WH Davies: the Welsh Super Tramp

Friday 13 May 2011, 11:47

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Many people - in Wales, England, all over the world - are familiar with the lines:

"What is this life if full of care
We have no time to stand and stare."

Some may even be able to quote the whole poem. Yet probably very few realise that the man who wrote the poem (Leisure, to give it it's proper title) was someone who spent several years as a tramp or hobo, riding the freight trains of America.

Often he would be forced to beg for a crust, just to survive, and sometimes he would deliberately get himself caught for minor crimes, knowing that a warm prison cell was far more preferable than freezing to death on the barren prairies of the American Midwest. He was also a Welshman.

WH (William Henry) Davies was born in Newport on 3 July 1871, and was brought up by his grandparents in the Church House Inn in the Pill area of the town.

He was a wild, ungovernable adolescent whose school life came to a rather abrupt end when he was 15 years old. Caught shoplifting, he was sentenced to 12 strokes of the birch. Thereafter his grandmother decided it was high time William left school and the young tearaway was apprenticed to a frame maker in Newport.

Davies found the job boring and had a hankering to try life in America. He quit his job and worked his passage across the Atlantic on a cattle boat. This was in 1893 and for the next six years he wandered across America, jumping the freight cars on the American railroads and scratching a living how and when he could.

His descriptions of these adventures, later published as The Autobiography Of A Super Tramp, make fascinating reading and, even if they are only a quarter true, give an insiders view of life on the road in the final years of the 19th century.

Needing to earn a little money, WH Davies crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic several times, working on cattle boats and once with a cargo of sheep. It was an experience he vowed never to repeat, and commemorated the trip in a poem called simply Sheep. He wrote:

"They sniffed, poor things, for their green fields,
They cried so loud I could not sleep:
For fifty thousand shillings down
I would not sail again with sheep."

In 1899 disaster struck. Heading for the gold fields of the Klondike, Davies slipped while trying to jump a train at Penfrew, Ontario. His leg was crushed by the carriage wheels and later had to be amputated below the knee. For the rest of his life he wore a wooden leg. It was a useful begging tool but sometimes it caused more than a little confusion.

Soon after he achieved fame as a writer he somehow managed to break the leg. Fellow poet (and fellow Welshman) Edward Thomas drew a sketch or diagram and asked the local carpenter to make a new one. Decorum prohibited him saying what the contraption actually was and when Thomas received the bill it was made out for "a curiosity cricket bat."

After his accident WH Davies returned to Britain where he lived rough in doss houses and hostels for several years. He had always been an avid reader and now took to composing poems in his head, only putting them down on paper later, when his fellow inmates had gone to bed.

They had to be simple in style and format, otherwise he would never have remembered them, and it is by this simplicity or straightforward style that he is now remembered.

He borrowed money and typed up his poems, hawking them from door to door in the style of old ballad makers. When the enterprise failed he burned the sheets in a fit of temper. Within a short period of time, however, Davies had managed to borrow a lump sum from his allowance - a pension given to him by his grandmother, something he kept well hidden from the other tramps - and paid for a book to be published.

This book, The Soul's Destroyer, was well received, Davies taking the unusual step of sending copies to well-known people and asking them, if they liked it, to send him half a crown in return. Among those who sent money were the journalist Arthur Adcock and the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw.

Within months WH Davies was being lionized by the literary elite of Britain, his poems praised for their simplicity and refreshing beauty. A tramp-poet was certainly unusual but people were also quick to see that there was real talent and skill in Davies' deceptively simple creations. Soon his poems were appearing in the influential anthologies of the Georgian Poets, most of them, like Leisure, praising the wonders of nature.

Among his friends were people such as Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas and Joseph Conrad. Thomas even rented a cottage for Davies, close to his own home in Sevenoaks, Kent - no more doss houses for WH Davies.

World War One destroyed the pastoral idyll of the Georgian poets and cut away many of Davies' friends, men like Brooke and Thomas. By 1918 he was rather a lonely and forlorn figure but in 1923, to the amazement of everyone, he met and married Helen Payne. Davies wrote a book about their relationship, Young Emma, revealing - amongst other things - that she was actually pregnant when they met. The book was not published until after the deaths of both Davies and his wife.

WH Davies never returned to Wales to live, but he did move close. He and Helen rented a number of houses in various parts of the country before finally settling at Nailsworth on the English-Welsh border.

In 1938 he went back to Newport for the unveiling of a plaque on the wall of Church House Inn but by then he was already ill. It was virtually his last public appearance and in September 1940 he died, aged just 69 years. He would undoubtedly have said that it was a life well spent.

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