The Henry Williamson Society
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The writer Henry Williamson was born in London in 1895.
Naturalist, soldier, journalist, farmer, motor enthusiast and author of over fifty books, his descriptions of nature and the First World War have been highly praised for their accuracy.
He is best known as the author of Tarka the Otter, which won the Hawthornden Prize for Literature in 1928 and was filmed in 1977. By one of those extraordinary coincidences, Henry Williamson died while the crew were actually filming the death scene of Tarka.
Here in the Henry Williamson Society's website you can explore the man, his life, and his place in English Literature and history.
If you enjoy browsing through the pages of this website and wish to support the work of the Henry Williamson Society in furthering the appreciation of Henry Williamson’s writings, please consider either becoming a member of the Society or making a donation towards the maintenance of our website.
2017 — Dates for your diary:
— 18 March: Study Day. A new venture for the Society is a visit to the Imperial War Museum. Outline details are available via the link.
— 19–20 May: Spring Meeting. The Spring Meeting this year will be held at Carshalton, South London, the setting for Richard Maddison's early romancing with Hetty Turney in The Dark Lantern, the first volume of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. Outline details are available via the link; more detailed information and the booking form will be sent out with the Spring mailing.
— 6–8 October: Autumn Meeting and AGM. A celebration of the 90th anniversary of the publication of Tarka the Otter. Details to be announced.
We are pleased to bring to your attention an important new resource on our website, A Life's Work. This is a descriptive bibliography of Henry Williamson's writings, title by title. Written by Anne Williamson and utilising rare archive material, it is not a bibliography in the strict sense of the word, but literarily a description of each book – a synopsis of its plot; the circumstances behind Henry’s writing of it; Henry’s life at the time; and its critical reception. Anne Williamson is uniquely placed to write this, having both such an intimate knowledge of the writings and access to Henry’s journals, diaries and archive material; we are fortunate indeed in being able to work with her in publishing this work here. It is planned to add books, collections and significant essays at relatively frequent intervals, as they are completed – 48 as at September 2016. Anne has now covered the The Flax of Dream, and its four constituent volumes, The Beautiful Years, Dandelion Days, The Dream of Fair Women and The Pathway, together with The Star-born; a short entry on HW's early contributions to The Weekly Dispatch as a novice reporter; and the 'nature' books. She has also started her consideration of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight and has completed the first eleven books in the series. Other books covered include Henry's best-known work Tarka the Otter, The Wet Flanders Plain, The Patriot's Progress and The Gold Falcon.
February 2017 — 100 YEARS AGO: On 27 February 1917 Lieutenant Henry Williamson, Transport Officer of the newly formed 208 Machine Gun Company, returned to France for his second period of service on the Western Front. 208 MGC joined the 62nd Division on the Somme sector of the British line, and took part in the Arras offensive and the Battle of Bullecourt in April and May 1917. Williamson was invalided home on 18 June after eighteen weeks’ active service in France, after being gassed when caught in a night bombardment while he and his mule teams were taking replacement machine guns and supplies up to the front line. Henry Williamson and 208 Machine Gun Company explores Henry Williamson's experiences and duties as transport officer through his letters, diary entries and other archival material, including original documents, and photographs of 208 MGC officers and men from Williamson's personal album.
November 2016 — Announcing a new web page, Henry Williamson and the London Rifle Brigade, 1915-1915: An Illustrated Timeline as a part of the Henry Williamson and the First World War area of the website. In August 1914 Williamson, then an 18-year-old Territorial private with the London Rifle Brigade, volunteered for overseas service. The page looks at his progress – mobilisation, embarkation, introduction to trench warfare at Ploegsteert Wood, and then being invalided home in January 1915 suffering from dysentery and trench foot – through his letters home and the records of the London Rifle Brigade. It is generously illustrated with unique material from the Literary Archive and other sources.
