Childhood 1 Harry






An illustrated account of Henry Williamson's childhood



Anne Williamson



      Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up

      Fostered alike by beauty and by fear.


William Wordsworth, The Prelude (Book I)



After their marriage on 10 May 1893 William Leopold and Gertrude Williamson lived first in rented accommodation at 66 Braxfield Road Brockley, and this is where their three children were born: Kathleen Gertrude on 13 June 1894, Henry William on 1 December 1885, and Doris Mary (always known as Biddy) on 5 August 1889. It is an odd fact that there are no really early photographs surviving of the family: neither of mother and son, nor of mother and daughters. The earliest known photograph is of the three children:



Childhood 2 three children



It is not dated but I have deduced that it is the summer 1900 (see later), so that Kathy would be 6 and a bit, Henry is nearly 5, and Biddy just 2.


At the end of 1899 the family moved to a newly built semi-detached house on Eastern Road – No. 11, which William Leopold named ‘Hildersheim’'. This photo of Gertie and young Harry (as he was called) standing by the front gate was probably taken in about 1912.



Childhood 3 11Eastern Road



And, of course, before long Gertie’s parents, the Leavers, came to live next door at No. 12, ‘Wespelaer’, to the horror of her husband, who had an awkward relationship with his in-laws.



Childhood 4 12Eastern Road



I think the photograph above probably shows HW's maternal grandmother, born Henrietta Turney and married to Thomas Leaver – she appears as Sarah in the early volumes of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight – and possibly also her oldest daughter Maude, with either (I’m guessing here) Maude's husband, the fictional 'Sidney', or perhaps the reprobate fictional 'Charlie', before he left for South Africa after quarrelling with his father.


Opposite the row of houses on Eastern Road there was – and still is – the open, exciting area known as Hilly Fields:



Childhood 5 Hilly fields Xmas



This is from a Christmas card sent out by William and Gertrude, very early in their residence there – perhaps that first year. It looks a bit bare and gaunt. There is another version of the photograph – tinted for a postcard: Turret House, where the Nicholson family lived, is at the top of the road, and shows up well (it has since been demolished following a fire, but was still standing in the late 1960s).



Childhood 6 Hilly fields colour






Now – we are given to understand from HW’s various writings that he had an unhappy childhood. Both his Aunt Maude and Aunt Mary Leopoldina wrote letters in later years (when HW was an adult) stating that he was 'born unhappy', had 'unhappy eyes even as a baby', and was 'the unhappiest small boy I have ever seen'.


In A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight HW tends to emphasise this myth in his portrayal of young Phillip Maddison. Yes, myth – well, I think it is a myth. Look again at this photograph:



Childhood 1 Harry



Those eyes are not the eyes of an unhappy child – they are dreaming; all-seeing. I think young Harry actually had a pretty happy childhood; certainly no more unhappy, and certainly much more exciting, than many – probably most – other children of his class and era. Yes, he often got into trouble and was caned for it. But caning was a pretty normal punishment then. If a lad destroys his father's precious butterfly collection (Donkey Boy, p. 22), shoots at the neighbour’s greenhouse with an air-rifle (Donkey Boy, p. 252) and sets fire to the field at the back of the house (Donkey Boy, p. 349), what else can he expect! Here I should say that I think that we can assume that many of the boyhood details in Donkey Boy and Young Phillip Maddison are autobiographical – they most certainly have autobiographical elements – and that to a certain extent, therefore, Harry and Phillip are interchangeable.


Harry was an abnormally sensitive and highly strung boy, and everything was either wonderful and up in the air – or terrible and he was in the depth of despair. But apart from that, young Harry had a tremendous amount of fun and freedom. His father may have been very strict and cold in manner, but he did actually encourage his son in many boyhood pursuits: walking, cycling, his interest in nature, kite flying, tennis, etcetera. Indeed, family life was actually quite exciting!


Having his in-laws next door may have been a nightmare for William Leopold – but to have one's indulgent grandparents within reach of an exciting crawl from attic to attic and appearing mysteriously in Grandpa's house is surely the stuff of which a boy's dreams are made!


