The Hawthornden Prize
By the mid 1920s Henry Williamson’s writing was prolific and penetrating. He had determined to write the story of the life of an otter and this was well under way; in order to gather material he often followed the Cheriton Otter Hounds and had met there the shy dark-haired beauty who was to be his future wife, Ida Loetitia Hibbert, whose father was a hunt official. The Hibbert family (Charles Hibbert, Loetitia, and her three brothers) lived at Landcross, near Bideford. The mother had died some years previously. Charles Hibbert was a Victorian gentleman, the younger son of a landed gentry family descended from Charles II and Nell Gwynn, whose main interests in life were natural history and shooting. Loetitia too was very interested in all the gentle things of nature. The fact that she had read and loved Bevis by Henry’s beloved Richard Jefferies decided Henry that she was the perfect soulmate.
Henry and Loetitia were married on 6 May 1925 and spent the first few days of their honeymoon at a farm near Dunkery Beacon on Exmoor, wandering the wild countryside, looking at dippers’ nests and wildflowers. But the main highlight of the honeymoon was a return to the battlefields of the First World War, which cannot have been the best choice for such a sensitively neurotic young man.
Loetitia soon realised she was pregnant and they decided that life in the small primitive cottage would be too cramped, so the young couple moved just a few yards up the road to the larger Vale House (Crowberry Cottage), where their first child, a son, William Hibbert, was born in February 1926. The Old Stag, a collection of powerful short stories, was published later that year.
Work on the book Tarka the Otter continued in earnest. Wanting it to be perfect, HW did not find the writing came easily. Many revisions and reworkings were made. Henry tramped every inch of Tarka’s route. There were complications over getting a publisher. Everyone seemed to be discouraging about the contents. But the book was finally published in October 1927.
It was well received, and all the exhausting effort was rewarded when the book was awarded the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for Literature in June the following year. The actual award was made by John Galsworthy who praised the book highly in his presentation speech saying that, ‘Mr Williamson is the finest living interpreter of the drama of wildlife.’ Henry Williamson was now established as one of the country’s leading writers. The prize was worth £100 and with the money he bought himself a field at Ox’s Cross above Georgeham where he built himself a modest writing hut made of wood, planted trees, and where he was able to escape to solitary peace.
Henry had been befriended by the eminent critic Edward Garnett, who sent a copy of Tarka the Otter to T. E. Lawrence, whose subsequent detailed critique led to a correspondence and friendship between the two men, which Henry eventually wrote up as a tribute after TEL’s death in 1935 in Genius of Friendship.