Recollections of John Pounds: Have you met the Old Cobbler ? By Rev’d Henry Hawkes

A few days after I came to reside at Portsmouth, in the spring of 1833, a lady said to me laughingly, “Have you been introduced to the old cobbler yet ?”. Seeing that I was at a loss to know whom she referred to; “O you must go and see the old cobbler;” she said in a somewhat more serious tone; but mingled with pleasantry’ “He’s a remarkable man’ quite a character! And does a great deal of good, in his own quiet, humble way.

Recollections of John Pounds

Besides, he is to be one of your new flock; and a very constant one: – in an evening; but he is never there in the morning. They say he stays at home in the morning to cook his nephew his dinner. He has adopted his nephew; and the young man lives with him. But he is always there in an evening; nobody ever knew him absent – or late.
He’s always one of the first, the early comers are sure to see John Pounds in his place. He sits in the left gallery going in, at the father end, near the pulpit; and has commonly a cluster of little children about him. For he has taken a fancy to keeping a school: – if – school – we may call it! Such a crowd of children, all huddled together, in his very little shop; and he teaches them while he goes on with his cobbling !
Many of the poorest of them he partly feeds and clothes. His shop is full of them. Oh, such a little bit of a shop! One wonders how he gets them all in. And yet in that poor little place he has commonly thirty or forty children at once; sometimes more; all happy about him. On a fine day you may see a row of them sitting outside in the street, on a little form, just under his little tumble down window.”

“What are his terms ?”

“Terms!” – and she laughed heartily. “He has no terms! He won’t receive any thing for it. He gets about him the poorest and most destitute; he seeks out them that can’t pay. Friends would gladly give him something occasionally in the way of remuneration; but he always refuses it. No one has ever been able to induce him to accept any thing for it.”

“What has he to live upon ?”


John Pounds Shop in Portsmouth
John Pounds Shop in Portsmouth

“We don’t know. But he can’t have much, if any thing, besides what he earns by his cobbling; and he can’t earn much by that; for his work, though they say it is strong and serviceable, is but of a rough sort. Every thing about him, and his manner of living, seems very bare and scanty; and would look wretched, but for his own happy contented spirit, and his host of happy little faces.
And he has his shop crowded with bird cages, and baskets for his cat and kittens, and young birds, and other animals; any thing he can help to make happy! The place is full of life and cheerfulness. But you must go and see him; and he will tell you all about it himself; for he dearly loves to talk about his doings, to anyone that will listen.
He has a very independent spirit, and a most benevolent heart; indefatigable in doing good; but all in the humblest way; most unpretending, and obscure. Mrs E…, of A…., calls him a philanthropist! She says, he’s an honour to mankind!” – with a smile.
“We took her to see him once, in the midst of his busy little school; cobbling, and teaching his scholars! And she was highly delighted. She calls him – a public benefactor! – She has repeatedly sent a bundle of their children’s cast off clothes for his poorest scholars; which he has always received very gratefully, and made the best use of them. He will accept any thing for the poor children; but nothing for himself.”

“Has he kept this school long ?”


Old map of Portsmouth
Old map of Portsmouth

“Yes, many years. But you must not expect to find it much like a school. It is more of a gathering together as many children as his shop will hold; with nothing like system or classification. His crowd of little boys and girls cluster about him like a swarm of bees! And with very much the same sort of constant hum and buzz ! All at their ease!
It is quite a pleasant sight to see them; they all look so happy together. And yet he has some of the roughest of the rough. But he has a way of attaching them to him; so that he can keep them all in good order: – if we may call such a formless sort of doings – order !” – with a good natured laugh. “They always treat him with the greatest of respect. They all love him; and would do any thing to please him.”

“How old is he?”

“We think, between sixty and seventy. But he looks older; he is so spare and gaunt; so meagre looking; and his features are deeply furrowed.”

“Is he much helped ?”

“We think not. Very few seem to take much notice of him. A few friends occasionally give him some books, and slates, and other things useful in teaching. But he goes on his own quiet, unpretending way of doing good; happy and unobtrusive; apparently without a thought, or a wish, beyond his own immediate usefulness; – and that – is never ceasing! – But you must go and see him, and judge for yourself. Mr ….. will have pleasure in taking you.”

John Pounds Portsmouth

Mr. …. happened to come in just then; and kindly offered to take me the next morning to which I gladly agreed.