Woolbeding Poets

The serene beauty and tranquillity of the countryside at Woolbeding, its ancient church and manor house set in the charming valley of the river Rother, has inspired writers and poets throughout the centuries.


Thomas Otway, whose family is more closely associated with Trotton, was born in 1652 and was brought up in Woolbeding as his father, Humphrey Otway, was rector at that time. Thomas was educated at Winchester and Oxford and became one of the most important English dramatists of the Restoration period. His plays remained popular until the 19th century. Unfortunately his life was one of poverty and misfortune. He died in 1685 at the age of 33 when begging for bread “he ate too hastily and choked on his first mouthful.” He was buried on 16th April 1685 in the church of St. Clement Danes.


Charlotte Smith was one of the most popular writers of the late 18th century. She was born in 1749 and after her mother’s death her father decided to “sell her like a legal prostitute in my early youth.” She was married to Benjamin Smith in 1765 when she was not quite sixteen. Smith was a spendthrift and libertine and by 1783 Charlotte, with seven children, found herself in the King’s bench debtor’s prison. She decided to leave her husband and to care for her children by writing. Her “Elegaic Sonnets and Other Essays,” written in prison, was immensely successful and meant that she was able to leave prison. By 1786 Charlotte Smith was living in Woolbeding House. It is not clear whether she was staying there as a guest or whether she rented it for a period of time. Mrs Smith turned her talents to novel writing with “Emmeline” in 1786 and “Ethelinde” in 1791. Her most accomplished novel “The Old Manor House” in 1793 was the classic prototype novel, later perfected by her admirer Jane Austin. Charlotte Smith died in 1806 and was buried in Stoke Church near Guildford.

William Wordsworth’s appraisal of Mrs Smith was prophetic – “a lady to whom English verse is under greater obligation than are likely to be either acknowledged or Remembered.”


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Francis William Bourdillon was born in March 1852 and was the son of Francis Bourdillon, who was rector of Woolbeding from 1855-1875. Francis William was educated at Worcester College, Oxford and later acted as tutor to the sons of Prince Christian of Schleswig Holstein. He was known mostly for poetry and had many collections published including “Among the Flowers” in 1878 and “To Gerard and Isabel” in 1921. He translated many works, the most notable being “The Early Editions of the Roman de la Rose” in 1906. He is known today for his celebrated short poem “The Night has a Thousand Eyes.” Francis William Bourdillon died on 13th January 1921 and is buried in Woolbeding churchyard. In 1922, his library containing one hundred and fifty manuscripts and over six thousand printed volumes together with three hundred and fifty printed on the Continent in the 16th century and two hundred and sixty in the 17th and 18th centuries, were bought by the National Library of Wales. Of great importance are its Arthurian and other romances including twenty three editions of the Roman de la Rose printed before 1515.