There are several poets with a link to Lewisham – Running Past has already covered Thomas Dermody and Robert Browning, and will no doubt return to Ernest Dowson and, perhaps David Jones and Spike Milligan. Another on that illustrious list is James Elroy Flecker, like Dermody, his link with the Borough was a fleeting one, although unlike Dermody it was at the beginning rather than end of his life.
Flecker was born at 9 Gilmore Road (above) on 5 November 1884. His family’s time in Lewisham was limited though, in the spring of 1881 when the census enumerators called, his father, William Herman Flecker, was teaching at New College in Eastbourne. However by the summer of the same year he married Sarah Ducat, a musician who was daughter of Polish emigres and lived in New Cross. By 1888, at the latest, the Fleckers had moved on – James’ sister was born in Cheltenham in 1888 – William was teaching at Dean’s Close School.
His father may have continued teaching whilst in Lewisham; although there seems to be no record of where he taught. It is certain though that he entered the church by the time James was born. William was a curate, not at the church that they would have been able to see from the front of the house, St Mark’s on Clarendon Road, but at Holy Trinity on Glenton Road, where James was baptised. It was a church was lost in World War Two and was covered a while ago in Running Past – see below (source Wikipedia Commons – originally from Illustrated London News)
Before looking at the life and career of James Elroy Flecker, it is worth pausing in Gilmore Road. The house had been developed in the late 1860s or early 1870s as part of the College Park estate on the land of a farm, College Farm, owned by the Mercer’s Company. This should not be confused with the eponymous farm in Lee, although the land for that was also owned by the Mercers Company, which was covered by Running Past earlier in 2017.
The College Farm house, above (on a creative commons), was roughly at the corner of Lewisham High Street and Albion Way – it is probably one of the buildings set back from the road marked on the map on the opposite side of the road to Avenue Road (lost to the Shopping Centre). The fields (all numbered on the map – on a creative commons via the National Library of Scotland) are now covered by Clarendon Rise (formerly Road), Bonfield Road, Albion Way (formerly Road) and, of course, the road with the elegant villa that was briefly home to the Fleckers – Gilmore Road. The development was ‘one of the most significant additions to the number of middle class houses in Lewisham during that building boom.’
Returning to James Elroy Flecker ….While he was born Herman Elroy, he became known as James Elroy; he was the eldest of four children born to William and Sarah Flecker, he had a well to do education, initially attending his father’s school before moving to Uppingham and then Trinity College, Oxford. After teaching for a while he entered the Consular service – being sent to Constantinople in 1910. He became ill there from consumption which was to blight the rest of his life. He had met Helle Skiadaressi on his first posting and they married in what is now Izmir in Turkey. He had a series of postings around the Middle East interspersed by illness before moving to Switzerland for the final 18 months of his life on the advice of doctors. He died there in January 1915.
Flecker (left, via Creative Commons) He had begun to write poetry whilst at Uppingham , the rhythm and language have been described as ‘Tennysonian’ although much of his early work was adaptions of Greek and Roman poets. His first book of poems, ‘Bridge of Fire’, was published around the time he left Oxford in 1907. He continued to adapt the work of Parnassian School – including work by Goethe and Baudelaire – it was a reaction to the sentimentality of their Romantic predecessors. His death was described in the 1920s as “unquestionably the greatest premature loss that English literature has suffered since the death of Keats”.
Any post on a poet, needs some poetry – while most of his work to a 21st century audience is, perhaps, not that accessible, there are a several poems with a London theme that still seem to resonate, even if the trams he wrote about are long gone. The first a tale of cross river love, the second the first few stanzas of a poem seemingly about nights out in the city:
Evening falls on the smoky walls,
And the railings drip with rain,
And I will cross the old river
To see my girl again.
The great and solemn-gliding tram,
Love’s still-mysterious car,
Has many a light of gold and white,
And a single dark red star.
I know a garden in a street
Which no one ever knew;
I know a rose beyond the Thames,
Where flowers are pale and few.
From Heaven’s Gate to Hampstead Heath
Young Bacchus and his crew
Came tumbling down, and o’er the town
Their bursting trumpets blew.
The silver night was wildly bright,
And madly shone the Moon
To hear a song so clear and strong,
With such a lovely tune
From London’s houses, huts and flats,
Came busmen, snobs, and Earls,
And ugly men in bowler hats
With charming little girls…..
Beyond the poetry, Flecker had, from his Oxford days, the reputation of the being a good speaker, a raconteur and was capable of what might now be referred to as ‘sound bites’ – two of which include
“What is life without jam?”
“The poet’s business is not to save the soul of man but to make it worth saving.”
Census and related data comes via Find My Past