New home for the work of one of Queen Victoria’s favourite poets

James Withers' great, great grandchildren 'Stanley Ball, Rosemary Page and Betty Simpkin.
James Withers' great, great grandchildren 'Stanley Ball, Rosemary Page and Betty Simpkin.

An exhibition commemorating the life’s work of a Fordham poet has been moved to a new home in the village church.

James Withers, born in 1812, built a reputation as an accomplished poet during his lifetime, despite his impoverished background.

He published three volumes of poetry and was encouraged and supported by the Rothschild family, among others, including being awarded a sum of £50 by Queen Victoria.

Now, an exhibition featuring his poetry, as well as paintings inspired by his work, has been relocated to St Peter’s Church, in Church Street.

Artists who have contributed new paintings to the exhibition, including Joyce Ingram, Peter Welch and Barbara Harlow, attended a viewing last month, along with some of Withers’ descendants, Ren Bowen and Dick Hatley, who both live in Fordham.

Gareth Wood, secretary of the Withers’ Collection, said: “There has been an exhibition commemorating his life’s work in Fordham’s Victoria Hall for some 12 years, but it has been paid scant attention and has therefore recently been moved to the corner of St Peter’s Church, where there is already a memorial window placed there by one of his mentors in the early part of the 20th Century.

“Three new paintings are to be added to the exhibition and many of his poems are presented in laminated form to improve access to the work.”

Born at Weston Colville, where he lived until the age of 12, Withers spent most of his life in Fordham.

With no money for schooling, he was sent out at an early age to pick stones, weed corn and scare birds. He watched farmer’s sheep and went to work for a market gardener, where he found pages of Shakespeare amongst the waste paper that he turned into seed bags.

He spent time as an underporter at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and entered his father’s old trade of shoe making, before returning to Fordham to start a family, where he was eventually forced to turn to the workhouse for relief.

Then in 1854, a farmer’s wife took notice of his poetry and funded his first volume - his lack of writing skills had made it difficult for him to set down his poems.

Two years later a second volume was published and his fame spread, even receiving letters of encouragement from Charles Dickens.

Withers remained in Cambridgeshire until his death in 1892.