Phillip had discovered, in his exploration of the attic, that he could crawl on hands and knees over the joists to the water tank and, squeezing past it, continue over the front bedroom ceiling, through a small opening at the apex of the common wall between the two houses and so, by way of Grandpa's bedroom ceiling, joists, and water tank, to the trapdoor in Grandpa's bathroom. Opening this, he had slipped through, after arranging that the trap should shut as he let go with his hands. If detected, he would pretend to have come upstairs to the lavatory. (Donkey Boy, p. 259)


I'm not sure that would really stand up to real-life scrutiny: climbing over the joint balcony that the two houses shared seems a far easier way to travel!


Hilly Fields was an oasis within the surrounding built-up area, and so young Harry had immediate access from a very young age to a large area for childhood roaming. It was a place of considerable excitement – and of great importance to HW: it gets mentioned over and over again in the Chronicle novels. Indeed it opens the whole series, for the first sentence of The Dark Lantern begins:


Over the Hill at night shone the stars of heaven . . .


At first we see the Hill through the eyes of Richard Maddison, who tells us (Donkey Boy, p. 54):


The Hill, once a place where a fellow might walk with some degree of privacy, was fast becoming spoiled. The forty acres had been fenced in with iron railings.



Childhood 7 Bandstand



Upon the crest a bandstand now stood.


Hither on summer evenings swarmed the masses . . . to hear the Band playing . . .




Childhood 8 crowd on Hill



On Thursday evenings the crest of the Hill swarmed with shouting children, unwashed faces, pale and grimy . . .


Also on Thursday evenings the crowds could watch from that crest the firework display at Crystal Palace two miles away. We know William Leopold had tremendous fun flying his kites up there, and as he grew older young Harry occasionally was allowed to assist him. But perhaps the most exciting pursuit of all was sledging in the snow of winter.



Childhood 9 Sledging on Hill



In Young Phillip Maddison (p. 335-7) Richard takes Phillip down to the cellar to dig out his old sledge:


'The runners are a bit rusty but they will soon be bright!'

. . .


Phillip and Desmond travelled fast down the slope from the sheep pen almost to the bottom where the big golden birch tree stood just inside the iron gates leading to Charlotte Road. Scores of sledges were in movement. In the frosty air the cries of Olley-olley-olley! travelled over the pressed snow . . .


And so it goes on – a lovely description of a happy episode.






Of course one of the most exciting events in young Harry's life was those early annual summer holiday visits to Hayling Island (see Robert Walker, ‘Henry’s Hayling Holidays’, HWSJ 46, September 2010); but there were many other excitements. One of the earliest of these was the forced visit to stay with his fictional Aunt Victoria and her husband George Lemon at Epsom in 1900 when his mother had scarlet fever: in real life this was HW’s Aunt Maude Williamson, married to Theodore Gregg.


This episode also ties into the background of Scribbling Lark, published in 1949 – just as HW was getting to grips with the Chronicle. Donkey Boy was published in 1952; so HW was writing both books around the same time. Indeed, in reading Donkey Boy one can catch the nuance of elements in Scribbling Lark. However, in Donkey Boy the experience opens with a grand description of the crowd at Waterloo station celebrating the relief of Mafeking, which pinpoints the date: 17 May, 1900. Although the visit starts and ends unhappily for the boy, it is clear that it made a huge impression on young Harry. HW devotes five chapters to this visit to Epsom, during which occurs Derby Day – at that time the Derby was held on the first Wednesday in June, so he has been at Epsom for three weeks:


Everyone was dressing up. Phillip stared at his aunt's silks and satins, at the hats with feathers and flowers, the frilly parasols, and wondered why Uncle George had a grey hat and Uncle Hilary a black one. Both uncles had flowers in their button-holes . . . (Donkey Boy, p. 184 et seq.)


Phillip is left behind, despite beseeching Aunt Bee, dressed to the nines in her mourning black, and he decides to run away with Joey, the rather fat dog belonging to the neighbour, Lady Catt. So we read how Phillip and Joey were in the woods, where there is an encounter with the gamekeeper out shooting pigeons and they get lost. They get safely out of the wood, but run straight into the gipsy encampment. We read how nearly young Phillip is abducted (the gipsy establishes he is alone and has hold of him) but this only five-year-old lad adroitly escapes her clutches and finds himself being dragged along by Joey, who has recognised the big, yellow, red and black coach belonging to Lady Catt and 'Mr. Lady Catt Sir Alfred', who take him into their coach and make a great fuss of him (having plied him with lemonade they take him to pee in a special hole in the ground!).


