John Betjeman

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Sir John Betjeman (28 August, 190619 May, 1984) was a English poet, writer and broadcaster who described himself in Who's Who as a "poet and hack". He was born to a middle class family in Edwardian London. Although he failed his degree at Oxford University his early ability in writing poetry and interest in architecture would support him throughout his life. He wrote poetry throughout his life; starting his career as a lowly journalist he ended it as a much loved figure on British television.


Early life and eductation

John Betjeman was born John Betjemann, which became the less German "Betjeman" during World War I. He started life at Parliament Hill Mansions on the bottom edge of Hampstead Heath in north London. His parents were Mabel (née Dawson) and Ernest Betjemann, who ran the family firm which manufactured furniture and the household gadgets so loved by Victorians. His father's forebears had come from Bremen, Germany[1] more than a century before, home and business had been set up in Islington, London. In 1909 young John's family left Parliament Hill Mansions, they moved half a mile north to posher Highgate where from West Hill, in the reflected glory of the Burdett-Coutts estate, they could look down on those less fortunate:

Here from my eyrie, as the sun went down,
I heard the old North London puff and shunt,
Glad that I did not live in Gospel Oak.[2]

John's first schools were the local Byron House and Highgate Junior Schools after which he boarded at the Dragon School preparatory school in Oxford and Marlborough College, a public school in Wiltshire, England. After school Betjeman was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford. While at school reading the works of Arthur Machen won him over to an allegiance to High Church Anglicanism a conversion of vital importance personally and for his later writing and interest in art and architecture. At Oxford Betjeman made little use of the academic opportunities; although C S Lewis was his tutor there, they probably had a dislike for each other. He had a poem published in Isis a university magazine and was editor of another called Cherwell during 1927. He did not complete his degree because of his failure to pass in Divinity, then a compulsory subject.

Much of this period of his life is recorded in his blank verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells which was publised in 1960 and made into a television film in 1976.

After university

Betjeman may have left Oxford without a degree, but he had made the acquaintance of people who would influence his work, amongst these were: Louis MacNeice, W H Auden, Maurice Bowra, Osbert Lancaster, Tom Driberg and the Sitwells.

After university Betjeman worked briefly as a private secretary, school teacher and as a film critic for the Evening Standard. After some freelance pieces for the Architectural Review he was employed on the journal's full time staff as an assistant editor between 1930 and 1935. Betjeman, up to this point had been an admirer of Victorian decoration he changed his views, or bit his tongue, while writing for The Review - the editor was a vigorous proponent of the Modernism. Mowl (2000) says "His years at the Architectural Review were to be his true university," during that time his prose style matured.

On 29 July 1933 John Betjeman married Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of a field marshal in the British Army, Lord Chetwode. The couple lived in Oxfordshire and would have a son, Paul, in 1937.

The Shell Guides a series of British county guides came from an idea developed by Betjeman and Jack Beddington, a friend who was publicity manager with Shell-Mex Ltd. The guides were aimed at Britain's growing number of motorists who drove out to churches and historical sites at weekends, they were published by the Architectural Press and financed by Shell. By the start of World War II 13 had been published, of which Cornwall (1934) and Devon (1936) had been written by Betjeman; he was to write a third one Shropshire with John Piper in 1951.

In 1939 Betjeman was rejected for active service but found war work with the films division of the Ministry of Information. In 1941 he became Britsh press attaché in Dublin, Ireland which was a neutral country during the war. He may have been involved with intelligence gathering and is reported to have been selected for assassination by the IRA until they decided that a published poet was unlikely to be involved in such work. The Betjemans' daughter Candida was born while they were in Dublin.

After World War II

The poet's wife Penelope became a Catholic in 1948 and the couple drifted apart In 1951 he met Elizabeth Cavendish, an immediate and lifelong friendship developed. By 1948 Betjeman had published more than a dozen books, five of these were verse collections including one in the USA; although not admired by some literary critics his poetry was popular (sales of his Collected Poems in 1958 reached 100,000). He continued writing guidebooks and works on architecture during the 1960s and 1970s and started broadcasting. His work was not limited to these activities, he was a founder member of the Victorian Society in 1958 and put great effort into the protection of old buildings of architectural merit which were in danger of demolition.

In his public image Betjeman never took himself too seriously. His poems are often humorous and in broadcasting he exploited his bumbling and fogeyish image. His wryly comic verse, is both accessible and has attracted a great following for its satirical and observant grace. Auden said in his introduction to Slick But Not Streamlined "... so at home with the provincial gaslit towns, the seaside lodgings, the bicycle, the harmonium." His poetry is similarly redolent of time and place:

Miss J.Hunter Dunn, Miss J.Hunter Dunn,
Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun,[3]


I have a Slimline brief-case and I use the firm's Cortina.
In every roadside hostelry from here to Burgess Hill[4]
File:Betjeman memorial.jpg
John Betjeman's grave

He became Poet Laureate in 1972, his honours included:

  • 1960 Queen's Medal for Poetry
  • 1960 CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire).
  • 1968 Companion of Literature, the Royal Society of Literature.
  • 1969 KBE Knighthood (Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire).
  • 1972 Poet Laureate
  • 1973 Honorary Member, the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

John Betjeman died at 77, survived by his wife and their children; he is buried at Trebetherick, Cornwall.



