave her £100 and his permission to go where she wanted; she was twenty two years old and this was to be the beginning of a life-long passion.

Photograph of Houghton/Wyton Village Square taken by Isabella Bird, from the collection of the National Library of Scotland.

America & Canada
Isabella elected to visit North America, she went first to Canada to stay with cousins and then spent seven months travelling around the continent from Toronto to Boston to Cincinnati, Chicago and finally down the St. Lawrence river. She wrote long letters to her sister during her travels and these would later for the basis of her first book; “The English-woman in America” published in 1856 by John Murray, who became a friend for life. This first travel-narrative sold very well she received a substantial income from this book and from articles submitted to magazines; this private income would fund future trips and expeditions for Isabella.

England and Scotland
In 1858 Isabella’s father died of influenza, her family were forced to quit the house they had been living in and Isabella, her mother and sister settled into a flat in Edinburgh. Here the family settled into a quiet middle-class Victorian existence, and Isabella into a retired spinsterhood. She continued to suffer with mental health problems and and ill health — social events tired her and she withdrew into herself, mostly writing religious tracts. In 1864 she wrote: “I feel as if my life were spent in the very ignoble occupation of taking care of myself, and that unless some disturbing influences arise I am in great danger of becoming perfectly encrusted with selfishness”. Such a change was coming.

Australia and Hawaii
In 1872 aged 41 her doctor advised she travel to Australia as the warmer clime would help her recover. The journey was long and arduous and when she finally arrived she found Australia to not be to her liking. She hated the heat and the conditions and soon left again. On her return voyage she stopped at Hawaii, a place she fell in love with. She climbed volcanoes, stopped riding side-saddle (as it was an inconvenience) and spent six months “visiting remote regions … living among the natives and seeing Hawaiian life in all its phases”. The climate and rigorous activity seem to have helped improve her health, and the bulk of her written correspondence once again formed the basis for another book, “Six Months in the Sandwich Isles” published in 1875. It was another instant best seller.

Illustration of a Hawaiian Ladies riding dress from “Six Months in the Sandwich Isles” note the ambiguity as to whether the rider is side saddle or astride the horse!

She loved Hawaii so much that she was not inclined to leave; “Every step now seemed not a step homewards but a step out of my healthful life back among wretched dragging feelings and aches and nervousness.” Only her desire to see her sister again convinced her to go, but her adventures on this trip were not over just yet.

“A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains”
She took the boat for America, landing in San Francisco and then catching a train. Although she could have got a train the whole way across from the Pacific to Atlantic coast she decided to stop along the way. Her first stop was the prospecting town of Truckee in the Sierra Nevada, where she hired a horse and travelled alone out to Lake Tahoe and back. Despite encountering a bear along the way she decided that she wanted to travel within America more.

Catching the train to Denver she disembarked, hired a horse and a guide, a one eyed, heavily armed Indian scout called Mountain Jim, whom she described as “as awful looking a ruffian as one could see”. She would spend months on the Rocky mountains covering over 800 miles on horseback and foot, travelling alone or with Mountain Jim, other travellers, hunters and cowboys.

This unsurveyed wilderness was mostly uninhabited and posed a genuine danger to her; she survived snowstorms (“utter loneliness, the silence and dumbness of all things, the snow falling quietly without wind, the obliterated mountains, the darkness, the intense cold”), the risk of avalanche, injury and illness, attacks by predators and possibly also predatory men. Her best defence was her confidence, her willingness to work (she was a cook for cowboys for a while when she run out of money) and her belief in “the habit of respectful courtesy to women”. Her letters to her sister would once again act as the basis for a book and this book, “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains”, published in 1879, would prove to be her best selling work.

Illustration of the cabin Isabella lived in, in America from “A Lady’s life in the Rocky Mountains”

Having finally continued to the Atlantic coast, Isabella returned to Edinburgh and her beloved sister. She was wooed by Dr John Bishop, the family’s physician, but Isabella refused his advances, concentrating on writing up her travel books, campaigning for better conditions for croft and slum dwellers and submitting articles to magazines. Within a short span of time the familiar depression and illness started to return, and she decided to travel again.

Japan was a country in flux; after 220 years of self-imposed isolation, in the 1850’s, its borders had been opened to the world. Keen to see the country she sought advice from those few who had been, and in 1878 she set off to explore. Upon arrival she hired a native speaker as a guide and translator and they struck out for the interior of the country, far from the increasingly westernised ports and coastal areas. She travelled light; her total baggage for her trip to Japan was;

a folding-chair and air-pillow for kuruma [rickshaw] travelling, an india-rubber bath, sheets, a blanket, and last, and more important than all else, a canvas stretcher [for sleeping] … a small supply of Leibig’s extract of meat, 4 lbs. of raisins, some chocolate, both for eating and drinking, and some brandy in case of need. I have my own Mexican saddle and bridle, a reasonable quantity of clothes, some candles, Mr. Brunton’s large map of Japan, volumes of the Transactions of the English Asiatic Society, and Mr. Satow’s Anglo-Japanese Dictionary.

