Portrait by Charles Tunnicliffe, c. 1935
1 December 1895|
13 August 1977 (aged 81)|
|Known for||Ruralist books (Tarka the Otter)|
Henry William Williamson (1 December 1895 – 13 August 1977) was an English army officer, naturalist, farmer and ruralist writer known for his natural history and social history novels. He won the Hawthornden Prize for literature in 1928 with his book Tarka the Otter.
Henry Williamson was born in Brockley in south east London. In early childhood his family moved to Ladywell, and he received a grammar school education at Colfe's School. The then semi-rural location provided easy access to the Kent countryside, and he developed a deep love of nature throughout his childhood.
First World War
On 22 January 1914, Williamson volunteered as a rifleman with the 5th battalion of the London Regiment ("London Rifle Brigade"), part of the British Army's Territorial Force, and was mobilised when war was declared upon Imperial Germany by the British Empire on 5 August 1914. In November 1914, he departed England with the Regiment's 1st Battalion and went to France, entering the Western Front's trenches in the Ypres Salient, where he witnessed and took part in the Christmas Truce between British and German troops. In January 1915, he was withdrawn from the winter trenches with trench foot and dysentery and evacuated back to England. After convalescence, he was commissioned on 10 April 1915 as a second lieutenant with the 10th (Service) Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment. In May 1915, he was attached for training to the 2/1st Cambridgeshire Regiment's at Newmarket. In October 1915, he was transferred to the 25th Middlesex Regiment at Hornchurch. He volunteered to specialise in machine-gun warfare, and consequently, in January 1916, joined No. 208 Machine Gun Company of the Machine Gun Corps at Belton Park, Grantham. In May 1916, he entered hospital in London with anaemia, and was granted two months' medical leave. He rejoined No. 208 MGC and in February 1917 departed England with it for the Western Front, the unit taking the field with the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division, Williamson acting as his company's transport officer. In June 1917, he was gassed whilst transporting ammunition up to the front line, and was returned to England, spending the next few months in military convalescent hospitals. In September 1917, he was attached for garrison duty as the adjutant of the 3rd Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment at Felixstowe. Medically classed B1 by an Army Medical Board, from the effects of the gas, he was judged to be unfit for active service. After a year at Felixstowe, and frustrated at the nature of garrison life, Williamson attempted to get back to front-line action in September 1918 with an application to be transferred to the Royal Air Force, but this was rejected due to his medical classification. He then applied for a transfer to the Indian Army, which was granted, but the war was ending and the order was cancelled. He spent a year afterwards on administrative duties demobilising soldiers from military camps on the south east coast of England, and was discharged from the army himself on 19 September 1919.
He became disgusted with the pointlessness of the war and was angry at the greed and bigotry he saw as causing it. He became determined that Germany and Britain should never go to war again. Williamson was also strongly influenced by the camaraderie of the trenches and in particular what he saw as the bonds of kinship that existed between the ordinary British and German soldiers, despite their being at war with one another.
He told of his war experiences in The Wet Flanders Plain (1929), The Patriot's Progress (1930) and in many of his books in the semi-autobiographical 15-book series A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight (1951–1969).
After the war, he read Richard Jefferies' book The Story of My Heart. This inspired him to begin writing seriously. In 1921, he moved to Georgeham, Devon, initially living in Skirr Cottage there. He married Ida Loetitia Hibbert in 1925 - she was descended from the Hibbert family that founded its fortune in Jamaica on both her mother and father's side - they had six children.
In 1927 Williamson published his most acclaimed book, Tarka the Otter; it won him the Hawthornden Prize in 1928, and made him enough money to pay for the wooden hut near Georgeham where he wrote many of his later books, often sitting alone there for 15 hours a day. The wooden writing hut was granted Grade II listed status by English Heritage in July 2014 because of its "historical interest". Tarka also sparked a friendship with T. E. Lawrence who had similar views about the need for a lasting peace settlement in Europe. T.E. Lawrence died after receiving a telegram from HW, sparking many conspiracy theories - Lawrence was related on his father's side to Baron Robert G Vansittart (1881-1957), a virulent anti-German figure who had called for no clemency to be shown to Sir Roger Casement during the treason trial after the Easter Rising.
In 1936 he bought a farm in Stiffkey, Norfolk. The Story of a Norfolk Farm (1941) is his account of his first years of farming there.
In 1935, Williamson visited the National Socialist German Workers Party Congress at Nuremberg and was greatly impressed, particularly with the Hitler Youth movement, whose healthy outlook on life he compared with the sickly youth of the London slums. He had a "well-known belief that Hitler was essentially a good man who wanted only to build a new and better Germany." Opposed to war and believing that wars were caused by Jewish "usurial moneyed interests", he was attracted to Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists and joined it in 1937. Mosley became Hereward Birkin in Williamson's Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight (possibly a reference to Hereward the Wake and Freda May Birkin).
