William Bance: The Bard of Charlton

Following on from this weekend’s parks reminiscence open day, Charlton Champion historian Barbara tells us about the Victorian man who was inspired to create poetry by Hanging Wood – today’s Maryon and Maryon Wilson Parks.

William Bance is not a name that many people will be familiar with. He is rather an unlikely poet, with only four known published works. Born in Charlton in 1806, he spent his whole life here until his death in 1866.

The 1841 and 1851 censuses give us a few clues to his life. He lived in The Village, known as Old Charlton at that time, with his wife Ann, who he married in 1830, and his six children.

The census shows that William was a gardener, a job that was common in Charlton, at a time when it had extensive market gardens and big houses with large grounds to be maintained. So how he came to write poetry is anybody’s guess. His wife is listed in the census as being a bookseller, so this may have been the spur to his writings.

I found his first published collection of poetry when searching for some information on Hanging Wood. It was published in 1844, and entitled ‘Hanging Wood, Charlton: and other poems’. (Free to download from Google Books).

I can find only three other published works of his – ‘Ralph: a Legend of the Gipsies’ (1845); ‘The Happy Village: and other poems’ (1848); and The Battle of Balaclava: a ballad’ (1862). Only ‘Ralph’ had any longevity, with reprints and free downloads available. The Happy Village collection remains tantalisingly elusive – I wonder if he is writing about Charlton Village in this book?

He’s not the greatest poet, but the interest is in what he’s writing about. His poems reflect aspects of his life in Charlton in the Regency and early Victorian eras, a time of great change.

In 1806, Charlton would still have been a quiet rural village, surrounded by fields and market gardens. Charlton House and St. Luke’s church dominated, and there were a few grand houses occupied by the clergy, the landed gentry and senior army and naval officers from the Royal Artillery, the Arsenal and Dockyard in Woolwich.

By the time William Bance died in 1866, the railway linking the area to London had been built, and new housing was appearing along the lower road, Victoria Way, Maryon Road and Lansdowne Lane.

So what about the Hanging Wood poetry collection? The main poem is long – 20 pages, with 9 other shorter poems. He writes about walking with his wife through Hanging Wood, which was a prominent feature of the area at the start of the 19th century, covering what are now Maryon and Maryon Wilson Parks.

A sketch taken from the poem shows that the view from there when he was writing was somewhat better than it is now, as he describes being able to see to Woolwich:

‘Woolwich! As I gaze on thy town before me,

A glow of warm respect for thee I feel;

Thou art a nursing place for England’s glory,

For her stout hearts of oak, and hearts of steel.’

The sketch shows, amongst other things, the then newly built chimney of the steam Factory at Woolwich Dockyard that remains today on Woolwich Church Street.

There are also family details in the poems. He writes of the house he used to live in as a boy and describes the village green with its elm tree (see map), which was later ‘enclosed’ (swiped by the Maryon-Wilsons) into the Charlton House estate in 1829 when the road from Charlton village to Woolwich was built.

Of the other poems, of interest is ‘Lines on Witnessing a Funeral in Charlton Church Yard’ (1843), where we get what is possibly an eyewitness account of the funeral of Edward Drummond, who was assassinated in mistake for Sir Robert Peel.

What I realised when doing this piece was that most of our published history is of royalty, the aristocracy and government. Not many ordinary, working-class people get remembered.

As a humble Charlton gardener, he would have been long forgotten and left no mark. But for William Bance, his poetry gives him his 15 minutes of fame and, thanks to Google Books, a place in history.

3 thoughts on “William Bance: The Bard of Charlton

  1. Chris October 4, 2011 / 08:30

    And also thanks to Barbara.

    What a lovely piece of history.

    ‘A glow of warm respect for thee I feel;’

    I wonder how many times Woolwich has been described in such terms!

  2. Paul October 5, 2011 / 22:45

    Thanks for taking the time to pen this

  3. Diana December 22, 2013 / 15:04

    Is this our former very good historian of social history, Barbara Ludlow, now living in retirement in Kent? Sounds like her and the facts look accurate too.

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