John Cornfield was born 1820 in Hurst Hill, the first child of his parents’ marriage the previous year. Throughout much of his life he was known as John Cornfield “Junior” to distinguish him from his father who had the same name. Eight siblings followed, three of who in due course took their families to settle in Barrow in Furness. There is certainly evidence in John’s work to suggest he visited Monmouthshire, probably to see his father’s relatives who had moved to South Wales about the time he was born. Apart from that, however, he seems to have stayed fairly close to his roots for the rest of his troubled life.
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” implying 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 at that address in November 1842, barely a month after John’s marriage in October of that year to Phoebe Grainger.
A Wesleyan Methodist active in local politics, John was deeply and fervently committed to community issues. He was an ardent (and therefore generally popular) advocate of social reform and people’s rights. A long-time member of the Dudley Board of Guardians, the Sedgley School Board and, for many years, the Coseley Local Board, 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).
John Cornfield 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, whom John accused of demanding legally allowed but morally indefensible tithes from those (including John himself) least able to pay. At one point he suggests the aforementioned unscrupulous Reverend gentleman must have imagined John to be living on the moon!
Perhaps nowhere was John’s passion more evident than in two poems, “To Jenny, in Heaven” and “To Jenny, on the second anniversary of her interment”, undated but apparently written in 1871 and 1873. They 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. John and Phoebe had no more children.
That he committed suicide in December 1890 there is no doubt. Throughout his life he had had a variety of occupations: manufacturers clerk, nail maker, firebrick manufacturer, commission agent and, latterly, pawnbroking. By 1890 he 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 6th December he left the house at 11.15pm. His wife and daughter Ann tried to follow but were delayed by a broken door knob.
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.
His wife Phoebe carried on his pawnbroking business until she died in 1893. There are no direct descendants. 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 inquest report and 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.” 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”.
The above biographical notes on John Cornfield by Allison Gale, a descendent of the poet, appear in his book Allan Chace and Other Poems, published as a Black Country Classic by The Kates Hill Press in 2008.