A strange thing happened to me a couple of years ago, I bought a secondhand book exactly 110 years to the day that a man mentioned in it had died – the 23rd March. The book was The Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles, published in 1977. I had started leafing through it in a second hand bookshop, looking for references to Cornwall and the first town I turned to was Penzance. This short and simple entry caught my attention:
“John Davidson, poet, death by drowning, buried at sea.”
I decided to do a little research and what I discovered is a curious, ultimately tragic story, but a story that has somehow compelled me write it. However, I have held off publishing this article for quite a while as you can tell, wondering whether anyone else would find it as intriguing as I did, wondering whether in the end it was just too sad. But for good or for bad the life and mysterious disappearance of John Davidson had me hooked. Who was this man, what did he write about Cornwall and what really happened to him?
*WARNING – Readers are advised that this article contains themes and events that some may find upsetting. Your discretion is advised*
Quite Ordinary Beginnings
Davidson had been born in Barrhead, Scotland in 1857. His father was a pastor and the family moved to Greenock in 1861. John spent most of his childhood there. His interest in writing grew in his teenage years but his deeply religious parents did not approve of this, or of his drinking. John’s relationship with them deteriorated and later the rift became the inspiration for much of his poetry and plays.
His father’s house looked out across a firth
Broad-bosomed like a mere, beside a town
Far in the North, where Time could take his ease,
And Change hold holiday, where Old and New
Weltered upon the border of the World.From ‘Greenock’ by John Davidson
His early working life was mostly unremarkable. He spent time working in a laboratory in a sugar factory in Greenock, as a clerk in Glasgow and then finally as an English teacher. His pupils remembered him but not especially fondly.
“the English Master was a small, dark man with a very bald head, bright eyes and a bird-like manner. . . His name was John Davidson. I am not going to tell his nickname. His is too tragic a memory. He was not a successful teacher, though he strove earnestly to instil in us a regard for the great authors . . .”J.J. Bell, I remember, 1933
For John perhaps writing was always his inescapable passion, everything else was just a inconvenient distraction.
In 1890 John settled in London intending to pursue a full-time career as a writer. By then he was married to Margaret Cameron MacArthur and the couple had two children, Alexander and Menzies. In the 1890s John became a member of the Rhymers Club founded by W B Yeats.
“We read our poems to each other, talked criticism and drank a little wine”, was how Yates later described the infamous Club. Other writers associated with it included Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, Ernest Rhys, Arthur Symons, Ernest Radford, John Todhunter, T. W. Rolleston, Victor Plarr, Richard Le Gallienne, George Arthur Greene, Edwin Ellis and Oscar Wilde. They became known as ‘The Tragic Generation’, a term used then to describe this group of literary figures for which failure and early death seemed to be the tragic norm, perhaps even the goal.
At first everything went well for Davidson in London, he was getting published regularly and his reputation was growing. He had found his place in the world. Fellow writer Frank Harris described him in around 1889:
“He was a little below medium height, but strongly build with square shoulders and a remarkably fine face and head: the features were almost classically regular, the eyes dark brown and large, the forehead high and the hair and moustache black. His manners were perfectly frank and natural: he met everyone in the same unaffected kindly human way: I never saw a trace in him of snobbishness or incivility. Possibly a great man I said to myself, certainly a man of genius . . .”
Davidson’s poem ‘Thirty Bob a Week’ written at this time, is considered one of his finest and he is credited with being one of the first poets to use the everyday speech of ordinary people in his poems. T. S. Eliot, who wrote the preface to a collection of his work, said, “I found inspiration in the content of the poem . . . the personage that Davidson created in this poem has haunted me all my life and the poem is to me a great poem forever.” .
Despite Harris and Eliot’s kind words Davidson was often a deeply troubled, prickly character, who was, to a modern observer, clearly suffering from some form of depression or mental instability. And things did not always go as he would have wished. In 1895 he was considered for the Poet Laureateship after the death of Lord Tennyson, an amazing accolade which would have cemented his place as “a great writer” but the honour went to Alfred Austin instead. Around this time Davidson’s financial situation, despite having several books in print, was also becoming increasingly desperate. He began to take on journalism and translation work (he spoke fluent French), as well as working as a critic and a reviewer to make ends meet.