1 July 2016 — The centenary of the disastrous opening day of the Battle of the Somme. To mark the fiftieth anniversary Henry Williamson wrote two articles. The first is 'The Somme - just fifty years after', which was published in the Daily Express over three days, on 29 and 30 June and 1 July 1966. This brilliant and moving article, just as relevant today, deserves a wider readership, but regrettably the Express ignored our suggestion that they reprint it. The second, published in the Evening Standard on 4 July 1966, is '7.30 a.m.: a time of hope that became an execution hour'.
December 2015 — We now have a Henry Williamson Society shopping bag, with HW's striking owl colophon printed in dark green on one side, and on the other the first sentence from his well-loved prize-winning novel Tarka the Otter:
The bags are eco-ethically sourced and manufactured at a Fairtrade factory. Just £5.50 each, they are strongly made of natural canvas, with short handles, and measure 42cm high x 37cm wide, with a 10cm gusset. Use one (or two) for your weekly shop, and avoid ever again paying 5p for a plastic bag!
August 2015 — The Society is very pleased to announce that it has reprinted as e-books Richard Williamson's first two books: his memoir The Dawn is My Brother, first published in 1959 and runner-up for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; and his novel Capreol: The Story of a Roebuck, published in 1973. These are available at just £3.50 each directly from the Society, and at approximately that price from Amazon's Kindle Store and other e-book retailers. Please click on the links or the images below for full descriptions and/or to order the e-books.
Richard Williamson is the fifth child of the author Henry Williamson. Educated at schools in Worcestershire and Devon and self-educated in the local woods and fields, as well as in the marshlands of the North Norfolk coast, he joined the RAF on leaving school and wrote The Dawn is My Brother out of his experiences. He joined the Nature Conservancy in 1963 and became warden of Kingley Vale nature reserve near Chichester in Sussex, where, now retired, he lives with his wife Anne. He has been President of the Henry Williamson Society since its formation in 1980.
May 2015 — On Saturday, 16 May, Anne Williamson, the Manager of the Henry Williamson Literary Estate, presented the Literary Archive to Exeter University Library, Heritage Collections. The presentation was attended by other members of the Williamson family, members of the Society and officials of Exeter University, and formed the centrepiece of the Henry Williamson Society's spring meeting.
Left to right: Robert Williamson, Richard Williamson, Anne Williamson, Dr Christine
Faunch (Head of Heritage Collections) and Michele Shoebridge (Deputy COO, Exeter
University). Anne is holding an original poem and sketch by the Cornish poet Charles
Causley, presented to her and Richard by the University as a token of thanks.
(Photograph courtesy of Robert Walker)
February 2015 — The Society is pleased to announce the publication, as an e-book only, of Anne Williamson's Following in Henry Williamson's Footsteps, an explanatory commentary on Williamson's On Foot in Devon, the quirky mock travel guide that he published in 1933. A detailed knowledge or prior reading of On Foot in Devon is not a prerequisite, for the numerous and sometimes lengthy quotations mean that the commentary can be read and enjoyed independently of the book itself. The price is £2.50. See our online shop for further details.
August 2014 — The personal diary of a fellow Territorial in the London Rifle Brigade, Rifleman Hubert 'Hob' Brown, is being published for the first time by his step-grandson on a dedicated website, each entry 100 years to the day from the time of writing. The diary was kept between 2 August 1914 and 1 July 1916, when Hob Brown was wounded at Gommecourt on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and repatriated to England. A little older than Henry Williamson (he was born in 1889), Hob joined the LRB in 1909 (Army No. 8699), shortly after it was formed, while HW joined on 22 January 1914 (No. 9689). While they were in different companies, they must have known each other, and their two diaries align perfectly until HW was invalided home in January 1915. It will be interesting to follow the fortunes of Hob (and thus Henry) on a daily basis.
July 2014 — Henry Williamson's Writing Hut has been granted Grade II listed status by English Heritage; see the BBC report.
May 2014 — Update on the February announcement on this page of the forthcoming auction of Henry Williamson's Writing Hut and associated land: the BBC announced on 22 May that the Hut and land has been sold privately ahead of the auction. The BBC's webpage also contains a link to a short extract from a 1965 interview with HW previously unknown to this webmaster.
