Published on April 8th, 2021 | by All Things Warrington


‘John Howard’ by Arthur Bennett

‘John Howard’ is Arthur Bennett’s poetic tribute to the great 18th century humanitarian and prison reformer John Howard whose book ‘The State of the Prisons in England and Wales’ was published in Warrington in 1877 by Eyres Press. A short biography on Howard and a commentary on the poem’s contents can be found at the foot of the poem.

I love to think how these old streets were trod
By England’s great ones in the days gone by;
How knights and scholars in their midst abode,
And poets dreamed beneath our “northern sky”;
Of that old monk who left us to obtain
A place in Shakespeare’s everlasting page
And of the knight whose generous dust has lain
In yonder church through many a mouldering age;

Of the brave Earl who, when Rebellion roared
Against the King, raised here his standard’s fold;
Of Cromwell, sheathing his victorious sword
To rest among us with his warriors bold;
Of her who sang for us her sweetest songs,
A lovely damsel to the Muses dear;
Of him, a name so lately on our tongues,
Who wrung its secret from the atmosphere;

But most of all, perhaps, I love to dwell
On the grave figure who, from journeyings long,
Came here to rest awhile, and calmly tell
To sympathetic ears his tale of wrong:
How north, and south, and east, and west he rode
To every reeking prison house of pain,
And tracked the Fever to its dark abode,
And eased the rigour of the captive’s chain;

How, every dungeon in these isles explored,
His great heart urged him to a larger quest,
Till suffering Europe hailed him and adored,
And good men everywhere his goodness blessed;
How, from these toils returning, pleased he came
To that old homely silversmith whose door –
How often I have pictured the good dame –
Welcomed the wanderer, tired and travel sore.

I see him riding long before the sun,
In that still early morning hour to read
The “proofs” the printer, ere the day was done,
Had proudly “pulled” to satisfy his need.
And, as the drowsy streets grew red with day,
And wandering footsteps past his windows hied,
I watch him wending his accustomed way
To that old gabled house he glorified;

And there, assisted by most willing hands,
Watch his great message gradually unroll,
To move the heart of all the listening lands,
And stir the indignant world from pole to pole.
At noon, when these old craftsmen left awhile
Their imagined task-work for a space
I watch him walk, with meditative smile,
Beyond the “simple-fronted mansion’s” grace,

By “Mersey’s gentle current” softly led
Where grazing kine the clover’s sweetness feel,
A bunch of raisins and a piece of bread
Sufficing for his simple mid-day meal;
And, soon returning, see him still repair
To the old haunt and the the high task, nor cease
Until the gathering twilight filled the air,
And the grave printer brought the unwelcome keys.

Then to “the Doctor’s, whom he loved so well,
Past the still halls with Memory’s laurels wreathed,
The sacred “seats where Science loved to dwell
Where liberty her ardent spirit breathed”.
The day’s work tested, he would journey home
To take his simple cup of tea and creep
Up the quaint old stairs in the familiar gloom,
Content to catch four fleeting hours of sleep.

Written by Arthur Bennett (1907).


Howard’s book on the state of prisons in England and Wales.

The above poem was Arthur Bennett’s tribute to the great 18th century humanitarian and prison reformer John Howard. Born in London in 1726, Howard visited hundreds of prisons across Britain and was so appalled by what he saw he penned a book entitled ‘The State of the Prisons in England and Wales’. Published in Warrington in 1877 by Eyres Press – at the time one of the most respected printing houses in the country – Howard’s book led to substantial reform and improvements in prison conditions (it is worth remembering that at this time prisons were occupied not just by hardened criminals but also often innocent people awaiting trial and others who had simply fallen into bad debt through lack of work). 
Much of the book was written whilst Howard was lodging in Bridge Street, Warrington and so committed was he to the cause he was said to have worked on it from 3am in the morning until late at night – a routine captured so eloquently in Bennett’s prose. Howard died in 1790.
References are made in the poem to other people and places from Warrington’s past which are detailed briefly in the verse by verse commentary below:-

The “old monk” is a reference to Thomas Penketh, a friar at the town’s ancient Augustinian Friary. Penketh, was mentioned in Shakespeare’s play Richard III for his part in Sir Edmund Shaw’s conspiracy that helped Richard take the throne from Edward V. More information on the Friary can be found here.
The “knight” is a reference to Sir Thomas Boteler, a former Lord of the Manor, who was born in Bewsey in 1461 and is buried in a tomb at St Elphins Parish Church. Known for his bravery at the battle of Flodden in Northumberland in 1513, Boteler died in 1522. 

