Sep 102011
John "Poet" Close (1816)

John “Poet” Close (1816)

As a young man John helped his father Jarvis with his butchers business but he mistakenly thought he had a talent to be a poet. At the age of 16 he started printing fly-sheets of his verses to sell at the markets and later progressed to writing books.

In 1846 he established himself as a printer in Kirkby Stephen and called himself “Poet” Close and his house “Poet’s Hall”.

His prolific publications included his annual “Christmas Book”. In addition to his verses and stories these gave a revue of the year’s events in the district and therefore contain much biographical information on the inhabitants of the district as well as on his family and relations.

In 1858 he married Eliza Early, a young widow who already had three children and together they had another five of their own. During the summer months John lived at Bowness where he had a bookstall at the boat-landing stage on Lake Windermere.

The Closes and the Barkers were ardent Methodists, several of them being local preachers for many years, However John was always making disparaging remarks about Methodists while at the same time writing about “good old John Barker”. At one time his sister Ann, who was married to local preacher George Yare, wrote to him on behalf of their mother, asking him not to be so harsh on the Methodists.

He was in the habit of letting his pen run away with his discretion and so in 1859 was taken to court in Liverpool for libel for remarks he had made about a young lady of the Kirkby Stephen district. This resulted in £300 damages against him. He also had great difficulty making a living, however, he was in the habit of saying flattering things of those in authority and in high places.

In 1860, through the influence of Lord Lonsdale, Lord Carlisle and other gentlemen, he was granted a Civil List Pension by the Prime Minister Lord Palmerston. When it was discovered by Parliament that his writing had no merit the pension was stopped and he was given £100 from the Royal Bounty by Lord Palmerston in compensation. He continued to write of this “injustice” for the remainder of his life. See below for a copy of the Hansard transcript of 23rd July 1861, courtesy of Sharon Close.

Here’s a little sample of his doggerel:

Around the gods, each seated on a throne,
The poets, crowned like royal kings they sat.
Around their heads a dazzling halo shone,
No needs of mortal robes, or any hat.

‎(“Haloes, Not Hats”)‎

… which has apparently appeared in an anthology of the best bad poetry out there…

Penrith Herald   Jan 3 1874 Letters to the Editor


In the preface to Mr. CLOSE’s Christmas Book, which he has just sent us, we find a sketch of the LOWTHER Family, and how kind his Lordship and his son were to the Poet when last at Kirkby Stephen.  On their return to Lowther Castle, VISCOUNT LOWTHER sent Mr. CLOSE a box of game, containing 2 large hares and 2 fine pheasants.  On Tuesday, Dec. 16th, a hamper came by rail, with a large Stilton cheese inside, with a paper upon it, with these words, “From the Hon. Hugh LOWTHER;”  which kind present no little astonished and pleased Mr. and Mrs. CLOSE.


Thanks to Stephen Nelson for the clip.