April 2014 — BBC Desert Island Discs: Henry Williamson appeared on Desert Island Discs on Saturday, 11 October 1969, and the programme has only been heard since on private recordings of variable quality made at the time of the broadcast. The BBC has now added the complete programme to its online Desert Island Discs collection of interviews, a most welcome addition.
March 2014 — We bring to your attention I Was There: The Great War Interviews (BBC2 television, 14 March, 9.00 p.m.), which reveals poignant personal stories from people who took part in the First World War, one of whom is Henry Williamson.
The programme uses archive material recorded by Julia Cave for the landmark television series The Great War (made and shown in 26 episodes in 1964 by Gordon Watkins, who was a friend of HW and at one time a member of the HWS), but not used then and not previously seen. This material has been blended into a powerful, sensitive and moving film by Detlef Siebert for the BBC.
HW has only a few brief remarks (as one of several others) in this actual film, but there are a further associated 13 programmes of full individual interviews; HW's full-length interview (around half an hour) features as one of these programmes, and is available on BBC iPlayer now.
The programmes are curated by Sir Max Hastings (well-known authority on the Great War and son of Macdonald Hastings, another friend of HW, who wrote up the well-known shoot on the Norfolk Farm for Picture Post (see HWSJ 40, Sept. 2004, pp. 22-36, where a fully illustrated account of this event is given).
February 2014 — It is with the greatest reluctance that the Williamson family has announced that Henry Williamson's Writing Hut, together with the studio close by and an acre of land, are to be put up for auction on 23 May. It is to be hoped that the buyer will be sympathetic to the hut and its environs, given its great literary significance. For HW it was a place of sanctuary, and many of his works were written there, including books in the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series. It has become, for Williamson readers, a place of pilgrimage, with visitors from as far away as the United States and Australia. The auctioneers are Webbers Property Services, from whom further particulars can be obtained. The news recently featured in the Daily Mail and the Mail Online, with some excellent photos.
|The Writing Hut in 2009|
|Building the Hut in 1929|
|Henry Williamson by the Hut fireplace . . .|
|. . . and at the Hut doorway|
NEW! — We have finished the conversion of our all publications to e-books, both as a means of keeping available out of print titles and to attract readers who possess Kindles, Nook and Kobi readers, iPads, tablets etc., and who enjoy taking their library with them wherever they are. Twenty-three e-books are now available, just click on the E-books button on our main menu bar for full details and descriptions of individual titles - or go to Amazon.
November 2012 — The Tarka Challenge! It has just come to our notice that eight-year-old Rudi, whose favourite book is Tarka the Otter, has set himself the challenge of actually seeing, and if possible photographing, all the animals listed in the book, which he has counted as comprising 89 birds, 54 land-based animals, 120 plants and 56 aquatic organisms. This young naturalist began his challenge at the beginning of 2012, and has built up an impressive list of sightings. How is he doing? Follow his progress on his blog!
June 2012 — The haunting music that accompanied David Cobham's 1973 BBC film The Vanishing Hedgerows, which featured Henry Williamson returning to his Norfolk farm, was composed specially for the documentary by Paul Lewis. 'Norfolk Idyll', the concert work based on the score, has been released in its original orchestration for flute and harp on the CD Summer was in August – British Flute Music, performed by Rachel Smith, flute, and Jenny Broome, harp, Campion Cameo 2030, available from Amazon. Four other pieces by Paul Lewis are also included among the twelve tracks.
The sheet music of 'Norfolk Idyll' bears the dedication “In memory of Henry Williamson”, and is published by Broadbent and Dunn, available direct or through music shops.
The work has also been recorded in a version for harmonica and harp under its previous title 'Norfolk Rhapsody' on the CD Serenade and Dance – the Romantic Harmonica Music of Paul Lewis, performed by James Hughes, harmonica, and Elizabeth Jane Baldry, harp, Campion Cameo 2024, again available from Amazon.
