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The life and times of Preston-born poet Francis Thompson

Posted on - 6th August, 2021 - 12:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Arts, History, People, Preston City Centre, Preston News, Winckley Square
Francis Thompson memorial plaque in Winckley Street
Francis Thompson memorial plaque in Winckley Street

It’s been a few weeks since news broke of Lancashire County Council’s decision to withdraw from the bid for City of Culture, before later reviving it.

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While I have absolutely faith in Lancashire County¬†Council’s ongoing ‘robust cultural strategy’ for Preston and the county, and feel sure that phrase definitely wasn’t just a¬†hastily put together press release with no substance, I’m still reminded of this couplet…

Too wearily had we and song
Been left to look and left to long

These are the words of Preston-born poet Francis Thompson and the words do hit home given¬†current events,. That said, they’re also a nice segue into the subject of this article, the Preston-born¬†poet Francis Thompson.

Thompson was born in Winckley Street in December 1859, as the son of a doctor (albeit¬†a… homeopath). He was home educated until the age of 11 when he was thrust into a Catholic¬†seminary ‚Äď although studious and happy, he was described as abstract and mooney (I checked, that’s a delightful 19th century term for shy). It was here that his affinity for poetry began to¬†shine, notably for the works of John Donne and William Wordsworth.¬†

Thompson was initially pushed to pursue medicine himself as a young man, though failed the exams. He was then put to work making surgical instruments for a dismal two weeks before finally being sent to join the army where he failed the medical examination (Thompson had been experimenting with opium around this time, a red flag for most recruiters).

Francis Thompson at 19
Francis Thompson at 19

Understandably, being enlisted to the army¬†against his will led to some friction between Francis and his father, causing Francis to decamp to¬†London in the winter of 1885.¬†Although drawn to London to try and pursue a career in poetry, Thompson personified why your¬†parents always wanted you to have a backup career, ‘just in case the writing doesn’t take off…’.

Upon moving to London, Thompson immediately found himself living in destitution; earning subsistence wages through boot-blacking and selling matches to support a now serious opium addiction while sleeping rough in Charing Cross.

Come 1887, Thompson was at a very low point; after he’d submitted a bundle of his poetry to the¬†editor of a small Catholic magazine Merry England and not heard back, the perceived rejection and¬†his dire personal circumstances left him contemplating suicide. However, Thompson would¬†portentously claim that he was saved by a vision of 18th century Gothic poet Thomas Chatterson¬†who had also taken his own life in similar circumstances. The reality was a little more prosaic,¬†Thompson had been supported financially and emotionally by a local prostitute.

Some academics have highlighted just how closely Thompson’s life seemed to mirror that of¬†Thomas De Quincey’s¬†Confessions of an English Opium Eater.¬†De Quincey also fled to London,¬†lived in extreme poverty, became an opium eater (obviously) and formed a strong relationship with¬†a prostitute.¬†In his youth, Thompson’s mother gave him a copy of the book which tragically¬†foreshadowed so much misery in Thompson’s life. Fortunately, like De Quincey, Thompson was¬†about to find some critical recognition.¬†

Read more: Joseph Livesey: Preston’s greatest social reformer or Preston’s greatest killjoy… or both?

In 1888 a bundle of Thompson’s poems were published in Merry England and his talents were¬†undeniable. However, this smattering of literary celebrity put Thompson in a bind; the 19th century¬†was not known for being especially bohemian and being closely associated with a prostitute would¬†not be conducive to a smooth transition into high society. Sadly, there isn’t some Moll Flanders¬†style redemption arc for the unnamed prostitute, she simply recognised she had no place in¬†Thompson’s future and left without trace.

A forlorn Thompson attempted to find her and when he¬†couldn’t, wrote enough poems about his lost saviour and companion to put a heartbroken country¬†singer to shame.¬†Redemption and Catholicism played a huge part in Thompson’s writing. The central message of his¬†most famous work, The Hound of Heaven, was that even in his lowest moments, God’s love wouldn’t¬†abandon a wayward soul.

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears

Thompson left an impressive legacy. On the one hand, his work is cited as an inspiration for many,¬†including J.R.R Tolkien who presented an essay on him in 1914 ‚Äď along with pinching some of the¬†rhymes and cadences for the poetry and songs that populated his¬†Lord of the Rings books. On the¬†other hand, an Australian academic added him to a list of suspects for the identity of Jack the¬†Ripper, a conclusion drawn from interpretations of both his work and medical history above¬†anything else. So, legacy wise, a mixed bag really.¬†

While he found success in later life, a lifetime of drug addiction, general ill health and poverty took its toll and Thompson died from tuberculosis at the age of 47 in 1907. His gravestone bears the last line of a poem written for his Godson: Look for me in the nurseries of Heaven.

Now, Winckley Street bears a plaque honouring him and, in a piece of depressing slapstick the great man might have appreciated, his one-time home in Ashton-under-Lyme was accidentally demolished by a structural engineer in a cherry picker. Jackass. 

Well, they said my humanities degree was useless, but only a mere 15 years after graduating I’ve¬†finally been able to discuss poetry ‚Äď and with only another 10 years of student loan repayments for¬†the privilege.


Read more: See the latest Preston news and headlines

What other famous Preston wordsmiths are worth looking into? Do you have a favourite local poet? Let us know in the comments.

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