Friday, 22 May 2020

“Woman, clever woman” a WW1 poem in praise of nurses, written by Arthur Hillcoat, 1918

Placard for "The Globe" 1919
While doing some research yesterday, I came across a reference to a poem written during the First World War specifically for recitation and it got me thinking – again – about the wide variety of poems written during that time.  “Woman, clever woman” was written in praise of WW1 nurses by Arthur Hillcoat and “recited by the Great Mac (Major Mac), amid deafening applause at the London Halls”. (Reilly, p. 169).  The poem was published privately, as a broadside, in 1918. A broadside is a large sheet of paper printed on one side only. Historically, broadsides were used as posters, announcing events or proclamations, commentary in the form of ballads, or simply advertisements.

The First World War brought increased popularity for music halls and both the artists and composers threw themselves into rallying public support and enthusiasm for the war effort. Along with patriotic songs, patriotic poems were also widely recited.

Poems written for public performance brought success to poets Rudyard Kipling and Harold Begbie during the Second Boer War.  Kipling’s "The Absent-Minded Beggar", written in 1899, was set to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan and often accompanied by an illustration of a wounded but defiant British soldier, "A Gentleman in Khaki", by the artist Richard Caton Woodville. The song was written as part of an appeal by the “Daily Mail” newspaper to raise money for soldiers fighting in the Second Boer War and their families. The fund was the first such charitable effort for a war.

The chorus of the song exhorted its audience to "pass the hat for your credit's sake, and pay– pay– pay!" The patriotic poem and song caused a sensation and were constantly performed throughout the war and beyond. Kipling was offered a knighthood shortly after publication of the poem but declined.

When Harold Bebie’s Boer War poem, "The Handy Man", was published in “The Globe”, some hours later he received a long telegram from the newspaper, saying that Lady Beerbohm Tree was begging urgently for permission to recite the verses at the Palace Music Hall. “The Globe” was a London evening newspaper published from 1803 to 1921. It was founded by Christopher Blackett, the coal mining entrepreneur from Wylam, Northumberland, who commissioned the first commercially useful adhesion steam locomotives in the world.  “The Globe” merged with the “Pall Mall Gazette” in 1921. Under the ownership of Robert Torrens during the 1820s the newspaper supported radical politics, and had a reputation associating it closely with Jeremy Bentham. By the 1840s it was more mainstream, and received briefings from within the Whig administration. By 1871 it was owned by a Tory group headed by George Cubitt, who brought in George Armstrong as editor. Shortly before the First World War, “The Globe” was controlled by Max Aitken.

Staff of the newspaper included Arthur Morrison, William Le Queux, E. V. Lucas, who edited the “By the Way” column before Harold Begbie and P. G. Wodehouse, who took over from William Beach Thomas as assistant to Harold Begbie on the “By the Way” column. Wodehouse edited the column from 1904, when Begbie left. Wodehouse’s career at the newspaper coincided with those of Charles H. Bovill and Herbert Westbrook. Under Max Aitken (1st Baron Beaverbrook), the “By the Way” column was moved to the “Daily Express”, where it was signed ‘Beachcomber’.

William Maxwell Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, PC, ONB (25 May 1879 – 9 June 1964), generally known as Lord Beaverbrook, was a Canadian-British newspaper publisher and backstage politician who was an influential figure in British media and politics of the first half of the 20th century.

Helen Maud Holt (5 October 1863 – 7 August 1937), known as Mrs Beerbohm Tree and later Lady Tree, was an English actress. She was the wife of the actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree and the mother of Viola Tree, Felicity Tree and Female Poets of WW1 Iris Tree.

Arthur Hillcoat is proving hard to research.  According to Historian Geoff Harrison who found this mention in Paul Maloney's book "Scotland and the Music Hall 1850 - 1914", he may have been a music hall artist from Scotland.  There was a family called Hillcoat living in London Street, Glasgow, Blackfriars, Lanarkshire, Scotland in 1901 - father and son both called Arthur. The father was a musical agent and the mother - Susan Cairns Hillcoat was a vocalist.