So Phillip's day at the races turned out to be a good one after all . . . he saw very thin horses running all together, their hoofs thundering. There were men in caps and coloured clothes leaning on the horses, as though they were talking to the horses’ ears . . . and everyone was shouting.


Lady Catt promises him a whistle and a lanyard to go with his sailor suit, and next day arrives at the house with these items – greatly impressing Aunt Victoria, who is nonplussed, given her attitude to and opinion of Phillip.


That sailor suit had been bought for Phillip by his Uncle Hilary, a sailor in the Merchant Navy (HW's Uncle Henry Joseph was a purser in the Merchant Navy). Presuming the story has a basis in real life, we can now date the photograph of HW in the sailor suit: it has to be around this May/June 1900 visit to Epsom.






One of the main sources of happiness in young Harry's life was his fairly frequent visits to Mount Pleasant, the home of his cousins Charlie (John Charles) and Marjorie Boon, at Aspley Guise, Bedfordshire; in the Chronicle they are Percy and Polly Pickering, of Beau Brickhill; Polly being a rather mischievous and forward girl. Cousin Charlie's life was cut tragically short when he was killed in action in 1916 (see ‘Cousin Charlie: a tribute’, HWSJ 43, September 2007).


These childhood episodes are mainly encapsulated in Donkey Boy, chapter 20: 'Country Cousins'. Here are some family photographs:



Childhood 10 Aspley family group

Back row: Gertie (HW's mother), Margaret Elizabeth Boon, Charlie Boon, Ethel Boon

Front row: Marjorie Boon, Harriet Adams, Kathy and Doris



On the back there is written: 'To dear Grannie from Harry, September 1911'



Childhood 11 Harry at Aspley

Back: Harry

Front row, captioned on the back as: 'Aunt Ethel, Grannie & Mother'

'Mother' is Harry's Aunt Lil, Margaret Elizabeth Boon



The photograph above also has written on the reverse: 'Taken by Charlie near Woburn'.



Childhood 12 Charlie and Harry
John Charles (Charlie) Boon and Harry



This has written on the back in unknown hand: 'John & Harry' – HW has added later '(John was the original of Percy Pickering) Killed on the Somme 1916.'



I can't resist adding this photo of HW with a young boy on a superb looking tricycle. It is seems likely that the boy is Bertie Thurgood, son of a neighbour on Eastern Road:



Childhood 13 Harry and lad



This leads me to the other well-known childhood photo of HW:



Childhood 14 Harry aged 12



We read about this in the opening chapter of Young Phillip Maddison. Cousin Polly is visiting, and Phillip asks for her help with the Valentine card he wants to make for Helena Rolls. He is also in a panic as he has to return a library book he has scribbled a rude word in, and he is frightened of being found out. Mind you, while all this is going on he manages to get his hand inside Polly's skirt!


He decides to wear his 'Etons' – saying he wants to air them ready for having his photograph taken that Saturday – and later his mother tells his father:


'Tomorrow he is going to have his photograph taken.’


We know the Valentine incident took place in 1913, for it is recorded in Harry’s diary (in his 'shorthand'!). That makes young Harry just over 17 years old. On the original photo (sadly within the cut-down mount shown) he has written: 'H.W. aged 10' (so HW is dating it to 1905).



However, on another more 'artistic' version he wrote: 'H.W. in 1912' ‒ when he would have been 16½! But of course he can’t be, surely, for he looks far too young:



Childhood 15 Harry second version



Now to further confuse things, on the photo below (in which young Harry is wearing the same clothes!) he wrote originally: 'H.W. Williamson aged 12 years' (therefore during 1908). He added a further note in 1965:


With Tommy Leaver about 1908.

Note the “status symbol” of wearing gloves for this important occasion!

Regard the feet! It was all above the waist in those days



Childhood 16 Harry and Tommy Leaver



I feel that date of 1908 actually fits the photograph best – when young Harry was 12.


Another delightfully informal photograph taken around the same time shows the three siblings with cousin Tommy behind the fence holding up something on a string – a conker perhaps?



