The Triumphant Misfit

Originally in: Wiltshire Magazine

Tom Mellors reveals how John Betjeman’s time at boarding school in Wiltshire shaped one of our nation’s favourite poets.

Ten years after John Betjeman’s death in 1984, a lost poem of his was discovered. The poem is about his school days at Marlborough College – or “my prison house” as he called it. Marlborough College was a place of draconian punishments, rigid hierarchy, and routine bullying. It was a place where he never felt alone – privacy didn’t exist there – yet he often felt lonely, homesick and an outsider. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – it was in Marlborough that the Betjeman we know was born.

At the start of each school year, Betjeman rode the Great Western Railway from London – where his family lived – to the market town of Marlborough. He later recalled how Paddington Station was filled with children ‘trying to look cheerful’, but dreading the journey to come. It was because of these journeys that Betjeman became acquainted with the GWR. The personality of the GWR was so strong, Betjeman later wrote, “that even though it took me homesick to school at Marlborough, it did not lose its place in my affections.”

The first year at Marlborough College was the hardest. New students had to learn slang and customs unique to the college – grey trousers were called ‘barnes’ for example – and risked being caned, if they failed to adapt quickly. Betjeman’s first-year housemaster was a man named Clement Carter. The painter Derek Hill, a contemporary of Betjeman’s, later described Carter as: “the sort of master who, if you complained of bullying, would punish you for being a ‘sneak’”.

It wasn’t only the masters who had the power to cane. In his autobiographical poem, Summoned by Bells, Betjeman listed the three dreads of school: “The dread of beatings! Dread of being late! And, greatest dread of all, the dread of games!” The athletes of the school ruled over the other students. They were awarded titles such as ‘captain’ and ‘prefect’ and given the power to punish at will. Betjeman – who detested ‘games’ – was often beaten for carrying too many books around. Later he moved his books into the basement, away from the eyes – and canes – of the Upper School captains.

Life at Marlborough College was undoubtedly hard. Betjeman’s biographer Bevis Hillier remarks that the college in the 1920s was “closer to a concentration camp than a school”. Yet Betjeman tended to over-dramatise the horrors of Marlborough. Although his former classmates agreed that he never fit in – the poet Louis MacNeice called him a ‘triumphant misfit’ – he was nonetheless popular with his peers and active in the school’s intellectual community.

In 1923, three years after joining the college, Betjeman published his first poem – ‘The Scholar’ – in the student newspaper, The Marlburian. The Malburian provided Betjeman with a space to exhibit his emerging talent and he wrote for it regularly. His talent did not go unnoticed. Headmaster Dr Norwood, in his Prize Day speech, remarked that the recent poetry in The Malburian was “distinctly in advance of the prose – a rare thing”.

The young Betjeman did not limit himself to poetry however. He also enjoyed painting, swimming, and acting – he played Olivia’s maid ‘Maria’ in Twelfth Night. In his final year at Marlborough Betjeman – who would later save St Pancras Station from demolition – launched his first conservation campaign. The campaign was to restore Lady Hertford’s 18th century grotto at the foot of the Marlborough Mound. The grotto had fallen into disrepair and was being used as a storehouse for potatoes. Through a series of humorous letters to The Malburian, Betjeman attacked the College for its neglect – a tactic which proved successful, as the school began restoration in 1925.

Betjeman’s five years in Marlborough laid the foundations for his future. His passion for trains – developed from riding the Great Western – would become one of his trademarks. So too, would his love of rural towns and villages. Years later he would return to Wiltshire to film a TV series admiring towns such as Devizes, which were familiar from his school days. Wiltshire also provided inspiration for some his later poems, as it had when he was a child.

Despite his negative experiences – which were undoubtedly traumatic – Marlborough helped shape the future poet laureate. From seeing his first poem in print, to saving the grotto – Betjeman’s school days sparked a passion for literature and architecture which lasted his entire lifetime. Without Marlborough College, John Betjeman might never have become one of our nation’s favourite poets.