The Hunt for Keats House Part 2 – The Local Debate

We start the Hunt for Keats’ House with a collection of observations from local sources over the past 100 years or so.  I would particularly like to thank the Teign Heritage Centre in Teignmouth and the Devon Heritage Centre in Exeter for access to the materials they hold and for the brilliant assistance I have received from the archivists most of whom (if not all) work on a voluntary basis.  Their resources have helped in this and the subsequent sections.

There is a lot of information here so I have spread it over two posts.

Beatrix F Cresswell – 1901

1901 – The Cresswell Book

We start 117 years ago in 1901 when Beatrix F Cresswell wrote a book “Teignmouth, its History and its Surroundings”.  Born 1862, she was the daughter of the Reverend Richard Cresswell of Teignmouth and was a diarist and a prolific writer of historical works mainly about the churches of Devon but extending to books such as the above and other places and historical aspects of Devon.

(Ref: A Handful of 2012 Anniversaries: Devon Women Writers; Names and Texts)

In her book is a section on Keats and she mentions the issue of where Keats lived:

A year or two ago, Dr Lake and Mr H Buxton Forman, C.B. (the latter then busy in searching for memorials of Keats), were at some pains to ascertain, if possible, the house in which he stayed.  By studying his letters they concluded that the young poet lodged in a house (now 35, Strand) at the corner of Queen Street, a turning toward the river.  Then, as now, there was a shop close by, and the pretty milliners who kept it seemed to have been no small attraction to the young gentleman as yet ‘to fortune and to fame unknown’, who was busy revising and finishing his ‘Endymion’, begun the year previously in the Isle of Wight, but which was issued from Teignmouth, the author’s preface bearing the date, ‘Teignmouth, April 10th, 1818.’”

Sketch in Cresswell book

There is a sketch in the book showing the house identified – the same as the pink bow-windowed contender mentioned in the previous post.

How valid is this reference?  We do know that Beatrix Cresswell made mistakes.  There is a critique of this book in Devon Notes and Queries, January 1900 to October 1901”, edited by PFS Amery, John S Amery and J Brooking Rowe FSA.  They say:

“This is a well written and prettily got up little volume ….. Our fair authoress must, however, enlist the services of someone who will prevent her from making such a mistake as to suppose that the surname of the Vicar of Kingsteignton was Huish, it was Richard Adlam.”

Also, earlier in her section on Keats Cresswell states that he “spent a winter and spring in Teignmouth”, whereas he was in Teignmouth only for two months at the start of Spring.  She may have been confused by the stay of all the brothers.

Fred C Frost, FSI – 1910

A letter by Fred C Frost disputing Beatrix Cresswell’s claims appeared in a local newspaper on 14th April 1910 under the heading “Bygone Teignmouth Worthies”.  I don’t know who Mr Frost was but he obviously had an interest in and knowledge of local history and was a regular contibutor to a London publication “Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, Etc.”  This newspaper cutting was contained in a file “Notes on Old Teignmouth” compiled by H Parry and held at the Devon Heritage Centre.

Extracting from his letter, he asks:

“I want to ask my fellow townsmen how it is that a town which was the home of John Keats the poet, Thomas Luny the marine painter and Edward Pellew, the naval hero, has no memorial of either.  John Keats lived here and at Teignmouth finished his masterpiece ‘Endymion’ dating the introduction to the poem Teignmouth, October 1818.  The house he lived in is now 21 Northumberland Place (adjoining the King William Inn, facing Queen Street) and is not , as Miss Cresswell in her guide states, No. 35 Northumberland Place at the corner of Queen Street nearly opposite.  For this statement I have the authority of Dr Lake, Mr W R Hall Jordan and Mr Forman Buxton CB who although neither of them are patriarchal enough to have been the contemporary of Keats each remembers this house to have been pointed out to them by those of the former generation as the Teignmouth home of the poet.

He also states:

“Further in support of this I fancy Keats in one of his published letters (was it written to Fanny Brawne?) speaks of sitting at his window, weather-bound, ogling the pretty milliners at the corner across the way and we know that No 35 was, until all events, three-quarters of the 19th century had passed, a milliners shop and had been so for many years previously.  Couldn’t a memorial for Keats be placed on No 21?”

