Tim Backhouse Season: The Life and Times of a Pompey Legend

The late great local historian Tim Backhouse examines the life and times of a true Pompey hero.

By the time that John Pounds died in 1839, he was, despite his modest and humble lifestyle, arguably the most famous person in Portsmouth. His fame had also spread well beyond the bounds of the old town to the extent that news of his death was reported in London newspapers within weeks of the event. Both then and now he was typically described as the ‘Originator of the Ragged Schools’, which would have greatly surprised Pounds himself who never accepted that he founded anything. All he did was seek out the poorest and most needy children on the streets of Portsmouth and offer them some food, maybe an item of clothing and most importantly, he gave them an education which they would not otherwise have received. The Ragged Schools came later, the first of many in Portsmouth opening at Richmond Place, Portsea in 1849, but the earliest had been set up in Aberdeen in 1841. All such schools claimed to be inspired by the work of John Pounds.

The life story of John Pounds has been told many times, notably in The Life and Times of John Pounds of Portsmouth by various writers, Roland Everett Jayne’s The Story of John Pounds: Founder of Ragged Schools, in the monograph, ‘Unitarianism in Portsmouth’ published by Portsmouth Grammar School and in the Dictionary of National Biography. Each paints a fine picture of the man but none of them captures his voice as well as Henry Hawkes in his Recollections of John Pounds. Hawkes, the incumbent at the Presbyterian Church on High Street, was in a good position to write on the subject as he had personally known John Pounds for the last six years of the latter’s life.

Although Hawkes writes in a flowery, sentimental style he was nevertheless the only biographer to reproduce on paper the idiosyncratic Portsmouth accent used by Pounds and the children he taught. Thus when reporting Pounds scolding a child he wrote:-

“What’s y’at, ye rascal there in the corner? I’se pay int’ye if you’s not mind, you wagabond”

By use of this reportage, Hawkes gives us an unvarnished, authentic view of the man who is sometimes made out to be rather more refined than was the case. From the first time that Hawkes saw John Pounds we are left with no doubt about his opinion of the man.

“[he was]…rough and self-neglected. He had no hat or coat on. His shirt, very dingy, was open at the collar and chest; the sleeves were rolled back above the elbows. His face, neck, chest, arms and hands; all were dark, as if seldom washed. There was a repulsive coarseness about his features.”

The following Sunday however, the minister saw John Pounds in a rather different light. He writes of how he saw the cobbler approaching the church for evening service, allowing him a full appreciation of the man’s deformity:

“He would have been a tall man, six feet high or more, if he could have stood erect, but, as he walked, his body, from the hips to the shoulders, leaned so much forward that his long back was nearly parallel with the ground….He strode along with determined alacrity…his legs were long, rather spare, but well formed and very energetic.”

To complete this new awareness, Hawkes saw that Pounds had transformed himself. He was clean and becoming, the grey hair, billowing out from beneath a broad brimmed hat, had plainly been combed and brushed, his shirt collar was white, a black stock fitting neatly under it, he wore a well brushed frock coat, tight, buff coloured breaches, clean white stockings and polished black shoes. Hawkes came to realise that John Pounds always appeared thus when attending church or bringing his scholars to Sunday school.450px-Blue_plaque_on_the_wall_of_John_Pounds_Unitarian_Church_-_geograph.org.uk_-_977979

Hawkes returned to the tiny workshop on many occasions where Pounds would get the children to read from the Bible or show the minister examples of long division. He noted, without comment, that Pounds would take five year old girls on his knee for a reading after which they kissed the old man before returning to their seat on the floor. One of these girls was Lizzie Lemmon, the granddaughter of John Pound’s oldest friend, usually called just ‘Lemmon’. Hawkes was invited by Mr. Lemmon to call on him at his home on St. Mary’s Street, the ‘third house on the right from the Sally Port.’ There he was to hear many tales of John Pounds and his methods of drawing the children to his workshop and then ‘larning ’em’, not only their letters and numbers but also giving them a thorough appreciation of nature, often using nature rambles to Portsdown Hill as occasions to impart his knowledge.

John Pounds later described to Henry Hawkes how he would approach a child:-

“I wants they as nobody else cares for….An so I goes along Crown Street and Warblington Street, an down to Town Quay, an East Street, an all about the back courts and alleys, an I keeps my eyes about me; an when I see a poor little starved thing, that nobody cares for, poking about in the gutter – that’s the one for me – an I goes gently to it…. an I says ‘Will y’have a taty’, and I has a boiled taty ready in my pocket. And I pulls taty part out of my pocket. An when he sees taty he says ‘yes’. And I gives him the taty. And he begins eating it. An while he’s eating his taty, I moves off. But not so fast, ye knows, but he can keep up wi’ me. But I takes care – before he’s done eating his taty, I’se be in my shop. An he follows me into the shop for another taty. And as sure as he comes once, he comes again.”