Childhood 17 Harry sisters and cousin



Tommy Leaver was born in 1899, so younger than HW. He was the son of Percy Leaver (the reprobate Charlie Turney in the Chronicle) and brother of Petal – the forward young miss, and another who was also willing to 'experiment' with young Harry!


The arrival of this family from South Africa was surely another great excitement in young Harry's life. We read in Young Phillip Maddison, chapter 21, 'Rolling Stone' (p. 266) that they arrive in two cabs, one with the luggage which includes:


assagais, several striped cow-hide shields, a cluster of knobkerries, and the sound of a kaffir cow-bell being shaken by a boy . . .


This was Tommy, of course: in the other cab were the ebullient Charlie and his wife Flo (a singer), Petal, and the totally overwhelmed black boy Kimberley, whom we learn is actually Charlie's son. In 1908 in suburban London that must have been quite exotic – no wonder the neighbours were all agog!



Childhood 18 Thurgood and Kimberley 


HW's sister Kathy told us in her old age that this photo was taken at the home of the Thurgood family next door at No. 10, with Doris, Kimberley and possibly Petal sitting at the back, and in front Harry, Kathy and Bertie Thurgood. Unfortunately that was all she knew!


Once the Turney family are settled in we discover that young Phillip – and so of course young Harry – can see Petal as she undresses, singing and brushing her long black hair, in the bedroom next door directly opposite his. Pretty unsettling for a twelve-year-old!


We then read that Uncle Charley invites Phillip and Cousin Gerry to go with him and Uncle Hugh to Brighton (Tommy is ill with a bilious attack); although it is sadly and painfully poignant for the terminally sick Hugh, it is wildly exciting for the two boys, especially Phillip.






The new idea of 'Scouting' occupied a large place in young Harry's boyhood.


There is no photo of Harry in his Boy Scout uniform unfortunately, but he did sketch this cartoon, which his mother Gertie kept in her 'Log Book':



Childhood 19 Scout cartoon



Phillip Maddison starts off with his own Bloodhound Patrol, made up of his immediate gang of friends, including Desmond Neville and the unfortunate Cranmer, with an opposing Greyhound Patrol led by Peter Wallace. (Cranmer and all three Wallace brothers are killed in the opening months of the war; these events are covered in How Dear is Life.) Then they all join the official Troop run by Mr Purley-Prout, Scoutmaster. All great fun until we learn what Purley-Prout has been up to! In the Literary Archive there is a copy of The Flag, ‘The Quarterly Journal of the South Eastern Troop of Baden Powell’s Boy Scouts’ for June 1909, which is mainly written by ‘A.R.P.’ In the margin HW has written ‘Arthur Reginald Price is Purley-Prout in Young Phillip Maddison’; while on another page is a report of ‘The Whitsuntide Camp’, again by A.R.P., which states: ‘The night proved very wet, and sleep was rather difficult on account of this and the talkative mood of a certain patrol-leader, who disturbed everybody, in spite of threats and warnings.’ HW has underlined this and written in the margin, one suspects with a certain amount of pride, ‘HW’.


Camping and fires and all the other Scouting activities give our young Harry a much-needed purpose on which to fix his energies.






In 1907 Harry won a scholarship to the prestigious Colfe’s Grammar School in Lewisham. He was put into Buff House. The Headmaster was Frank W. Lucas, who had been appointed in 1895; he retired in 1923. Lucas is portrayed as the formidable Mr Rore in Dandelion Days. It is entirely possible that the essay below, ‘Keepers and Birds of Prey’, was Harry’s scholarship essay, even though in later years HW dated it as 1908. (As has been seen, HW was not always accurate with his dates!)



Childhood 19a 1908 essay


Childhood 19b 1908 essay



(Things are never quite as they seem with HW, for the paragraph written in ink has actually been lifted from the diary that he kept in 1913, and which was later published as 'A Boy's Nature Diary' in the 1933 illustrated edition of The Lone Swallows. He probably inserted the paragraph at the time he added the top and bottom comments . . . but what did it replace?)


Harry was not the best student, preferring to roam the countryside rather than study; but school sports provided another outlet for his energy, and were something that he seems to have been good at. First, here is a photo of him in cricket gear in the garden of No. 11 Eastern Road:



Childhood 20 cricket in garden



Next, some team photographs:



Childhood 22 Footer
Buff House Football Eleven, 18 March 1911



Harry's real speciality was cross-country running, and was a member of the Buff House Harriers, of which he ended up as captain.



