The Postman Poet in Birmingham

Recognition for Victorian poet.

He was a humble postman whose poems, written while walking the rural lanes of Devon on his daily round in the mid-19th century, won plaudits from the Prime Minister and the support of the biggest literary names of the day. He was to become known nationally as the Postman Poet and his fame continued to grow when he left Devon to live in Birmingham.

So popular was he in Birmingham, that when ill health necessitated his return to Devon after eighteen years, The Birmingham Daily Post published a request for subscriptions in order to present him with a “substantial token of their love and esteem”, and Sir Richard Tangye, Birmingham iron manufacturer and philanthropist, paid for his removal costs and first class travel back to Devon.

Yet today, two years short of the 200th anniversary of Edward Capern’s birth, few people are likely to have heard his remarkable story, and even the inhabitants of Capern Gove in Harborne may not know after whom their street is named.

But that could be about to change. Recognition could again come knocking for Capern (1819-1894), thanks to collaboration between author Liz Shakespeare and folk musicians and songwriters Nick Wyke and Becki Driscoll. Liz has written The Postman Poet, a novel based on the life of Capern, and at the same time is publishing 34 of his 600 poems in The Poems of Edward Capern. During her research, Liz found that some of his poems were intended to be sung and Nick and Becki have spent the past 12 months choosing which ones to set to music for their CD, The Songs of Edward Capern.

Capern was from a poor family and as a boy only went to school for four months. He was entirely self-taught but he had a local benefactor, William Frederick Rock from Barnstaple, who saw his early poems in a local newspaper and was behind the publication of Capern’s first volume of poems. Its subscribers included the Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, Lord Tennyson and Charles Dickens. He was also admired by Poet Laureate, Alfred Austen.

“It was a remarkable achievement for a working-class man to become nationally known and I think he deserves a larger audience today,” said Liz. While writing the novel, Liz drew on historical research and details in the poems to tell the extraordinary story through Edward’s eyes as he struggles to support his family, a story that captures the opportunities and inequalities of Victorian England.

Capern would jot down poems while he was walking his postman’s round and he often wrote on the envelopes he was about to deliver: “He had to ask the recipients if he could keep the envelopes because he’d written poems on them,” said Liz, whose own cottage in Devon was on Capern’s round.

It was during his daily two-hour break on the Bideford to Buckland Brewer route that most of his poems were written. It seems that one day he was invited into a cottage to sit in the warmth of the kitchen while the women of the house went about their daily chores. It was an invitation he was to accept every day after that.

While carrying out her research, Liz discovered that, quite by coincidence, the cottage is now owned by a good friend, local historian and genealogist Janet Few: “When you’re in the kitchen you can imagine Edward sitting there writing a poem about the countryside he’d seen and the people he’d met that morning,” said Liz.

When it came to Nick and Becki setting Capern’s work to music, they found that the poems had a particular rhythm to them: “You could tell he’d written them while walking,” said Nick, “because there is a walking feel to the rhythm of the lines.”

Although he was careful not to upset the aristocracy who bought his work, Capern was keen to use his pen to champion the cause of the poor. One poem Liz has included in the poetry book is The Old Stone-Breaker which describes the plight of an impoverished old man forced to break stones by the side of the road in an effort to keep starvation at bay. In recognition of Capern’s commitment to social justice, £1 from each copy of the poetry collection sold is being donated to the Northern Devon Food Bank.

Capern and his wife Jane moved to Harborne in 1866, living first in Ravenhurst Road and later in Heath Street. His house was named Rock Cottage after his benefactor. They had moved to be near their son, who in time became manager of a bank in Solihull. Nearby in Harborne lived Capern’s close friend Elihu Burritt, who was the United Stated consul in Birmingham, and with whom he shared many walks. Before Capern returned to Devon in 1883, a farewell concert was given for him at the Harborne and Edgbaston Institute, which consisted entirely of his own poems and songs.

Edward Capern died in 1894, aged 75, and is buried in the churchyard at Heanton near Braunton, North Devon, with his trusty postman’s handbell fixed in a niche in the headstone.

So how will 21st century readers view Capern’s poems? Liz admits some are rather sentimental for today’s tastes but added: “The best of them are as fresh and honest now as they were then. The poems I’ve selected are those which best reflect his life and the locality. He loved his job, despite the weather and the long hours and it’s this love that really comes across in his work. His poems are written from the heart.”

The books and CD can also be ordered now from the websites, and The books are also available to order from bookshops.