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Sir John Betjeman

Statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station.
Born 28 August 1906(1906-08-28)
Parliament Hill Mansions, Hampstead , London, England
Died 19 May 1984 (aged 77)
Trebetherick, Cornwall, England
Occupation Poet, writer, broadcaster
Spouse(s) Hon. Penelope Chetwode (1933–1951)
Partner(s) Lady Elizabeth Cavendish (1951–1984)
Children Paul Betjeman
Candida Lycett Green

Sir John Betjeman, CBE (pronounced /ˈbɛtʃəmən/; 28 August 1906 – 19 May 1984) was an English poet, writer and broadcaster who described himself in Who's Who as a "poet and hack". He was a founding member of the Victorian Society and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture. Starting his career as a journalist, he ended it as one of the most popular British Poets Laureate to date and a much-loved figure on British television.




Early life and education

Betjeman was born "John Betjemann", which was changed to the less Teutonic "Betjeman" during the First World War. He started life at Parliament Hill Mansions in Highgate in North London. His parents Mabel (née Dawson) and Ernest Betjemann had a family firm which manufactured the kind of ornamental household furniture and gadgets distinctive to Victorians. His father's forebears had come from the Netherlands,[1] more than a century earlier, setting up their home and business in Islington, London. In 1909, the Betjemanns left Parliament Hill Mansions, moving half a mile north to more opulent Highgate. From West Hill they lived in the reflected glory of the Burdett-Coutts estate.

Here from my eyrie, as the sun went down,
I heard the old North London puff and shunt,
Glad that I did not live in Gospel Oak.

Betjeman's early schooling was at the local Byron House and Highgate School, where he was taught by the poet T. S. Eliot. After this, he boarded at the Dragon School preparatory school in North Oxford and Marlborough College, a public school in Wiltshire. In his penultimate year, he joined the secret 'Society of Amici'[3] in which he was a contemporary of both Louis MacNeice and Graham Shepard. Reading the works of Arthur Machen while at school, won him over to High Church Anglicanism, a conversion of vital importance and to his later writing and conception of the arts.[citation needed]

Magdalen College, Oxford

Betjeman entered the University of Oxford with considerable difficulty, having failed the mathematics portion of the university's matriculation exam, Responsions. He was, however, admitted as a commoner (i.e. a non-scholarship student) at Magdalen College and entered the newly-created School of English Language and Literature. At Oxford, Betjeman made little use of the academic opportunities. His tutor, a young C. S. Lewis, regarded him as an "idle prig" and Betjeman in turn considered Lewis unfriendly, demanding, and uninspired as a teacher.[4] Betjeman particularly disliked the coursework's emphasis on linguistics, and dedicated most of his time to cultivating his social life, his interest in English ecclesiastical architecture, and to private literary pursuits. He had a poem published in Isis, the university magazine, and was editor of the Cherwell student newspaper during 1927. His first book of poems was privately printed with the help of fellow-student Edward James. He famously brought his teddy bear Archibald Ormsby-Gore up to Magdalen with him, the memory of which later inspired his Oxford contemporary Evelyn Waugh to include Sebastian Flyte's teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited. Much of this period of his life is recorded in his blank verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells which was published in 1960 and made into a television film in 1976.

It is a common misapprehension, cultivated by Betjeman himself, that he did not complete his degree because he failed to pass the compulsory holy scripture examination, known as Divinity, or, colloquially, as "Divvers." Events were, however, more complicated. In Hilary Term 1928, Betjeman failed Divinity for the second time. He had to leave the university (i.e. he was rusticated) for the Trinity Term in order to prepare for a retake of the exam; he was then allowed to return in October.

Betjeman then wrote to the Secretary of the Tutorial Board at Magdalen, G. C. Lee, asking to be entered for the Pass School – a set of examinations taken on rare occasions by undergraduates who are deemed unlikely to achieve an honours degree. In his verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells, Betjeman claims that his tutor, C. S. Lewis, said "You'd have only got a third" (i.e. a third-class honours degree). The truth of the matter, however, is that Lewis had informed the tutorial board that he thought Betjeman would not achieve an honours degree of any class.[4]

Permission to sit the Pass School was granted. Betjeman's famously decided to offer a paper in Welsh. Osbert Lancaster tells the story that a tutor came by train twice a week (first class) from Aberystwyth to teach Betjeman. However, Jesus College had a number of Welsh tutors who more probably would have taught him. Betjeman finally had to leave (i.e. he was "sent down") at the end of the Michaelmas Term, 1928.[5] It has recently been clarified that Betjeman did pass his Divinity examination on his third try but was sent down after failing the Pass School. He had achieved a satisfactory result in only one of the three required papers (on Shakespeare and other English authors).[4]

