The Bournemouth Echo could have been forgiven for not following up the death notice published last April.

There wasn’t anything on the internet about Rosemary Lightband and little about Rosemary Tonks, the name under which she produced her haunting poems of urban life and passion.

She lived so far under the radar that even when the poet Brian Patten produced his 2009 radio documentary The Poet Who Vanished, no one twigged that Mrs Lightband of Old Forest Lodge on the East Cliff was someone for whom the literary world had been searching for nearly 30 years.

According to Neil Astley, publisher of Bloodaxe books which has just launched her collected poetry ‘Bedouin of the London Evening’, Rosemary was: “A unique voice in 20th century poetry and the author of some exceptionally astute and critical writing.”

But she was also a rare and fragile talent whose story interweaves tales of poltergeists, mental illness and supernatural influence.

Her father died before her birth and she was dispatched ‘at an early age’ to board at Bournemouth’s Wentworth College, getting expelled aged 16.

“I ruined my schooldays through my inability to control myself,” she said.

She married Micky Lightband, settling in Paris in 1952 before returning to London and its literary salons.

Following her mother’s death in 1968 she turned her back on Christianity and attended spiritualist meetings until, in 1977, she suffered two detached retinas and moved to Bournemouth to recover at her aunt’s house.

Deciding to make the change permanent – she put her Hampstead home on the market having split from her husband – the real trouble started.

According to Neil Astley: “She tried for several months during 1980 to sell her London house, but each time a buyer turned up the sky would darken and there would be a foul smell in the house...this happened so often that she ruled out coincidence.”

He says she ‘cleaned every room obsessively’ and threw out all her books on spiritualism and the occult. Finally, believing the oriental religious artefacts bequeathed to her by her husband’s family must be exerting some malign power, she packed them into suitcases and deposited them in a bank vault.

“She saw these as sinister objects, stolen from temples and graves, which had lead her to seek knowledge of God through what she now believed was a diabolical eastern religion,” says Neil.

“The very next day a young couple came to see the house in bright sunshine and bought it.”

In November 1989 she moved into Old Forest Lodge and ignored letters from relatives, old friends and publishers.

“She turned to the Bible which became her complete manual for living,” says Neil; “No one knew who she was.”

She had, he says, ‘disappeared into thin air like the Cheshire Cat’.

“One of her family members contacted me and explained that no one had been able to see her for years,” he says.

“If they let her know they were coming, she would just hide or not be there, so they had just given up.”

Neil’s own letters went unanswered. When he knocked on her door she was ‘either not there or hiding’ so he went round to the neighbours.

“I was able to find one who overlooked her garden but he said she ran away whenever he came up to her,” he says.

During this time Rosemary’s mind became increasingly troubled by what she felt were ‘supernatural occurrences’.

From her notebooks we know that despite being under lock and key in London she believed her ‘graven images’ had to be destroyed by fire, as instructed in the Bible.

She retrieved the suitcases and filled two incinerators with 40 valuable artefacts – including Chinese jade and a Korean dancing figure – which she itemised in a handwritten list in August 1981 titled ‘The Burning of Some Idols’.

According to Neil she ‘smashed and hammered at the still intact figures’ until she got the remnants down to ‘dog biscuit size’.

Rosemary claimed that during this time there were ‘noises’ in her home and by spooky coincidence during the same week, just a mile away in Abbott Road, a property was wrecked by flying objects and furniture thrown around by an alleged poltergeist, all witnessed by four other people as well as the householders and a respectable police officer, Alan C Wood.

He told the Echo that in spite of the warm weather, it was ‘deathly cold’ in the unquiet house.

“I saw the television was lying on the floor and the kitchen floor was covered in broken glass and china,” he said.

“As I moved in I saw a six foot dresser in the kitchen fall over and crash to the floor. I was the only person in the house.”

Rosemary kept the Echo cuttings and after one final act of cleansing – she burned the book she’d been writing – on October 17 1981 she was baptised near the river Jordan.

Her new life involved much communing with various evangelical Christian groups as well as travelling around on buses, invoking the spirit of the flaneur – a stroller in towns – which had first emerged in her poetical works. “She’d go to Christchurch, Ringwood, Wimborne, Poole, occasionally Dorchester,” says Neil.

“Because she had a phobia about being photographed she couldn’t get a bus pass which meant she had to pay cash for all of her journeys.”

Because she couldn’t see well enough to cook, Rosemary enjoyed frequenting the restaurants in Beales, the Dalkeith Arcade, Debenhams, Dingles, and M&S.

“She would use the Starbucks in Borders and Cafe Nero in Waterstones but only read their Bibles, of which the King James was her favourite.”

The impression is of a lonely existence but that is not how her friends remember her. Because Rosemary Lightband did make friends and delighted them with her humour, resilience and determination.

One who got to know her was Alec Evans, maintenance worker at the Piccadilly Hotel in Bath Road, close to her home.

He remembers a woman who was: “Very British, beautifully educated, speaking French and Italian. Sometimes she would be talking and I’d stop her because she’d strayed into Italian,” he says.

He understood she had been a writer and referred to her as ‘Mrs T’: “But only because she wore a baseball cap everywhere, like Mr T from off the TV.

“She liked to help in the garden here so I would give her a few jobs to do and we’d chat,” he says, although he still won’t break her confidence.

“She was a very private person.”

What they never did was talk about her former life; “She was done with that” and Rosemary eventually moved into the hotel.

“She knew she was dying and made clear arrangements for her burial – she bought the plot beforehand,” he says. When the end came he believes she was ‘at peace’.

  • Bedouin of the London Evening