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date: 24 August 2019

Fanthorpe, Ursula Askhamfree

  • Elizabeth Sandie

Ursula Askham Fanthorpe (1929–2009)

by Mark Gerson, 2004

Fanthorpe, Ursula Askham (1929–2009), poet, was born on 22 July 1929 at 53 Burnt Ash Road, Lee, Lewisham, the elder child of Winifrid Elsie Fanthorpe, née Redmore (1895–1978), a 'doughty', 'magical mother' (U. A. Fanthorpe, New and Collected Poems, 2010, 212), and Richard Fanthorpe (1886–1958), barrister and later judge, who, always counsel for the defence, instilled a passion for justice. At the time of her birth registration her parents lived at 83 Manor Park, Lee. Originally named Ursula Fanthorpe, she later assumed her grandmother's maiden name, Askham, as a middle name, hoping the lineage went back to Roger Ascham, Elizabeth I's tutor. She published as U. A. Fanthorpe, initially to disguise her gender, and was known to many friends simply as UA.

From their Bromley childhood home Fanthorpe and her much loved brother David (1931–2008) explored Kent on long cycle rides, discovered its medieval churches, and shared a love of boats (their father had a dinghy) and above all of books. She was an early and omnivorous reader: books, history, the English landscape, and what lies beneath it became lifelong passions and permeated her poetry, which often invites the reader to 'listen to the past's long pulse' (U. A. Fanthorpe, New and Collected Poems, 2010, 39). 'Siren Song', from the ironically titled Safe as Houses (1995), records the abrupt end of childhood with the onset of the Second World War:

We knew how bombs sliced off a house's flankUncovering private parts; … How ours might be the next.

ibid., 304–5Bromley, dangerously near the airfield at Biggin Hill, suffered frequent bombing. In April 1941 4000 houses were hit in a three-day raid. She later commented, '[a]ll schools in the [Bromley] area were closed instantly. I never saw any of my friends again. I somehow never found compensation for this utter and sudden loss' (Fanthorpe, War, poetry, the child, 209). So at the age of ten she was sent away to boarding school in Bramley, Surrey. At St Catherine's she spent 'nine years of solitary dissidence' (ibid., 209). There began her lifetime's habit of nonconformity and her sense of self as an outsider. As part of the ‘collateral damage’ of the Second World War it is not surprising that the wastage of war and the importance of 'the ordinary all-in-a-day's-work life of peace' (U. A. Fanthorpe, New and Collected Poems, 2010, 353) became a major subject of her writing.

At St Anne's College, Oxford, Fanthorpe felt muffled, and thought that the returning soldiers were seen as the only ones with experience worth writing about. She gained a first in English but her early ambition to be a writer was not fulfilled until she became a 'middle aged dropout' from Cheltenham Ladies' College (Hendry, 65), where, from 1954 to 1970, highly esteemed and popular, she taught English, for the last eight years as head of department. At Cheltenham she met Rosemarie Vera (R. V. or Rosie) Bailey (b. 1932), a fellow teacher who became her lifelong partner, supporting her in this bold move to become a writer and throughout her writing life. Fanthorpe described Bailey as her 'Atlas' 'who keeps my suspect edifice upright in air, As Atlas did the sky' (U. A. Fanthorpe, New and Collected Poems, 2010, 335). Theirs was 'a rare union … a devoted couple whose kindliness and old-fashioned courtesy radiated out into the world' (The Independent, 2 May 2009). It was celebrated more than forty years later in a civil partnership (on 9 March 2006) and in their collection of love poems, From Me to You (2007).

Fanthorpe grew up in the 1950s, 'the age of concealment' (Fanthorpe, Cold start, 7). With Rosie she found the happiness she needed to write. After a year in Merthyr Tudful (1971–2), their first home together, they moved to Chepstow to be nearer work in Bristol (where Rosie became director of undergraduate courses in the humanities at the University of the West of England). There Fanthorpe eventually found her voice 'among the sad little individual wars of a neuro-psychiatric hospital' (Fanthorpe, War, poetry, the child, 210), the Burden Neurological Institute, Frenchay, where she worked as a clerk and receptionist from 1974 to 1989. Observing from her 'glass dugout' epileptic, depressed, and brain-damaged patients 'tipped [her] over into poetry' (Fanthorpe, Hospitalspeak, 33); her first subject 'the strangeness of other people … how it felt to be them and use their words' (U. A. Fanthorpe, New and Collected Poems, 2010, 21). Many poems were drafted in her lunch hour in a minuscule hand on the backs of old appointment lists. Anger at the way patients were spoken of in case notes drove her to write, in an attempt to give them back their dignity.

