John Cornfield, Coseley's Poet (1820-1890)

Many thanks to Allison Gale for much of this information, if you have any information that could help her research please contact her via email

John was christened 1st October 1820, the eldest of nine children of John CORNFIELD (born c1798 Sedgley) and Eliza JENKINS who married in 1819. His siblings were Ann 1822, Sarah 1823, Samuel 1825, William 1831, Eliza 1832, Mary 1834, Joseph 1836 and George 1839. 

John married Phoebe GRAINGER on 3 October 1842 at Saint Thomas' Church, Dudley, Worcestershire and they had two daughters, Ann and Eliza Jane.  The occasional dating of his birth as 1827 appears to stem from his first published work "A Round Unvarnished Tale of the Exploits of the Vicar of Sedgley", published in 1862, in which he stated "I have lived in the village half the years allotted as the period of man's existence on earth" suggesting he was 35 years old. He had, in fact, moved out of the village to live in Lower Tower Street, Birmingham for a period in the 1840s. The reason for this is not clear, but could be connected to his first child Ann being born in Birmingham in November 1842, barely a month after John's marriage in October of that year.

A Methodist active in local politics, John was deeply committed to local issues.  A member of the Dudley Board of Guardians, he was also was one of the supervisors who oversaw the rebuilding of Cann Lane Chapel (according to "The Story of the Ancient Manor of Sedgley" by E A UNDERHILL published 1942).  He was without doubt an eccentric with a vivid imagination. The "Round Unvarnished Tale" is an amazing 21 page tirade against William LEWIS, the Vicar of Sedgley, which at one point suggests the aforementioned unscrupulous Reverend gentleman must have imagined John to be living on the moon!

John's best known work, "Allan Chace and Other Poems" was published in 1877 but had been written over a number of years. Two poems, "To Jenny, in Heaven" and "To Jenny, on the second anniversary of her interment”, undated but apparently written in 1871 and 1873, are agonized outpourings of grief at the loss of his younger daughter Eliza Jane in 1871 after a six month battle against tuberculosis. She was just 21.

That he committed suicide in December 1890 there is no doubt. His believed his pawnbroking business to be in severe financial difficulties and for several months his family and friends had feared to leave him on his own, so strange was his behaviour. On the night of 6 December 1890 he left the house at 11.15pm. His daughter Ann and wife tried to follow but were delayed by a broken door handle.

By the time they got outside he had disappeared. Neighbours were called in to join the search but his body was not discovered until the next day in a well on property he had previously owned but had now sold. The opening to the well was very narrow and there was no way anybody could have fallen in accidentally. His getting into the well was, without doubt, a deliberate act. An Inquest held December 9th 1890 held that he "Committed suicide by drowning himself in a well whilst temporarily insane".  He died intestate, leaving an estate with a gross value of £237 19s 11d (from Letters of Administration granted to his wife 26th March 1891)

His wife carried on his pawnbroking business until she died in 1893. Their only surviving child, Ann, died unmarried in 1903.

Although he was a noteworthy character, his poetry in his life, as in death, was not highly rated; his obituary in the Dudley Herald December 13th 1890 was over seventy lines long. It was not, however, until line sixty-two that reference was made to his writing with the brief mention, "He was also of a literary turn of mind, and published some of his productions in book form."

In the preface to Allan Chace, John said that "My highest ambition is to speak courage and hope to the toiling and suffering masses of my fellow men...".  Unfortunately that ambition, along, largely, with any fame he may have had, seems to have died with him in 1890.  TK Fellows, writing in “Staffordshire Poets” published 1928 (less than forty years after John’s death) remarks that “It is curious how circumstances appear to have obliterated his traces locally in such a comparatively short time”.

Allison has been in touch with the Kates Hill Press regarding a proposed Black Country Classic of poet John Cornfield's work.  She has done extensive research into his life and has kindly offered this for inclusion in the book.  Allison also has an article on the Black Country Society web site at www.blackcountrysociety.co.uk/articles/johncornfield.htm

She states: I'm always hoping to make contact with others interested in the poet John CORNFIELD.  My Monmouthshire CORNFIELDs went to Wales from Sedgley around 1815/1820. I'd assumed they lost all contact with Sedgley until I noticed one of them, in the 1891 census, staying with John's widow (Phoebe GRAINGER) and daughter, presumably to offer comfort in their bereavement. This is, surely, unlikely to have happened had there not been a close family connection. The problem is, I can't pin down the connection!

NewAt Deepfields Railway Station in Havacre Lane, Coseley is a 1995 memorial to John Cornfield in the form of a "Serpentine Fence and Tondi" by Artist Steve Field.

Note: A Tondo (plural Tondi) is a round painting, relief, or similar work of art

"The panels illustrating Cornfield's epic poem are installed on a serpentine fence running parallel to the platform. The first and last of the tondi show an open book and quill, with the words 'Extracts from the poem' on the right hand page. The second panel shows a mountain scene on a summer's day, with fields and a wicket gate in the foreground. The third shows a tree, with what appears to be flowing water in the foreground and a stylised sun in the background, while the fourth shows a working man sitting by his fireside, a kettle boiling on the fire and a cat asleep on the mat by his feet. The fifth depicts a cottage in a rural setting, with smoke coming from its chimney and the sun in the background. The sixth depicts a miner, stripped to the waist and wearing a broad-brimmed hat. He is working in the open air under a hot sun. The seventh shows a sailing ship on the ocean, with just a glimpse of a capstan and mooring rope on the quay in the foreground. The scheme is completed by a simple entrance arch in metalwork."

"In fruitful vales, in rocks sublime, in gardens, fields and trees
Earth hath her charms in every curve, in rivers, lakes and seas;
Nor need my feet incline to roam with happiness so near.
I'll stay and sing the charms of home, it’s joys so sweet and dear,
To dig in search of glittering earth, in distant australy,
Let others quit their land of birth and cross the foaming sea.


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