Recollections of John Pounds celebrates forgotten Portsmouth hero

Recollections of John Pounds, a book celebrating the life of one of Portsmouth’s forgotten heroes, has been revived.

Originally published in 1884, Recollections of John Pounds is the only book which contains a firsthand account of the philanthropic cobbler from someone who actually knew him.

John Pounds, born in Portsmouth in 1776, lived in the most impoverished part of the old walled town. He was crippled at age 15 after falling into a dry dock, walking home with a severe stoop that put his body at nearly 90º to the floor.

His disability didn’t dampen his energy for doing good — in his tiny cobbler’s shop in St. Mary’s Street in Portsmouth, he began to teach the poorest of the poor to read and write, do maths, cook, and mend their own clothes.

These children’s parents were destitute or had fallen into vice and crime, or sometimes they were orphans. Such children had no chance of being able to afford an education, and often ended up in gangs, falling into vice and crime themselves, with some ending their lives on the gallows for theft.

Pounds made sure they were fed and ensured they could read and write, thus making them fit for work. Over the course of his life, he saved around 500 children, with many joining the army or navy or going into service or shop work rather than falling into crime.

Descriptions of Portsmouth in Recollections of John Pounds reveal some of the depravity and pure poverty of the town, and the tremendous effect Pounds’ teaching had on the kids he took in.

He often squeezed 40 children into his tiny shop, teaching them while he worked, and never expected a penny for the work he did.

Pounds died in 1839 without any personal money, but he had enriched the lives of hundreds of people.

After his death, Pounds became the face of social reform for education for the poor, and his story inspired hundreds to teach children in Ragged Schools all across the UK. He was famous throughout the Victorian era, with pilgrims coming to his grave from America, and his name is well-known in Australia too.

It was his pioneering work which pricked the conscience of Victorian society and led to the 1870 School Boards Act, which gave local councils responsibility for teaching the poor. It was thanks to his lead that the movement for universal state education began.

The revived edition of Recollections of John Pounds is now available online from the website of publisher Life Is Amazing » and from Blackwell’s in the University of Portsmouth district, Portsmouth Museum, Portsmouth Cathedral, and SHOP in Castle Road.