Fanthorpe was good at voices. Browning was one of her heroes, and as 'a poet of many registers' (The Guardian, 4 May 2009) she revived the dramatic monologue, using it in a wide range of contexts, from her poignant ‘Case History’ poems, to the witty rewriting of biblical, classical, and Shakespearian stories. She first came to public attention in 1975 with 'Not My Best Side', her prize-winning poem on Uccello's St George and the Dragon. In giving contemporary voices to the three central figures she (inter alia) wittily exposed the self-centred consumerism of modern Britain:

I have diplomas in DragonManagement and Virgin Reclamation. …What, in any case, does it matter whatyou want? You're in my way.

U. A. Fanthorpe, New and Collected Poems, 2010, 49

In 1975 Fanthorpe and Bailey settled at Culverhay House in the small Cotswold town of Wotton under Edge, whose landscape and people provided inspiration for many poems. What mattered most were people. She was particularly drawn to those tenacious in the face of persecution, like the exiled William Tyndale, translator of the Bible into the vernacular, but wrote just as eloquently about a Wotton street-sweeper, Amy Cook. She later observed beggars on Hungerford Bridge:

waste people. Grazing in litterbins,Sleeping in cardboard, swaddled in broadsheetsAnd Waitrose plastic bags.

U. A. Fanthorpe, New and Collected Poems, 2010, 309She set herself 'against power-holders with no weapons but words and laughter' (Hacker, 163). Marginal lives and marginal lands always commanded her attention. As writer in residence at St Martin's College, Lancaster (1983–5), her subjects were not the professors, but the first-years and the cleaners. (She thought of her cleaner at the hospital, Olive, as her ideal reader.)

Fanthorpe enjoyed 'Homing In' to 'one particular/ Parish, one street, one house, one you' (U. A. Fanthorpe, New and Collected Poems, 2010, 221), but resisted both parochialism and nationalism with her 'sly debunking of national myths' ( She was a much wider chronicler of England's changing mores, who 'knew the importance of the energy between the past and the present, particularly in poetry' (The Guardian, 2 Jan 2010).

Fanthorpe was forty-nine when her first volume, Side Effects (1978), was published by Harry Chambers of Peterloo Poets, a small independent press based in Cornwall to which she remained loyal, despite overtures from larger establishment presses. Peterloo specialized 'in the poetry of lived experience. Fanthorpe exemplified this perfectly' (The Independent, 2 May 2009). Reviewers noted her wit, her compassion, and her craftsmanship; she was hailed by Charles Causley as 'a new and original voice, clear, distinctive and remarkably assured' (Wainwright, 76).

Other volumes followed; of Standing To (1982) she commented, 'I feel as if I'm in a forward zone or trench … exposed to extremes … ready in the same sort of way as a soldier' (Hendry, 65). Between Voices Off (1984) and A Watching Brief (1987), titles that revealed her responsibility as a witness, came Selected Poems (1985), which became an A-level text. She was the first woman to appear in this King Penguin series. Neck Verse (1992) included darker poems. Though renowned for her wit and laughter she wrote also 'to explore an area of darkness in the mind' (Fanthorpe, Slow Learner, 35). Much later (in 'Walking in Darkness') she wrote about the depressive illness that dogged her all her life. Perhaps it had its origins in that wartime evacuation.

Safe as Houses (1995), which also became a set text, and Consequences (2000) consolidated Fanthorpe's reputation for poetry that was 'risk-taking, deeply-felt, lyrically intense, accessible yet complex' (Gallagher, 21). The title sequence of Consequences, begun when Fanthorpe and Bailey's narrowboat moored beside Bosworth Field, linked the Wars of the Roses to civil wars of her own time in 'Rwanda, Lebanon, Bosnia, Ireland, here' (U. A. Fanthorpe, New and Collected Poems, 2010, 353). Consequences was seen as 'nothing short of a State of the Nation address' (Jamie, 14). In 2002 Fanthorpe's Christmas Poems were first brought together, illustrated by Nick Wadley. Queueing for the Sun (2003) was quickly followed by Collected Poems (2005). Republished by Enitharmon Press in 2010 as New and Collected Poems, Peterloo having closed, the volume remained her great legacy.

The first woman to be nominated as Oxford professor of poetry (1994), Fanthorpe was also a strong contender for the poet laureateship in 1999. Her awards included a Society of Authors travelling fellowship (1983), fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature (1988), a Cholmondeley award (1993), three Hawthornden fellowships (in 1987, 1997, and 2002), the CBE (2001), and the queen's gold medal for poetry (2003), as well as writing fellowships at St Martin's College, Lancaster (1983–5), and Durham and Newcastle (1987), and many honorary degrees.

