HENRY WILLIAM WILLIAMSON was born on 1 December 1895 in S.E. London at 66 Braxfield Rd., Brockley. His father, William Leopold Williamson, was a bank clerk by profession, who married Gertrude Leaver in a secret ceremony in May 1893 at Greenwich Registry Office. To begin with the couple lived apart, until with Gertrude’s first pregnancy they had to admit they were man and wife, and they then moved into lodgings. Their first child, a daughter, was born in 1894, then Henry in 1895, and a third child in 1898.
Soon after, Henry’s father bought 11 (now 21), Eastern Road, Lewisham, next to the area known as Hilly Fields, to which the family moved in about 1900, and where the main part of Henry’s childhood and adolescence was spent. A commemorative plaque was placed on the house under the aegis of the Henry Williamson Society in 1984.
With his two sisters Henry had a respectable lower middle class upbringing. Whilst his father was apparently strict, humourless and out of touch with his son despite his hobbies of kite flying, moth collecting, cycling and rifle shooting, his mother would appear to have been of a very patient but over-anxious personality, for ever trying to appease her irascible husband. The activities of his father and the atmosphere of the household were keenly observed by the little boy who fifty years later chronicled Leopold’s life exactly in The Dark Lantern which was the first volume of his long series of fifteen novels, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. Henry was a lively yet diffident boy, probably of difficult character, and the ensuing volumes, Donkey Boy, Young Phillip Maddison, and How Dear is Life, give a remarkably honest chronicle of the whole family, and of life as it was at the turn of the century.
A particular incident of childhood is a summer holiday spent on Hayling Island on the south coast in 1905, evocatively recreated in Donkey Boy. Also, a branch of the family lived in Bedfordshire and there was much social intermixing of relations. This was to prove a lasting influence, and appears as a woven thread throughout his writing.
Henry won a scholarship to Colfe’s, the prestigious grammar school in Lewisham which he attended from 1907-13. He was possibly not psychologically suited for school life, preferring to roam the countryside than to study, but he took a full part in the various sports, particularly cross-country running, where he ended up as Captain of Harriers. He also took part in rifle shooting and represented his school at Bisley. Although not a distinguished scholar, he was not a disgrace and is mentioned in the school magazine as having obtained 3rd Class Honours in the Senior Cambridge Examination held in December 1912.
Apart from the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, his feelings and the adventures of his schooldays in the last days of the Edwardian era were marvellously captured in Dandelion Days, the second volume of his tetralogy The Flax of Dream, published in 1922, where he recaptures in great detail everything that happened to him during his school days, and draws with devastating accuracy pen portraits of his schoolmasters.