Thomas Henry Aggett was dubbed ‘the Railway Poet of the West,’ since whilst writing his verse he was employed as a porter at Teignmouth railway-station. Although never a mainstream poet his life history is fascinating and he uses poetry to capture anecdotes of his time, snippets perhaps of social history. In the 1901 census he was recorded as living at 5 Gardener Farm, Frogmarsh, Teignmouth.
He was born at Saltash in Cornwall in July 1863, his father then working under Brunel at the famous Royal Albert Bridge. On the completion of that work the family removed to Torquay where Thomas, at the age of ten, started work as a farmer’s boy. In 1880 he moved to the Isle of Wight where he served as a footman for two years in the household of an invalid widow lady. There was a fine library in the house which Thomas apparently used to the full and kept himself in a regular supply of literature. It was then that he first became acquainted with the works of Burns and Byron who became his favourite authors. He would read them again and again until he knew nearly the whole of their poems by heart.
In October 1882 he joined the Great Western Railway, where he spent the rest of his working life. He has recorded that in October 1883:
“I paid a visit to the ‘Land o’Burns’ having a week’s leave, with a free pass to Manchester and back. I started on my pilgrimage as devoutly as ever good Mussulman started for the shrine of Mohammed at Mecca, and never have I so thoroughly enjoyed myself as I did that week in visiting the places of interest connected with Scotland’s national bard.”
Like Pope, he seems to have ‘lisped in numbers’ for he remembers that when very young he used to hum over his favourite tunes, adding words of his own that would suit his particular fancy of the moment.
In 1889 he issued a brochure entitled the ‘Demon Hunter, a Legend of Torquay’ which included pieces such as the title-poem – the ‘Demon Hunter’ – ‘The Parson and the Clerk,’ ‘The Mayor of Bodmin,’ and others dealing exclusively with local legends. This was followed in 1894 by a little volume entitled ‘Vagabond Verses’. There’s an interesting comment about his poetic style in the book ‘West Country Poets’ of 1896:
“It may be readily understood that a man employed at a busy railway-station can have but little leisure for the cultivation of the Muses, and this fact must condone many imperfections in the published works of our railway poet.”
This may sound a little patronising but Thomas Aggett himself was modest enough to recognise his limitations. In the preface to his first volume he wrote:
“I do not aspire to genius, neither do I pretend to have written anything exceptionally good, and if the reader derives the same amount of pleasure in reading as I have in writing the poems, I shall consider it sufficient recompense, and feel justified in having printed them; if, on the other hand, they are found incapable of affording any pleasure, I can only excuse myself, by saying they never would have been printed had it not been for the hope of benefiting the Widows and Orphans’ Fund of the Great Western Railway”.
So Thomas Aggett was a man of humble origins, self-educated and with a love of poetry.
One of his four sons was also called Thomas Henry Aggett. He became a printer which makes you wonder whether he too might have taking to writing in his spare time. The answer is probably not. He seems to have been strongly involved in local politics, standing as a liberal candidate in the general election of 1929 against Lady Astor (conservative). Needless to say he lost but news of this election campaign spread as far as California! To quote the Berkeley Gazette of May 4th 1929:
Lady Astor Must Defeat Two Foes. Lady Astor, first woman to sit in the Imperial parliament, will have to defeat both Liberal and Labor candidates in the next election if she wishes to retain her seat. William Westwood, who began life in a Dundee jute mill, is to be the Labor candidate in the Sutton division of Plymouth, and Thomas Henry Aggett of Teignmouth (pronounced Tinmouth), will seek to win the seat for the Liberals. Aggett is president of the League of Young Liberals in Teignmouth and is 36 years old. He carries on business as a printer. Westwood, who has been secretary of his union in the jute industry and political secretary to the Scottish Labor party, unsuccessfully contested Perth in 1922. He Is 48. It will be recalled that it was recently intimated that Lady Astor’s particular interests were being opposed by certain members of the House of Commons. It was never revealed exactly what persons were against her desire to see an increase in temperance reform, fair play for women in Industry, and more active measures to suppress white slavery, but it is believed that some would not be sorry to see the American-born peeress defeated. It was hinted that her opponents could be found on both sides of the house. Well-informed quarters, however, declare there is little doubt that Lady Astor will retain the seat she has held since 1919.
Want to know more? Check out:
Book: ‘West-Country Poets: Their Lives and Works’ by Wright, W.H.K., (1896)
On-line: West Country Poets