A humble Chichester shoe-maker, who left school at 11, went on to become a poet of some renown, as well as becoming sexton and verger of Chichester Cathedral. Charles Crocker was born in Chichester in 1797 of poor parents. At the age of seven he was fortunate enough to win a place at the city’s Grey Coat Charity School (not to be confused with the more famous Blue Coat school). Here he learned “those religious principles which have rendered my condition more than commonly blest”. At the age of eleven, Crocker was apprenticed to a Chichester shoemaker and remained in that employment until he was 47, latterly at a premises in Little London.
During these years, Crocker began to write poetry. He wrote of the landscape about him, including the trees and beauty spots he came to know and love so well. His two best received poems were ‘The British Oak’ and ‘Kingley Vale’. He found his inspiration in the poetry of Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, and the Chichester poet, William Collins. Crocker was hugely influenced by a lecture given in Chichester by the polymath and political reformer, John Thelwall, on the life and work of John Milton. This one lecture, Crocker later claimed, inspired him to write verse more than any book he ever read.
A Chichester doctor, John Forbes, befriended Crocker, and encouraged him to publish some of his poems. Crocker’s collection, ‘Kingley Vale and other Poems’, appeared in 1830, to much acclaim. In one poem, ‘Labour and the Muse’, Crocker described how verse came to his mind as he worked –
How sweetly pass the solitary hours,
When prison’d here with toil I sit and muse
My fancy roving ‘mong poetic flowers,
Delighted with their beauteous forms and hues.
Forbes went on to become Physician to the Queen’s Household and was knighted by Queen Victoria. It was perhaps through Forbes’ London connections that Crocker was introduced to Robert Southey, who declared that Crocker’s ‘The British Oak’, was “the finest, if not the finest [poem], in the English language”. Crocker was now earning a good living as a poet and in 1844 he finally gave up shoe-making.
Crocker did not leave his beloved Chichester for the bright lights of London, but actually rooted himself more deeply in the city and its history. He became both sexton and verger of Chichester Cathedral. In 1848 he published ‘Visit to Chichester Cathedral’, the first ever guide book to the cathedral. As he grew older, Crocker delighted in taking visitors around the cathedral and telling them of its history and showing them the shrines and ornaments of that ancient place of worship.
On 21st February 1861, during restoration works, the spire of Chichester Cathedral collapsed – crashing into the nave. The scene of destruction made a deep impression on Crocker, who believed the spire to be the crowing glory of ‘his’ cathedral – superior even to Salisbury’s. The Sussex antiquarian, Mark Anthony Lower, who visited Crocker shortly afterwards, found his friend distraught by the calamity that had overtaken his beloved cathedral. He did not recover from the shock and died six months later on 6th October. Crocker’s funeral was an impressive sight. The great and the good of the city followed the cortege in silent tribute. One friend noted, “the fall of Chichester spire killed but one man and that man was Charles Crocker”.
In March 2014, a blue plaque to Charles Crocker was placed on Kim’s Bookshop in South Street, Chichester, where the poet died in 1861.