Sir John Betjeman was born on 28 August 1906 to a upper middle class family in Highgate London. He died in 1984 from Parkinson’s Disease at his cottage in Trebetherwick in Cornwall. His father Ernest had a family firm that manufactured expensive Victorian style household furniture, especially decanter holders. John strongly resisted his family’s demands that he should go into this business.
He boarded at Marlborough College which he hated before entering Magdalen College, Oxford. He entered the School of English Language and Literature under CS Lewis who thought him to be an idle prig. He grew to detest CS Lewis and to love Oxford and its social life. He managed to fail to even get a third class degree but was in later life awarded an honorary doctorate of letters.
John Betjeman’s main legacy is possibly not his poetry but his changing the nation’s perception of the value of our building heritage and the need to conserve the best. He formed the Victorian Society was a patron of over 100 other conservation organisations. In 1948 after drifting apart, his wife Penelope (daughter of Field Marshall Lord Chetsworth) became a Roman Catholic. He loved the Church of England and they separated. In 1951 he fell in love with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish. This developed into a lifelong friendship and through it he joined aristocratic and royal circles.
He usually described himself as a journalist and through his contacts at Oxford he secured a job as film critic on the Evening Standard and as assistant editor of the Architectural Review. It was with the latter that his prose style developed. Collaborating with John Piper, he wrote some of the Shell Guides in the late 1930s.
He was a very good self-publicist and understood the potential of television to get his messages across to the public. He appreciated how people love an eccentric and he is famous for taking his teddy bear with him where ever he went. The statue of him in St Pancras Station reminds us of his work to save the building and his love of trains. Perhaps his most remembered poem was about his disdain for pre-war Slough.