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F.W. Harvey Soldier, Poet
By Anthony Boden
The History PressCopyright © 2016 Anthony Boden
All rights reserved.
A FEW MILES TO THE WEST of the old city of Gloucester is a land of water meadows and orchards entwined in the green curls of the River Severn. Clinging shyly to the northern bank of the river, almost hidden from the view of motorists speeding by to Chepstow and to Wales, is the village which to Will Harvey was 'the queen of riverside places', the place where he spent his youth, his first and most lasting love: Minsterworth.
Howard Harvey and his wife Cecilia Matilda (Tillie) had moved to Minsterworth in 1891 from the quiet village of Hartpury, a few miles to the north, when their son Will was three years old. His earliest memory was of seeing, as a tiny child, a hunt galloping over the Hartpury meadows: bright flashes in the sunlight, 'viewhalloos' and the raucous yelping of the pack.
The Harveys were of yeoman stock. Both Will's father and grandfather were farmers, and the land which Howard Harvey bought at Minsterworth was ideally suited to the traditional farm so rarely seen today. There were pigs and poultry, dairy cattle, orchards of pear, apple and plum, and crops in the cultivated fields. But Howard Harvey introduced another enterprise: he bred the great shire horses, which in those days pulled the plough and the haywain. The property had once been known as Parlour's Farm, but now, befitting the red earth of Minsterworth, it was called The Redlands.
The large Georgian farmhouse at The Redlands still stands, well back from the main road and opposite a building that was once a part of the Harveys' farm and is now the Apple Tree Inn. The massive brick-built barn is still there too, but the cattle-sheds, dairy and stables are silent. The solitary house is approached along a driveway bordered on one side by laurel bushes and on the other by a lawn, upon which the Harveys played croquet under the impassive gaze of a pair of stone lions. Behind the house was Will's own wonderland: the big garden where he could play alone whilst Tillie kept watch from the house. Will occupied that special place in his mother's heart reserved for a first-born son; extra-special as an earlier pregnancy had ended in a painful miscarriage.
To little Will the lawn must have seemed like a prairie in which to run and jump. But, better still, there was a small pond surrounded by trees where squirrels played; a square, rustic summer-house with a pointed roof; in the spring a crocus ring in the grass, dotted about with primroses. Beyond the garden was a paddock with a duck-pond for his delight. On either side of the paddock were fields with ancient names: Stony Barton and Barn Ground. Here Will grew to love the natural marvels of his surroundings through all the changing seasons. And nature rewarded him with a voice to tell of his love.
The Round Pool
When high flies the swallow
Fine weather will follow
And to this green hollow
Will little boys come,
All heedless of mothers
And grim elder brothers,
Schoolmasters and others
Who sit stern and glum,
To play round the water
With shout and shrill laughter
Till sunset and after,
Forgetful of all;
While I never heeding
Time's growth and rank seeding,
Mouse-like do sit feeding
On joys past recall,
And hark to a singing
Of hours fleetly winging
To nowhere, yet bringing
For ever new joy,
When earth was a chalice
Of wonder, not malice,
And time but a palace
Built for a boy.
Howard Harvey was a popular man. He worked the land with his brother Ernest and the two of them were familiar figures as horse-dealers in Gloucester, where they traded from an enclosure shaded by plane trees in the old cattle market. Howard was well known for his generosity and open, trusting nature; never short of friends who sought the warmth of his company, knowing that a visit to The Redlands would not end without a gift of vegetables, eggs or poultry. Tramps too knew that The Redlands was a 'good house' and left telltale chalk marks on the brick wall by the gate for the benefit of hungry fellow travellers.
Will's father was attentive and kind in the care of his horses. Shortly after moving into The Redlands he bought a massive stallion which had been ill-treated and was, in consequence, of uncertain temperament and apt to kick out. One day, Tillie, looking out of the window, was alarmed to see that little Will was no longer in the garden where he had been playing. She rushed down to the pond, fearing what she might find and calling out 'Where's Willie?' Howard and the farm boys came rushing in to the garden. The child was not in the pond and so an anxious search began. At last, they found him in the stables. Will was standing with the new horse, embracing one of its hind legs and resting his head against the animal, which remained absolutely still and docile, gazing round in curiosity at the child.
In the six years from 1890, Tillie Harvey gave birth to four more children: first Eric, then Gladys in 1892, Fitzroy (Roy) in 1893 and lastly, in 1896, Bernard. Will now shared his games as an elder brother, but never a 'grim' one. The Harvey children all inherited that most splendid quality of the Gloucestershire farmer: a sense of humour. Friends and cousins came often and The Redlands was filled with life and laughter.
