Henry Williamson and the 'Gammons of Ham'

Henry Williamson and the ‘Gammons of Ham’

Alan Willey

This is an attempt to identify many of Williamson’s characters in The Village Book (1930) and The Labouring Life (1932).     

    

It is common knowledge that Williamson attempted to conceal the real names of some of his Georgeham characters behind pseudonyms. The fact that that he was (either accidentally or ‘on purpose’!) not entirely successful in this aroused some hard feelings against him in the district after the publication of The Village Book.

I am mainly concerned with the ‘Gammons’, amongst whom are my forebears.

As was, no doubt, the situation in reality, Williamson’s ‘Ham’ is populated with a large number of ‘Gammons’. How many of his ‘Gammons’ were named Gammon in real life cannot easily be determined at this late stage.

One stroke of good fortune, however, makes it easy to identify accurately at least one strand of the Gammon family. Williamson had a close relationship with his next door neighbours, without whom his life in Georgeham would have been quite unrewarding, and possibly very brief.

(This is no place to undertake an examination of the psychological state of Williamson upon his discharge from the army at the end of the First World War. We know that he was, unsurprisingly, very disturbed by all that he had seen and experienced in the front line, and the recounting and transformation of these experiences form a large part of his opus. When he arrived in Georgeham after that war, his mind was in turmoil, as he – like thousands of others – tried to make some sense out of the ‘human condition’. Life in a sophisticated ‘big city’ milieu, where people with similar intellect to his own would endlessly discuss the problems of politics, war and the post-war reconstruction of society, would surely have exacerbated the anguish of his mental state. Georgeham life was far from this, and the (literally) ‘down to earth’ (and more often than not ‘hand to mouth’) existence of its inhabitants kept Williamson’s feet firmly planted on terra firma, as, like his neighbours, he had to earn a living in fairly basic surroundings.)

One may assume that since Williamson and his next door neighbours were almost in a ‘family’ relationship, he decided in their case at least to change the name Gammon to Carter in his books. Williamson must have made this change out of common courtesy, for no-one reading the books and knowing the village, could doubt for one second to which family he was referring.

 

Let us start by examining these ‘Carter’ Gammons, then, and return to other ‘Gammon’ characters later.

Abbreviations used – VB The Village Book; LL The Labouring Life.

 

‘Granfer Jimmy Carter’ is the patriarch of this strand of the family, James or Jim Gammon. He is first mentioned on VB p. 108 and appears from time to time in both books. Perhaps the most telling reference to him is LL p. 486, where, after being diagnosed with a serious rupture, he is told that he has no more than twelve hours to live. He ignores that advice and lives on for two more years.

‘Grannie Carter’ is Jim’s wife Emily Gammon (née Selway), who is frequently mentioned. On VB p. 218 she is mentioned as ‘laying out a corpse’.

‘Revvy Carter’ is, of course, Bill Gammon, the son of Jim Gammon. He is almost the leading character in the books – apart from the narrator. The descriptions of him are entirely sympathetic, and one almost detects a touch of envy in Williamson’s attitude towards his neighbour and (probably) best friend in Georgeham. ‘Revvy’ is courteous and can remember songs (VB p. 225) and obviously has a very soft spot for Williamson’s spaniel, Biell. In my opinion, ‘Revvy’ deserves posterity’s praise for giving his own brand of friendship to Williamson when the latter was at his lowest ebb and most in need of it.

‘Mrs Revvy Carter’ is Bill Gammon’s wife, Elsie Gammon. She remains rather in the background, keeping house and raising three children of her own plus a nephew.

Ernie, Madge and Megan ‘Carter’ are Bill and Elsie Gammon’s three children, who appear in the books in the order of their birth. Ernie is clearly a bit of a ‘tike’ and Williamson’s favourite. Williamson faithfully transcribes Ernie’s colourful language and descriptions with more than usual affection. Madge has whooping cough on VB p. 268. Ernie features on VB pp. 273-275. He has fun with a go-kart on LL p. 157. Some of his sayings are collected on LL p. 160. His need for special cow’s milk when he was a baby lends poignancy to the death of that cow on LL p. 417.

‘Babe Vivian Carter’ first appears on VB p. 280. In fact he is, of course, Vivian Gammon, cousin of Ernie, Madge and Megan, and the son of Freda Gammon, one of Bill Gammon’s sisters. Being a sole parent, she often left Vivian with her Georgeham relations, which must have been quite a responsibility for ‘Grannie’ and Elsie Gammon. He was often ‘difficult’ to manage. VB pp. 281, 282-286. LL p. 158.