Fortunately in 1906 Davidson was awarded a civil list pension of £100 per annum and his friend George Bernard Shaw also did what he could to help him financially too, loaning him £250 with an open offer of more to follow should he ever need it. However John’s self perceived feelings of being on the brink of poverty, his worsening health, and perhaps most significantly what he saw as his declining powers as a writer, caused him to sink further into depression. In 1907, he and his family left London for good and moved to Penzance.
Penzance – End of the Line
Davidson had already spent two weeks in Cornwall ‘for his health’ in the early spring of 1907, he was suffering from severe bouts of asthma and the sea air was meant to sooth his chest. Then he had lodged at No 3. Lannoweth Road in Penzance but by 8th May 1907 he had returned with his family and they took a house on Coulsons Terrace. Davidson wrote from there to a friend:
“I hope ultimately to be all spring, summer and autumn in London but I must get out of it in the winter if I am to live.”
Davidson’s mornings were for writing at his desk in his study. Then he would spend his afternoons walking the streets of Penzance or reading in the Morrab Library. According to his family he was fond of walking, especially along the promenade or in the Madron or Morvah area, and was often completely lost in his thoughts, oblivious of anyone around him. Davidson made little effort to make friends in Penzance, though always polite he was often distant and other than the library did not involve himself with any clubs or institutions in the town. Although his stay in Cornwall was for his health and to help his financial situation it seems that after a few months he came to resent it greatly, seeing it as a kind of exile. Davidson felt that he was loosing touch with the writing community in London and, more importantly, that his popularity there was waning. Writing however remain the only real focus of his life.
St Michael’s Mount, the tidal isle,
In May with daffodils and lilies
Is kirtled gorgeously a while
As ne’er another English hill is:
About the precipices cling
The rich renascence robes of Spring.
Her gold and silver, nature’s gifts,
The prodigal with both hands showers:
O not in patches, not in drifts,
But round and round, a mount of flowers –
Of lilies and of daffodils,
The envy of all other hills.
And on the lofty summit looms
The castle: none could build or plan it.
The foursquare foliage springs and blooms,
The elaborate flower of granite,
That not the sun can wither; no,
Nor any tempest overthrow.St Michael’s Mount by Davidson
Vanished into thin air
On the day John Davidson disappeared, Tuesday 23rd March 1909, he had been working tirelessly on his final manuscript. That evening the 52 year old poet wrapped two parcels but only allowed his son Menzies to take one to the Post Office. He then did something rather strange, he wrote on a scrap of paper a menu for an imaginary ideal meal – all his favourites – beef stew, cauliflower cheese and rice pudding to follow, and left this on his desk.
Then around 5 o’clock he walked to the Post Office with the second parcel himself. His wife in later interviews said that Davidson was in good spirits when he left and had said to her he would return shortly for their evening meal. In his pockets he had his monocle (this item would take on great significance in the coming days), his pipe and a pack of Bordman’s tobacco and a letter opener with an ivory handle. After safely depositing the packet at the Post Office he walked to the Star Hotel.
According to the landlord Davidson was a regular visitor there but only ever stayed for one drink, never sat in the public bar or engaged with the other patrons beyond a sentence or two about the weather. That evening he ordered his customary glass of whisky and a cigar, leaving a few minutes later still smoking.
“From the moment he left the Star a deep veil of mystery surrounded his movements. His disappearance is as complete as if he had vanished by means of a magician’s wand into thin air.”The Cornish Telegraph, 1st April, 1909
Mrs Davidson and his son Menzies did not raise the alarm immediately, they assumed that he had decided to take one of his walks along the sea front and had lost track of time. Since he had recently had pneumonia Davidson had been cautious about keeping his chest warm and had left the house with his coat buttoned right up, the lapels up to his chin. Eventually as the hours passed Menzies and a neighbour went out looking for him, walking the promenade towards Mousehole but could see no sign of the poet.
Mrs Davidson reported her husband missing to the Penzance police the next morning but the officers did little more than search the immediate seafront and harbour area thinking that he had slipped and fallen in the sea. The officer in charge if the investigation Chief Inspector Kenyon rather ‘helpfully’ suggested, with zero evidence, that there was a possibility that Davidson had probably fallen down a mine shaft, adding “in which case he would likely never be found”. The Penzance force, clearly not equipped to deal with the disappearance and the attention it attracted, later faced criticism for their lack of urgency.
After two days with still no sign of John Davidson the Daily Mail newspaper agreed to pay for a proper search in return for exclusive interviews with the family. They clearly thought that the mystery would sell papers, which it certainly did. The story was covered extensively by the local and regional press, as well as the Scottish and London papers. Public curiosity was most definitely aroused by the mysterious disappearance and fairy quickly all sorts of theories began to circulate about what could have happened to the poet, especially when the sightings of him began to come in to the police.