Betjeman's academic failure at Oxford rankled him for the rest of his life and he was never reconciled with C.S. Lewis, towards whom he nursed a bitter detestation. This situation was perhaps complicated by his enduring love of Oxford, from which he accepted an honorary doctorate of letters in 1974.[4]

After university

Betjeman left Oxford without a degree but he had made the acquaintance of people who would influence his work, including Louis MacNeice, W. H. Auden, Maurice Bowra, Osbert Lancaster, George Alfred Kolkhorst, Tom Driberg and the Sitwells.[citation needed]

After university, Betjeman worked briefly as a private secretary, school teacher and film critic for the Evening Standard. He was employed by the Architectural Review between 1930 and 1935, as a full time assistant editor, following their publishing of some of his freelance work. Up to this point Betjeman had been an admirer of the Victorian aesthetic; he changed his views, or bit his tongue, while writing for The Review as the editor was a vigorous proponent of Modernism.[citation needed] Mowl (2000) says, "His years at the Architectural Review were to be his true university." At this time, while his prose style matured, he joined the MARS Group, an organisation of young modernist architects and architectural critics in Britain.

On 29 July 1933 Betjeman married the Hon. Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of Field Marshal Lord Chetwode. The couple lived in Berkshire and had a son, Paul, in 1937. Their daughter, Paula (better known as Candida) was born in 1942. (See Candida Lycett Green).

The Shell Guides, were developed by Betjeman and Jack Beddington, a friend who was publicity manager with Shell-Mex Ltd. The series aimed to guide Britain's growing number of motorists around the counties of Britain and their historical sites. They were published by the Architectural Press and financed by Shell. By the start of World War II 13 had been published, of which Cornwall (1934) and Devon (1936) had been written by Betjeman. A third, Shropshire, was written with and designed by his good friend John Piper in 1951.[citation needed]

In 1939, Betjeman was rejected for active service in World War II but found war work with the films division of the Ministry of Information. In 1941 he became British press attaché in Dublin, Ireland, which was a neutral country. He may have been involved with the gathering of intelligence. He is reported to have been selected for assassination by the IRA. The order was rescinded. Betjeman wrote a number of poems based on his experiences in Ireland including "The Irish Unionist's Farewell to Greta Hellstrom" (1922) with the refrain "Dungarvan in the rain". Greta, the object of his affections has remained a mystery until recently revealed.

After the Second World War

Betjeman's house at Cloth Fair in the City

John's wife, Penelope Betjeman became a Roman Catholic in 1948. The couple drifted apart and in 1951 he met Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, with whom he developed an immediate and lifelong friendship.[citation needed]

By 1948 Betjeman had published more than a dozen books. Five of these were verse collections, including one in the USA; although not admired by some literary critics, his poetry was popular, and sales of his Collected Poems in 1958 reached 100,000.[citation needed]

He continued writing guidebooks and works on architecture during the 1960s and 1970s and started broadcasting. He was also a founder member of The Victorian Society (1958). Betjeman was also closely associated with the culture and spirit of Metro-land, as outer reaches of the Metropolitan Railway were known before the war. In 1973 he made a widely acclaimed television documentary for the BBC called Metro-land, directed by Edward Mirzoeff. On the centenary of Betjeman's birth in 2006, his daughter led two celebratory railway trips: one from London to Bristol, the other, through Metro-land, to Quainton Road.

In 1975, he proposed that the Fine Rooms of Somerset House should house the Turner Bequest, so helping to scupper the plan of the Minister for the Arts for a Theatre Museum to be housed there.

Sir John was very fond of the ghost stories of M.R. James and supplied an introduction to Peter Haining's book M.R. James - Book of the Supernatural. He was very susceptible to the supernatural.[citation needed] In the 1920s, while staying at Biddesden, the country home of Diana Mitford and Bryan Guinness, Betjeman dreamt he was handed a piece of paper with a date on it.[citation needed] Betjeman believed it to be the date of his death, but never disclosed the date to anyone.


John Betjeman's grave

For the last decade of his life Betjeman suffered increasingly from Parkinson's Disease. He died at his home in Trebetherick, Cornwall on 19 May 1984, aged 77, and is buried half a mile away in the churchyard at St Enodoc's Church[6]. His grave can be seen on the right, immediately after passing through the entrance gate into the churchyard.


In his public image Betjeman never took himself too seriously. His poems are often humorous and in broadcasting he exploited his bumbling and fogeyish image.