The “Brave Earl” is a reference to James Stanley aka Lord Strange (1607-1651), the 7th Earl of Derby who, as a Royalist, successfully defended Warrington against an attack by Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War. Ultimately Warrington fell to the forces of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who is also name-checked in the poem, and was said to have lodged in Church Street, Warrington in 1648. 
Her who sang for us her sweetest songs”) is a reference to Anna Laetitia Barbauld (nee Aikin). Born in Leicestershire in 1743, Anna came to Warrington at the age of 15 when her father John Aikin was offered a teaching position at Warrington Academy. Barbauld was a renowned poet whose work promoted the values of enlightenment and sensibility. She died at Stock Newington in 1825. Examples of her work can be found in the poetry section.
The him “so lately on our tongues” is a reference to someone else with Warrington Academy connections – Dr Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), Academy tutor and discoverer of oxygen (oxygen being the “secret” he “wrung from the atmosphere”). Priestley taught at the Academy from 1761-1767.

Tells of Howard travelling the length and breadth of the country in his quest to uncover the terrible conditions in prisons throughout the UK. 

Howard’s travels also took him to parts of Europe {His great heart urged him to a larger quest} and subsequent editions of his book included his observations on many foreign prisons which led to improvements in prison conditions overseas too.
“The homely silversmith’s door” is a reference to the house Howard lodged in when staying in Warrington. Located three doors down from the entrance to Dolman’s Lane, it was owned by Mrs Wild, a silversmith. 
The “proofs” the printer “proudly pulled” is a reference to the work of the printer William Eyres. Eyres was reportedly chosen to print the book due to the quality of his work and the fact that, due to the relatively small size of his company, Howard could be more involved with the book’s production.

The “old gabled house” is a reference to the premises of William Eyres where Howard would spend many hours working closely with Eyres’ compositor Daniel Grimshaw. So intense was the work that the two men (Howard and Grimshaw) become close friends.

The “simple fronted mansion” is a reference to the old Warrington Academy building. Operating as a dissenting college (teaching students whose families refused to follow the Church of England religion) from 1756-1782, the achievements of its staff and students once led to Warrington being labelled ‘The Athens of the North’

Underlines Howard’s commitment to the cause, telling of his simple lunch breaks on the banks of the River Mersey (it was a more idyllic setting back then than it is now!) and his quick return to “his old haunt” (Eyres’ printshop) to continue working on his book until dark. 

“The doctor” 
whom Howard loved so well was Dr John Aikin (1747-1822), brother of Anna Laetitia Barbauld. Aikin’s role in Howard’s book should not be underestimated. Due to his medical background, Howard would call on Dr Aikin at the Academy most evenings where the two would check every page to ensure it was medically and factually correct. Once done he would creep back to his lodgings at the Silversmiths to “catch four fleeting hours of sleep”.

About Arthur Bennett (1862-1931)

Arthur Bennett

Arthur Bennett packed a lot into his 69 years. Hailing from Padgate (where a field with his name still exists in the shape of ‘Bennetts Rec’) he overcame a childhood illness to become what one contemporary called ‘Warrington’s second greatest citizen’.

His achievements suggest he deserved this accolade: poet, politician, mayor (1925-27), magistrate, historian, visionary – all are words that can justly be associated with Arthur Bennett.

Although a chartered accountant by trade, words as well as numbers featured heavily in his life. He was a prominent member of a number of cultural/literary organisations including the Warrington Poetry Society (founding member), the Padgate Wesleyan Mutual Improvement Society (secretary), the Warrington Literary and Philosophical Society (chairman), the Warrington Society and many more.

He also founded two magazines dedicated to encouraging civic improvement and the arts and oversaw the purchase and dedication of many open spaces, such as Victoria Park and Queens Gardens, for the use of the general public. Seven volumes of his work were published – ‘The Music of My Heart’, ‘Sunrise – Songs’, ‘A Midnight Fantasy’, ‘Dawn – Songs & Other Poems’, ‘Love Songs to my Wife’, ‘Songs in the Darkness’ and ‘Songs of a Chartered Accountant’.

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