A lifetime of poetry

90-year-old author Jean Medcalf shares how her passion for poems began in 1940s Leytonstone

Jean Medcalf on her 90th birthday

Jean Medcalf has loved poetry since she was a small child. 

The 90-year-old, who was born in Leytonstone in 1931, attended Cann Hall Primary School (now Jenny Hammond Primary School) on Elsham Road – where a reading of the Walter de la Mare poem Silver sparked a journey that has lasted her lifetime. 

In a chat with the Echo, Jean also fondly remembers becoming a member of Leytonstone Library on Church Lane as a schoolgirl. 

“When I was seven years old, if the headmaster thought you were good enough at reading, you [would] go to him and get a letter to say that you could read, and then you could belong to the library, which I did,” Jean tells the Echo on the phone. 

She grew up during the Second World War and as a teenager, wrote avidly in her diaries. She enjoyed countryside walks throughout her 20s as part of a local Youth Hostelling group, and has been writing poetry about the beauty of nature, and the cycle of life, ever since. 

Her accomplishments include coming second out of over 50,000 entries at Forward Prize Top 100 Poets Competition in 2003, with a poem entitled Seen From A Train. It was inspired by a glimpse of a funeral taking place in the winter at St Patrick’s Cemetery in Leyton. 

In addition to reading at the Leytonstone Festival, featuring in the Wanstead Village Directory and appearing in numerous local magazines and anthologies, Jean published her own book – To Everything There Is A Season – when she was 81. 

Described as “uplifting” and “lyrical”, the book features poems dating as far back as the 1950s. It can now be borrowed from Walthamstow, Leyton and Leytonstone libraries. A true ‘full circle’ moment. 

Today, Jean lives in Wanstead – which she says has changed far less than her native Leytonstone over the decades. 

Here, she often admires the nature around her – and hopes that future generations are more inclined to protect it. 

“With all this lockdown we’ve had to put up with, people realise that trees and nature are far more important than [they] used to realise,” she says. “They’re taking it more seriously.” 

A special place in her heart remains for her old primary school. She recently made a donation – including books, which will hopefully inspire a few future poets. 

“I thought it would be fun to tell them about why I like poetry,” Jean concludes. “Because it all started at Cann Hall school. It’s good for children to grow up knowing about poetry.” 

To buy Jean’s poetry book, head to Amazon

With thanks to Sally Medcalf who provided a lot of biographical information