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Boston - The Small Town With A Big Story

 Jean Ingelow (1820-1897) 

Jill Pepper

Jean Ingelow was born in Boston on 17 March 1820, the eldest of 10 children. Her father, William was one of Boston’s bankers and the family lived in South Square overlooking the river near to what is now Haven Bridge. She loved watching the river, the sunlight glinting on the water, the vessels loaded with grain and listening to the songs of the men as they worked.

illustration of Jean Ingelow

Jean Ingelow reproduced for readers of the Boston Society Magazine, 1 Nov 1899 (courtesy of Richard Starbuck).

A book called Mopsa The Fairy, written by Jean Ingelow

One of the eighteen children's storys written by Jean Ingelow, Mopsa the Fairy, was a best seller.

She wrote: “I spent many a happy hour with my brother, sometimes listening to the soft hissing sound made by the wheat in its descent, sometimes admiring the figureheads of the vessels, or laboriously spelling out the letters of their names.” A description of childhood, from Off the Skelligs. Published 1872.

In 1825 William Ingelow’s bank failed and by 1834 the family had moved to Ipswich where Jean began to write in earnest. Then around 1844 she moved to Holland Street, Kensington, London. Her first poems were published under the pseudonym ‘Orris’. It was not until 1850 that her first collection of poetry, A Rhyming Chronicle of Incidents and feelings, was published under her own name. Alfred Lord Tennyson, another Lincolnshire poet, remarked, “Miss Ingelow, I do declare you do the trick better than I do”. They later became good friends. She also became friends of other influential writers of the time, such as the Brownings. Agatha Christie was a fan and quoted from her favourite Ingelow poem, The Dove on the Mast in two of her own novels: The Moving Finger and Ordeal by Innocence. It is said that Ingelow was once considered for the post of Poet Laureate. Her most popular long poem, The High Tide on the coast of Lincolnshire, opens with the lines - “The old mayor climbed the belfry tower, The ringers ran by two, by three; ‘Pull, if ye never pulled before; Good ringers, pull your best,’ quoth he ‘Play uppe, play uppe, O Boston bells! Ply all your changes, all your swells, Play uppe ‘The Brides of Enderby.’ ”

Jean Ingelow's house in Boston

Jean Ingelow's house was demolished as part of the Haven Bridge and John Adams Way road scheme (Neil Watson Collection).

Wildflower meadow in Boston

The Boston in Bloom Jean Ingelow wildflower meadow, adjacent to the site of her former home (Alison Fairman).

During her lifetime she published five volumes of poetry, many running to several editions, also five novels and a verse drama. Many of her poems were set to music. In the United States she was an acclaimed author. Of her 18 works for children the most well-read was Mopsa the Fairy, about a boy who discovers fairies and a fairyland. The imagery and setting is still reflected today in TV favourites for the very young such as Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom.

While living in London, Jean Ingelow started giving ‘copyright dinners’. These plain and wholesome meals were given twice a week for 12 convalescents chosen by the Kensington clergy and paid for out of the profits from her books. She died on 20 July 1897 and was buried in Brompton Cemetery, Kensington, where her gravestone commemorates both her and her parents.

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Jean Ingelow's Books

Download the books written by Jean Ingelow.

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Catherine Booth (1829-1890)

On Christmas Day 1833, four-year-old Catherine Mumford stood inside St Botolph’s with her parents John and Sarah, watching the vicar baptise her brother, John Valentine.

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