Betjeman and Bowra

23rd October 2018

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Maurice Bowra, former Warden of Wadham College, became a close friend of the poet John Betjeman.

  • Sir Maurice Bowra, Warden of Wadham College (1938-1970) and Sir John Betjeman CBE  

    Picture of Betjeman, Daily Herald Archive at the National Media Museum via Wikimedia Commons

The lifelong friendships Betjeman made through Bowra had a lasting effect on the poet, contributing to his subsequent success.  Andrew McCallum, Vice Chairman of The Betjeman Society, explores this fascinating tale of friendship.

John Betjeman arrived at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1925 from Marlborough College where, as he made very clear in his verse autobiography Summoned By Bells, which covers from his earliest memories until shortly after leaving Oxford, he had not been happy (in contrast he records his happiness while at the Dragon School previously). He writes of his arrival at Magdalen:

Privacy after years of public school; 
Dignity after years of none at all –
First college rooms, a kingdom of my own:
What words of mine can tell my gratitude?

By his own admission, Betjeman did not work, enjoying Oxford life to the full:

I cut tutorials with wild excuse,
For life was luncheons, luncheons all the way
And evenings dining with the Georgeoisie.

Betjeman’s relationship with his tutor, CS Lewis, was not a happy one and the pair did not get on at all. However, Betjeman came to the notice of Maurice Bowra, then Dean of Wadham and was one of a circle of undergraduates who would attend his salons:

Dinner with Maurice Bowra sharp at eight –
High up in Wadham’s hospitable quad: 
[...]
I wandered back to Magdalen, certain then,
As now, that Maurice Bowra’s company 
Taught me far more than all my tutors did.

Bowra and Lewis were of the generation of young dons who had served in the final years of World War One; both were born in 1898, both took double firsts in classics and were just eight years older than Betjeman.

Of Betjeman, Bowra is recorded, in conversation with Lord Birkenhead, as having stated: “Betjeman has a mind of extraordinary originality; there is no one else remotely like him.”

Betjeman was wont to blame Lewis for his failure to take a degree but in contrast the influence of Bowra and the lifelong friendships he made through Bowra’s company had a lasting effect on him and undoubtedly contributed to his subsequent successes as a poet, writer, broadcaster and campaigner.

Betjeman and Bowra’s friendship continued until the latter’s death. They corresponded and would meet, sometimes at the Betjeman family home (after his marriage to Penelope) at Uffington, later at Farnborough or Wantage, and sometimes at the home of their mutual friends Francis and Sibyl Harton at Baulking, near Uffington.

They also shared a love of poetry. One remarkable example is the verse that  Bowra wrote for John and Penelope on the birth of their son Paul, in 1937, which under the title “Uffington Downs”, ran for some 120 lines (and is in the Wadham archives.)

Betjeman was much affected by Bowra’s death in July 1971. It certainly caused him to reflect on his own mortality and it had come just a few weeks before his 65th birthday. To Penelope, who was in India at the time, he wrote “Maurice’s death will leave Oxford empty and sad for hundreds of us”. He described the funeral in a letter to Kenneth & Jane Clark: “We walked in burning heat to Wadham Chapel and there was the coffin in the full chapel and on it pink sprays of flowers.” He describes walking round to Holywell Cemetery for the interment in “sweltering heat”.

Both Betjeman’s and Bowra’s biographers have  covered their relationship in more detail and Betjeman’s daughter, Candida Lycett Green, in her two volumes of her father’s collected letters makes many references to Bowra whose name often crops up in his correspondence with others. It is, of course, just possible that more letters between the two men may yet come to light; perhaps even some previously unseen verse by either of them.

  • Extracts of letters exchanged between Maurice Bowra (left) and John Betjeman (right)

    Extracts of letters exchanged between Maurice Bowra (left) and John Betjeman (right)

Andrew McCallum and The Betjeman Society

Andrew McCallum, a member of the Oxford Preservation Trust, leads a guided walk: Betjeman’s Oxford, which starts outside the Dragon School and ends near Carfax at the Painted Room which used to be the Trust’s office. 

Betjeman was briefly, from 1946 – 1948, Secretary of the Trust and Bowra was its Chairman from 1951 – 1954 so both men would have known this room and Betjeman would have worked there. Wadham is one of the ports of call on this walk. Another walk led by Andrew, Betjeman’s North Oxford, is entirely within the North Oxford Conservation Area. 

Andrew McCallum is Vice Chairman of The Betjeman Society