Hansard: 23 July 1861 Commons Sitting

MR. STIRLING said, that in calling attention to the pensions on the Civil List, he thought it proper to quote the words under which that fund was established. It was an Act of Her present Majesty, the 1 & 2 Viet., c. 2, s. 56, and it provided that the sum of £1,200 should be paid out of the Consolidated Fund as pensions to such persons as had just claims on the Royal beneficence, or who, by personal service to the Crown, or by the performance of duties to the public, by their labours in literature, or by useful discoveries in science or art, had merited the approbation of their Sovereign. The Act directed that a list of the pensions should be laid before the House every year, clearly showing that it was intended that these pensions should be open to the review of Parliament; but no complete return had ever been given till the one he had moved for. The aggregate amount of the pensions now payable was £18,700. He was sorry to see from this list that very early in the history of this civil fund some pensions were granted that partook of the nature of an abuse. In 1840 Lord Melbourne granted to seven persons, instructors of Her Majesty in various branches of education, £700 out of the £1,200. He did not say these persons did not deserve recognition from the Crown; the well-known accomplishments of Her Majesty made it probable that they had faithfully discharged their duty. But it could hardly be said these were services that came within the spirit, though they might come within the letter of the Act. It must be remembered that, in addition to the £1,200 a year, there was a further annual sum of £13,200 at the disposal of of the First Minister, under the name of Royal Bounty, Alms, and Special Services. It certainly appeared to him that the pensions he alluded to ought to have been granted out of the larger sum and not out of the smaller. In 1845, Sir Robert Peel granted out of this £1,200 a pension of £1,000 to a member of the Royal Family. Believing that no defence could he made or would be attempted for this pension, he called attention to it merely for the purpose of expressing a hope that nothing of the kind might occur again. Here and there on this list, extending over a period of twenty-four years, he found other pensions hardly less objectionable. The names of several persons appeared there, as it seemed, for no other reason than that they were poor and their relations extremely rich and powerful. Grants of this kind could not be too severely condemned. There was, doubtless, much individual hardship in these cases, and it would be repugnant to the feelings of almost any Member of this House to allude to them by name. But it was behind this natural repugnance that Ministers sheltered themselves when they perpetrated these jobs. He must say the rich relatives who asked were more to blame than the careless Minister who gave. But it was the duty of Ministers to resist the applications for such gifts, and to make the wealthy aristocracy understand that the fund was not to be made a refuge for their poor relations. The poor had their friendly and benefit societies maintained at their own cost, and it would be well if the rich and titled, following their example, would take upon themselves the burden of supporting some of the destitute persons whose names appeared in this Return. He would now call attention to the literary and scientific pensions. In no grants was it more necessary that caution should be exercised. A literary career was a lottery, in which the prizes in fame, influence, and hard cash were so splendid that it followed in the nature of things the blanks must be very numerous. It was a career which peculiarly appealed to the imagination of youth, and in which the difficulties and obstacles were seldom visible from the starting post. In other walks of life there was generally some point when a man felt he had made good his footing, and from which he was or might be borne onward and upward by seniority, by death vacancies, or by the exertions of others. In the literary career there was no such point; success here implied continual progress; and progress was only to be made by incessant exertion. The result was that the literary profession was crowded with middle-aged men, of considerable abilities, great cultivation, and no little industry, who, nevertheless, found it difficult to make a decent livelihood. When the cares of a family were added to their other difficulties, the position of these persons was forlorn indeed. It was obvious, therefore, if the good character and a fair degree of literary skill were to be the passport to a pension, three times £1,200 would hardly suffice to satisfy the claims of literary men alone. The possible rewards being so scanty and so few, none ought to be granted except to those persons who had rendered real and signal service to English literature. Rightly to select the recipients of these rewards demanded the exercise of the greatest care. Looking through this return, he must say that the selection afforded evidence rather of carelessness than care. In his remarks he would not go further back than five years, fixing that period to show that, while he criticised the pensions given by the noble Lord, he had no wish to exempt from remark those granted by the late Government. In the last five years about forty pensions had been granted for literary services alone; of these he was himself familiar with the names of twenty-five. Some of this number were unexceptionable—such as Lover, Richardson, and the relatives of Robert Southey and of Hugh Miller; but to others he thought considerable objections might fairly be made. Of the remaining fifteen names he had never heard until he read them in this list. He had, therefore, placed the returns in the hands of a number of gentlemen of the highest literary reputation, living in London, and of course conversant with all branches of literature, and especially called their attention to the fifteen names of which he spoke. Respecting one only of these names could his friends furnish him with any information leading to the belief that it deserved to appear on this list. He was, therefore, entitled to say that out of these forty names fourteen were wholly obscure. It had further fallen within his knowledge that of the persons pensioned for literary services, some had taken the unworthy course of attempting to raise further contributions by means of begging letters. As he did not know the circumstances under which the appeals were made, he should not now mention any names; but if be should find that the practice was persisted in, he should feel himself justified in taking some steps to make the names of the offenders known. But if any special example were needed of a mistake in disposing of these grants, he could not refer to a more striking case than that of Mr. Close. The noble Lord bail withdrawn the pension of £50 he granted; but as he had allowed him £100 out of the Royal Bounty, he hoped he might take the liberty of giving a short sketch of Mr. Close’s career. He was bred as a butcher; but soon gave up that trade to be come a printer. From his early years he seemed to have had a fatal facility for writing doggrel verse and ungrammatical prose. It would be altogether a misapplication of the