As the five children grew together their energetic games developed in them the speed and co-ordination of hand, foot and eye from which good sportsmen are made. Will became an enthusiastic and effective cricketer, footballer and hockey player, much in demand by local village teams. Later, he went on to play cricket and hockey for the Gloucester City teams and ultimately cricket for Lydney. Will even invented a particularly fast and unpredictable form of cricket which was played at The Redlands. This hilarious game was later to be described by Will's friend and fellow Gloucestershire poet Leonard Clark: 'You played Harvey's cricket in a long, narrow court, no more than four feet wide, at the back of the house. There were no wickets but only a high wall behind you. The courtyard also had a roof, which covered it for half its length. The ball was a hard one, something in size between a cricket and a fives ball. You hit this, or at least tried to hit it, with a shortened hockey stick. You were out if the ball hit the wall three times. Every visitor to that house who had any interest in cricket was pressed to play that version of the game, whatever the season of the year. It had a long list of distinguished casualties, including two cathedral organists (bumps on the head), four county batsmen (broken knuckles), and many of the local farmers (normally, black eyes). I begin to ache again when I think of my wild efforts at that savage game'
Howard and the farm boys taught Will to ride even before he could read, not letting him cut lessons short in spite of his complaints when his little legs were stiff and sore from sitting astride the broad spread of the big horses' backs. 'The cure for that', Howard would say, 'is to get right up again!' In time, Will was given a pony of his own and the world grew from the confines of garden and farmyard to the fascination of exploring the Severn meadows.
Opposite The Redlands, Watery Lane leads through orchards and fields to Minsterworth village and Corn Ham, a broad tract of open land held in a restless, uncertain crook of the river. This was a good place to ride, even if sometimes the Severn asserted its sovereignty and flooded the ground such that Will, quite unafraid, turned for home with the water rising to touch the pony's belly.
Eric, Roy and Bernard grew to be tall and good-looking, characteristics inherited from their mother. Will, however, remained short and was always, unjustifiably, ashamed of his appearance, later describing himself as: 'A thick-set, dark-haired, dreamy little man, uncouth to see'. In his features and olive skin was a hint of the Jewish blood inherited from Tillie's great-grandmother, Catherine Levi. Perhaps to compensate for his lack of height and handsome looks, Will determined to develop his physical power. He became a keen weight lifter, delighting himself and others with displays of strength. The gardener at The Redlands, Joe Freeman, himself no lightweight, was astonished when young Will suddenly came up and lifted him bodily off the ground, a trick often repeated for the amusement of friends. Mrs Harvey protested in vain that the effect of straining under such heavy weights would surely retard Will's growth, and only rarely did he ignore her advice.
Tillie was the inseparable heart of Will's Minsterworth world. To him she was more than a much-loved mother, the symbol of constancy and reassurance. Her tall, stately beauty, sensitive mouth, russet eyes and quiet-spoken dignity dazzled his imagination. In his mind she held the authority and grace of a Roman patrician lady, whose guidance and comfort he sought to the end of her life. Tillie, both home-loving and talented, ran The Redlands household with an ideal blend of domestic order and perceptive good taste. In this she was helped by a cook, washerwoman and live-in kitchen maid. Her unmarried sister, Kate Waters, also lived at The Redlands and shared in the chores as well as the privileges of so comfortable a home. Kate was a fine cook and extremely popular with Will, especially so when she made the delicious damson cheese which was his particular favourite.
The table at The Redlands boasted the best from the farm, and from the river nearby came a yield of silver treasure harvested by moonlight in traditional Severn putcheons. There is salmon-fishing by Minsterworth no longer, but men still wade out with lantern and net to catch the elusive local delicacy which Will loved to eat, fried with egg, for his breakfast: elvers!
Up the Severn River from Lent to Eastertide
Millions and millions of slithy elvers glide,
Millions, billions of glassy bright
Little wormy fish,
Slithery dithery fish,
In the dead of night.
Tillie's joy was to make a good home for her family. But more than that, she was a cultured woman who loved the arts, whose most proud possession was her grand piano, which she played well, and who entertained herself and her guests with a pleasant singing voice. She was ambitious for her children and insisted that they should have the very best education the family's means would allow.
Will was to be brought up as a gentleman.
I love old Minsterworth. I love the trees:
And when I shut my eyes they are most clear,
Those leafy homes of wren and red-breast dear,
Those winter traceries so black and light.
I love the tangled orchards blowing bright
With clouds of apple blossom, and the red
Ripe fruit that hangs a-shining in blue air
Like rubies hanging in the orchard's hair.
I love old Minsterworth. I love the river
Where elver fishers bend with twinkling lights
And salmon catchers spend their fruitful nights.
I love the sleek brown skin, the mighty rush,
The angry head upreared, the splendid hush
When the Great Bore (grown breathless) 'ere he turns
Catches his wind; and nothing on the thick
Tide moves; and you can hear your watch's tick.
I love old Minsterworth. I love the men:
The fishers and the cider-makers and
All who laugh and labour on that land
With humour and long patience loved of God.
I love the harmless gossips all a-nod,
The children bird-like, and the women old
Like wrinkled crab-apples: and I will pray —
God save old Minsterworth, and such, for aye.
