Barbara Lea – a forgotten Fenland poet


Found – a copy of The Urgent Voice: and other poems by Barbara Lea  (Fortune Press, London 1948.) She lead a short but productive life and is unknown to Wikipedia or any online database apart from who have a good factual entry* on her as, unusually for a Fortune Press poet, she was an aristocrat. The foreword is anonymous and it is just possible it is by Reginald Caton, the founder of the press but is more likely to be by a friend or family member. We append a good East Anglian poem by her after the foreword.

Barbara Lea (nee Pell) was born at Wilburton Manor in the Isle of Ely in 1903. She never lost her early passion for the Fenland, nor for the house in which she was born; indeed, she loved houses and places, before people, witness her poems ‘East Anglia Revisited’, ‘In Time of Trouble’, ‘First Visit’.

She married in 1924 and had five children, the last being born in 1934, and in spite of all the ties of home life, she became increasingly interested and active, in politics and the Women’s Institutes.

When the war started in 1939 she was on the Executive Committee of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, as well as the Worcestershire Committee, and Chairman of the Woman’s Land Army in Worcestershire; a member of the County War Agriculture Committee, and was occupied by a large number of less onerous activities, such as Justice of the Peace, Guardians’ Committee, Parish Council, Parochial Church Council, District Nursing Association, and others too numerous to mention. In 1943 she was awarded the O.B.E.

She worked increasingly hard, in spite of the disabling approach of what later was recognised as her fatal illness. Early in 1944 she was told she had cancer – that treatment would prolong her life, but that the disease was too far advanced for her to live long.

She allowed this to make no difference to her activities, and continued to work as hard as ever, despite growing handicaps.

When, finally in January, 1945, she entirely collapsed and became blind, her courage and faith were an example to everyone who knew her, and a practical demonstration, of the last verse of her ‘Spring Song’. She died in June, 1945.

Barbara Lea’s poetry, of which a selection is here published, was written largely in here main periods. The first contained immature poems written before her marriage. After her marriage in 1924, she produced nothing until 1931, when she wrote eight poems. The third period started in 1941 with four poems, continued in 1942 with twenty-one; in 1943 with fourteen; and ended with sixteen poems in 1944, most of which were written after she knew she was dying.

Although many of her poems were deliberate, many also were inspired, as she described in the ‘The Urgent Voice’; and it was a matter of great interest to see how the fiery concentration of will, involved in her war work, released the upsurge of inspiration that was the third productive period of her life.

East Anglia Re-visited

The birds sing here as not in other places,

And nowhere else on earth are skies like these:

No mountain forest ever matched for beauty

The old and solitary fenland trees.

The rivers here are not as other rivers;

Theirs is the ancient wisdom, deep and slow.

The little flowers that light the fenland pastures

Are yet the sweetest blooms of all that blow.

Here, where the arc of heaven is unbroken,

Here there is peace, and all is changeless still:

Here I believe the very sheep are wiser,

The fenland sheep that have not seen a hill.

I had forgotten, – I, so long a stranger,

And happy in the green and gentle west, –

I had forgotten earth could be so perfect:

But I remember now. First loves are best.

* Barbara Katherine Pell was the daughter of Albert Julian Pell.2 She married Sir Thomas Claude Harris Lea, 3rd Bt., son of Sir Thomas Sydney Lea, 2nd Bt. and Mary Ophelia Woodward, on 3 December 1924.1 She died on 12 June 1945.1
She graduated from Cambridge University, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England, with a Master of Arts (M.A.)1 From 3 December 1924, her married name became Lea. She held the office of Justice of the Peace (J.P.) for Worcestershire.1 She was invested as a Officer, Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.)1
Children of Barbara Katherine Pell and Sir Thomas Claude Harris Lea, 3rd Bt.
1 Barbara Mary Lea+2 b. 6 Sep 1925, d. 1986
2 Rosemary Lea2 b. 27 Jun 1927
3 Philippa Margaret Lea+2 b. 20 Apr 1929
4 Lavinia Ann Lea+2 b. 3 Dec 1932
5 Sir Thomas Julian Lea, 4th Bt.+2 b. 18 Nov 1934, d. 19 Oct 1990

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