Many of the witnesses claimed to have seen a man with a monocle, one of the distinguishing features included in the description of Davidson, but the first reported sighting was by someone who actually knew John Davidson. Joseph Thomas, a porter at Penzance train station, had spoken to the poet in the past and told the police that he had seen him on the departure platform on Wednesday afternoon, the day after he disappeared. When questioned the stationmaster, Mr Blair, admitted he had issued a ticket for the 4.35pm train to Hayle but could not remember who he had sold it to. (Thomas would later say he may have been confused about which day he had actually seen Davidson . . . but there is no reports of Davidson taking such a trip on an earlier day that week.)
Enquires were made at Hayle and initially it seemed like a dead end. The police there said (perhaps a little overconfidently) that they hadn’t seen anyone fitting John Davidson’s description in the town, that they knew everyone in the area and there were no outsiders there. However on Thursday a postman called John Rowe reported seeing Davidson on Penpol Terrace close to the harbour, he recognised him from the picture published in the newspaper. Rowe said that the man was behaving strangely and that was what had attracted his attention. The same day another postman called Walter Barnes also saw a man matching Davidson’s description, with a monocle, near the Hayle Gas Works. And that afternoon, Mr T. Mundy, the booking clerk at Hayle station, also reported seeing a man with a monocle boarding the train back to Penzance.
There were also sightings of John at Carbis Bay and Lamorna. One witness said that they saw him buying a ticket for London at St Ives station. There was even a woman from the Gwennap area who was certain that she saw John walking about a mile from Perranwell Station and another sighting in the Post Office in Truro. All these were eventually discounted as mistaken identity.
Despite the offer of a £20 reward for information the days and weeks passed without any further sign of John Davidson and hopes began to fade of finding him alive. By the end of April the papers reported that the poet’s friends had come to the sad conclusion that he had taken his own life and that perhaps his body would never be found. Indeed, in the immediate few days following his disappearance worrying details had begun to emerge that began to cast the story as more of a tragedy than a mystery.
The Pistol & the Letter
Despite having initially said that her husband had left the family home in good spirits Mrs Davidson was later to admit he had been worrying about his health and that ominously a gun, a small pistol, belonging to John was missing from the house. She could not be sure he had taken it with him however, as she was not sure of the last time that she had actually seen it since their move to Penzance.
In the meantime the parcel that John had been so insistent on posting himself turned out to be the finished manuscript for his last book of poetry, Fleet Street & Other Poems, which he had sent to his publisher in London, Grant Richards. When Richards opened the packet, from what I can gather, there was a note inside which was subsequently printed in the front of the book when it was published later in 1909. I have a first edition of the book and now, knowing the circumstances, the foreword makes a chilling addition. It reads:
The time has come to make an end. There are several motives. I find my pension is not enough; I have therefore still to turn aside and attempt things for which people will pay. My health also counts. Asthma and other annoyances I have tolerated for years; but I cannot put up with cancer . . . Men are the Universe become conscious; the simplest man should consider himself too great to be called after any name. – J.D.”
For John his money worries seemed to have weighed heavy on his mind, his peers later suggested that the steady work that he was forced to take on to make ends meet was a burden to him and that he wasn’t actually very good at it. John was a perfectionist who saw this other work as a distraction from his calling as a poet. He doesn’t appear to have been very happy in Penzance either, perhaps the ‘end of the line’ mentality only added to his feelings of isolation, and he was apparently frustrated by the noises of the busy harbour and town which disturbed his concentration.
He complained in a letter of sound of children playing and of horns blasting, possibly referring to the May Horns blown by children in a festival celebrating the return of spring. John was also far from enamoured with Cornwall calling it “a low lying land of unworked tin mines . . . grey, ghastly scabby ruins” and writing that the idea of the ‘Cornish Riviera’ was “a delusion of the guide books and the interested railway”. He wrote to a friend:
“Here, in Penzance the wallflower blooms on the back-kitchen walls in March, arum-lilies grow like weeds, and flowering geraniums climb the house like Virginia-creepers; but all that is not novelty and one season exhausts it”.
