Jerome K Jerome recognised in Local History Centre 150th anniversary exhibition

By Culture24 Staff | 14 August 2009
a black and white photo of a man in a suit with a jack russel terrier balanced on his knee

Exhibition: Jerome K Jerome 150 (to say Nothing of the Dog), Walsall Local History Centre, Walsall, until September 2009

The West Midlands town of Walsall is hardly awash with cult heroes, so the meagre recognition afforded to famous former resident Jerome K Jerome seems hard to fathom.

In 2007, the local council decided the £9,000 required to refurbish the museum at Jerome's former birthplace of Belsize House, a Grade II-listed building bought by enthusiast Gordon Foster in the 1980s, was a cost too far, and the memory of the author of never-out-of-print late 19th century travelogue Three Men in a Boat faced oblivion.

a photo of a woman looking at display panels

Walsall Local History Centre's Local Studies Librarian Cath Yates views the exhibition

Fortunately, the small and fervent band of supporters in the Jerome K Jerome Society, which Foster was Chairman of before his death, were not to be perturbed.

Working with the new owners of the building – an accommodating group of solicitors – the group have installed displays and portraits of their idol within his old home, adding the prestige of an English Heritage blue plaque last September.

By the beginning of the 150th anniversary of Jerome's birth this year, debate had steadily escalated over why his legacy remained so hidden. A series of artefacts relating to the author went on show at Walsall Museum, writing competitions challenged youngsters to mimic the humourist philosophy of his most notable work by writing stories about water and boats, and the desk Jerome crafted his words on was restored in the Mayor's Parlour.

black and white photo of three men ion blazers and hats leaning against a tree

Three Men in a Boat, Jerome's 1889 travelogue which is still in print today, featured the adventures of the writer (right) and his friends Carl Hentschel (left) and George Wingrave (centre)

This show has copies of all of the prolific writer's dozens of writings, as well as journals he edited, photographs, letters, newspaper cuttings and books about the man who became the toast of Victorian England in the aftermath of Three Men, a tale recounting the philosophies of friends sailing up and down the Thames.

The Society published their own book on Jerome, Idle Thoughts, to broadsheet acclaim earlier this year, and the ambulance uniform he wore in the First World War is about to finish a two-month spell at the Museum.

black and white photo of a Victorian era woman and child

Jerome in 1861, aged two

"We are very proud of Jerome K Jerome and continue to celebrate his life and work," said Tim Challans, an Assistant Director for Leisure and Culture at the Council.

"It's good to see so many things being staged in the borough which have been a long time in the planning."

a photo of a hand written letter

Jerome's letter to the people of Walsall thanking them for their hospitality after he received the Freedom of the Borough in 1927

The Society would probably have raised a collective eyebrow at that claim, accusing their local authority of being "never backward in its lack of support for such ventures", but the great Midlands muse may finally be enjoying something of the spotlight.

"There are many traditions in Walsall that have been lost and that we are trying to get back," said Society Secretary Tony Gray, calling one previous Council leader "a philistine".

"We are desperate to keep his name alive here. After all, Jerome is probably our most famous citizen."

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