It’s been quite a cultural summer so far for me in the Cotswolds. I sang in a super concert at the local open air theatre, which was amazing. There were 150 of us aged from 5 to 90 singing together in the community choir. Sometimes we split up and sang in individual choirs, and we sang such a variety of songs. It was great to listen to the other choirs, especially the children. The setting was magical. We were in a dell surrounded on 3 sides by trees and with a stream running behind. On the fourth side was a tiered seating area. All the trees were sparkling with lights and there were candles along the paths and down the steps. The theme for dress was ‘festival’ so there were flowers in our hair and lots of pretty dresses. It took me back to my teenage years in the 1960s. I loved every minute of it. Sitting in the audience were two ladies who are direct descendants of a Gloucestershire poet who coincidentally is the subject of the rest of this post, Will Harvey.
There have been all sorts of commemorative events going on to mark the centenary of the start of World War One. Here in Gloucestershire I was involved in a production of a brand new play called Will Harvey’s War at our local theatre, playing the part of a singing farmworker! The play was based on a previously unpublished manuscript written by Will and only recently discovered. It has now been published as a book entitled The Lost Novel of F W Harvey
Will Harvey, better known as Frederick William Harvey DCM (26 March 1888~13 Feb 1957), was a local man, born in a small village called Hartpury in Gloucestershire. I have very fond memories of Hartpury, as my daughter did her degree in Equine Studies there at the college. The setting was perfect. There used to be a great village pub called the Canning Arms where live Jazz was played every Monday night. My husband and I used to go regularly to enjoy the music, the food, and to chat with the great licensees, John and Jean. Sadly, like many country pubs, after Black Wednesday the Canning Arms suffered in the economic downturn and closed. It is now a private house.
Will Harvey moved to Minsterworth and went to the King’s School in Gloucester, where he met Ivor Gurney, a chorister, who went on to become a noted Gloucestershire poet and composer. Along with Herbert Howells they became lifelong friends. Kings school, being a Cathedral school, has a strong music and arts tradition, but it was listening to Elgar’s, Dream of Gerontius that informed Will’s ideas on beauty and creativity. Coincidentally, I worked at King’s School for a time in the 1990’s and have written about it before http://wp.me/p2gGsd-Gp
After school Will trained as a solicitor, but at the age of 26, the First World War intervened in his life. Within days of the war starting in August 1914, Will joined the 5th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment as a private. After a few months training, the battalion was posted to France where Will proved to be quite a hero. He was awarded the DCM or Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery. Will was later trained as an officer then sent back to France. Unfortunately, during another brave venture into enemy trenches, he was captured and spent the rest of the war in various prisoner of war camps. Although he made several unsuccessful escape attempts, it was in the camps that Will developed his poetry and writing skills. His most famous poem is Ducks, which he wrote after seeing a picture of ducks on the ceiling of his prison hut, drawn by another prisoner
It is often thought that The Wipers Times was the first trench newspaper, but actually the Fifth Gloucester Gazette came first and Will Harvey was a contributor. It was fortunate that Will was allowed to send his poems home for publication. His first volume was, A Gloucestershire Lad At Home and Abroad, which was soon followed by, Gloucestershire Friends, poems from a German Prison Camp. https://archive.org/details/gloucestershiref00harv
He also wrote about his wartime experiences in Comrades in Captivity. Altogether Will had about 400 poems published. He wrote of war and nature and animals as well as poetry for children.
After WW1 ended, Will came back to Gloucestershire and settled in the Forest of Dean. His poetry was so popular that he was known as “the Laureate of Gloucestershire“. But, now married to a nurse called Anne Kane, Will went back to his career as a solicitor in order to earn a living. To his credit he became known as “the poor man’s solicitor”. Indeed, Will was so compassionate to those facing prison that he often gave his services free. This was great for his reputation but not for his business and eventually it had to be sold. After that, Will joined the BBC and spent years promoting the people of the Forest of Dean, its arts’ scene, culture and heritage. Will’s friends, Ivor Gurney and Howells both set some of Will Harvey’s poems to music. Even today his poetry is set to music by local folk musicians such as Johnny Coppin. He sings of Gloucestershire, its traditions, its people and its culture.
Will Harvey is remembered on a memorial stone at Gloucester Cathedral and a new biography is being published this year.