As for the cancer he alludes to, his doctor claimed that he had not actually been diagnosed with the disease and he was not aware that John was seriously unwell in any way. What is clear, however, is that John was struggling with his mental health and he may, given the thinking of the time, have seen his depression as weakness. It is possible that he also feared something more. In a letter to a friend in December 1898 Sir W. S. McCormick revealed that John Davidson’s only brother had been committed to an asylum for trying to kill his mother with a carving knife after years of deteriorating behaviour.
But perhaps the final point to make was that John saw his life in Cornwall as an unpleasant forced exile and felt that his literary light was fading. He feared that he was being forgotten.
Lost is Found
On the 18th September 1909, six months after John Davidson vanished without a trace, two fishermen, Orlando Humphreys and James Harvey Lawson, were bringing their catch home to Mousehole when they noticed a flock of gulls crowding around something in the water near Carn Dhu. The men went to investigate and to their horror discovered it was a body. Because of its condition they were unable (and probably unwilling) to bring it into their boat but they towed the body into the harbour. A very atmospheric description of what followed next was printed in the Cornish Telegraph on the 23rd September.
“The body was then placed on a stretcher and conveyed through the narrow streets of Mousehole village. In the dusk of the early evening the procession was such a one as the villagers will not soon forget. Groups had congregated along the harbour road but as the stretcher with it’s sad burden was borne along a feeling of awe overcame curiosity and one and all seemed instinctively to shrink back. A pause was made near the post office and just round the corner almost obscured by the gloom the Salvation Army were holding an outdoor meeting, and somehow the voices of the singers, rough and somewhat untuneful as they were, did not seem out of harmony as they raised the strains of ‘Lead Kindly Light’ unconscious of the fact that the body of him whose whole object in life had been to pierce it’s mysteries was being born along.”
The body was fairly quickly identified as John Davidson by his clothes, the overcoat buttoned right up to his chin, and the contents of his pockets, which still included his pipe, Bordman’s tobacco and his ivory letter opener. John’s son Menzies was sent for and he also recognised the personal items as belonging to his father.
John Davidson’s body was examined by Dr Miller who noted at the coroner’s court a few days later that his remains were very badly decomposed and had probably been exposed to the elements for several months. He also made note of a circular hole in the skull near the right temple. Sadly during the inquest it also emerged that John’s body had been spotted ‘sitting’ in a large rock pool near the mouth of a cave close to Mousehole, by two young boys who had been playing along the shoreline, a few days before it was picked up by the fishermen. The boys had been too frightened by what they had seen to tell anyone. The coroner decided that John had probably been lying in that pool for the whole time he had been missing and that an unusually high tide or large wave had washed him into the sea only recently.
The coroner decided on a verdict of “Found Dead” as all involved agreed that, given the condition of his remains, the exact circumstances and cause of John’s death could not be known with any certainty. Although the doctor had not found any signs of “violence from another person” this could not be ruled out. The two Mousehole fisherman collected the £20 reward.
The Last Journey
I felt the world a-spinning on its nave,
I felt it sheering blindly round the sun,
I knew the time had come to find a grave,
I knew it in my heart my days were done.
I took my staff in hand, I took the road,
And wandered out to seek my last abode.– J.D.
John’s death will always be a mystery. We can never know for certain what happened that March evening, whether any of the sightings of John in those first few days after his disappearance were actually him and what he had intended when he left the Star Inn cigar in hand. There are a number of unanswered questions that continue to play on my mind such as how could he walk all the way to Mousehole and no one saw him, and if he shot himself there why no one heard anything, and how could his body lie undiscovered for so long so close to the village? And what was in the second package that Menzies posted? And was that John at the railway station and did he really go to Hayle?
As per his wishes John Davidson was buried at sea (ten miles out at the request of the fishing community) and his Will also revealed that he had forbidden the publication of any of his unpublished poems or plays after his death or the republication of any of his already published works, while still under copyright. For a time this led to his books becoming very collectable but sadly John’s fear of obscurity ultimately became a reality and his name is now only familiar to enthusiasts.
As for Cornwall, well, here sadly John Davidson is only really remembered for the mystery that gripped the population of an entire town for six months in 1909. But perhaps this article will encourage some new readers to seek out his work and for that I am sure he would be grateful.
Note: This article has been a long time in researching and writing, and I hope that I have managed to tell it sensitively, while still keeping it factual. I should point out that there are some small variations on what I have written above, but everything I have included regarding John’s health, his state of mind, his disappearance, the search and the discovery of his body comes from newspaper reports published at the time and from biographical accounts of his life.