So Fred C Frost quotes the same source of information as Beatrix Cresswell but directly contradicts her in the conclusion reached.  He too makes mistakes such as quoting the date of Endymion as October 1818 instead of April 1818.

Teignmouth and Dawlish News July 6th 1934

Following Fred C Frost’s proposal the local Council put up a series of plaques around the town in 1929 (tbc) but the debate continued 24 years after Fred’s letter with an article in the local press headlined “Two Houses in Northumberland Place Rivals for Honour”:

“Where did the poet Keats reside in Teignmouth when he finished ‘Endymion’ and wrote the preface dated ‘Teignmouth, April 10th, 1818’?

There is an inscription on a plaque at No 20 Northumberland Place reading ’Here lived the poet Keats in the year 1818’, but there has never been absolute certainty that this was the actual house in which he resided.

The controversy has once again been revived by a report that the truth of the matter is that the poet lived at a house on the other side of the street, No 35 Northumberland Place (formerly 35 The Strand) on the corner of Queen Street.

Teignmouth has always been proud of the fact that numerous famous people have at one time or another lived in the town, or, as it were, the village, but when, about five years ago, there was a move to erect memorial tablets to show the early residences of its illustrious inhabitants, some difficulty was encountered in establishing definitely certain vital facts.

It was the local Advertising Committee which first suggested that such plaques should be put up, and they approached the Council who willingly complied with the request.

Signs were then put up at the house in Teign Street where the artist Luny resided; at Bitton House, where Edward Pellew, Viscount Exmouth, lived; at French Street to commemorate the burning of the town by the French; in Station Road to mark the site of the theatre in which the actor Edmund Kean played; and at 20 Northumberland Place, to show the former residence of Keats.

At the time the greatest of care was taken to ensure that accuracy should be secured in the fixing of the tablets to the proper places, but from the first there was a query as to the veracity of the belief that Keats lived at 20 Northumberland Place.

There has been doubt for many years, and, in more than one old guide book, support has been given to the opinion that the house on the opposite side of the road is that in which Keats lived.

Mrs Osborn, who lives now at 35 Northumberland Place, has a cutting from an old book in which it states:

“The poet Keats, whose father was a Devonian, was staying at Teignmouth for his health when he finished Endymion and wrote its remarkable preface.  He came here 1818 and we are told that he lodged at the house now numbered 35 The Strand.  He speaks of the ‘girls over the bonnet shop’, which shop is still standing.  We find many local touches in his poetry.”

A more modern guide book published, in 1901 by Miss B F Cresswell, includes the following in support of this theory: (THEN FOLLOWS THE EXTRACT FROM ABOVE).

On the other hand, the local Council, before deciding on which house to put the plaque, wisely consulted the Curator of Keats House, Hampstead, London, and he gave his verdict in favour of 20 Northumberland Place, where the tablet was accordingly fixed.

River View Controversy.

Keats refers in one of his letters to “looking up the river” and this is a source of considerable controversy, when it is considered that, quite probably, he was able at that time to have looked up the river from either house.

From 35 Northumberland Place it is difficult now to get a glimpse up the river, but it would have been easy when the adjoining house on the west side was not built – and this was certainly the case in Keats’ time.  From 20 Northumberland Place, it might be argued, he could get a glimpse up the river by looking straight through Queen Street, whatever buildings were on either side of the road there.

These words referring to the view up the river have been taken by both ‘sides’ in the controversy as bearing out their case, and their value is therefore doubtful.

The Curator of the Keats House in London apparently places them among the arguments in favour of the house at which the plaque has been erected.

In any case, nothing definite or unequivocal is known that would end the controversy, and it is therefore useless to pretend that either case has been ‘proved’.  Until further evidence comes to light, one can only suppose that the position will remain as it is.

So, the answer remained inconclusive in 1934 when the plaque was put up, but it would be interesting to get hold of a copy of the “old book” that Mrs Osborn referred to.


3 thoughts on “The Hunt for Keats House Part 2 – The Local Debate

  1. Ian Chamberlain

    What a star you are Neil. And what a saga. Wonder how long you can keep us in suspense… IanRC

  2. Pingback: The Hunt for Keats’ House Part 7 – One Old Man cont. | Teignmouth in Verse

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