Day-Boys and Choristers
STANDING ONLY A FEW FEET AWAY from the river bank at Minsterworth is the Parish Church of St Peter, opened in 1870 and aptly-named in a place where once village fishermen gave part of their catch to an earlier church. The Severn, dissatisfied with this proxy tribute, had often washed over the graveyard, forced its unwelcome way under the doors and rippled up the nave to kiss the chancel steps. This watery intrusion was solved with Victorian thoroughness. The old church was demolished and its proud, decorated successor raised up by four feet and protected from the river by an earthen bank. Twenty-one years after its consecration the new village church became a regular place of worship for the Harvey family.
Will's attendance at St Peter's was no mere obedience to middle-class convention. The liturgy of the church, the familiar, insistent metre of the Psalms and the rich language of the Authorised Version of the Bible gave the child his first knowledge of the power of words.
In 1906, the Revd. C.O. Bartlett was appointed vicar at Minsterworth. The families at The Vicarage and The Redlands enjoyed each other's company and the Bartletts' son, Nigel, who was the same age as Bernard, became a good friend of the Harvey boys. In his teenage years Nigel often visited the farm to play tennis or cricket with the brothers, or set off on walks over the Severn meadows with one or more of them, the Harvey family pet spaniel, Nelson, chasing on ahead.
Will was a committed and lifelong Christian and, in his youth, took an active part in the life of St Peter's Church, serving as both churchwarden and choirmaster for a time. Later he would write: 'My love for certain men and women is the all-compelling personal argument for another life than this. Earth is too small.'
In one of the charming little poems for children which he wrote during the war, Will captures the wonder of a small boy from Minsterworth village going to church for the first time; in a subscript to the poem he tells us that it is 'a true tale':
Little Abel goes to Church
And this is what he heard
And saw at church:
Oh, a great yellow bird
Upon a perch —
Quite still upon a perch.
And then a man in white
Got up and walked to it,
And talked to it
For a long while (he said);
But the yellow bird
(Although it must have heard!)
Never turned its head,
Or did anything at all
But look straight at the wall!
School was not for Will Harvey until he was nine years old. Until then, his education was placed in the care of a governess, Miss Whitehead, the erudite daughter of a local vicar. She introduced Will to the world of literature, including the work of her favourite poets, Shelley and Browning amongst them. She was soon to discover that her young pupil not only shared her enthusiasm for verse, but that he had the ability to memorise lengthy poems with apparent ease. By the time Will was seven years old he could recite Shelley's 'To a Skylark' and the Twenty-third Psalm by heart. During the following year much more was committed to his memory, including Macaulay's 'Lays of Ancient Rome' and, a particular favourite, Browning's 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin', that delightful children's story in verse of no less than three hundred and three lines.
Miss Whitehead was not Will's only teacher at The Redlands. Tillie happily shared her musical talent with her first-born, patiently sitting by his side at the piano and guiding him along the uneven, stony road of scales, arpeggios and broken chords. Will was an eager pupil and became a competent pianist, but always maintained that his fingers were not quite long enough for the piano — only fit to hold a cricket bat. However, it was soon found that he had a good singing voice, and so the choice of his first school was probably an automatic one for Howard and Tillie. In 1897 they sent him as a day-boy to The King's School in Gloucester, which since the days of Henry VIII had provided choristers for the cathedral.
Early each morning Will set out on his pony from Minsterworth along the road into Gloucester. These were the days before motor cars and lorries spoilt the peaceful scene with noise and fumes, or even electric street lamps illuminated the way. His journey took him past Highnam Court, country home of the composer Hubert Parry, and across the river at Over Bridge. All the while he would see the city set in its valley, dominated by the magnificent tower of the Cathedral Church of St Peter and the Holy and Indivisible Trinity, an inescapable landmark and his daily goal. Riding down the gently sloping road, he would enter Gloucester by the Westgate Bridge and come into the city which breathed history from its Roman shape, its ancient buildings and evocative street names. Here, King William had ordered the Domesday Book to be compiled; Bishop Hooper was burned at the stake by Queen Mary's command; and Colonel Massey's Roundheads withstood a Royalist siege.
The King's School stood, as it still does, in the shadow of the cathedral. But unfortunately the education and facilities that it offered could not compare with those available at many other fine schools. The standards at King's at that time were a far cry from those of today's fine school, and it seems, too, that the then dean and chapter of the cathedral were interested in the school only as a source of choristers.
Excerpted from F.W. Harvey Soldier, Poet by Anthony Boden. Copyright © 2016 Anthony Boden. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 The Redlands,
2 Day-Boys and Choristers,
5 Drum Taps,
8 Plug Street,
9 Conspicuous Gallantry,
10 'The Bird Stuffer',
11 A Gloucestershire Lad,
COMRADES IN CAPTIVITY,
13 Solitary Confinement,
16 'The Pink Toe',
18 Schwarmstedt — And a Bid for Freedom,
19 Gloucestershire Friends,
23 Home Again,
25 Happy Singing,
27 'Faery-Crazed or Worse',
29 Gallant Friends,
30 Sporting Times and Radio Times,
31 Lovers Goodbye,