Later Hawkes asked John Pounds why he had begun to take in children and Pounds explained how he had known a very poor family who had a child, born crippled, with both of his feet turned in. Thinking that they would have great trouble looking after such a child he offered to take little Johnny into his household. The child was only one year old at the time. Pounds took to calling the boy his ‘Neffy’ (nephew) and he set about straightening his feet with specially designed shoes which forced the feet into a correct alignment. It hurt the child but it worked.

As Johnny grew older, Pounds realised his Neffy needed someone to play with so he approached his old friend Lemmon and asked him to send some children from his family round to keep Johnny company. In return Pounds promised to help all the children learn their lessons whilst he carried on his trade mending shoes. After a while neighbours passing the shop couldn’t help noticing the bunch of children happily learning to read and write and they asked John if he would take their children as well. Before long he had up to forty children in his workshop which measured just eight feet wide and fifteen feet long.

One of the practices that Pounds adopted in order to educate so many children at once was that he let the older children, who had already learned to read and write, take charge of the younger ones as teachers in their own right, whilst Pounds looked after new comers. It was this method that so attracted the founders of the Ragged Schools and lay behind the idea that John Pounds had begun the movement.

Some years after Hawkes had first met John Pounds he was visited by Thomas Sheppard a well known boot and shoe maker who said that a young journeyman in his trade, named Sheaf, had shown a useful aptitude for drawing and painting. Wanting to help the man Sheppard suggested that Sheaf try his hand at life drawing and that he could think of no better subject than the old cobbler in St. Mary’s Street. So it was that Sheaf came to John Pounds’ shop and, standing in the doorway drew the interior scene showing Pounds at work on his shoes whilst surrounded by children. The drawing was later turned into an oil painting which Sheaf took to Edward Carter, former Mayor of Portsmouth, who bought it for five pounds. When Hawkes saw the painting he was generally pleased, but had reservations.

“…the hair of the old cobbler was painted of a dark colour – not true to his grizzly grey head. And his hair was smooth as if it had been recently combed and brushed. His face and hands looked clean. And he had his coat on. His shirt collar was fastened round his neck and his black stock fitted neatly to it. All which looked as if he had been carefully prepared for the occasion….The old mans arms were long and very energetic…. this was not well intimated in the picture…I felt there was wanting….In the foreground there was ample proportion of clear space which, while it showed the rest of the picture to advantage, gave no idea of the old man’s crowding beneficence.”

John Pounds was taken to see the picture at the Carters residence and stood before it for some time before saying ‘There’s my cat’. That was his sole comment. Another person who saw the painting pointed out to Hawkes that Sheaf had included good likenesses of some of the children, in particular Lizzie Lemmon and her friend Georgina Richman whom Pounds like to refer to as “my two little queens”. Georgina was the sister of Ann Amelia Richman who, according to family tradition, also appears in the picture.

Often during the later years of his life Pounds would be offered help, both financial and in kind, by the ‘respectable’ half of Portsmouth society who understood the importance of his work. He resolutely refused to take any money either for himself or for the furtherance of the children’ education. He did however, accept the offer of books, though he preferred to have old copies saying that if the pages had come loose he could pass them out for many children to read at once. His determination to teach only the poorest of the poor was absolute. When informed that two of the children in his care were the sons of the local Sergeant Major he promptly evicted them saying that their father could afford to pay for their education himself.

The death of John Pounds at the house of Edward Carter on New Years Day 1839 is well recorded elsewhere but some of the subsequent events tend to be omitted. At the time John Pounds collapsed, Dr. Martell had been passing by and Carter called him in just in time to see several hands lift the old man into a chair a few moments before he passed away. There was some discussion about what to do with the body and it was resolved that the doctor and one of his pupils would carry it to a fly and take it back to Pounds’ workshop. Because of the man’s deformities the only way they could transport the body was sitting it in an upright position between the doctor and his pupil and thus they arrived at the old man’s home.

A boy that accompanied John Pounds to the Carter household had already run back to the shop with the awful news, but it was still full of children when the fly arrived. Martell decided that rather than clear the children out first they would take the body in amongst them with a result that they should have anticipated.

“…no words can describe the scene of terror and confusion. The children ran out screaming in all directions…The whole neighbourhood felt the shock…All had lost a friend.”

The funeral took place the following Saturday, a bitingly cold January day. It seemed like the entire community around St. Mary’s Street escorted the coffin to the High Street Chapel where John Pounds was laid to rest in a spot as close to his usual seat in the church as possible. And with the death of the man, the legend began.


Main image by Sarah Cheverton. Inset image Basher Eyre under a Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published on Tim’s website History in Portsmouth.