John BETJEMAN (1906–1984)
Poet, writer, and broadcaster
Garrards Farmhouse, Uffington
Born at Highgate in 1906, the son of Ernest Betjemann (the family had come from Germany in the eighteenth century) who ran a successful business as a purveyor of high-class family furnishings, John Betjeman was educated at Highgate Junior School (where he was taught by T. S. Eliot), the Dragon School and Marlborough. In 1925 he went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he exasperated his tutor C. S. Lewis by his flippancy and neglect of the more arid parts of the academic curriculum; indeed he finally went down without a degree. Undergraduate life had proved much more congenial: he was an aesthete and formed life-long friendships with Osbert Lancaster, John Murray, Cyril Connolly, W. H. Auden and Maurice Bowra among others. His verse autobiography Summoned by Bells (1960) describes these early years.
He published his first book of poems, Mount Zion, in 1931 and his first book on architecture, Ghastly Good Taste, in 1934, indicating the two main strands of his life’s work. He uniquely captured the texture and character of life and place in the shires and the suburbs in his evocative and rhythmic verse, published in a series of anthologies, and in many prose works and articles. He became a familiar broadcaster, campaigning for the preservation of Victorian architecture, churches and railway stations. One great victory was the preservation of St Pancras Station and in Oxford he aided the fight to save a swathe of the Victorian North Oxford from destruction by the university. The publication of the Collected Poems in 1958 and television documentaries such as Metro-land confirmed his status as a hugely popular poet and much loved public figure.
In 1933 he had married Penelope Chetwode, daughter of Field-Marshal Sir Philip (later Baron) Chetwode, then C-in-C in India. They rented Garrard’s Farmhouse in Uffington 1934–45. The house makes an appearance in Archie and The Strict Baptists. They then bought the Old Rectory at Farnborough in Berkshire and 1951 removed to The Mead in Wantage, which long remained the family home. Penelope opened a teashop called King Alfred’s Kitchen in the town.
He was knighted in 1969, appointed Poet Laureate to great acclaim in 1972 and received many other prizes and honours including an honorary doctorate from Oxford and Fellowship at Magdalen. He died at his Cornish home at Trebetherick where he had spent childhood holidays and is buried in the churchyard of St Enodoc, in accordance with his wish. There is a memorial plaque in Westminster Abbey.
- Sources: three-volume biography by Bevis Hillier (Murray 1988, 2002, 2004); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article by Kingsley Amis
- Picture: John Betjeman’s former house
- Oxford Mail, 7 August 2006: ‘Betjeman’s blue plaque’
The plaque was unveiled at Garrards Farmhouse, High Street, Uffington on 24 June 2006 by the poet Pam Ayres MBE who wrote the poem On White Horse Hill for the occasion. A. N. Wilson, the centenary biographer, also contributed an address. Candida Lycett Green, the poet’s daughter, was present.
Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board
The Betjeman Society