VISIT | Ledbury’s Tribute to Poet Elizabeth Barrett-Browning | Herefordshire
The Elizabeth Barrett-Browning Institute at Ledbury -The Only Tribute
Discover the only memorial to the poet Elizabeth Barrett-Browning
Learn more of the history of this Herefordshire market town of Ledbury and its connection to the poet
See Ledbury’s iconic pride and joy – the Arts and Crafts design of the Elizabeth Barrett-Browning Institute
"...this town's memorial to an author - possibly the only one..."
Green the land is where my daily
Steps in jocund childhood played,
Dimpled close with hill and valley,
Dappled very close with shade:
Summer-snow of apple-blossoms running up from glade to glade.
The Last Bower
The writer Rider Haggard called it a reproach. That Italy could celebrate the greatest English-speaking poetess and her home country could not seemed so very wrong to him. And yet here, here at Ledbury, they had not forgotten their former resident. Not forgotten her.
Elizabeth Barrett-Browning wrote of her childhood in a poem entitled The Last Bower. Some see influences or inspiration from Wordsworth, Rossetti, the Romantic Poets. But I see a woman who was entirely drawn back to her experiences from her childhood. A life lived in a rural haven delightfully named Hope End near the sleepy town of Ledbury in the picture-perfect apple orchards and hop fields of Herefordshire. So that when her family and her life drew her away, a part of her still remained there.
But this is not about the town or the county.
Most locals know it as the clocktower. Or the library. For so many years in this calm market town it was just so.
But the building that stands at the corner of The Homend and Bye Street in Ledbury town centre, is not just any building. That there is a purpose, a reason for the architectural stylings. A building designed and built as a memorial to their former resident the poet Elizabeth Barrett-Browning.
But here and there are the many perplexing conundrums of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, and of the decision taken by the great and good of Ledbury town to pay tribute to her over thirty years after her death.
Now first question – how many people have heard of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning? Poet? Wife of poet?
Possibly her most well-known words appear in Sonnets from the Portuguese written in the 1840s as a part of over forty other sonnets:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways
But who was she? Elizabeth was born Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett in 1806, the eldest of twelve children in Coxhoe Hall in County Durham. With family wealth accrued from the industrial revolution (glass, textile mills) and the West Indian sugar trade, the family moved when Elizabeth was three years old to Hope End, outside of Ledbury in Herefordshire. Her father Edward had a house built in an eastern style with minarets; but as money from the family wealth dried up, so did his mortgage and it was sold in 1831.
It must have been a great wrench for Elizabeth who had lived most of her young life in this countryside idyll, but life moved the family to London without her mother who had died (and is buried in Ledbury church). Elizabeth continued to suffer with ill health throughout her childhood and adult life, probably tuberculosis, which led her to strong opiates. A move to Sidmouth in East Devon and then to Torquay all aiming to improve her health ended in tragedy when her brother Edward drowned whilst sailing.
From an early age, Elizabeth had written. Inspired by the classics, her education by tutors and the world she saw around her. Her poetry began to be published from the late 1830s and into the 1840s. She campaigned strongly for child labour reform and the abolition of slavery. Her poetry often influenced by the injustices she saw.
It was ‘Poems’ written in 1844 which brought new path in this woman’s life. Another poet called Robert Browning wrote to her. A secret courtship began, her father would never have approved. They married in secret in 1846 in London and was immediately disinherited by her father. Instead the pair turned to Italy. A place they would call home for the remainder of their lives.
Some say her marriage diminished her voice. But she continued to write and publish poetry. And after many miscarriages, a son called ‘Pen’. In Florence, they socialised with the art and literary mouthpieces of the period. But some criticised their life in Italy; seen as a perceived slight to Victoria’s England. And perhaps why Elizabeth did not receive as much acclaim as her husband.
On the 29th June 1861, Elizabeth died in her husband’s arms – attributed to pneumonia, it seems more likely a complication from the frailness that continued from her childhood illness. She was buried in an ornate tomb in the English Cemetery in Florence. And they she remains.
Her husband Robert Browning died in 1889 in Venice but was brought back to Britain, and buried round the corner from Alfred Tennyson in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey.
An inspiration to many writers and poets – including several on the other side of the Pond – Elizabeth Barrett-Browning was perhaps lost a little to history. There was no memorial for Elizabeth in this country when she died. And even now, a couple of blue plaques commemorate where she lived in London and in Devon.
But here’s the thing… in the 1890s, there was a competition set by the town of Ledbury where Elizabeth used to live. The aim to design a memorial – a building – as an enduring monument to Elizabeth Barrett-Browning; their former resident. A mere thirty years later.
Architect Brightwen Binyon won. His design mirrored in part by the old market house. It was viewed critically by architects of the time, but it missed perhaps what we can see now.
This is the only memorial to the poet. It was why acclaimed writer Rider Haggard when in 1896 he officially opened the Elizabeth Barrett-Browning Institute decried to the masses the lack of a memorial to such a poet.
Paid for by public subscription, there was still a debt on the building at the turn of the century. But it became a much beloved building, providing reading rooms, a lecture hall and a place for more. Her son Pen had even promised manuscripts and busts from his mother, which I suspect never arrived. But the memorial was there.
Fast forward, and in the 1930s, a new purpose had to be found for the building. And duly in 1938, the new public library was opened in the institute. A fitting purpose for this place and once again formally opened by distinguished company, this time a poet was found - John Masefield. The library remained there until very recently when it was moved out. Leaving the conundrum over what to do with a memorial to a poet. I am sure Ledbury will answer this question in time.
But here’s the thing, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning remains a distinguished and significant poet in English Literature. Her life here in the surrounds of Ledbury remained with her despite her life lived in Italy. Ledbury’s actions to decide to remember her meant that here we are two centuries further over, and her name still hangs here where her heart was first ignited by language, landscape and literature.
Go see it. The building is unique. Not for its architecture, its design. But its purpose. A building built to remember a poet. And not just anyone. They never forgot her. Not here in Ledbury. And maybe they never will.
Directions and Map |
Find the market town of Ledbury in eastern Herefordshire in the foothills of the Malvern Hills