She went on from Japan to China, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore, but her time in Japan was the subject of her oriental travelogue, “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan”, published in 1880. Despite worries from her publisher that the lurid descriptions of rural Japan with its vermin, squalor, terrible food and disease would put off the reading public, the book was another best seller.

Return to Tragedy
Returning to her sister in Edinburgh in 1880 for what was to the be the last time, Isabella settled back into a middle class existence. The loss of her sister in 1881 to tubercular fever seems to have hit her hard. Aged 50 and in the wake of her sisters death, she finally acquiesced and married John Bishop. She insisted on wearing her mourning clothes for the wedding, as if, in the words of a friend, “she was marrying under protest”.

After only five years of marriage, John Bishop also died. Isabella seems to have been genuinely heartbroken; aged 57 and mourning this latest tragedy, she began to train as a medical practitioner herself. Once qualified, she elected on her personal cure-all for depression and set off again, this time to India.

India and the Great Game.
Having arrived in India in 1888 she travelled alone as was her preference. As well as travelling, she used her personal wealth to establish the Henrietta Bird Hospital in Amritsar and then later the John Bishop Memorial Hospital in Srinigar. She still had her fair share of adventures; travelling to Tibet her horse fell through a bridge and drowned, whilst Isabella broke several ribs. She travelled widely through Northern India and again into China, running ad hoc medical clinics in villages as she passed through.

Travel Photo taken by Isabella Bird of an unknown location in Persia, from the collection of the National Library of Scotland.

Returning through India, she joined a British expedition led by Major Herbert Sawyer; this government-sponsored reconnaissance was to check for Russian influences in the Middle East. A terrible concern for British governments for much of the 19th century was that losing control of the Middle East would allow Russia to invade or interfere with India, the machinations, bribery, spying and proxy wars between tribes in the area became known as “the Great Game”.

Isabella did not enjoy having an escort but reluctantly agreed that the territory was too dangerous to traverse alone, and the expedition lasted for almost all of 1890. They passed from Basra to Baghdad and Tehran, through blizzards and past the frozen bodies of other unlucky travellers, across Persian Kurdistan to Eastern Turkey. Her travels informed another book, “Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan” published in 1891.

England and Scotland
Having safely returned to England, she became a vocal proponent for the British government to assist the Armenians who were being persecuted across the Middle East. These atrocities would lead to the Armenian Genocide in the early 20th century (an ethnic cleansing that saw 1.5 million Armenians killed or forcefully deported by the Turkish Ottoman empire). Isabella met with William Gladstone (PM) and addressed a Parliamentary committee on the subject. So well known had she become through her writings that she became a fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and amongst the first female fellows of the (British) Royal Geographical Society in 1893.

Isabella Bird’s Korean passport, border control was tight due to the outbreak of war with Japan
Isabella Bird in Oriental Dress, from the collection of the National Library of Scotland

Return to the Orient
In 1894, getting restless and with no surviving family in Scotland, she departed again once more for Asia. She voyaged to Yokohama in Japan, then spent several months in Korea, leaving in a rush when the Sino-Japanese war broke out, and Korea was occupied by Japan. She became a kind of unofficial war correspondent, photographing Chinese soldiers heading into Korea, and then following the advance to record the devastation the war had caused.

She left Korea and sailed up the Yangtze river and then overland into Sichuan. Here she encountered increasing anti-Western abuse, being assaulted by a mob, having the building she was in set on fire and even being stoned unconscious at one point. She crossed into Tibet once more and from there headed home to Britain. Having travelled over 8,000 miles in the course of her fifteen month trip, she published her last book, “The Yangtze Valley and Beyond” in 1901.

Final Expedition and Death
Having returned to Edinburgh she began to plan a new trip to China, and in 1901 she visited Morocco (her first time in Africa). She travelled widely in the Atlas mountains, but upon returning fell ill. She spent the last few years of her life in Edinburgh, too ill to travel, and died there in October 1904.

Hers was a life most extraordinary, and as she said herself in a letter to a friend in 1897; “I have freedom, and you know how I love that! I am so thankful for my capacity for being interested. What would my lonely life be without it?

Travel Photo taken by Isabella Bird of an unknown location in Morocco on her last travels, from the collection of the National Library of Scotland.

Victoria Calleway is a very amateur historian indeed but learnt to be discerning about her sources through her English Literature and Theatre degree. Incidentally, these are a few of her favourite things, along with board games, cheese, and her cats, Asparagus and Macavity.

Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.

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Calder, J, 2016 “Writer, Explorer, Trailblazer”, Accessed via:, On: February 22nd 2020

Ireland, D, 2015, “Isabella Bird: Tales of a pioneering adventuress in 19th century China”, The Independent, 8th March 2015

Lucas, C.P, 1912, “Bishop, Isabella Lucy”, Dictionary of National Biography.

Middleton, D, 2004, “Bishop [Bird], Isabella Lucy (1831–1904)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Parks, C, 2014, “The Peripatetic Life of Isabella Bird”, The Appendix, In Motion, October 2014, Vol. 2, No. 4

Stoddart, A.M, (1906) “The Life of Isabella Bird, Mrs Bishop”, J. Murray, 1st Edition