February 2012 — Last September Manchester University Press published Adam Reed's academic monograph Literature and Agency in English Fiction Reading: A Study of the Henry Williamson Society. The recommended retail price is a steep £65, though it can be bought slightly cheaper from Amazon. 'This book represents the first anthropological study of fiction reading and the first ethnography of British literary culture. It is the outcome of long-term engagement with a set of solitary readers who belong to a single literary society.' Many members of the Society were interviewed by Adam over a period of years, though in a manner reminiscent of Henry Williamson himself, he has disguised their identities. His non-literary approach to a literary society makes for most interesting reading.
OUT OF PRINT JOURNALS: The contents of journals now out of print (nos 1 to 30) have been scanned. Articles are available as PDFs from either the Journal Contents page or the Author and Article Title indexes, and may be downloaded or printed as desired. While this service is free of charge, those availing themselves of it may wish to make an appropriate donation by using the Donate button above.
|Richard Williamson||'Portrait of an author in North Devon', Western Morning News, 24 May 1963. Click on link for the full article.|
Ted Hughes, in his address at the memorial service for Henry Williamson, 1 December 1977, on Tarka the Otter
|In the confrontations of creature and creature, of creature and object, of creature and fate – he made me feel the pathos of actuality in the natural world . . . I now know that only the finest writers are ever able to evoke it . . . It is not usual to consider [Henry Williamson] as a poet. But I believe he was one of the truest English poets of his generation.|
|Michael Morpurgo, Introduction to Salar the Salmon, 2010||It is a rare gift indeed for a storyteller to be poet as much as a storyteller, to tell a tale so deeply engaging that the reader wants to know what will happen and never want it to end, and yet at the same time tells it in such a way as to leave a reader wide-eyed with amazement at the sheer intensity of feeling that can be induced by the word-magic of a poet. Henry Williamson is just such a story-maker poet.|
|Charles Causley, letter to Henry Williamson, 1959||
Well, now – LOVE AND THE LOVELESS really is something. I admire the rest of the novels in this series greatly – but, for me, this one is the finest so far of a fine bunch. . . . I haven’t come across anything that captures with such a magnificent fusion of straight fact and burning poetic imagination and sensibility and sensitivity the extraordinary climate of the times. I put the book with the very best of the first world-war stories: with Siegfried's Infantry Officer, the Graves autobiography, Aldington's Hero. Grasping the sheer muck of fact as you have I'm not sure you haven’t out of it created a greater work of art then the lot of ’em. It's ahead of Blunden's Undertones (this has always seemed to me muted, muffled) and up there with the very best, and with Owen's poems.
|George D. Painter||
Here is an unrolling map of the labyrinth of three generations, our fathers, ourselves and our children, and the thread leading to the mystery - monster or divinity? - at the centre. In my belief ... the whole cycle [of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight] will ultimately be recognized as the great historical novel of our time, its subject as the total experience of twentieth-century man.
|John Middleton Murry||
This will be in its entirety one of the most remarkable English novels of our time ... It is amazingly rich in all the living detail of a swiftly changing society; the characters are drawn with such loving sympathy and such firmness of imaginative outline that we are entirely absorbed by their vicissitudes. We are apprehensive for them, we are relieved; we rejoice and are sorrowful; we are angry and we understand and we laugh and laugh again. To be able to do this with us is the novelist's supreme gift ... I believe it is high time we awoke to the splendour and scope of his effort and achievement in A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. Begin with The Dark Lantern and read on; you will be the richer for it.