Fanthorpe 'exerted a great influence on contemporary poetry' through her writing, as an ambassador for poetry in schools and through her 'charismatic, hilarious and moving stage presence' (The Guardian, 2 Jan 2010) which, after Rosie was free to join her (from 1992), became a famous double act. Her poetry was dramatized, set to music, and much anthologized. Many published and unpublished prose pieces, critical writings, lectures, and autobiographical sketches were later detailed in Elizabeth Sandie's Acts of Resistance: the Poetry of U. A. Fanthorpe (2009).

Fanthorpe's death at the Sue Ryder Care Centre, Leckhampton Court, Church Road, Leckhampton, Gloucestershire, from cancer, on 28 April 2009 came three days before the appointment of Carol Ann Duffy as England's first woman laureate. No one had done more than Fanthorpe to bring women poets into the mainstream of English poetry. But this much loved, generous-hearted, erudite poet had remained the most unassuming of women. She was survived by her civil partner, Rosie Bailey. Her Quaker funeral on 9 May 2009 in Nailsworth drew crowds; and the memorial service led by Duffy and other distinguished poets in St Mary's Church, Wotton under Edge, on 3 October 2009 was packed. As Alan Brownjohn wrote, '[h]er reputation as one of the most wide-ranging, rewarding—and re-readable—poets of our time is assured' (The Guardian, 2 May 2009).


  • D. Hendry, ‘Watchwords from the wards’, Gloucestershire and Avon Life (Aug 1979), 65
  • U. A. Fanthorpe, ‘Slow learner’, Poetry Matters, 5 (winter 1987), 34–5
  • M. Hacker, ‘Unauthorised voices: U. A. Fanthorpe and Elma Mitchell’, Grand Street, 8/4 (summer 1989), 147–64
  • U. A. Fanthorpe, ‘Cold start’, Volcanoes and pearl divers: essays in lesbian and feminist studies, ed. S. Raitt (1993), 1–12
  • E. Wainwright, Taking stock: a first study of the poetry of U. A. Fanthorpe (1995)
  • U. A. Fanthorpe, ‘Walking in darkness’, Open Mind, 83 (Jan/Feb 1997), 20–21
  • U. A. Fanthorpe, ‘War, poetry, the child’, Strong words: modern poets on modern poetry, ed. W. N. Herbert and M. Hollis (2000), 208–10
  • U. A. Fanthorpe, ‘Hospitalspeak: the neuro-psychiatric unit’, Contemporary women's poetry: reading/writing/practice, ed. A. Mark and D. Rees-Jones (2000), 31–4
  • U. A. Fanthorpe, ‘Heart of oak’, PBS Bulletin (summer 2000), 14
  • K. Jamie, PBS Bulletin (summer 2000), 14
  • R. V. Bailey, preface, in U. A. Fanthorpe, Homing in: selected local poems (2006)
  • E. Sandie, Acts of resistance: the poetry of U. A. Fanthorpe (2009)
  • Gloucester Citizen (1 May 2009)
  • Daily Telegraph (1 May 2009)


  • University of Gloucestershire


  • BFI NFTVA, current affairs footage
  • L. Pitt and P. Taggart (directors), ‘Under the Edge’, West Foot Forward, Feb 1998, HTV


  • BL NSA, interview recordings
  • BL NSA, performance recordings
  • Peterloo Poetry Cassette, 1, Peterloo Poets, 1983
  • Awkward Subject, Peterloo Poets, 1995
  • Double Act, with R. V. Bailey, Penguin Audiobooks, 1997
  • The Poetry Quartets, 5, Bloodaxe Books, 1999
  • Desert Island Discs, Radio 4, 9 May 2004,


  • photograph, 1984, Photoshot, London
  • A. Sherratt, photograph, 2003, Rex Features, London
  • K. Wigglesworth, group portrait, photographs, 2003 (with Queen Elizabeth), PA Images, London
  • group portrait, photograph, 2003 (with Queen Elizabeth), Camera Press, London
  • M. Gerson, C-type colour print, 2004, NPG, London [see illus.]
  • M. Gerson, photograph, 2004, Camera Press, London
  • J. Kuhfeld, group portrait, bromide print, 2006 (with R. V. Bailey), NPG, London
  • T. Claridge, oils, repro. in Annual exhibition 2010: Royal Society of Portrait Painters (2010)
  • obituary photographs
  • photograph, repro. in G. Kershaw, Poetraits (2003), 33–4

Wealth at Death

under £305,000: probate, 31 July 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales