Wellingborough shoemaker poet’s grave restored

Members of Wellingborough Civic Society by John Askham's grave
Members of Wellingborough Civic Society by John Askham's grave

A little-known Victorian Wellingborough poet, who was buried in the town’s London Road cemetery, has had his grave restored again.

John Askham, the ‘shoemaker poet’, who spent all his life in Wellingborough, died in 1894 at the age of 69.

John Askham

John Askham

Restorative work was paid for by Wellingborough Civic Society, a charity ‘concerned for the future of Wellingborough, conservation and progress’.

The grave had been previously restored by Wellingborough Council 10 years ago after vandalism.

It is thought the condition of the tomb had deteriorated due to weathering of its joints.

Judith Thompson, Wellingborough Civic Society committee member, said: “The monument had been mended but after a decade the grave needed restoring again.

“John Askham was born in Wellingborough and deserves to be remembered.

“He was a self-made man who came from nothing to be an important person in the town.

“His poetry is workman-like and but very gentle, and his poem The Granddame, about a Wellingborough lace maker, is very charming.

“The poem resonates with the town because as well as being a shoe town and centre of wool production, Wellingborough produced pillow lace.

“He also wrote quite a bloody-thirsty poem called Judith which must have appealed to the melodramatic Victorians.”

Civic society member Bob Townson said: “There is an Askham Avenue on the Kingsway estate in Wellingborough and Askham was honoured with a plaque in the cemetery.

“He is mentioned on one of the town’s Heritage Trail information boards, but I bet if you walked around the town centre and asked them who he was not one person would know John Askham.”

Fellow society member Derek Shears said: “The council have done their best to highlight Askham but there’s I doubt any schools have ever heard of him.

“We should celebrate the creative people from our town.”

Dr Tony Shaw, who has written about Askham, said: “I think the important thing about John Askham is that he was born into the working class, therefore self-taught, although I have to admit that I find the expression ‘shoemaker poet’ a little demeaning.

“John Askham is a working-class poet who is worthy of study - how many working-class poets have made it to the mainstream?”

Dr Shaw, citing another working-class poet also from Northamptonshire, added: “John Clare is the main writer who stands out.

“He is certainly important to Wellingborough and I’m pleased to learn the local civic society is recognising his importance.

“Askham’s father, who had an amputated leg and suffered great pain through it, was a shoemaker, which is how his son learned the craft.

“John had very little education, and began working in his father’s shoemaker’s shop at the age of nine.

“By 25, he had started to write poetry, and 10 years after that he began supplementing his shoemaking earnings by contributing to various newspapers and journals.”

Although Askham loved writing he was exceedingly conscious that he needed to pay the bills and concentrated on his paid employment.

He was born in White Horse Yard in 1825 - his mother Sarah was from Kimbolton and his father, also a John, was from Raunds.

He left school at nine to join the shoe trade.

Married twice, his first wife Hannah was buried with him in London Road Cemetery.

The couple had five children, of whom three survived to adulthood.

Writing in his own time and not his employer’s, he submitted an article to the Wellingborough Independent newspaper, where it was seen by George James De Wilde, the editor of the Northampton Mecury.

Askham was invited to become the Wellinborough correspondent for the Mercury and other associated papers.

Very involved in his community, he co-founded the Wellingborough Literary Institute, and became librarian and hall-keeper when it was established in the newly built corn exchange.

He was elected a member of the first school board of the town in 1871, and in 1874 he became school attendance officer.

Between 1875 and 1887 he served as sanitary inspector of the local board of health.

He was forced to retire from these occupations in 1887 because of ill health, and in his later years he was stricken with paralysis.

He died on October 28, 1894.

Askham had five collections of verse and poetry published: Sonnets on the Months, and other Poems (1863); Descriptive Poems (1866); Judith, and other Poems (1868) Poems and Sonnets (1875), and finally Sketches in Prose and Verse (1893).

Wellingbroough Civic Society usually meets at 7.30pm on the third Thursday of the month at Wellingborough Museum.

It supports local heritage and works to improve the town by highlighting the buildings at risk from demolition.

Information leaflets can be picked up at Wellingborough Museum, from Facebook @wellingboroughcivicsociety or for further information call 01933 227335.