Joan Barton was born in Bristol in 1908. At the age of 11 she won a scholarship to Colston's Girls School, where she became Head Girl. She was offered a place at Oxford University to read English, but with no scholarship Joan was unable to take up the place, and so attended Bristol University. She was forced to leave before completing her degree because of illness, and did not return to complete it once she recovered, grasping the opportunity to evade the teaching career she felt that she had been destined for.
After recovering from illness she took a job in a Bristol bookshop called 'George's', before working for BBC Bristol. She left the BBC in August 1940 and worked for Somerset County Council. Following this was a stint as county secretary in the Land Army, before working as the head of the Periodicals department at the British Council, where she met John Betjeman, who admired her poems and encouraged her to seek a publisher. After the Second World War ended, she left the Council, feeling that her level of responsibility would diminish as male members of staff returned after demobilisation. Joan then used her savings to set up a bookshop in Marlborough with her friend and partner Barbara Watson. They ran the White Horse Bookshop successfully for 20 years before selling the business and moving to Salisbury in 1966. She and Barbara continued to trade in second hand books, specialising in modern British first editions, detective fiction and children's fiction.
Joan Barton had started to write poetry as a schoolgirl; her first poems appearing in her school magazine in the 1920s [see U DX340/1/1, which includes poems that were printed in the magazine]. While working at 'George's' bookshop, Joan and a friend sent 'rhyme sheets' to Walter de la Mare, which proved to be the start of a productive correspondence. He gave Joan feedback and encouragement, as well as sending her poems to various magazines and even obtaining reviewing work for her. This correspondence may have given her the confidence to write to other well-known writers such as Philip Larkin, who was also supportive of her work.
Her first forays into published poetry were in the 1930s, when her first published poem, 'One Sharp Delight', was printed in New Statesman and reprinted in Best New Poems of 1930 [see U DX340/1/9]. She continued to publish in periodicals, aided by the advice and introductions offered by Walter de la Mare.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, and seeing her profession as a priority, she wrote almost nothing between 1940 and 1957. In the mid-1950s Joan found that the impulse for poetry had returned and so resumed writing. Many of her poems were inspired by her professional life, such as buying from both auctions and private houses. Two examples of this are 'Lot 304: Various Books' and 'The Major: An Epitaph' [see U DX340/1/7, 16, 19 & 21]. John Betjeman had suggested she contact the Listen press, and the inclusion of her poems in Listen established a publishing connection between with Hull [U DX340/1/13-14]. She was later published by Ted Tarling, who had founded Wave and later the Sonus Press.
In 1961 Joan started editing the Marlborough Parish magazine, and combined with the busy task of running the bookshop, this meant that she write no poetry until selling the bookshop in 1966. It was around this time that Joan was approached by Edwin Tarling after he had noticed her poems in the Hartleys' Listen magazine. This (along with more requests from Philip Larkin and John Betjeman) prompted her to start writing poetry again, and so her poems appeared in Wave magazine (U DX340/1/15-19). After Tarling received an Arts Council grant they produced a book of Joan's verse entitled The Mistress and Other Poems, which was published by the Sonus Press in 1972. Few people who knew Joan as a bookseller were aware of her other life as a writer; she kept the two worlds separate and even some relatives were unaware of her writing until The Mistress was published.
The poet Anne Stevenson prompted the BBC to produce a radio programme about Joan's work in 1975 as part of the Radio 3 Living Poet series [see U DX340/5/1-2]. In 1978 she successfully applied for a literary bursary from the Southern Arts Association and where previously her average output was three or four poems a year, that year she produced more than thirteen. Another collection, Ten Poems was hand-printed in a limited signed edition by the Perdix Press in 1979.
An expanded collection, A House Under Old Sarum was published by Peterloo Poets in 1981, and Night Journey on the Plain appeared in 1983 [self-published]. Exhibitions of poems from A House Under Old Sarum were held at various venues around Salisbury.
In her final years she gained some recognition through a feature on US radio, a published interview and in 1979 an article about her in the American Journal 'Women in Literature' [see U DX340/5/4-5]. She continued to write into her 70s, even as her eyesight deteriorated. Joan Barton died in 1986 and the executor of her will was Barbara Watson.