His wryly comic verse is accessible and has attracted a great following for its satirical and observant grace. Auden said in his introduction to Slick But Not Streamlined "... so at home with the provincial gaslit towns, the seaside lodgings, the bicycle, the harmonium." His poetry is similarly redolent of time and place, continually seeking out intimations of the eternal in the manifestly ordinary. There are constant evocations of the physical chaff and clutter that accumulates in everyday life, the miscellanea of an England now gone but not beyond the reach of living memory. There is Ovaltine and the Sturmey-Archer bicycle gear, and ...

Oh! Fuller's angel cake, Robertson's marmalade,
Liberty lampshades, come shine on us all.[7]


I have a Slimline brief-case and I use the firm's Cortina.
In every roadside hostelry from here to Burgess Hill

It has been astutely observed that Betjeman's poetry provides the reader with a skeleton key to a long lost past which he will instantly recognise even if he were never there.[citation needed] It is this talent for evoking the familiar and secure, however homely, that makes a reader feel similarly disposed toward Betjeman himself. He is the font of wry, well-painted, avuncular reminiscence.

He was a practicing Anglican and his religious beliefs come through in some of his poems, albeit sometimes in a rather light-hearted way. He combined piety with a nagging uncertainty about the truth of Christianity. Unlike Thomas Hardy, who disbelieved in the truth of the Christmas story, while hoping it might be so, Betjeman affirms his belief even while fearing it might be false.[citation needed] Even in "Christmas", one of his most openly religious poems, the last three stanzas that proclaim the wonder of Christ's birth do so in the form of a question "And is it true...?" that is answered in the conditional, "For if it is...". Perhaps his views on Christianity were best expressed in his poem The Conversion of St. Paul, a response to a radio broadcast by humanist Margaret Knight:

But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope,
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St. Paul.

He became Poet Laureate in 1972, the first Knight Bachelor ever to be appointed (the only other, Sir William Davenant, had been knighted after his appointment). This role, combined with his popularity as a television performer, ensured that his poetry eventually reached an audience enormous by the standards of the time. Similarly to Tennyson, he appeals to a very wide public and manages to voice the thoughts and aspirations of many ordinary people while retaining the respect of many of his fellow poets.[citation needed] This is partly because of the apparently simple traditional metrical structures and rhymes he uses (but not nearly as simple as they might appear).

In the early 1970s, he began a recording career of four albums on Charisma Records which included Banana Blush of 1973 and Late Flowering Love of 1974, where his poetry reading is set to music with overdubbing by leading musicians of the time.[9]

Betjeman and architecture

Betjeman had a special fondness for Victorian architecture and was a founding member of Victorian Society. He lead the campaign to save Holy Trinity, Sloane Street in London when it was threatened with demolition in the early 1970s.[10] He fought a spirited but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to save the Propylaeum, known commonly as the Euston Arch, London. He is considered instrumental in helping to save the famous façade of St. Pancras railway station, London and was commemorated when it reopened as an international and domestic terminus in November 2007. He was said to have called the plan to demolish St. Pancras a "criminal folly." About the station itself he wrote:

"What [the Londoner] sees in his mind's eye is that cluster of towers and pinnacles seen from Pentonville Hill and outlined against a foggy sunset, and the great arc of Barlow's train shed gaping to devour incoming engines, and the sudden burst of exuberant Gothic of the hotel seen from gloomy Judd Street."

The newly reopened St. Pancras now features a statue of Betjeman in the station at platform level.[11]

Betjeman Statue in St Pancras

He responded to architecture as the visible manifestation of society's spiritual life as well as its political and economic structure. He attacked speculators and bureaucrats for what he saw as their rapacity and lack of imagination.

The preface of his collection of architectural essays, First and Last Loves says:

We accept the collapse of the fabrics of our old churches, the thieving of lead and objects from them, the commandeering and butchery of our scenery by the services, the despoiling of landscaped parks and the abandonment to a fate worse than the workhouse of our country houses, because we are convinced we must save money.

