William Henry Davies or WH Davies born on the 3rd July 1871 and died on 26th September 1940. He was a Welsh poet and writer.

The People’s Poet

He spent a significant part of his life as a tramp or vagabond in the United States and United Kingdom, but became known as one the most popular poets of its time. The theme of his works mainly relate to the marvels of nature, observations about life’s hardships, his tramping adventures and characters he met. Davies is usually considered as one of the Georgian poets, although much of his work is atypical of the style and themes adopted by others of the genre.

Early Life

The son of an iron-moulder, Davies was born at 6 Portland Street in the Pillgwenlly district of Newport, then in Monmouthshire, in South East Wales and a busy port.

His father died when he was just two years old. His mother then abandoned him and his siblings when she remarried, leaving them to be brought up by their paternal grandparents who ran the nearby Church House Inn at 14, Portland Street. He was related to the famous British actor Sir Henry Irving (referred to as cousin Brodribb by the family).

His grandfather Francis Boase Davies, originally from Cornwall, had been a sea-captain. In his 1918 “Poet’s Pilgimage” Davies recounts, in anecdotal fashion, the time when, at the age of 14 he had been left ”with orders” to sit with his dying grandfather. He missed the final moments of his grandfather’s passing as he had been too engrossed in reading “…a very interesting book of wild adventure”. This revealing anecdote betrayed the passion Davies was to have all his life, despite his humble background, for the written word.

Delinquent to Supertramp

Davies became an apprentice to a picture-frame maker in his home town, but never settled into regular work in this craft. He was a difficult and somewhat delinquent young man, and made repeated requests to his grandmother to lend him the money to sail to America. When these were all refused, he eventually took casual work and started to travel. The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (1908) covers his life until that point in the time including many adventures and characters in the USA 1893-1899, where he lived as a tramp. During this period he crossed the Atlantic several times working on cattle ships. Back to Canada, on his way to Klondike, he lost a leg while jumping a freight train at Renfrew, Ontario, and wore a wooden leg thereafter.

“The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp” drew the attention of George Bernard Shaw, who wrote a preface. The 1970”s pop group ”Supertramp” took its name from this book.

Later days (1925) is the sequel which describes the beginnings of his career as a writer and his acquaintance with Hillaire Belloc, Bernard Shaw, and other.

Published Poet

He returned to England, living a rough life, in London in particular. His first book of poetry, in 1905, was the beginning of success and growing reputation. In order to even get “The Soul’s Destroyer” published, however Davies had to forgo his allowance and live the life of a tramp for six months, just to secure a loan of the necessary funds from his inheritance. When eventually published the volume was largely ignored and he restored to posting individual copies by hand to prospective wealthy customers chosen from the pages of “Who”s Who”. He eventually managed to sell 60 of the 200 copies printed.

In his poetry Davies drew extensively on his experiences with the seamier side for material. By time of his prominent place in the Edward Marsh Georgain poetry series, he was an established figure. He is generally best known for two lines from his poem, Lesuire.

“What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.”

In 1919 Davies was awarded a Civil List Pension of £50, later increased to £100 and then again to £150.

Later Life

He married in 1923 Helen Payne, his junior by three decades. Young Emma was his frank and often disturbing account of his life before and after picking her up in the street as a prostitute in the Edgware Road near Marble Arch. It was only published in 1890 after her death in 1979. they lived quietly and happily, first in Sussex and then later at a series of four different residences at Nailsworth in Gloucestershire, the last of which was a small cottage “Glendower” in the hamlet of Watledge. In 1929 he was awarded an Honorary Degree by the University of Wales.

Davies returned to his native Newport in September 1938 for the unveiling of a plaque in his honour at the Church House Inn with an address given by the Poet Laureate John Masefield. he was unwell, however and this proved to be his last public appearance. His health deteriorated, not helped by the weight of his wooden leg, and he died in September 1940 at the age of 69. He was buried in Watledge.

A controversial statue by Paul Bothwell-Kincaid, inspired by the poem “Leisure”, was unveiled in Commercial Street, Newport in December 1990 to commemorate Davies” work, on the 50th anniversary of his death.

A sculpture of Davies by Jacob Epstein, from January 1917, may be found at Newport Museum and Art Gallery.


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