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Biography of John Betjeman

Photo of John Betjeman

Sir John Betjeman was a twentieth century Poet Laureate famous for views of urban life.

When and Where was he Born?

28th August 1906, 52 Parliament Hill Mansions, Lissenden Gardens, Gospel Oak, London, England.

Family Background:

John Betjeman was the only child of Ernest Betjemann, a silverware maker and furniture business owner and Mabel (Ne’e Dawson). The family firm was located at 34–42 Pentonville Road. John dropped the second N from the name during the First World War to sound less German even though the family were Dutch in origin.

Education:

Byron House School (where he was taught by T.S. Eliot). Highgate Junior School. Dragon School, Oxford. Marlborough College. Magdallen College, Oxford (where he fails his degree).

Chronology of John Betjeman:

1909: The Betjeman family move to 31 West Hill in Highgate, London.

1915: He writes a poem whilst at junior school about the Zeppelin raids which are happening over London during the First World war.

1916: Betjeman gives a copy of his work “The Best of Betjeman” to the Poet T.S. Eliot, who was then one of his teachers, despite the fact that he is only ten years old.

1917: He goes to the Dragon School in Oxford and is inspired by the churches and other buildings. Family moves to Church Street, Chelsea, London. He spends his summer at the family cottage in Cornwall.

1920: He meets Louis McNeice and Anthony Blunt at Marlborough College but he chiefly remembers his time there for the bullying.

1924: He publishes two Poems “The Heretick” and “Ye Olde Cottage” in the “Marlburian” School Magazine. He writes letters to Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie” to Oscar Wilde) until forbidden to continue by his father.

1925: Betjeman goes up to Magdalen College, Oxford where his English Tutor is C.S. Lewis, although neither particularly liked the other. He mentioned many of his acquaintances at Oxford later in “Summoned by Bells”, amongst them W.H. Auden and Evelyn Waugh. Betjeman, who had a lonely childhood, took his teddy bear Archibald Ormsby-Gore to Oxford and this possibly inspired Waugh to write about Sebastian Flyte’s bear Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited. 

1926: Betjeman writes his first poem for the “Isis”, the Oxford Magazine. He visits Ireland and Gloucestershire with wealthy friends.

1927: He becomes Editor of “The Cherwell” magazine at Oxford.

1928: He fails his divinity examination and leaves Oxford in disgust. On his return he is sent down.

1929: Betjeman becomes private secretary to the politician Sir Horace Plunkett, but is dismissed after only two months and becomes a school teacher at Heddon Court, East Barnet in London looking after the cricket team.

1930: Betjeman begins work at the “Architectural Review” magazine and helps promote modern styles by Le Corbusier and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. he writes “Death in Leamington” for the London Mercury.

1931: He gets engaged to Camilla Sykes but then falls in love with Pamela Mitford and Penelope Chetwode. Edward James prints his work “Mount Zion” privately.

1932: He works on his ideas for the Shell Guide to England series.

1933: He marries Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of Field Marshal Lord Chetwode, on 29th July, at Edmonton Register Office, London.

1934: Betjeman edits the first Shell Guide, “Cornwall Illustrated”. He becomes film critic for the London newspaper the “Evening Standard”, but is dismissed after only a few months due to his “enthusiastic reviews”.

1936: He edits the Shell Guide. “Devon”.

1937: “Continual Dew” his second Collection of Poetry is published by John Murray. Birth of his son Paul. He acts as a churchwarden at Uffington, then in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire) where he lived.

1939: He works for the Films Division of the Ministry of Information at the start of the Second World War.

1940: Publication of “New Lights and Chancels”.

1941: Becomes United Kingdom Press attaché in neutral Dublin. The IRA seeks to assassinate him because he is a British spy doing work for the Admiralty. he goes on to work for the BBC and the British Council.

1942: Birth of his daughter Candida.

1945: Publication of “New Bats in Old Belfries”. After the War John Betjeman worked for various newspapers and geographical guide book companies.

1948: Penelope becomes a Roman Catholic.

1951: Betjeman and his wife part and he strikes up a lasting relationship with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish.

1954: Publication of “A Few Late Chrysanthemums”.

Statue of John Betjeman
Statue of John Betjeman 
St Pancras Station, London
 (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1958: His “Collected Poems” sells very well and receives enormous popular acclaim.

1960: Publication of “Summoned by Bells”, his autobiography written in blank verse. Awarded the Queen’s Medal for Poetry and the CBE (Companion of the Order of the British Empire).

1966: Publication of “High and Low”.

1968: Betjeman made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature.

1969: He is knighted by Queen Elizabeth the Second.

1972: Betjeman is appointed as the Poet Laureate on the death of Cecil Day Lewis.

1973: He makes a widely popular television documentary for the BBC called “Metroland”, which is directed by Edward Mirzoeff. He is made an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

1977: In honour of Queen Elizabeth the Second’s Silver Jubilee the BBC broadcast “The Queen’s Realm: A Prospect of England”, which contained music and poetry selected by Betjeman and again produced by Edward Mirzoeff.

1974: “A Nip in the Air” is published.

1981: Betjeman suffers a stroke.

1983: He names a railway locomotive after himself, the Sir John Betjeman.

When and Where did he Die?

19th May 1984, Trebetherick, Cornwall, England, of Parkinson’s Disease.

Age at Death:

77.

Written Works:


1933: “Ghastly Good Taste” (Architecture). “Mount Zion” (Poetry).
1934: Shell Guide to Cornwall”.
1936: Shell Guide to Devon”.
1937: “Continual Dew – A Little Book of Bourgeois Verse”.
1938: “University Chest”.
1939: “Antiquarian Prejudice”. 
1940: “Old Lights for New Chancels”.
1942: “Vintage London”
1943: “English Cities and Small Towns”.
1945: “New Bats in Old Belfries”.
1948: “Selected Poems”.
1951: Shell guide to Shropshire (with his friend the painter John Piper).
1952: “First and Last Loves”.
1954: “A Few Late Chrysanthemums”.
1958: “Collected Poems”.
1966: “High and Low”.
1972: “London’s Historic Railway Station”.
1975: “A Nip in the Air”.
1981: “Church Poems”.
1982: “Uncollected Poems”.

Marriage:

29th July 1933 to Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of Field Marshal Lord Chetwode, at Edmonton Register Office, London.

Site of Grave:

St. Enodoc’s Church, Trebetherick, Cornwall. Memorial in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, London.

Places of Interest:

LONDON:

Statue in St Pancras Station.

DEVON AND CORNWALL:

He particularly liked this part of the Country and produced several guides.

OXFORDSHIRE:

Tom Brown’s School Museum, Uffington Ferringdon, SN1 7RA.

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