‘Thunderbolt (William) Carter’ (with several other nicknames) is Bill Gammon’s (‘Revvy’s’) cousin (LL p. 24), who lived next door. He is a ‘9-acre farmer’ with distinguishing club feet (VB p. 67). His wife came from London, and sister Bessie lived with them and managed the dairy. He was very deaf, and reputed to be wealthy – hence ‘Vanderbilt’, hence ‘Thunderbolt’! On VB p. 299 he slaughters a pig.

To complete these ‘Carter’ households, mention must be made of the American visitor, ‘Clark’. He appears briefly from LL p. 166 onwards, in a Woolworth’s cowboy outfit, and fascinates the other children with his Americanisms. He is in fact Clarke Dawson, the son of Beenham and Gertrude Dawson (née Gammon) another of Bill Gammon’s sisters, who married that well-to-do tailor in Great Falls, Montana (not New York as ‘Clark’ says!).

(N.B. Late in her life Freda Gammon travelled to the USA on one of the ‘Queens’ to visit her sister. Upon her return I recall her saying that she found the pace of life there quite overpowering, especially constantly changing clothes, five or six times a day, and taking a whole wardrobe on a skiing weekend! On disembarking at Southampton, she fell and injured her leg, for which she was awarded hefty insurance damages. More recently Peggy Dawson, Clarke’s daughter, came to England for a course at Oxford, and stayed with Madge (I think) for a while.)

 

Other ‘Gammons’ in Williamson’s books – whether ‘real’ or ‘fictitious’:

Now we turn to other ‘Gammons’ mentioned in the books. It would be interesting to learn whether these are the real names of real persons or not.

Willy Gammon (VB p. 42) is the son of John Gammon. He is a mason (like his father?) and has many (14) children. The family nickname is ‘Brownie’, and they are described on VB pp. 71, 106, 269. On LL p. 427 he is said to have but one eye. (Technically, he is the third ‘William Gammon’ mentioned in the books, the other two being ‘Revvy’ and ‘Thunderbolt’.)

Harry Gammon is one of Willy Gammon’s sons. He served in the army in China (VB p. 81) and married a Maltese woman called Emma, who would call out ‘Hen-ry!’ to her son in a particular way (LL p. 172). Emma was not accepted in the village, had a complete mental breakdown and died unhappily in the infirmary (LL p. 485).

Others among Willy Gammon’s children are a girl Marty, who at 15 was ‘one for the men’ (VB p. 130), Tikey (aged 7), Daisy (5) and Boykins (3).

Tom Gammon is Willy’s brother and also a mason, although not a very industrious one! (VB pp. 49, 65, 66). He seems more famous for his rabbits and ferrets (VB p. 105) and for his lurcher dogs (LL p. 71).An Ernest Gammon, brother of Willy, is also mentioned (LL p. 425).

Albert Gammon is the landlord of the ‘Higher House’ (VB 99) and a key character in the life of Ham. His real name was Albert Jeffery.

A few other ‘names’ worthy of mention:

‘Arty Brooking’ matches the grocer and butcher Arty Thomas, of whom I have heard tell (VB p. 67). Williamson’s friendship with him goes back as far as May 1914 (LL p. 457). His sausages suffer from too much bread and pepper (LL p. 168). He is an expert on, and apologist for, cider (LL p. 318). Williamson’s motorcycle trip to Sedgemoor with Arty (who was brought up there) (LL pp. 479-81) is one of the most hilarious accounts in his writings.

(N.B. I can recall my father telling a story – possible apocryphal – which makes mention of Arty Thomas. It tells of Granny Gammon (Jim’s widow) stating that she would not be buying any lamb from Arty during a certain week, because she had noticed the sudden absence of an old sheep from his field across the way, and reckoned that he would therefore be selling tough old mutton.)

Two men of similar name – but different habits and occupations – are perhaps worthy of mention:

Farmer Counebere, aged 80, tells a story against himself (LL p. 51).

Coneybeare, on the other hand, (LL p. 192) is the Rector’s gardener-butler-chauffeur, whose bouts of drunkenness lead to his frequent dismissals. After a period of remorse, he is usually re-instated! His real name was Cecil Bacon.

        

                                                                                                  

A brief biographical note about Alan Willey:

 

My maternal grandmother was Alice Maude Vernon (née Gammon) of Georgeham, sister of Bill (‘Revvy’) Gammon, (‘Carter’ in HW's books). I was brought up in Exeter, however, and visited Georgeham and Mortehoe frequently in my youth.

 

My last visit there was 1995. I am now 82 and live in Melbourne, Australia. A few years back, for my own interest, I attempted to identify and reconcile the Gammons and Carters in The Village Book and The Labouring Life. I was always, and still am, a devotee of Henry Williamson, and have many of his books and the magnificent biography, of course.

 

I attended the Melbourne premiere of Harry's ‘Tarka Symphony’, bought the DVD and had the pleasure of meeting him briefly.

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