Berta Lawrence

Annie Bertha Buckingham (born 1906) was the youngest of three daughters of a Buckinghamshire farmer. She gained a place at Aylesbury Grammar school and was the first woman there to win a County Major Scholarship. ‘Berta’, as she became known, read English and French at London before obtaining a Diploma in Education at Reading.

Berta met Yorkshireman John (Jack) Frederick Lawrence, in France in 1930. She had moved there to lecture in English at the University of Clermont Ferrand. She also taught in local French schools, at one of which she met Jack, who was also teaching there. They married in 1932 and moved to Wembdon just outside Bridgwater, where he went to teach at Dr Morgan’s School. Berta taught French at the Girls’ Grammar School at Bridgwater and English at the French Convent in Langport.

While her two children were still small, Berta began to write stories and verses for the journal Child Education and over the next two decades they published over a hundred of her poems. During the 1940s she also wrote short stories for the BBC, notably for Children’s Hour, and for magazines such as Chambers’ Journal. Increasingly she drew on West Country characters and themes for articles in journals such as The Guardian, The Countryman, Western Morning News, South West Catholic History, Somerset and West Dorset Life. She also wrote specialist papers on the Coleridge circle, including Humphrey Davey, Robert Southey and John Chubb.

The first of her eight books appeared in 1951: A Somerset Journal. Its twelve chapters: January through to December, reflect the Somerset year in all its variety, including an essay on Withypool and its writer, Walter Raymond. One glimpses the difficulty of getting to Exmoor. Not a cyclist and without a family car (their first came in 1956), Berta was forced to rely on busses, including the ‘hill bus’ from Taunton, sometime with Berta as sole passenger.

Jack and Berta loved the Quantocks, which lay on their doorstep. Her Quantock Country (1952) and his Men and Mining in the Quantocks (1970) are works of affection as well as scholarship. The Nightingale in the Branches, one of her two novels, is set on a Quantock farm. Her scholarly study of Coleridge and Wordsworth in Somerset (1970) wove the story of their rides into the lanes of Nether Stowey, the combes of Holford and the beach at Kilve. Only difficulty of access stopped their writing more on Exmoor. Berta admitted in her Somerset Journal to a “…half-ashamed conviction that I like the Brendons almost better than the Quantocks …. They are less beautiful, less domesticated, still rather wild and primitive and inhospitable.” Her essays on The Brown Brendons and Stones in the Brendons show this love. In Quantock Country she stretches definition to allow Stogumber and Monksilver to creep in. Although only one of her eight books (Exmoor Villages, Exmoor Press, 1984) is exclusively about Exmoor, it features in another three with a broader Somerset focus.  Between 1967 and 1997 she contributed a dozen poems and as many essays to the Exmoor Review, including Names of Exmoor Girls (poem) and A summer in Lynmouth (an essay on Shelly’s visit in June 1812).

Up to the time of his death in 1996, Jack continued work on a major history of Bridgwater and contributed to the masterly Victoria County History of Somerset. Berta into her nineties continued to write verse, although fiercely denying its importance. The Great Orchestra and other Poems, published while she was at school, she dismissed as immature. Each contributed a different perspective on West Somerset. For Jack it was architecture and medieval institutions that caught his attention, for Berta it was old stories and the varied characters that inhabited the villages. They were married for 62 years and their ashes are interred together at St George’s, Wembdon.