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History of Wordsworth House

View over the stone wall at the front of Wordsworth House and Garden in Cockermouth, Lake District
View over the wall outside Wordsworth House and Garden in Cockermouth, Cumbria | © National Trust Images/John Millar

As William Wordsworth’s childhood home, this house was a place of great happiness. It was here that he developed the twin loves of nature and literature that turned him into one of the world’s best-loved poets. But it also witnessed great sorrow and faced the prospect of complete destruction in the 20th century.

The first Wordsworths

In 1765, aged just 24, lawyer John Wordsworth moved into what is now called Wordsworth House. It was a very grand ‘tied’ house, which came rent-free with his job as agent for the Cumberland estates of Sir James Lowther, one of England’s richest men.

The following year John married Ann Cookson, the 19-year-old daughter of a prosperous Penrith draper. It must have been quite daunting for her to leave her home above the shop to become the mistress of such a splendid house.

John and Ann went on to have five children: Richard in 1768, William in 1770, Dorothy in 1771, John in 1772 and Christopher in 1774.

A happy childhood

In poems such as The Prelude, William recalls his childhood in Cockermouth with great warmth.

During the 18th century, theorists such as Locke and Rousseau advised parents that children should be allowed to behave naturally and play in the open air, rather than being cosseted and restricted as in previous centuries.

John and Ann seem to have adopted this approach, and William loved to be outdoors. He also enjoyed reading his father’s ‘golden store’ of books.

Children playing Georgian games in the children's bedroom in Wordsworth House
Trying out Georgian games in the children's bedroom | © National Trust / Nadia Mackenzie

The tragic downturn

This happy life came to an end in 1778 when Ann died, aged just 31, at her parents’ home in Penrith. She had left the children there to go to London and returned in poor health. The family attributed her death to sleeping in damp sheets, but pneumonia or consumption is more likely.

It was a devastating blow. William, who later described his mother as the ‘heart and hinge of all our learnings and our loves’, was not quite eight. He wrote that their father ‘never recovered his usual cheerfulness of mind’.

A family separated

Dorothy, William’s closest playmate, was sent to live with Ann’s cousin in Halifax while Richard and William became pupils at Hawkshead Grammar School, returning home only in the holidays. It would be nine years before William and Dorothy met again.

In 1783, the children lost their father too. John had been called to Millom, 40 miles to the south, in his role as local coroner. He got lost riding home and spent the night on the fells, catching a severe chill. He never recovered and died in his bed.

The house was emptied, the keys handed back and the Wordsworth children left for ever, to be cared for by relatives.

An old black and white photograph of Gabrielle Ellis sitting on the terrace of Wordsworth House with her mother and dog.
An old photograph of Gabrielle Ellis with her mother and Rufus the dog taken in the 1930s at Wordsworth House and Garden | © National Trust Images

Precarious times in the 20th century

The Wordsworths weren’t the only family to leave their mark on this house. While the Ellis family lived here in the 1930s, the house nearly burned down on several occasions.

One night when GP Edward Ellis and his wife Gabrielle were having a dinner party, their daughter Odille was reading in her room when she heard footsteps on the stairs and panicked. She later remembered:

‘I wasn’t supposed to read in bed and we only had gas lights. Someone was coming up the stairs, so I pulled my curtains around the gas light and set them on fire!’

– Odille Ellis

The family’s Christmas tree also caught light more than once, thanks to their habit of decorating it with cotton wool balls and real candles.

Saved from brink of disaster

Edward and Gabrielle decided to divorce in 1937. So that they could split their assets, they sold Wordsworth House to local transport company Cumberland Motor Services, which was looking for a site on which to build a bus garage.

When the people of Cockermouth heard the house was about to be demolished, they formed a committee and raised money from around the world.

They bought back William’s childhood home for just £1,625 and handed it over to the National Trust, to be looked after for everyone, for ever.

Visitors sat on the steps talking in the garden at Wordsworth House, Cumbria

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