Portsmouth’s crippled cobbler who laid the foundations for state education

A portrait of John Pounds in his workshop by Henry Sheaf
A portrait of John Pounds in his workshop by Henry Sheaf
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To celebrate the 250th birthday of one of the most influential figures to come out of Portsmouth in the Victorian era – publisher Life Is Amazing is launching a new edition of the classic true tale of John Pounds’s life.

Recollections of John Pounds by Henry Hawkes tells the story of the crippled humble cobbler who worked in one of the poorest parts of Portsmouth in the early decades of the 19th century, and the extraordinary positive influence he had on the lives of the most impoverished children in the town.

A new pupil for John Pounds, The Illustrated London News,September 19, 1857.  Pounds became a cobbler after an accident in the dockyard when he was 15 while working as an apprentice shipwright. His back was severely injured but he went on to teach himself to read, write and acquire general knowledge. Pounds noticed there were many poor children around who were ill-clad, undernourished and uneducated and set about caring for them and providing an education single-handedly and without payment.

A new pupil for John Pounds, The Illustrated London News,September 19, 1857. Pounds became a cobbler after an accident in the dockyard when he was 15 while working as an apprentice shipwright. His back was severely injured but he went on to teach himself to read, write and acquire general knowledge. Pounds noticed there were many poor children around who were ill-clad, undernourished and uneducated and set about caring for them and providing an education single-handedly and without payment.

At the launch on Friday evening, editor Matt Wingett will outline Pounds’s life and describe the living conditions in the walled confines of Portsmouth, the punishments, pain and despair suffered by the poor, and how Pounds made a massive difference to not only the children he cared for in Portsmouth, but also, after his death, to children across Britain.

It is a reprint of the 1884 work written by the Rev Henry Hawkes – the only account of John Pounds and his life from someone who knew and met him. But that’s not all. To prove what a vital figure he was in the push towards universal state education, Matt has compiled a series of newspaper reports on Pounds that appeared in the decades after his death.

They show how Pounds’s life and his name became a rallying cry for reformers throughout Britain who wanted to solve the problem of working class poor children falling into crime by giving them the means to make an honest living.

The Gentleman’s Magazine reports on his death, Charles Dickens writes about the rise of Ragged Schools, and the icon of the philanthropic cobbler working in his shop teaching hundreds of chldren to read was seen all over the world, with images printed in The London Illustrated News, and his life reported in the United States and Australia.

John Pounds's house, St Mary's Street, Portsmouth, in the 19th century

John Pounds's house, St Mary's Street, Portsmouth, in the 19th century

Even early on, Pounds’s little shop was drawing pilgrims to Portsmouth from as far away as the US and letters from Australia and New Zealand. His simple life, dedicated to teaching the poorest children in the town and saving them from a life of crime, of forced labour, deportation and hanging marks him as a truly selfless individual.

Matt Mason, director of The John Pounds Centre, will describe the work the centre does today, and how it is inspired by the early work done by the cobbler.

There will be readings from the book, with its descriptions of the town of Portsmouth and of John Pounds himself. There will be a question and answer session and the book will be available to buy.

The event, at The John Pounds’s Centre, 23 Queen Street, Portsea, runs from 6.30pm to 8pm this Friday.

The re-published Recollections of John Pounds which will be launched on Friday evening

The re-published Recollections of John Pounds which will be launched on Friday evening

And on Sunday (June 19)there will be a commemorative service at The John Pounds’s Church, High Street, Old Portsmouth, at 10.30am. This will be followed by a wreath-laying ceremony at his memorial.