John Betjeman and The Wigwigs - the truth revealed
Poet Laureate John Betjeman. Copyright National Media Museum.
Following some in-depth research and aided by a fortuitous £5.50 purchase on Ebay, Martin Crowther (Heritage Officer with the A Space for the Community project at St Stephen’s Church, Great Wigborough) reveals the true story behind a well-known and much-loved local poem.
In 1991, Canon John Sinclair Short, the Rector of St Stephen’s, Great Wigborough was thrilled after a ‘new and exciting’ discovery in the vestry - a poem entitled The Wigwigs, seemingly about Great and Little Wigborough, and ‘signed’ by none other than former Poet Laureate, John Betjeman himself.
Betjeman (1906-1984) was a popular poet, writer and broadcaster, with a passion for church architecture, the idiosyncrasies of the Church of England and the English way of life. He edited the Collins Guide to English Parish Churches in 1958, which included an introduction by him to the churches of Essex, a county he knew extremely well.
A passionate defender of Victorian architecture and a key player in saving St Pancras Railway Station from demolition, he was Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death in 1984.
As part of the team currently researching content for a new St Stephen’s church guide book and local history exhibition, I became intrigued by this poem - not least because I couldn’t find it credited to John Betjeman anywhere! Was it perhaps a missing poem from the Betjeman canon?
The parish magazine article revealed an important clue - the poem was originally published in Punch magazine on 30 May 1934.
30 May 1934 edition of Punch magazine.
A quick Ebay search revealed an original copy, which was duly purchased. However, the contents only served to deepen the mystery, for the poem was not signed by John Betjeman at all, but by Dum-Dum.
So, who was Dum-Dum?
John Betjeman, a bit more digging revealed, wrote several articles for Punch, and a number of his poems featured in the magazine. This was highly promising!
His poetry was also described by some critics as ‘dum-de-dum’ poetry - from the predictable rhythm of the lines. Was he perhaps making fun of himself in his choice of a pseudonym?
However, John Betjeman only contributed to Punch as he rose to prominence after the Second World War, making his first appearance in 1953.
Dum-Dum it turned out was someone different altogether. A search of author pseudonyms quickly revealed it was the pen name of Captain John Kaye Kendall (1869 -1952), who wrote light hearted poems on subjects as diverse as women’s hockey, an elephant’s bath and the best kind of Christmas gift.
A Gunnery Instructor with the Royal Artillery in India, he started writing to banish the tedium of a long colonial posting abroad, and published several books of humorous verse, of dubious quality and now largely forgotten. These included At Odd Moments: A book of Verses and Parodies (1900), In the Hills and other Views (1903), The Crackling of Thorns (1906), A Fool’s Paradise (1910) and Odd Creatures (1915).
On his return from India, he made his name writing poems and articles for Punch (from 1902 onwards) under the pseudonym of Dum-Dum. He married the playwright Githa Sowerby and died in 1952.
What’s surprising is he wrote this poem, not after a visit to the Wigboroughs, but based solely on a newspaper article about them.
Interestingly, the poem was written (and published in Punch) exactly 50 years after the Great English Earthquake of 1884, in which so much damage was caused to Great and Little Wigborough. Was the newspaper article he read about the villages commemorating the anniversary of this important event? It certainly seems a strong possibility.
So, in conclusion, the poem is perhaps disappointingly, but quite definitely, not the work of John Betjeman, but rather that of a less well-known poet and writer, Captain John Kaye Kendall (aka Dum-Dum).
However, this should not detract from its value or sentiment, as a fulsome celebration of the rural idyll, and of the author’s desire, echoed by many of us today, to find a peaceful spot to live at one with nature, away from traffic and the stresses of modern life.
But what about the ‘signed’ copy by John Betjeman in the vestry? Most likely an erroneous attribution - the name ‘John Betjeman’ scribbled at the bottom of a printed transcript of the poem by someone who wrongly believed they knew who the real author was, and which was later mistaken by the rector as the author’s signature.
As history researchers quickly learn. Always check your sources!
Martin Crowther, October 2020