The second part of our profile of Tring poet Gerald Massey, by Joan Hands.
Gerald Massey started life in the most humble circumstances in 1828.
The stone dwelling at Gamnel Wharf, Tring, which was the family home had “a roof so low that a man could not stand upright in it”, he wrote.
But he went on to become an internationally well-known writer, poet, lecturer and mystic.
Massey’s best known, and probably his best poetry, was composed in his early life, when he was publishing in radical newspapers in the 1840s and 1850s.
He called his first published work Original Poems and Chansons, and the 72 pages were offered for sale in Tring for one shilling (5p).
His poems were published in the Bucks Advertiser under names such as ‘A Tring Peasant Boy’, or ‘T. Massey, a peasant’.
Gerald went to London, aged 15, and read all he could, standing at book stalls until he had finished the book.
He even once set his bed on fire, reading into the early hours of the morning.
When he was 23, his published volume of poetry attracted the attention of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Babe Christabel and Other Poems brought him some fame, as well as his editorship of a journal. He also wrote for the Daily Telegraph, but could never relax about his earnings, a constant source of worry.
Massey was married in 1850 to the 19-year-old Rosina Jane Knowles, “the daughter of a professional man in the North”.
This marriage did not bring much joy, since Rosina turned out to be a dipsomaniac and caused her husband to be hopelessly in debt.
Lord Brownlow of Ashridge asked to see him and gave him a cheque for £100, a considerable amount in those days. That acquaintance, however, resulted in the couple being given a home at Witchcraft Bottom, part of the Ashridge Estate.
They later moved to Wards Hurst, also on the estate.
Rosina, a clairvoyant, had a colourful reputation locally, some declaring her to be a witch. She died in 1866 and is buried in Little Gaddesden churchyard, where her grave can still be seen.
After his wife died, Gerald went to live in London. He spent his later days writing and studying Hebrew and Egyptian hieroglyphics; his great tome was to demonstrate that all religions and languages came from the same source.
He thought he had discovered a so-called ‘secret drama’ in Shakespeare’s sonnets. He gave lecture tours in America, with much acclaim, and was married again in 1868 to Eva Byrn.
Gerald died in 1907 in his home at South Norwood Hill, but is remembered today by students of the early days of Socialism as well as of world religions.
Most of his poetry was published in 1890 in My Lyrical Life. His works and biographies can be found today at the Upper Norwood Joint Library.
There is more information about the Silk Mill, the straw plait trade and Tring in Gerald Massey’s time to be found at Tring Local History Museum in Brook Street.
The Museum is open every Friday and Saturday from 10am to 4pm, admission free.
Please note that the building shown in last week’s article was Mead’s Flour Mill and not the Silk Mill where Massey worked.