Childhood 23 Harriers 1911

Buff House Harriers, 22 March 1911

On the reverse of this photograph HW has written: 'Williamson 1st in Buff Harriers'



Childhood 21 Cricket 1911
Buff House Cricket Eleven, 28 June 1911



Childhood 24 Harriers 1913
Buff House Harriers, 2 April 1913



He also excelled at shooting – and the following photographs were all taken at the prestigious annual inter-schools competition at Bisley in the summer of 1911:



Childhood 25 Bisley1
Colfe's line of tents – morning inspection



Childhood 26 Bisley 1911 



Childhood 27 Bisley 1911
Back left is Mr Creech; Mr Dencer is on the right



Childhood 28 Bisley Staff
Mr Creech and Mr Dencer relaxing outside their tent



All the above school photographs are by Leland Duncan, an Old Boy of the school who in later life still took a keen interest in both the school and its activities, writing both A History of Colfe’s Grammar School Lewisham (1910) and Colfe’s Grammar School and The Great War 1914‒19 (1920).






Childhood 29 Doris Nicholson



In the midst of all this masculinity we must not forget Doris Nicholson – Helena Rolls in the Chronicle, but also Elsie Norman in the Flax of Dream novels (hence the caption here): the angelic creature who lived above young Harry in the Turret House at the top of Eastern Road: that ready-made metaphoric symbol! How lucky young Harry was to have this paragon of virtue living just up the road on which to pin his idealistic yearning.


Although the photograph below isn't captioned, it is surely Doris holding Timmy Rat – and looking rather more glamorous than in the earlier photograph, more like we imagine Helena must have looked!



Childhood 30 Doris and Timmy Rat






Another great adventure was the family visit to Belgium to see Kathy, who was a boarder at Thildonck Convent school at Wespelaar over Easter 1912: Gertie, young Harry, and Petal (who is to attend the school herself). Once the unpleasant sea crossing is out of the way, they arrive at Ostend with its strange foreign customs. Phillip and Petal try to experiment with sex but don't know how! The next day they take the train to Bruxelles where they meet up with 'Papa and Joey' (a postcard in the archive reveals that they have actually been holidaying in Nice! On to Antwerp: then the inner family go on to Thildonck to collect Kathy for a day out. (Thildonck Convent was an internationally respected Convent school for girls, run by Ursuline nuns, originally founded in 1818; it ceased to be a private fee-paying school in 1977, but remains today a Catholic school for both girls and boys.)


There are two postcards of Thildonck (today it is spelled Tildonk) in the Literary Archive; the first shows a somewhat forbidding exterior; in the second it looks a little more friendly!



Childhood 31 Thildonck1



Childhood 32 Thildonck2



This whole chapter (chapter 28, ‘Jaunt to Belgium’, in Young Phillip Maddison) is a lovely passage. We read that Phillip is very calmed by the visit to the Convent and his meeting with Mère Ambroisine. Mère Ambroisine (her real name) had also taught Harry’s mother Gertrude, and – as Tony Jowett discovered in his article ‘A Jaunt to Belgium’, HWSJ 39, September 2003 – Mary Leopoldina Williamson as well. But once back in Anvers Phillip reverts to being his usual perverse self. Now, at Easter 1912 HW was actually 16¼ and Kathy one month short of 18. They come across as being much younger in the novel.



Childhood 33 three siblings



Sheila Hay's memories of Thildonck, even though she was a schoolgirl there some 23 years after Kathy, give a small indication of what life at the school was like; it surely can have changed little in the intervening years. Her recollections were published in the 2003 edition of Echo, the magazine for Old Tildonkers:
. . . I arrived at Tildonk in September 1935, aged 16½. An only child, I had never been away from home before, but was looking forward to the experience – initially it was rather a culture shock!
At that time, there were only 15 English pupils in the 'Grandes', but 105 Flemish girls. Our headmistress was Mère Ambroisine (Ambro to us all) an 80-year-old Irish nun – who was very strict. For some reason, she did not like me very much! I was put into Preparatoire A, whose teacher was an elderly (so I thought) Flemish nun, called Mère Kostka. She spoke very little English but she was helpful to us and I was fond of
One or two memories: The early mornings – a cold wash and then to church for mass at 7 a.m.; the weekly bath, about 8 minutes if you were lucky, before Sister would open the door and start to clean the bath for the next occupant; the beer; the sweet milky tea; the tartines and the occasional wonderful Feasts. I especially remember 1st May – a feast of Our Lady when we sang: 'C’est le mois de Marie, C’est le mois le plus beau!'


