Denise Bennett: A Poem on Every Street Corner
So what is my literary connection to the novelist, Charles Dickens, to John Pounds, a humble Portsmouth cobbler and pioneer of the Ragged School Movement, to Lord Shaftsbury, a social reformer; the doomed Victorian mariner, Sir John Franklin, and Georgian novelist, Jane Austen? Why are so many of my poems are written about historical events? Well, I love to explore local history and often find myself wandering down alleys, lanes and into public spaces to discover who inhabited them and how they lived.
For me, there are poems on practically every street corner.
When I was a small child my family lodged in a basement flat in Southsea that was the former home of Maria Beadnell, one of Dickens’s first loves, who is buried in Highland Cemetery. Eventually, this became the poem, Number 6, Shaftsbury Road, which attempts to conjure up the inhabitants of this address at two very different historical moments. Ever since childhood, I think, I’ve been steeped in the vibrant lives and history of this city of mine.
I later attended John Pounds School, named after the man who, after breaking his back by falling into a dry dock in the dockyard at aged 15, retrained as a shoe-mender and worked tirelessly to care for and educate the children of Portsea. His work inspired a public awakening, and later Lord Shaftesbury took up the cause and helped establish the Education Act (1870) which provided free schooling for all children aged five to thirteen. Sadly, Pounds’s workshop, removed for safe keeping during WW2, is believed to have been lost in 1939. A superb replica can be found in the Unitarian Church in the High Street. I would not be penning this blog if this had not happened. Pounds is an important figure to me, and perhaps I would not have been a poet without him.
Early steps in verse: hot potatoes
My first poems were published in my school magazine, aptly named The Hot Potato – an allusion to John Pounds’ habit of going in search of hungry children with hot potatoes in his pockets so that he could offer them warmth, shelter, and education in his workshop in St Mary’s Street, now Highbury Street, Portsea, also the title of another poem of mine. Learning about Pounds first opened my eyes to the city’s rich history. It is believed that Charles Dickens wrote his famous Christmas Carol after visiting a ragged school and it’s quite possible that he met and conversed with Pounds himself.
After Hot Potatoes
My interest in local history took me for a trip down Blossom Alley, now Blossom Square, Portsea, courtesy of History in Hiding by Anthony Triggs, where I was amazed to discover the murder of Mary Pelham in 1923. Immediately, I wanted to go beyond the realm of crime statistics and tell the world about the young woman living in squalor and earning her living by prostitution, who was glassed by one of her clients. ‘Blossom Alley’ was the result.
In contrast, I have always been aware of Agnes Weston, the Christian philanthropist who ran cheap lodgings in the form of a temperance hotel, complete with clean cotton sheets and bible by the bedside, as hospitality for vulnerable sailors. Looking more closely into her life I wanted to ‘sing her shanty’, so in ‘Agnes Weston’ I spoke of her valuable work at The Royal Sailor’s Rest, fondly known as Aggie’s, in Edinburgh Road (Queen’s Street).
Jane Austen’s Footsteps, and Beyond
One of my favourite Jane Austen characters is humble Fanny Price who hailed from Portsmouth with her lowly family in a house which is similar to those in Peacock Lane. The novel Mansfield Park, really spoke to me. I felt Jane Austen captured the spirit of the old town in those chapters where Fanny returns from the big house to visit her old home. In order to write Fanny’s Footsteps, I needed to follow the path she takes in the novel, but at the same time to imagine the walk on the Ramparts which Austen took with her brother Francis, and to imagine the ships and other sights they saw.
That brother of Austen’s, Francis – or Admiral Sir Francis Austen as he became – inspired a second verse. Francis, I learned, worshipped at St Peter and St Pauls, Church, Medina Road, Wymering, north of the city and is buried in the churchyard. In my research for my poem, Frank, I discovered that he was known as ‘Fly’ by his family and was very keen on helping Jane and Cassandra cutting out templates for their patchwork; like all good sailors, he had learnt to sew. I love this detail about this life and was keen to weave it into the poem.
From Sir John Franklin to World War II
Portsea Island, so rich in history, has offered much inspiration for my poetry. I was intrigued to know that several revered men had etched their names in a pane of glass of one of the windows of The Star and Garter, an inn which was situated in Broad Street, Old Portsmouth and demolished in 1954. One of these was Captain Sir John Franklin who led an expedition to find the North Passage in 1845. His two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were only found in 2016, confirming suspicions that the entire crew had died amidst hypothermia, malnutrition, and cannibalism.
For many years after his death, his widow stayed at the inn on the anniversary of the sailing, grieving for his loss, never quite believing he was dead. How I could resist using this material in another poem, ‘Star and Garter’?
This area of the city has given me so much to write about including the loss of life when the High Street was blitzed in 1940, killing several people who were sheltering in a shop basement in front of Portsmouth Cathedral. It was the baby’s blue bootee, found in the debris, which haunted me and compelled me to write 101 High Street.
Ode to Portsmouth
I always feel history beneath my feet as I walk the streets of Portsmouth and can feel the griefs and joys shared by the those who have lived and loved here. For me, there really is something special about this city of mine – and so many street corners mean so many poetic opportunities still to come. In the meantime, here’s a flavour of my feeling for my island city:
Wet round the edges,
with shingle ledges,
Portsmouth is my Island City;
not particularly pretty
but blowsy, beachy, briny,
tattooed and tarty, easy, earthy
and cosy, like an old worn overcoat
I can slip into for comfort anytime;
each littered street a seam of memory.
There’s a sadness, a softness,
a threadbare, needing mending-ness
but I wouldn’t swap it for any posh togs.
I carry it with me always wherever I go.
Denise Bennett was born in Festing Road Southsea and has lived locally all her life. She has an MA in Creative Writing and is a widely published, prize winning poet. Awarded the inaugural Hamish Canham Prize by the Poetry Society in 2004, Denise has three excellent collections: Planting the Snow Queen (2011), Parachute Silk (2015) and Water Chits (2017). She has also written a sequence of poems about the loss of HMS Royal George which foundered off Spithead in 1782 with the loss of more than 900 lives. In 2010 she co-edited the wonderful anthology, This Island City: Portsmouth in Poetry with Maggie Sawkins and Dale Gunthorp.