Most of the work below has been published more than once. In most cases the details given are those of first publication.


  • Betjeman, John (1931). Mount Zion, or in touch with the infinite. London: James Press. (With illustrations).
  • Betjeman, John (1937). Continual Dew, a little book of bourgeois verse. London: John Murray. (With illustrations).
  • Epsilon [Betjeman, John] (1938). Sir John Piers. Mullingar: Westmeath Examiner.
  • Betjeman, John (1940). Old Lights for New Chancels, verses topographical and amatory. London: John Murray.
  • Betjeman, John (1945). New Bats in Old Belfries. London: John Murray.
  • Betjeman, John (1947). Slick but not Streamlined. Garden City N.Y.:Doubleday & Co. (With an introduction by W. H. Auden).
  • Betjeman, John (1950). Selected Poems: chosen with a preface by John Hanbury & Angus Sparrow. London: John Murray.
  • Betjeman, John (1954). A Few Late Chrysanthemums. London: John Murray.
  • Betjeman, John (1954). Poems in the Porch. London: SPCK. (Illustrated by John Piper).
  • Betjeman, John (1958). John Betjeman’s Collected Poems. London: John Murray. (Compiled and with an introduction by the Earl of Birkenhead)
  • Betjeman, John (1959). Altar and Pew, Church of England verses. London: Edward Hulton.
  • Betjeman, John (1960). Summoned by Bells. London: John Murray. (With drawings by Michael Tree).
  • Betjeman, John (1962). A Ring of Bells. London: John Murray. (Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone).
  • Betjeman, John (1966). High and low. London: John Murray.
  • Betjeman, John (1971). A Wembley Lad and The Crem. London: Poem-of-the-month Club.
  • Maugham, Robin (1977). The barrier : a novel containing five sonnets by John Betjeman written in the style of the period. London: WH Allen.
  • Betjeman, John (1974). A nip in the air. London: John Murray.
  • Betjeman, John (1976). Betjeman in Miniature: selected poems of Sir John Betjeman. Paisley: Gleniffer Press.
  • Betjeman, John (1978). The best of Betjeman: selected by John Guest. London: John Murray.
  • Betjeman, John (1981). Church poems. London: John Murray. (Illustrated by John Piper).
  • Betjeman, John (1982). Uncollected poems: with a foreword by Bevis Hillier. London: John Murray.


  • Betjeman, John (1933). Ghastly good taste, or the depressing story of the rise and fall of British architecture. London: Chapman & Hall.
  • Betjeman, John (1934). Cornwall Illustrated, in a Series of Views. London: Architectural Press. (A Shell Guide).
  • Betjeman, John (1936). Devon - Compiled with many illustrations.. London: Architectural Press. (A Shell Guide).
  • Betjeman, John (1938). An Oxford University Chest, comprising a description of the present state of the town and University of Oxford. London: John Miles. (Illustrated in line and halftone by L. Moholy-Nagy, Osbert Lancaster, Edward Bradley and others).
  • Betjeman, John (1939). Antiquarian Prejudice. London: Hogarth Press (Hogarth Sixpenny Pamphlet #3).
  • Betjeman, John (1942). Vintage London. London: William Collins.
  • Betjeman, John (1943). English Cities and Small Towns. London: William Collins. (One of series: The British People in Pictures).
  • Betjeman, John (1944). English Scottish and Welsh landscape 1700-1860. London: Frederick Muller Ltd.
  • Betjeman, John (1944). John Piper. London: Penguin Books. (One of series: The Penguin Modern Painters).
  • Betjeman, John; Lewis, CS; et al (1946). Five sermons by laymen. Northampton: St Matthew's Church.
  • Betjeman, John (1947). ed Watergate Children’s Classics. London: Watergate Classics.
  • Betjeman, John; Piper, John (Eds.) (1948). Murray’s Buckinghamshire Architectural Guide. London: John Murray.
  • Betjeman, John; Piper, John (Eds.) (1949). Murray’s Berkshire Architectural Guide. London: John Murray.
  • Betjeman, John (1950). Studies in the History of Swindon. Swindon. (with many others).
  • Betjeman, John; Piper, John (1951). Shropshire - with maps and illustrations. London: Faber & Faber. (Shell Guide).
  • Betjeman, John (1952). First and Last Loves, essays on towns and architecture. London: John Murray.
  • Betjeman, John (1953); et al. Gala day London, photographs by Izis Bidermanas. Harvill Press.
  • Betjeman, John (1956). The English Town in the Last Hundred Years, The Rede Lecture. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Betjeman, John (1958). Collins Guide to English Parish Churches, including the Isle of Man. London: Collins.
  • Betjeman, John (1960). First and Last Loves. London: Arrow Books. (With drawings by John Piper).
  • Betjeman, John (ca 1962). Clifton College buildings. Bristol?. (Reprinted from Centenary essays on Clifton College).
  • Betjeman, John; Clarke, Basil (1964). English Churches. London: Vista Books.
  • Betjeman, John (1965). The City of London Churches. London: Pitkin Pictorials. (One of Pitkin Pride of Britain series).
  • Betjeman, John (1968). Collins pocket guide to English parish churches. London: Collins.
  • Betjeman, John (1969). Victorian and Edwardian London from old photographs. London: Batsford.
  • Perry George; et al (1970). The book of the Great Western, with introduction by J Betjeman . London: Sunday Times Magazine.
  • Betjeman, John (1972). A pictorial history of English architecture. London: John Murray.
  • Betjeman, John (1972). London's historic railway stations. London: John Murray. (Photographs by John Gay).
  • Betjeman, John (1974). A plea for Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street. London: Church Literature Association. (With four drawings by Gavin Stamp).
  • Betjeman, John; Rowse, AL (1976). Victorian and Edwardian Cornwall from old photographs. London: Batsford.
  • Betjeman, John (1977). Archie and the Strict Baptists. London: John Murray. (Children's stores: illustrated by Phillida Gili).
  • Betjeman, John (1977). Metro-land. London: Warren. (Limited edition: with lithographs by Glynn Boyd Harte).


