A Battersea Childhood

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Richard Church is remembered, if at all, as a late-flowering Georgian poet and a busy man of letters who contributed reviews to such long-forgotten periodicals as John O’London’s Weekly, and who in due course became Dylan Thomas’s baffled and increasingly embattled editor at J. M. Dent. But he deserves to be better known, if only for one book. Published by Heinemann in 1955, Over the Bridge is the first volume in an autobiographical trilogy (the other volumes of which were The Golden Sovereign and The Voyage Home); it takes him up to the age of 16, when he abandoned dreams of art school in favour of a career in the Civil Service, and it’s a small masterpiece of autobiography.

Church grew up in the old town of Battersea, between Battersea Bridge and the eighteenth-century church on the river: it lay ‘over the bridge’ from fashionable Chelsea, and the book opens on New Year’s Day 1900 with the 7-year-old Richard Church and his older brother gingerly carrying a fish-tank from an awe-inspiring artist’s house in Tite Street to their house on the other side of the river, dodging a gang of urchins on the way. A low-lying area of mudflats and damp and sulphurous fogs, Battersea was ‘a slumbrous suburb, largely peopled with artisan folk, clerks and minor Civil Servants such as my father’ and an itinerant cast of muffin-men, lamp-lighters and pigeon-fanciers. It was a Wellsian, lower middle-class world, yet many of its inhabitants had surprisingly grand or distinguished relations: Church’s mother, a Midlands girl, was related to George Eliot; an elderly glazier turned out to be the brother of J. A. Froude, the eminent Victorian historian, while a military-looking commissionaire was the brother of General Hector Macdonald, a hero of the Boer War.

Unencumbered by important connections, Church’s father occupied a humble position in the Post Office. Years before, boldly venturing over the river to Chelsea, h

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About the contributor

Jeremy Lewis was a freelance writer and editor. His biography of David Astor, the former editor/proprietor of the Observer, was published in 2016

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