In a BBC film made in 1968 but not broadcast at that time, Betjeman described the sound of Leeds to be of "Victorian buildings crashing to the ground". He went on to lambast John Poulson's building, British Railways House (now City House) saying how it blocked all the light out to City Square and was only a testament to money with no architectural merit. He also praised the architecture of Leeds Town Hall.[12][13] In 1969 Betjeman contributed the foreword to Derek Linstrum's Historic Architecture of Leeds.[14]

In popular culture since his death

  • A memorial window, designed by John Piper, is set in All Saints' Church, Farnborough, Hampshire, where Betjeman lived in the adjoining Rectory.
  • The Betjeman Millennium Park at Wantage in Oxfordshire (formerly in Berkshire), where he had lived from 1951 to 1972 and where he set his book, Archie and the Strict Baptists.
  • Suggs, the lead singer of Madness named Betjeman's "On a Portrait of a Deaf Man," as one of his Desert Island Discs.[15]
  • In May 2007 excerpts of John Betjeman's poem The Cockney Amorist were used in the song Sheila by Jamie T, reaching #15 in the UK Singles Chart.
  • The Morrissey song Everyday Is Like Sunday contains the line in "the seaside town that they forgot to bomb" which was inspired by the line "Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough" from Betjeman's poem Slough from Continual Dew.[16]
  • The singer Morrissey chose one of Betjeman's poems, A Child III, for his NME complimation CD Songs to Save your Life.
  • The comedy series The Office, set in Betjeman's dreaded Slough, features manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais) reading a few lines from the poem Slough, before dismissing Betjeman as "over-rated".
  • The 2008 film The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas opens with the Betjeman quote "Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows."
  • The Pet Shop Boys quote his line "Sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea" in their song Building a Wall on the album Yes (2009). The quote is from the poem Trebetherick.

The John Betjeman Young People's Poetry Competition

The prize was inaugurated in 2006 to celebrate Betjeman's centenary. The competition is open to 11–14 year olds living anywhere in the British Isles and the Republic of Ireland. Entrants are limited to one poem each about their local surroundings or any aspect thereof, whether it be a house, a street, a garden, a park, a city or a wider landscape. The spirit behind the competition is to encourage young people to understand and appreciate the importance of place. Entry forms can be downloaded online.[17] The prize giving event for the competition in 2009 will take place at St Pancras International Station in October.


Poetry Collections

  • Mount Zion (1932)
  • Continual Dew (1937)
  • Old Lights For New Chancels (1940)
  • New Bats In Old Belfries (1945)
  • A Few Late Chrysanthemums (1954)
  • Poems In The Porch (1954)
  • Summoned By Bells (1960)
  • High and Low (1966)
  • A Nip In The Air (1974)


  • Matthew, H.C.G. and Harrison, B. (eds), (2004). Oxford dictionary of national biography (vol. 5). Oxford: OUP.
  • Brooke, Jocelyn (1962). Ronald Firbank and John Betjeman. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
  • Games, Stephen (2006). Trains and Buttered Toast, Introduction. London: John Murray.
  • Games, Stephen (2007). Tennis Whites and Teacakes, Introduction. London: John Murray.
  • Games, Stephen (2007). Sweet Songs of Zion, Introduction. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
  • Games, Stephen (2009). Betjeman's England, Introduction. London: John Murray.
  • Gardner, Kevin J. (2005). "John Betjeman." The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. New York: Oxford University Press.[citation needed]
  • Green, Chris (2006). John Betjeman and the Railways. Transport for London
  • Hillier, Bevis (1984). John Betjeman: a life in pictures. London: John Murray.
  • Hillier, Bevis (1988). Young Betjeman. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-4531-5.
  • Hillier, Bevis (2002). John Betjeman: new fame, new love. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-5002-5.
  • Hillier, Bevis (2004). Betjeman: the bonus of laughter. London : John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-6495-6.
  • Hillier, Bevis (2006). Betjeman: the biography. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-6443-3
  • Lycett Green, Candida (Ed.) (Aug 2006). Letters: John Betjeman, Vol.1, 1926 to 1951. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-77595-X
  • Lycett Green, Candida (Ed.) (Aug 2006). Letters: John Betjeman, Vol.2, 1951 to 1984. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-77596-8
  • Lycett Green, Candida, Betjeman's stations in The Oldie, September 2006
  • Mirzoeff, Edward (2006). Viewing notes for Metro-land (DVD) (24pp)
  • Mowl, Timothy (2000). Stylistic Cold Wars, Betjeman versus Pevsner. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-5909-X
  • Schroeder, Reinhard (1972). Die Lyrik John Betjemans. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag. (Thesis).
  • Sieveking, Lancelot de Giberne (1963). John Betjeman and Dorset. Dorchester: Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society.
  • Stanford, Derek (1961). John Betjeman, a study. London: Neville Spearman.
  • Taylor-Martin, Patrick (1983). John Betjeman, his life and work. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 0-7139-1539-0
  • Wilson, A. N. (2006). Betjeman. London: Hutchinson. ISBN 0-09-179702-0