T. E. Lawrence, letter to Edward Garnett, 1928
|If I'd known he was so practiced I wouldn't have dared write him.|
|Malcolm Elwin, 1957||He emerges as one of the most impressively gifted and lavishly creative among writers of modern fiction.|
|James Hanley, on Young Phillip Maddison||How well Mr Williamson conveys all the secret thoughts and doings of boys, living lives that are all heights and depths. Magically he suggests the era by subtle description.|
|Allan Wykes, review of The Innocent Moon in the Sunday Times||To follow Mr Williamson through all the tones and tempers of his chronicle is to emerge with a sense – insistent and triumphant – of having been brushed by experience.|
|Michael Bradbury, review of The Power Of The Dead in Punch||What emerges is a deep sense of truthfulness and accuracy and a complexity of experience.|
|Walter de la Mare, letter to Putnams, 1926||I have always thought that Williamson had a tinge of that very rare quality, or whatever it may be, called genius; and I feel convinced that in time it will be more fully recognised . . .|
|George D. Painter, 1959||It will be among the accepted facts of English literary history that our only two great novelists writing in the second quarter of the twentieth century, after the deaths of Lawrence and Joyce, were John Cowper Powys and Henry Williamson.|
|L. A. G. Strong, 1945||Few writers hold so surely the balance between outer and inner truth; fewer so generously share their vision with their reader.|
|John Galsworthy, letter to Edward Garnett, 1926||Do you know the work of Henry Williamson? It's uneven but at it's best extraordinarily good I think.|
|John Betjeman, review of The Dark Lantern in the Daily Telegraph||There is a magic about this book . . . this excursion into a late Victorian suburb and merchant materialism is unexpected and it is as genuine and affectionate as it is accomplished.|
|General Sir Hubert Gough, letter to Henry Williamson||I have re-read your story of our Fifth Army [A Test to Destruction], and was greatly moved. It made me realise once again what a wonderful people the British are.|
|Times Literary Supplement review of The Golden Virgin||It is difficult to know which to admire the more, the skill of the characterisation or the art by which the character is subordinated to the theme without contrivance and without loss of humanity . . . The contrast between the tenderness of youth and the cruelty of war is most effectively described.|
|George D. Painter, review of How Dear is Life in The Listener||Mr Williamson's prose is like sunlight and clear air; and then, when necessary, it has the taste of fear in the mouth, the terrible beauty of life on the edge of the abyss.|
|Kenneth Allsop, review of It Was The Nightgale in the Daily Mail||The sad beauty of the love story laces a huge exquisitely worked tapestry of period and people.|
|Ernest Wycherley, review of A Solitary War in the Daily Express||This astonishing sequence [A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight]. It is a major mark he is making on the modern novel.|
|Frank Swinnerton, 1937||Henry Williamson . . . seems to spend his days up to his waist or neck in a Devonshire river, watching the habits of otters, salmon and other wild creatures.|
|Cecil Beaton, diary entry, July 1970||The long days of reading are perhaps at an end (I have bitten into so many varied books, E. M. Forster, Thackeray, Henry Williamson and a 'How to Learn Italian) for we have personalities and places to cope with from now on. Then reading H. Williamson's 'Donkey Boy' filled me with adoration and unexpected tears.|
|Paul Scofield, in Castaways' Choice: 50 Castaways choose their Desert Island Book, Folio Society||J. W. Fortescue, in his introduction to Henry Williamson's story [Tarka the Otter], wrote that 'our powers of observation are necessarily limited' and that 'our powers of imagination are always confined within the bounds of our human experience'. Nevertheless observation and imagination are still our only means of entering the daily life of the creatures of the wild, and such qualities are possessed in abundance by Williamson. The hero of Williamson's book is an otter, but other forms of life in the wild – insects, fish, flowers, grasses and birds – also claim his attentive devotion. Every sentence in this extraordinary book either summons the remembrance of something seen and known, or dazzles with a fresh observation; the perceptions are ceaseless, the longing for a natural order of things is unforgettably moving. It is both a celebration and a threnody.|
We will add to these opinions from time to time. Submissions to the webmaster of further examples are welcomed.
Please note: Work is ongoing on the Research Centre pages. This site is actively maintained, and new content is added regularly, in the form of full-text articles from journals now out of print. Links to these can be found on the Research Centre Author and Title pages, and the Journal Contents page for nos. 1–30.
Your comments and suggestions are valued, please email the webmaster.