term to apply that of “literature” (to anything he had ever written. Most of his productions appeared in the shape of handbills, and were circulated by means of the post. When persons returned him a favourable answer with an enclosure of money they were highly praised; those who did not pay him that attention were ridiculed and satirized. Many of these compositions were really so gross that they would very fairly come under the operation of the late Lord Campbell’s Act. Others were attacks on women in his own neighbourhood, of such a nature that he wondered how he had escaped the horsewhip he had so frequently provoked. A volume of his writings was on the table of the library of the House, and those who had seen it could say whether he had drawn a too unfavourable picture of them. One of these handbills or fly-sheets, as they were called by the author—a very gross attack upon the character of a lady now no more—became the subject of an action for libel at Liverpool so lately as 1856, The defence made by the counsel of Mr. Close was not that the libel was true, or that there was any doubt as to the identity of the party attacked; but that his client was not a creditable person—these were the words he was reported to have used—and that nothing he could say or write could affect the character of any man or woman. This defence did not succeed in obtaining a verdict from the jury, who gave £50 damages against Mr. Close; and had it not been for consideration for his circumstances, their foreman; stated that they would have given a larger: sum. But this was not all. The plaintiff, who seems to have been a good-natured man, remitted the damages, on condition that Mr. Close should print a paper, confessing that what he had previously written was slanderous. Mr. Close accepted the condition, He confessed what he had said of the lady was slanderous. But in many subsequent flysheets he had spoken of the trial as an occasion when he was mulcted for writing the truth. Was such a man deserving either of a pension or of a donation? He regretted that the noble Lord, on withdrawing the pension, should have given a donation out of the Royal Bounty Fund, which donation seemed to have been allotted as a solatium to Mr. Close for having been found out to be an impostor. The pension was given in the first instance in consequence of a memorial which the noble Lord produced to the House on a former occasion, when he (Mr. Stirling) bad called attention to the subject. The noble Lord then stated that Mr. Close was a self-taught genius, that his works deserved to be placed in the same category as those of Burns, and that a pension would be particularly valuable to Mr. Close as a mark of the Royal favour. The noble Lord finished by flourishing the memorial over the box on the table, stating that it was signed by Lord Carlisle, Lord Lonsdale, and many other persons, and sat down, as usual, amid the cheers of the House. By the courtesy of the noble Lord he had had an opportunity of seeing the memorial, and as far as he could perceive it was signed by nobody at all. Towards the bottom of the list there might be some signatures which were real, but the greater part of the, signatures—certainly all likely to weigh with the noble Lord—were exactly in the handwriting of the memorial, which was that of Mr. Close. The noble Lord informed the House that the pension was given upon the memorial, and if so that proved his case; because it proved that a pension had been given upon a document which ought more properly to have been transmitted to the Mendicity Society. The pension being withdrawn, the final result of the memorial was the £100 granted out of the Royal Bounty Fund. In taking leave of Mr. Close,, he hoped he would employ this £100 better than those talents of which he was perpetually boasting. He must admit that this Westmoreland bard possessed one of the attributes of a great poet—the gift of prophecy. Last year he wrote in one of his fly-sheets—” Had I been a pugilist instead of a poet, Lord Palmerston would have given me £10 out of the Royal Bounty Fund.” This year, although it was proved that, instead of being a member of the comparatively respectable fraternity of the Prize Ring, he was the writer of doggrel verse and, obscene prose, a convicted libeller and a confessed slanderer, he had received not £10, but £100, from the improbable source which he had so impudently indicated. The question now was—how were mistakes of this kind to be prevented in future? He submitted to the noble Lord and the House whether, it would not be desirable that there should be in the printed list of pensions a short indication of, the services and works for which the pensions were grafted, for it might happen that in some instances the obscure pensioners had been the anonymous authors of meritorious publications. Might it not also be said that some of the pensions were of too small an amount? The smaller the pensions were, the greater the chance of their being carelessly given. He, saw in the list the name of a lady as the recipient of£30 a year. He never had the advantage of hearing her name before, and was, therefore, unable to say whether her services deserved recognition; but if she was so poor that £30 were of importance to her, would it not have been better to give her a little, more? With the exception of the pensions for literary and scientific, services, some department of the State might be side be responsible for the pensions granted. For those given to soldiers and sailors, for example, the War Department and the Admiralty might be held responsible, and he had no doubt the responsibility was real and the supervision effective. In the case, however, of the bestowal of literary and scientific pensions there was no responsibility except that which rested on the Prime Minister, who, having so much to occupy his time, must necessarily leave the choice of these pensioners in a great measure to others. He ventured to say that if the noble Lord made a rule of appending to these grants the names of one or two persons of acknowledged literary eminence, who undertook to vouch for the value of the services for which the pension was given, many chances of abuse would be removed. There was no doubt but that many applications, which ought not to be entertained were made, to Ministers by persons who did not themselves choose to refuse them, and who very improperly throw upon the over-worked Minister the task of examining the flimsiest claims. If a Peer, with a taste for poetry, or a Member of that House, who was versed in geology, wanted a pension for a poet or a geologist, would it not be an excellent answer for the noble Lord to make—”Well, I will see if I can grant it; but if I do, remember that I shall probably give your name in the return as a guarantee for the propriety of the grant.” He believed such a practice would have a great effect in checking abuses. Many men would, make applications who would be far from desirous of being put down on the, pension list as the godfathers of such pensioners as Mr. Close. He thanked the House for the patience with which it had listened to his statement on a matter which, so far as money was concerned, was a small one, but which, nevertheless, had an important bearing on the interests and the honour of literature.

