JOHN TOWNSEND was born in 1922 in Leeds, the son of the chief clerk in a copper mill. His father had Parkinson’s, and the family were in straitened circumstances. John won a scholarship to Leeds Grammar School, where he received a good education, without, in his own account, ever understanding that there was any point to education other than doing well in exams. His family removed him from school as soon as possible and secured him a job in the local tax office.
On the outbreak of war Townsend volunteered for the RAF, hoping to be a navigator, but failed the eyesight test, and was trained instead in codes and ciphers, as a front line operator. During the Italian campaign Townsend was attached to an Anglo-American unit called Number One Field Intelligence, tasked with identifying and recording anything useful the enemy might have left behind as they retreated. When the northern advance was stopped at Monte Casino he found himself in Florence for many months with basically nothing much to do.
The galleries and churches were all open, however and so was the English bookshop. Townsend learned Italian, and began to educate himself in art and literature at high speed.
When he was demobbed he found himself near Cambridge, and taking a bus into town he got off at the first building which looked to him like a college – Emmanuel College – and walking into the porters’ lodge, said he would like to come to study there. By great good fortune the Senior Tutor was walking through the college gates at the time. He said, “I will give you five minutes.” In the event he gave Townsend two hours, and admitted him to read English in the next academic year.
The undergraduate grant then available enabled Townsend to marry Vera Lancaster, whom he had met before the war when they both worked in the Leeds Tax Office. As a married undergraduate he did a two year degree in English, and during those two years he edited Varsity, the undergraduate newspaper, and fell in love with journalism. On graduating he worked for a short time as a reporter for the Yorkshire Post and the Evening Standard, before trying for a job on a national daily. In 1949 he wrote applications to a number of newspapers asking for a job, and most of them replied with a curt negative. The Guardian, however did not reply. When several weeks had gone by Townsend wrote again, withdrawing his application for a job, saying he did not wish to work for someone who was too rude to answer his letters. This produced from Alistair Hetherington, then the editor, an immediate offer of an interview, and then a job.
Townsend worked for the Guardian for more than 30 years. In 1960 Townsend, researching a feature article on the work of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, spent a few days going round with “The Cruelty man” to see things for himself. On his return to the office he was forcibly struck by the almost grotesque contrast between the lives of the children he had been shown in Manchester and the lives of happy children with ponies and boats and holiday adventures who featured in the children’s books he reviewed. He set about writing a children’s book of his own, featuring a group of children with feckless parents, simultaneously deserted by them both, and desperately trying to keep themselves from the attention of the authorities, who might take them into care, and separate them. The resulting book, Gumble’s Yard, was the first post war children’s book to have as its main subject working–class and poor children, other than treating them as intrinsically comic. It remained in print for 50 years, and lives on as an e-book. Townsend had launched himself as a children’s writer.
Unfortunately there was another John Townsend newly in print at the time – a writer of exposés of rough schools. To avoid confusion, the editor at Hutchinson’s, when accepting Gumble’s Yard, said, “You don’t have a middle name, do you?” Townsend admitted to being John Rowe Townsend, and this became his name as a writer. When the ideological class and gender wars broke out over children’s literature in the eighties, this caused him to be attacked; a double name did not sound like a poor childhood in Leeds, and Townsend was accused of “slumming” when he wrote of his own background.
Townsend went on from Gumble’s Yard to write more than twenty children’s books, and, now thoroughly interested in the subject, to write a survey history of Children’s Literature in English. The only history of Children’s Literature then available was that of Harvey Darton, which extended only until 1936. Townsend’s Written for Children, in its first edition a slender and appreciative account intended mainly for parents, went through nine editions, expanding every time, to cover US and Commonwealth books, and became the standard introduction to the subject in use in many colleges. As his literary career blossomed, in 1969 Townsend left full time work for The Guardian, and became a full time writer, though he remained the editor of the Children’s Book pages until 1978, and a columnist till 1981. Townsend founded the Guardian Book Prize for children’s fiction, still an influential one, intended to counter-balance the Library Association’s Carnegie Medal, also for a children’s book, at that time usually awarded to a heavy-duty historical novel. The Guardian Prize was notably good at identifying promising new writers in the field.
Townsend himself won a prize, for The Intruder, dedicated to his wife Vera, which in 1971 was awarded an Edgar Allan Poe Award by the Mystery Writers of America. In 1976 John also took part in the prestigious series of lectures on children's literature sponsored by the Library of Congress.
In 1978 Townsend was recruited by a group of American enthusiasts, campaigning to establish an MA in Children’s Literature, neither as part of a Library Science course nor as part of an Education qualification, but simply as literature. It was not then possible to study children’s literature in such a way anywhere in the world. Townsend was recruited to give a course in contemporary British Children’s Literature, as part of the annual summer school attached to the new MA. He became “Permanent Visiting Faculty Member” of the Centre for the study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College in Boston, and an Adjunct Board Member of the daughter organisation, Children’s Literature New England which has continued conferences and courses until the present. The battle to have children’s literature taken seriously and subjected to the same disciplined study as other literature has now been so comprehensively won that it is difficult to remember what a hard struggle it was, but Townsend’s important contribution to the fight deserves to be commemorated.
On the death of his first wife Townsend moved back to Cambridge, the scene of his happy first years with her, and remained there for the rest of his life.
He is survived by two of his three children, seven grand-children, and his second wife, Jill Paton Walsh.
Back to Green Bay Publications