John Pryke writes on the little known Fordham poet James Withers.

James Withers was one of the most intriguing rural poets. He was born in Weston Colville in 1812 but spent most of his life in Fordham.

There was no money for schooling the young James. He gained what education he could from his mother, who "stitched from morning till night" to make ends meet.

He loved adventure stories and became fond of the works of Bunyan and Shakespeare.

Withers loved nature, the fields and the flowers that would later inspire him in verse.

Ely Standard: James Withers is buried at St Peter's Church in Fordham.James Withers is buried at St Peter's Church in Fordham. (Image: CAMBRIDGESHIRE UNIVERSITY)

At the age of 12 he came to Fordham and worked on the land. The work was unsuitable so he found a position at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he found much reading material.

He began to compose rhymes and took great pleasure in reciting them day after day.

Despite the pleasures of the city, he longed for the open green fields and lanes of the countryside and returned to Fordham.

At this time some good fortune came his way. He was reaping at harvest time for Robert Fyson when some his verse fell into the hands of the farmer's wife.

The lady was impressed and asked for more of his work. Using her influence and wealth, Mrs Fyson helped Withers produce his first volume of poetry in 1854.

Two years later, a second volume appeared then a third.

Macmillan’s Magazine of 1860 hailed him as 'Cambridgeshire’s hedgeside poet'.

He received letters of encouragement from such luminaries as Charles Dickens and Tom Hughes, the author of Tom Brown's Schooldays.

Queen Victoria was also an admirer and sent him a £50 grant from her Royal Bounty Fund.

He later fell on hard times after a disastrous investment, but villagers rallied to his aid and ensured he could live a reasonably comfortable life at Poets Cottage.

Tragically he lost his wife and a daughter, but he remained in Fordham until his death in 1892. He was buried in St Peter’s Churchyard.