His television programmes included:

  • John Betjeman In The West Country (made for the defunct ITV company TWW in 1962, this series was long thought lost, but was rediscovered in the 1990s and shown on Channel 4 under the titles The Lost Betjemans and Betjeman Revisited)
  • John Betjeman Goes By Train (a co-production between BBC East Anglia and British Transport Films, made in 1962)
  • Something About Diss (made for BBC East Anglia in 1964)
  • Two episodes of the Bird's Eye View series — An Englishman's Home and Beside The Seaside (both made for the BBC in 1969)
  • Betjeman In Australia (a co-production between the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Commission, made in 1971)
  • Thank God It's Sunday (made for the BBC in 1972)
  • Metroland (possibly his most famous television work, made for the BBC in 1973)
  • A Passion For Churches (made for the BBC in 1974)
  • Summoned By Bells (a television version of his verse autobiography, made for the BBC in 1976)
  • Vicar Of This Parish (a documentary about Francis Kilvert and his love of Herefordshire and the Welsh Marches, made for the BBC in 1976)
  • Queen's Realm (a compilation programme made for the Silver Jubilee in 1977, although most of it was compiled from 1968/69 Bird's Eye View footage)
  • His final series was the retrospective Time With Betjeman (1983), which included extracts from much of his television work, conversations between Betjeman, his producer Jonathan Stedall, and many friends and colleagues, and included a memorable final interview filmed outside the poet's home in Cornwall.


   a bibliography of work by John Betjeman is shown above.

  • Brooke, Jocelyn (1962). Ronald Firbank and John Betjeman. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
  • Hillier, Bevis (1984). John Betjeman: a life in pictures. London: John Murray.
  • Hillier, Bevis (1988). Young Betjeman. London: John Murray. ISBN 0719545315.
  • Hillier, Bevis (2002). John Betjeman: new fame, new love. London: John Murray. ISBN 0719550025.
  • Hillier, Bevis (2004). Betjeman: the bonus of laughter. London : John Murray. ISBN 0719564956.
  • Lycett Green, Candida (Ed.) (1994). Letters: John Betjeman, Vol.1, 1926 to 1951. London: Methuen. ISBN 0413669505
  • Lycett Green, Candida (Ed.) (1995). Letters: John Betjeman, Vol.2, 1951 to 1984. London: Methuen. ISBN 0413669408
  • Mowl, Timothy (2000). Stylistic Cold Wars, Betjeman versus Pevsner. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-5909X
  • Schroeder, Reinhard (1972). Die Lyrik John Betjemans. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag. (Thesis).
  • Sieveking, Lancelot de Giberne (1963). John Betjeman and Dorset. Dorchester: Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society.
  • Stanford, Derek (1961). John Betjeman, a study. London: Neville Spearman.
  • Taylor-Martin, Patrick (1983). John Betjeman, his life and work. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 0713915390


  1. ^  Mowl, Timothy (2000). Stylistic Cold Wars, Betjeman versus Pevsner, p 13.
  2. ^  Betjeman, John (1960). Summoned by Bells, p 5.
  3. ^  from A Subaltern's Love-song in New Bats in Old Belfries (1945).
  4. ^  from Executive in A Nip in the Air (1974).

Other sources

  • Betjeman, John (1960). Summoned by Bells. London: John Murray.
  • Mowl, Timothy (2000). Stylistic Cold Wars, Betjeman versus Pevsner. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-5909X
  • Biography by Jocelyn Brooke

External links

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