VISCOUNT PALMERSTON said, he was not at all, aware, that these pensions to which the hon. Member had referred, were granted to necessitous, members of wealthy families, who ought to look to their relatives for support. Some of these pensions were so small in amount that they could not be an object to any one moving in that sphere of life in which persons belonging to wealthy and aristocratic families would move; and, so far as he was concerned, the hon. Member’s observation could not apply to the mode in which he bad disposed of the pensions. As the hon. Member truly stated, the pensions allotted to persons of literary and scientific attainments were so small that it was almost a wonder how they could be of any great value to the receivers; but he could assure the House that the gratitude expressed by many very deserving persons for the assistance which those small pensions, varying from £50 to £100 a year, afforded, was exceedingly gratifying to him, as showing that in dispensing that amount which the law enabled him to dispense he was able to relieve a great deal of individual anxiety and privation. With respect to the particular case of Mr. Close, he thought that the hon. Member was mistaken in saying that the signatures to the memorial were in the same handwriting as the memorial itself, though undoubtedly the two first names—those of the Earl of Carlisle and Lord Lonsdale—were evidently not written by those noble Lords. So far as the Earl of Carlisle and Lord Lonsdale were concerned he found that the former had given his sanction to Mr. Close to use his name as a patron, although he had not authorized him to use it as supporting his application for a pension, while the latter noble Lord had done so. It was clear, therefore, that there had been no great amount of misrepresentation on the part of Mr. Close with reference to those two signatures. The reason, he might add, why he had taken away the pension from Mr. Close was that the hon. Gentleman opposite had communicated with him, and proved to him that Mr. Close had been convicted of having written a libel. Having ascertained that fact, it at once occurred to him that a man who was open to such a charge, whether he believed the libel to be justified or not, was not exactly the sort of person who was entitled to receive a pension from the Crown. Taking into account, however, the circumstance that some time had elapsed between the period of the announcement that the pension would be granted and its withdrawal, and it having been represented to him that Mr. Close had taken steps in expectation of receiving the pension which would entail on him considerable pecuniary loss, he certainly did not think it right—the fault resting, perhaps, in some measure with himself in not having examined sufficiently into the particular case—that Mr. Close should be allowed to suffer to so great an extent as he must have done if he had received no pecuniary assistance. The hon. Member, indeed, seemed to think that if he were disposed to render that assistance he ought to have paid the money out of his own pocket. [Mr. STIRLING: No, no!] That was the inference he drew from what had fallen from the hon. Gentleman; but, be that as it might, he had not felt called upon to adopt that course. He could, moreover, assure the hon. Gentleman that he paid great attention to the distribution of the grants in question; that he examined carefully the grounds on which recommendations for them were made; that the names of the persons making the recommendations were duly sent in to him, and that he had granted pensions to several upon whom— even according to the admission of the hon. Gentleman himself—they were properly bestowed. The hon. Gentleman had, indeed, stated that there were fourteen cases in which he had not been able to learn on what grounds grants had been made, and he, therefore, seemed to assume that in those cases the public money was not wisely and fairly distributed. He might, however, turn the tables on the hon. Gentleman, and say that his want of knowledge in these particular instances was no good reason why he should not be wrong, while his own acquaintance with the grounds on which those fourteen pensions were granted furnished no good reason why he should not have done right in conferring them. He could at all events assure the hon. Gentleman that he believed he could satisfy him that the claims in the fourteen cases to which he alluded were just ones, if he would only bring the circumstances of each case under his notice. In many instances, it was true, the recipients of pensions were persons not known to fame. They were not persons whose works had enabled them to arrive at that high degree of reputation and emolument which distinguished literary success secured. On the contrary, they walked in the humbler ranks of literature. They were men who struggled without avail to acquire wealth by the exercise of their talents, but who, nevertheless, possessed natural genius and great industry, and to whom the grant of the smallest allowance was a great boon, inasmuch as, however trifling it might be, it sometimes precluded the necessity of their being obliged to seek refuge in the workhouse, or to depend on the casual support of friends or relatives. Those grants had at all events, he believed, done great good. They resembled the distributions made by the Literary Fund, which were very small, but which, as everybody knew, had produced, in some instances, in cases of distinguished men, great relief in moments of distress. He had simply, in conclusion, to assure the hon. Gentleman that he should feel it to be his duty to take every precaution against the recurrence of such a case as that of Mr. Close.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Thanks to Sharon Close for the transcript.

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