Having had that splendid adventure over Easter 1912, there was a further holiday in the summer – and although this does not feature in Young Phillip Maddison, HW does record it in The Story of a Norfolk Farm. In August 1912 young Harry cycled on his


trusty 'Swift' three-speeder, wearing a dark blue Norfolk suit and breeches, stockings, and brown shoes, very thin and bony . . . (p. 24)


to North Norfolk to join his family on a camping holiday in East Runton. En route he stopped at an old mill where he:


watched my first otter hunt. . . . For two hours the new bike had lain against a haystack, covered with wisps of hay (against thieves) while I had walked about on the banks and watched, with others, red-and-blue uniformed men cracking whips, wet hounds running about, baying, while the huntsman blew short notes on a little copper horn. I did not see the animal they were hunting, but only strings of bubbles rising from the dark water as the unseen beast crossed from one reed-bed to another.


I think that mill has to be at Dedham, where the old road would have passed it. A letter from his mother when he bought the Norfolk Farm in 1937 reminds him that while camping they were caught in the famous floods of 1912.






The following year, 1913, is the year of those exciting visits to his 'Preserves' to watch birds, and collect eggs from their nests (not at that time an illegal pastime). Young Harry is now 17 years old. First, one has to admire his initiative in writing to the local landed gentry for 'Permits' to visit. However, this was not without its pitfalls, as this draft letter at the back of his 1913 diary shows:



Childhood 34 draft letter 1913



The permits for which Harry applied still survive: note that here there is another connection to Scribbling Lark and Lord Derby – for the Dowager Countess of Derby wrote this permit herself:



Childhood 35 Permit Countess Derby



Childhood 36 Sqerryes permit



Then there is the amusing code he devised to keep his secrets from the other lads – particularly Bony Watson:



Childhood 37 Codes in diary



You may be familiar with this; they are Squire Norman's Woods, The Rookery, Holwood Park, and Squerrye's Park.


No boy could have had a better introduction to nature – but what is so amazing is not just the actual records that he kept, but the writing up of them in 'A Boy's Nature Diary', which he much later decided to publish in the illustrated edition of The Lone Swallows (Putnam, 1933): it is an early indication, perhaps, of the great writer he was to become.


Easter 1914, 20–24 March, was spent at Aspley Guise with Cousins Marjorie and Charlie:


went over Duke's Moors to Woburn to get 50 cartridges . . .


Harry and Charlie spent all weekend shooting small birds. The symbolism hidden in that episode is totally chilling.


Finally – there is that last remarkable and memorable holiday of his childhood: the visit to Georgeham over Whitsun in May 1914 to stay in the thatched cottage that he would later call Skirr with his Aunt Mary Leopoldina. In How Dear is Life this holiday is translated into a visit to Lynmouth to stay with Aunt Theodora at her cottage; it becomes an important thread in the series, culminating in the final volume of the Chronicle, The Gale of the World.


During this holiday Harry recorded in his 1914 diary:


Saturday 16 May: Sparrowhawk and 2 missle thrushes in field. Barn owl in cottage roof. “Cob”. Nightjars “reeling”. Cuckoo on gate. Stonechats. Hopeless watch for nest.


Saturday 17 May: Spraecomb – deserted tin mines (? silver), works and cottages (wagtail, owl, etc) Caves.


31 May (Whit Sunday): Saunton. Plovers (Ringed) Curlews. Saw wild goose.


1 June (Whit Monday): Home. Baggy Point for farewell. Gulls on nest. Cormorant.


Yes – altogether a happy and exciting childhood, and one which gave the adult HW so much to write about in later years. That childhood idyll was to be abruptly shattered shortly after his return from his Devon holiday; for the last thing written in his nature diary is:



Childhood 38 HW note








(Adapted from a talk given at the 2016 Spring Meeting of the Henry Williamson Society held at Hayling Island.)