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Notable People of Preston: Francis Thompson 1859 – 1907

Posted on - 30th August, 2013 - 11:30am | Author - | Posted in - Arts, History, People
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No. 7 Winckley Street, the birthplace of Francis Thompson

Francis Thompson (named after Francis of Assisi) was born 18th December 1859 at No. 7 Winckley Street, Preston, to devout catholic parents. His father Charles was a homeopathic doctor and his mother a governess, who had failed in her attempt to become a nun. He only spent the fist four years of his life in Preston has the family moved to Manchester in 1864 after the death of his sister from consumption.

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As a young man Francis was described as shy, untidy, unpunctual and unobservant, although when he entered St. Cuthbert’s catholic school at Ushaw College in the county of Durham, where he went to study for the priesthood he excelled at English, Greek and Latin. It was at this time his interest in poetry grew and his writings were noted as ‘very good for a lad of his age’ by his English Master.

By 1877, at the age of eighteen Francis had failed in his studies to enter the priesthood. It was in 1878 that he then enrolled at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, spending six years studying anatomy to be a surgeon. While attending Manchester Francis fell in love with game of cricket, spending much of his time at the Old Trafford Cricket Ground.

Around 1879 while still at Manchester Francis became ill with a lung infection and was prescribed Laudanum, a combination of Opium and Ethanol for the pain. During this illness Francis received a copy of Thomas de Quincey’s book ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ from his mother, an act that was to prove disastrous in later years. In 1884, having failed his medical exams for the third time, Francis headed to London to pursue a literary career. This proved more difficult than he had thought and he was reduced to living on the streets as a vagrant and also struggling with his drug addiction. In 1888 he posted some poetry to an editor called Wilfred Maynell.  Because there was no return address Maynell published the poems in the hope that Francis would get in touch. In due course Francis eventually appeared in the office of Maynell, looking destitute, malnourished and barefoot; from that day a great friendship between the two developed and Francis went on to produce some of his greatest work.

Francis spent the rest of his life living with the Maynell family as well as occasionally meeting with a prostitute he had befriended whilst living on the streets. Still struggling with his addition to drugs, Francis spent some time in monasteries to try and overcome the habit, but sadly he never succeeded in his attempt.

In 1907 Francis died at the age of 47 from a fatal infection of Tuberculosis which left him weighing just five stone; this was at a time when he had reached the height of his reputation as a poet.

One of his most remarkable works, ‘The Hound of Heaven’, went on to sell over 50,000 copies.

His impact on writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Browning was most impressive; however, he has been largely forgotten in his home town of Preston, apart from a plaque marking the house on Winckley Street in which he used to live.

You can access a compilation of Francis Thompson’s poems by clicking here

The ‘Notable People of Preston’ series is written by Gillian A. Lawson, the archivist of the Preston Historical Society.

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