Paul Maloney “Scotland and the Music Hall 1850-1914” (Manchester University Press, 2003) (found by Geoff Harrison)

Catherine W. Reilly “English Poetry of the First World War:  A Bibliography” (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1978) p. 169.

Information supplied to me by Harold Begbie's relative Roger Quin

Find my Past

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Olaf Stapledon (1886 – 1950) - Poet, writer and philosopher

William Olaf Stapledon was born in Egremont, on the Wirral Peninsula, UK, on 10th May1886. His parents were William Clibbett Stapledon, a shipping line director, and his wife Emmeline, nee Miller.

The family lived in Port Said when Olaf was small, where his grandfather, William Stapledon, a Master Mariner, had set up an agency for the shipping line Holt Blue Funnel Line following the building of the Suez Canal.

Olaf attended Abbotsholme School before going up to Balliol College, Oxford.  After teaching at Manchester Grammar School, Olaf worked in shipping line offices in Egypt and Liverpool and in 1911 was living with his parents in Caldy, Wirral. He worked for the Liverpool Workers’ Educational Association from 1912 until 1915.

During the First World War, as a conscientious objector, Olaf joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and served on the Western Front as an Ambulance Driver from July 1915 until January 1919. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal for his war work.

On 16th July 1919, Olaf married Agnes Zena Miller, one of his cousins who lived in Australia. The couple had a daughter – Mary Sydney – and a son – John David. They went to live in West Kirby on the Wirral Peninsula and in 1940 moved to Caldy.

During the Second World War, Olaf supported the war effort.. After WW2, he campaigned strenuously against a Third World War.   Olaf died in Caldy in 1950. Stapledon Wood in Caldy is named in his memory.


But just then the heavens made war
against each other over his head.
The sky rained shrieking death,
and the earth was torn.
He ran into his garden and cried into heaven
“Take care, take care! Beauty is here.”

But no one heard.

Some greater cause was at stake aloft.
And a hard-pressed god trod upon the garden,
so that the man and his roses were crushed together.
When at last the battle moved over into another place, there
was in the garden peace,
but no life – till the rats invaded.

Ambulance Train 16 with members of Friends Ambulance Unit

(Source: –
Library reference: Temp MSS 881/PHOT/ATR/2)

Caldy Hill is an area of heath and woodland on a sandstone outcrop on the Wirral Peninsula. The land was bought by Hoylake District Council between 1897 and 1974. The village of Caldy is nearby.  Including Stapledon Woods, the whole area covers 250 acres (1.0 km2) of which 13 acres (53,000 m2) are owned by the National Trust. 

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Philip Johnstone was the pen-name of Lieutenant John Stanly Purvis (1890 – 1968)

Philip Johnstone was the pen-name of Lieutenant John Stanley Purvis (1890 – 1968) who wrote the poem entitled “High Wood” in 1918, while serving on the Somme

John Stanley Purvis was born in Bridlington, Yorkshire, UK on 9th May 1890. John’s parents were John Bowlt Purvis, a Pharmacist, and his wife Charlotte Annie Purvis, nee Parnell.  After studying classics and history at Cambridge University, John became a teacher and taught at Cranleigh School in Surrey.

During the First World War, he was commissioned into the 5th Bn Yorkshire Regiment and was invalided out of the army when he was wounded during the Somme Offensive. He returned to Cranleigh initally, then became an Anglican church priest. In 1938, he moved to York. Here he gained international recognition as the translator of the York Mystery Plays and was awarded the OBE for work on the York Minster Archives. He died in 1968.

“High Wood”, first published in “The Nation” Magazine XII, February 1918, p. 618

Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being...
Madame, please,
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company's property
As souvenirs; you'll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me - this way ...
the path, sir, please
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper-baskets at the gate.

However, on the Great War Forum, the late, great Sue Light had this to say: “For a while now I've been trying to find some sort of primary evidence that this poem was actually written by John Stanley Purvis. Internet searches throw up a connection, but it seems to have become 'factoid' rather than having its basis in fact.