  1. ^ Mowl, Timothy (2000). Stylistic Cold Wars, Betjeman versus Pevsner, p 13.
  2. ^ Betjeman, John (1960). Summoned by Bells, p 5.
  3. ^ Paths of Progress: A History of Marlborough College by Rt Hon Peter Brooke MP and Thomas Hinde
  4. ^ a b c d Priestman, Judith, "The dilettante and the dons", Oxford Today, Trinity term, 2006.
  5. ^ B. Hillier, Young Betjeman, pp. 181–194.
  6. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, OUP, 2004
  7. ^ from Myfanwy in Old Lights for New Chancels (1940).
  8. ^ from Executive in A Nip in the Air (1974).
  9. ^ Mojo No 187 pp122
  10. ^ Pearce, David (1989). Conservation Today. London: Routledge. ISBN 041500778X. 
  11. ^ BBC News article on St. Pancras station re-opening
  12. ^
  13. ^ Wainwright, Martin (16 February 2009). "BBC revives unaired Betjeman film forgotten for 40 years". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-02-16. 
  14. ^ Linstrum, Derek; with foreword by John Betjeman (1969). Historic Architecture of Leeds. Oriel Press. ISBN 0 85362 056 3. 
  15. ^ How Betjeman learned to boogie | Books | The Guardian
  16. ^ Slough - John Betjeman
  17. ^

Other sources

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
Cecil Day-Lewis
British Poet Laureate
Succeeded by
Ted Hughes


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Sir John Betjeman, CBE (28 August 190619 May 1984) was an English poet, architectural conservationist and broadcaster. He was the British Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death in 1984.




  • Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!
    It isn't fit for humans now,
    There isn't grass to graze a cow.
    Swarm over, Death!
    • "Slough" line 1, from Continual Dew (1937)
  • He sipped at a weak hock and seltzer
    As he gazed at the London skies
    Through the Nottingham lace of the curtains
    Or was it his bees-winged eyes?
    • "The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel" line 1, from Continual Dew
  • Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans.
    Spare their women for Thy Sake,
    And if that is not too easy,
    We will pardon Thy Mistake.
    But, gracious Lord, whate'er shall be,
    Don't let anyone bomb me.
    • "In Westminster Abbey" line 1, from Old Lights for New Chancels (1940)
  • He would have liked to say goodbye,
    Shake hands with many friends.
    In Highgate now his finger-bones
    Stick through his finger-ends.

    You, God, who treat him thus and thus,
    Say, "Save his soul and pray."
    You ask me to believe You and
    I only see decay.
    • "On a Portrait of a Deaf Man" line 25, from Old Lights for New Chancels
  • Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
    Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun,
    What strenuous singles we played after tea,
    We in the tournament — you against me!
    • "A Subaltern's Love-song" line 1, from New Bats in Old Belfries (1945)
  • We sat in the car park till twenty to one
    And now I'm engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.
    • "A Subaltern's Love-song" line 43
  • Stony seaboard, far and foreign,
    Stony hills poured over space,
    Stony outcrop of the Burren,
    Stones in every fertile place
    • "In Ireland with Emily" from New Bats in Old Belfries
  • No hope. And the X-ray photographs under his arm
    Confirm the message. His wife stands timidly by.
    The opposite brick-built house looks lofty and calm,
    Its chimneys steady against the mackerel sky.
    • "Devonshire Street W.1" line 1, from A Few Late Chrysanthemums (1954)
  • And behind their frail partitions
    Business women lie and soak,
    Seeing through the draughty skylight
    Flying clouds and railway smoke.

    Rest you there, poor unbelov'd ones,
    Lap your loneliness in heat,
    All too soon the tiny breakfast,
    Trolley-bus and windy street!
    • "Business Girls" line 13, from A Few Late Chrysanthemums
  • In the licorice fields at Pontefract
    My love and I did meet
    And many a burdened licorice bush
    Was blooming round our feet;
    Red hair she had and golden skin,
    Her sulky lips were shaped for sin,
    Her sturdy legs were flannel-slack'd
    The strongest legs in Pontefract.
    • "The Licorice Fields at Pontefract" from A Few Late Chrysanthemums
  • It's strange that those we miss the most
    Are those we take for granted.
    • "The Hon. Sec." line 39, from High and Low (1966)
  • I am a young executive. No cuffs than mine are cleaner;
    I have a Slimline brief-case and I use the firm's Cortina.
    • "Executive" line 1, from A Nip in the Air (1974)


  • Ghastly Good Taste, or a Depressing Story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture.
    • Title of book (1933)
  • Yes, I haven't had enough sex.
    • In an interview for the television documentary Time With Betjeman (February 1983), having been asked whether he had any regrets.

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