WH Davies

WH Davies

Last updated: 01 December 2008

Tramp poet WH Davies became one of the most popular poets of his day, and is still fondly remembered for classic poems such as Leisure and his memoir, Autobiography of a Super-Tramp.

William Henry Davies was born in lowly circumstances in Pill, Newport in 1871. His father died when he was just two years old and his mother remarried, leaving the children in the care of Davies' grandparents.

He left school during his mid teens in disgrace, having stolen bottles of perfume with his shoplifting gang of friends, and began work as an ironmonger before becoming an apprentice to a picture frame maker. Dissatisfied with life in Newport, Davies left Wales first for London and eventually America in 1893.

He spent the next several years living as a tramp, though intermittently working as a fruit picker, begging his way across America. In 1899, Davies lost his leg whilst attempting to jump from a train in Ontario, Canada as he was dragged under the wheels of the moving vehicle.

Davies returned to England during the same year, living in a series of London shelters and doss-houses. Unfit for manual labour or life on the road due to the amputation of his leg, he resolved to make his mark as a poet.

He published his first volume The Soul's Destroyer and Other Poems (1905) with his own savings; the work drew the attention of George Bernard Shaw. Shaw was later to write the preface to Davies' Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (1908), a memoir of his life travelling in the United States.

A prolific poet, numerous volumes of verse followed the first including Nature Poems (1908), Farewell to Poesy (1910), Songs of Joy and Others (1911), Child Lovers (1916), The Song of Life (1920) and The Hour of Magic (1922).

In 1923, aged 50, he married Helen Payne. Three decades his junior and a former prostitute, the autobiographical Young Emma (1980) tells the disturbing tale of his life before and after the marriage, and was published only after her death in 1979. The couple moved to Sussex and later Gloucestershire.

In 1929 Davies was awarded an Honorary Degree by the University of Wales and in September 1938 he returned to his native Newport for the unveiling of a plaque in his honour at the Church House Inn (where he had lived with his grandparents) with an address given by the Poet Laureate John Masefield.

However, this was to be Davies' final public appearance as suffering from ill health, his condition deteriorated and he died in September 1940, aged 69.

Selected bibliography

  • The Soul's Destroyer and Other Poems (1905)
  • Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (1908)
  • Songs of Joy and Others (1911)
  • The Collected Poems of WH Davies (1928)
  • Young Emma (1980)

BBC Radio 4

Pages from an open book

Open Book

The best new books, interviews and lost masterpieces.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.