John Stanley Purvis was [honestly!] the author of another poem called 'Chance Memories' which has been some inspiration for the part of my website about the men of Steyning who died in the Great War. He wrote this poem under the name 'Philip Johnson' and somehow an assumption has been drawn that he also wrote 'High Wood,' but I can trace no evidence that this is so - the story just seems to be growing!

I'd be only too pleased if the two were one and the same - more kudos for 'my' Philip Johnson, and I'd be grateful for firm sources that connect the two. Just for the record, this is the other poem:

“Chance Memories”

I can't forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring

In summer time and on the Downs how larks and linnets sing

High in the sun. The wind comes off the sea, and oh the air!

I never knew till now that life in old days was so fair.

But now I know it in this filthy rat infested ditch

Where every shell must kill or spare, and God alone knows which.

And I am made a beast of prey and this trench is my lair.

My God I never knew till now that those days were so fair.

And we assault in half an hour and it's a silly thing

I can't forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring.

In 2000, the people of Steyning, Sussex, erected a memorial to the men of the town who died in the Great War, in a rather remote spot on a lane leading up to the South Downs – Mouse Lane. It takes the form of a low stone plaque on the roadside, and although it carries no names, it is inscribed with a poem by ‘Philip Johnson’, the pseudonym of Lieutenant John Stanley Purvis, 5th Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment [1890-1968]. He wrote this poem in December 1915 while in France, and later on became a church historian and archivist, and was a Canon at York Minster.

However, in another comment we discover that, following the death of Canon J.S. Purvis, his family began searching the family news cuttings albums to find an article published in the “Sunday Times” newspaper of 22nd May 1927. Their mother preserved the copy at the time for she knew the pen name Philip Johnson was that of her elder son John Stanley The poem was sent without the author’s knowledge to the Press by his friend, a Quaker doctor, serving with the Red Cross.

Find  my Past

David W. Lloyd. “Battlefield Tourism: Pilgrimage and the Commemoration of the Great War in Britain, Australia and Canada, 1919- 1939” (Berg, 1998), p. 43

Catherine W. Reilly. “English Poetry of the First World War: A Bibliography” (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1978) p. 182.  According to Reilly, Philip Johnstone had a poem published in four WW1 anthologies.

Robert Zellermeyer (1888 – 1917) Austro- Hungarian Airman poet

With thanks to Jurgen Verhulst, Richard Houghton, Maria Coates, Mark
Bristow, Frank Milautzcki, Arjan Kapteijn and Vittorio Valentino for
their help in finding information about Robert.

Robert Zellermeyer (or perhaps Zellermayer?) was born in Odessa in 1888. He joined the German air force in WW1 and became a Lieutenant with the No. 1 Fortress Artillery Regiment. He was killed while flying near Trieste on 5 th February 1917 and was buried in Prosecco Cemetery, grave reference B 3/53.

For bravery as an aviator, Robert was awarded the Military Cross of Merit, third class with war decoration and swords.

Robert’s poetry collection ”Erzählungen Aus dem Nachlass “ (Tales from the Aftermath) was published in 1921 by Genossenschaftsverlag, Vienna.


Unterm Lichte der Gedanken
Tausend dunkle Kräfte treiben,
Die gleich unbekümmert bleiben,
Tragen dich in sichrem Schwanken.
Losgelöst von allen Zielen
Bist du stark, sie zu erreichen,
Und die Wirklichkeiten gleichen
Deinen lieben Traumesspielen.
Schweben ist es, das dich hält.
Luft läßt freundlich dich ermatten,
Farbig werden alle Schatten
In dem Atem einer Welt.



Beneath the light of thoughts
Float a thousand dark forces
Light-hearted, carefree,
Sweeping you along in a wavering state.
Detached from all aims
Are you strong enough to reach your goals?
Yet reality is the same
As your cherished dream games.
Being suspended in air
That kindly allows you to languish,
Even shadows take on colour
In the breath of the world.

Various sources, including Frank Milautzcki on