On the day of the British and French declaration of war on Germany, Williamson suggested to friends that he might fly to Germany to speak with Hitler to persuade him away from war. Following a meeting with Mosley later that day, however, he was dissuaded from his plan. At the start of the Second World War, Williamson was briefly held under Defence Regulation 18B for his political views, but he was released after only a weekend in police custody. Visiting London in January 1944, he observed with satisfaction that the ugliness and immorality represented by its financial and banking sector had been "relieved a little by a catharsis of high explosive" and somewhat "purified by fire". In The Gale of the World, the last book of his Chronicle, published in 1969, Williamson has his main character Phillip Maddison question the moral and legal validity of the Nuremberg Trials..This book also hinted at a plot to rescue Rudolf Hess from Spandau prison - Hess had attempted to make contact with anti war figures in Britain as Hitler was preparing to attack Stalin's Russia - Hess was captured on British soil in November 1940 and his position left in stalemate following America's entry into the war which, ironically, allowed Russia to engulf eastern Europe following the Normandy beach landings.
Williamson initially retained a close relationship with Mosley in the immediate aftermath of the war, but when he brought Mosley as his guest to the Savage Club, the former BUF leader was promptly ejected by club staff. Williamson refused Mosley's request to join the newly established Union Movement and indeed, his suggestion to Mosley that he should instead join him in abandoning politics altogether led to the two men falling out. Nonetheless, Williamson would write for the Mosleys' theoretical journal The European. He also continued to express admiration for aspects of Nazi Germany after the war.
After the war the family left the farm. In 1946 Williamson went to live alone at Ox's Cross, Georgeham in North Devon, where he built a small house in which to write. In 1947 Henry and Loetitia divorced. Williamson fell in love with a young teacher, Christine Duffield, and they were married in 1949. He began to write his series of fifteen novels collectively known as A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. In 1950, the year his only child by this marriage Harry Williamson was born, he edited a collection of poems and short stories by James Farrar, a promising young poet who had died, at the age of 20, in the Second World War. From 1951 to 1969 Williamson produced almost one novel a year, while contributing regularly to the Sunday Express and The European magazine, edited by Diana Mosley. In 1964 he had a short affair with the novelist Ann Quin, who was nearly forty years his junior (he had previously had an affair with his secretary Myfanwy Thomas, daughter of the poet Edward Thomas). This all put great strain on his marriage and, in 1968, Christine and he were divorced after years of separation.
In 1974 he began working on a script for a film treatment of Tarka the Otter, but it was not regarded as suitable to film, being 400,000 words long. Filming went on, unknown to him, and the film, narrated by Peter Ustinov, was released in 1979. On his eightieth birthday he hoped for some honour from the British government. After a general anaesthetic for a minor operation, his health failed catastrophically. One day he was walking and chopping wood, the next day he was unrecognisable and had forgotten who his family were. Suffering from senile dementia, he died on the day the death of Tarka was being filmed. His body was buried in the churchyard of Georgeham.
Henry Williamson Society
The Henry Williamson Society was founded in 1980. His first wife, Loetitia, supported the society until her death in 1998 and his son, Richard, is its president.
- The Flax of Dream - a tetralogy following the life of Willie Maddison
- The Beautiful Years (1921)
- Dandelion Days (1922)
- The Dream of Fair Women (1924)
- The Pathway (1928)
- A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight - a series of 15 novels following the life of Phillip Maddison from his birth in the late 1890s till the early 1950s, based loosely on Williamson's own life and experiences.
- The Dark Lantern (1951)
- Donkey Boy (1952)
- Young Phillip Maddison (1953)
- How Dear Is Life (1954)
- A Fox Under My Cloak (1955)
- The Golden Virgin (1957)
- Love and the Loveless (1958)
- A Test to Destruction (1960)
- The Innocent Moon (1961)
- It Was the Nightingale (1962)
- The Power of the Dead (1963)
- The Phoenix Generation (1965)
- A Solitary War (1967)
- Lucifer Before Sunrise (1967)
- The Gale of the World (1969)
- Other Works
- The Lone Swallows (1922)
- The Peregrine’s Saga, and Other Stories of the Country Green (1923)
- The Old Stag (1926)
- Tarka the Otter (1927)
- The Linhay on the Downs (1929)
- The Ackymals (1929)
- The Wet Flanders Plain (1929)
- The Patriot’s Progress (1930)
- The Village Book (1930)
- The Labouring Life (1932)
