John Close followed his father Jarvis into the butchery trade but soon grew bored and put his teenage pen to work writing rough verse. In the decades that followed he was so prolific that he became known as Poet Close.
Much of his writing was dedicated to the outright flattery of people with money in the hope of extracting a reward. In this he was undoubtedly a success. He would go on to claim, perhaps with a little poetic licence, the patronage of the Emperor of France and the Prince of Wales.
In the beginning however his work had a distinctively local flavour. In 1842 he published The Book of the Chronicles: Winter Evening Tales of Westmorland, an esoteric mix of prose and verse in which Kirkby Stephen was thinly disguised behind the name Little-Town. This seems to have developed into a series of annual Christmas Books which looked back at the year's events. These publications are a rich vein of biographical details, painting the mundane trivia of the district in vivid colour.
With the coming of the railways and the tourist trade John saw opportunities to promote his work. He established his own printing business towards the south end of the Kirkby Stephen High Street, thereby ensuring a cheap means of publishing his verse, irrespective of its quality. The property was grandly titled Poet's Hall. This proved very handy for the new railway station as a base from which he would sell his works to passengers as they awaited their departures. In an evocative description of the scene from the time, his frenetic scribbling and speech can easily be imagined 'At Kirkby Stephen, where the train stops for refreshments, there appears upon the platform, and at the window of the carriage, with unkempt hair and his arms full of books which he offers for sale at the lamentably small price of three and sixpence a copy, a middle aged man who is the minnersinger and troubadour of the border… He strews the express train with his handbills and recites his verses in the refreshment room.'
His wife, formerly Eliza Early, not only provided Close with three sons and a daughter but also refreshed the visitors with a fine brew. She claimed the tea she sold from Poet's Hall to be the finest, best and strongest tea in Kirkby Stephen and great value at 2s. 6d. per lb.
Further opportunities to benefit from the growing tourist trade were bestowed by a partnership with local photographer Moses Bowness. Moses provided publicity photographs of Close and sold his books at a Windermere Lake landing stage, while in return Close praised the Bowness studio in his publications.
Like many writers before and since, John was unable or unwilling to hold back his views. In spite, or perhaps because his father was a Wesleyan Local Preacher, his printed pages contained a litany of disparaging remarks about Methodists. This proved so painful for his family that his sister Ann, herself married to local preacher George Yare, wrote to John on behalf of their mother, pleading with him to tone down his attacks.
It wasn't just his sister who was upset by his writing. In 1859 a Kirkby Stephen lady was awarded £300 in damages after claiming in a Liverpool court that he had libelled her outrageously. This left him in reduced circumstances, serving to fuel an ongoing sense of resentment and spurring him to greater acts of poetic flattery in an effort to curry favour. In 1860 this came close to paying off handsomely as his unctuous adulation of the Lords Lonsdale and Carlisle led them to influence the Prime Minister, Palmerston, to grant Close a Civil List Pension. The civil servants of the day presumed that another great Lakeland poet had been discovered, treading in the footsteps of Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Before long however, his verse was exposed as doggerel and questions were asked in the Houses of Parliament. The pension was abruptly stopped, furthering John's sense of victimhood in spite of compensation in the form of Palmerston's gift of £100 from the Royal Bounty. Subsequently the Poet's verse and prose proclaimed his pension injustice and his publications gave prominence to letters of support. He continued to write for entirely venal reasons, endorsing products such as Dr Rooke's Oriental Pills and the Kendal carpets of John Whitwell in exchange for payment, paving the way for today's advertorial.
Poet John Close died 15 February 1891 and is buried in grave C423 in Kirkby Stephen Cemetery.
In the 20th century, Close's verse earned him a place among the great in The Stuffed Owl anthology of bad verse. His publications remain a rich source of anecdotes and pictures of local life, culture & personalities.