Wordsworth’s years of happiness and heartache

Two children in period costume stand by a river

As William Wordsworth’s childhood home, this was a place of great happiness. It was here that he learned 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.

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 mistress of such a splendid house.

Happy childhood

John and Ann had five children: Richard in 1768, William in 1770, Dorothy in 1771, John in 1772 and Christopher in 1774. 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.

Tragic loss

This happy life ended in March 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’.

Dorothy, William’s closest playmate, was sent to live with Ann’s cousin in Halifax, and 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 December 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.