- The Wild Red Deer of Exmoor (1931)
- The Star-born (1933)
- The Gold Falcon or the Haggard of Love (1933)
- On Foot in Devon (1933)
- The Linhay on the Downs and Other Adventures in the Old and New Worlds (1934)
- Devon Holiday (1935)
- Salar the Salmon (1935)
- Goodbye West Country (1937)
- The Children of Shallowford (1939)
- The Story of a Norfolk Farm (1941)
- Genius of Friendship: T.E. Lawrence (1941; reprinted by the Henry Williamson Society 1988; e-book 2014)
- As the Sun Shines (1941)
- The Incoming of Summer (undated)
- Life in A Devon Village (1945)
- Tales of a Devon Village (1945)
- The Sun in the Sands (1945)
- The Phasian Bird (1948)
- The Scribbling Lark (1949)
- Tales of Moorland and Estuary (1953)
- A Clearwater Stream (1958)
- In The Woods, a biographical fragment (1960)
- The Scandaroon (1972)
- Writings published posthumously by the Henry Williamson Society
- Days of Wonder (1987; e-book 2013)
- From a Country Hilltop (1988; e-book 2013)
- A Breath of Country Air (2 vols, 1990–91; e-book 2013)
- Spring Days in Devon, and other Broadcasts (1992; e-book 2013)
- Pen and Plough: Further Broadcasts (1993; e-book 2014)
- Threnos for T.E. Lawrence and Other Writings (1994; e-book 2014)
- Green Fields and Pavements (1995; e-book 2013)
- The Notebook of a Nature-lover (1996; e-book 2013)
- Words on the West Wind: Selected Essays from The Adelphi (2000; e-book 2013)
- Indian Summer Notebook: A Writer's Miscellany (2001; e-book 2013)
- Heart of England: Contributions to the Evening Standard, 1939-41 (2003; e-book 2013)
- Chronicles of a Norfolk Farmer: Contributions to the Daily Express, 1937-39 (2004; e-book 2013)
- Stumberleap, and other Devon Writings: Contributions to the Daily Express and Sunday Express, 1915-1935 (2005; e-book 2013)
- Atlantic Tales: Contributions to the Atlantic Monthly, 1927-1947 (2007; e-book 2013)
- Farson, Daniel, Henry: An Appreciation of Henry Williamson. London, Michael Joseph. 1982. ISBN 0-7181-2122-8
- Higginbottom, Melvyn David, Intellectuals and British Fascism: A Study of Henry Williamson. London, Janus Publishing Co. 1992. ISBN 1-85756-085-X
- Lamplugh, Lois, A Shadowed Man: Henry Williamson 1895-1977. 2nd revised ed., Dulverton, Somerset, Exmoor Press, 1991. ISBN 0-900131-70-5
- Matthews, Hugoe, Henry Williamson. A Bibliography. London, Halsgrove. 2004. ISBN 1-84114-364-2
- Murry, John Middleton, ‘The Novels of Henry Williamson’, in Katherine Mansfield, and other Literary Studies. London, Constable. 1959.
- Sewell, Fr. Brocard Henry Williamson: The Man, The Writings: A Symposium. Padstow, Tabb House. 1980. ISBN 0-907018-00-9
- West, Herbert Faulkner, The Dreamer of Dreams: An Essay on Henry Williamson, Ulysses Press, 1932.
- Williamson, Anne, Henry Williamson: Tarka and the Last Romantic, Sutton Publishing (1995) ISBN 0-7509-0639-1. Paperback edition (1997) ISBN 0-7509-1492-0
- Williamson, Anne, A Patriot's Progress: Henry Williamson and the First World War, Sutton Publishing (1998) ISBN 0-7509-1339-8
- Wilson, Peter (ed), T. E. Lawrence. Correspondence with Henry Williamson. Fordingbridge, Hants, Castle Hill Press. 2000. (Volume IX of T. E. Lawrence Letters, edited by Jeremy Wilson)
- Deavin, Mark "Henry Williamson: Nature's Visionary" Archived 28 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine. in National Vanguard Magazine No. 117 (March–April 1997)
- "No. 29127". The London Gazette. 13 April 1915. p. 3587.
- Richard Griffiths, Fellow Travellers of the Right: British Enthusiasts for Nazi Germany 1933-39, Oxford University Press, 1983, ISBN 0192851160, pp. 135, 179
- Parry, Lizzie (27 March 2014). "Moorland hut where Tarka the Otter author penned some of his greatest works is for sale - after lying empty for nearly 40 years". Daily Mail. London. Retrieved 29 April 2014.
- "Tarka the Otter writer's hut granted Grade II status" BBC News, 29 July 2014
- Griffiths, Fellow Travellers of the Right, pp. 134-137
- Williamson, Henry (1965). The Phoenix Generation.
- The Norfolk Farm at The Henry Williamson Society
- Robert Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley, Macmillan, 1981, p. 350
- Bolton, K., Henry Williamson Archived 16 April 2009 at the Wayback Machine. at OswaldMosley.com
- Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley, p. 442
- Graham Macklin, Very Deeply Dyed in Black: Sir Oswald Mosley and the Resurrection of British Fascism After 1945, I.B. Tauris, 2007, p. 51
- Macklin, Very Deeply Dyed in Black, p. 158
- Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley, p. 493
- Griffiths, Fellow Travellers of the Right, p. 372
- "Henry Williamson Society". Retrieved 27 January 2015.[permanent dead link]
- "Henry Williamson Society". Retrieved 27 January 2015.
- Quotations related to Henry Williamson at Wikiquote
- The Great War Interview BBC
- The Henry Williamson Society
- Henry Williamson Papers. MSS 1714; 20th Century Western & Mormon Manuscripts; L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
- Henry Williamson at University of Exeter Special Collections