Anyone who is aware of cultural life in Penzance will recognise it as a place where poets are not only born (Humphry Davy), and made (Charles Valentine le Grice), but also settle. In 1820, for example, a Miss Hatfield is described as newly resident in the town, and as having already “given to the world some very pleasing poems”. We do not know very much more about Miss Hatfield: how much poetry she wrote; its style or merit; her readership. But we do know a great deal about a poet who came to live in Penzance nearly a century later: John Davidson.
At heart a Victorian, Davidson was a man at odds with the 20th century. His most famous poem, In Romney Marsh, suggests that even the shrill ring of the telegraph wire was a step too far. The works he completed in Edwardian Penzance have weighty, Victorian-sounding titles: The Testament of John Davidson (2000 lines of blank verse, final section entitled The Last Journey); Mammon and his Message. A man buffeted by circumstance and changing taste, Davidson found himself cast up on the shore of a new century – and in April 1907, he made his way to Penzance.
After lodging briefly at 3 Lannoweth Terrace, Davidson settled on 6 Coulson’s Terrace. He brought his wife Margaret, his younger son Menzies, and a Pickford’s vanload of belongings down to the imposing block standing in its own gardens at the bottom of Queen Street. But he continued to use his publisher’s London address, and there seems to have been an element of secrecy attached to his whereabouts. The Cornishman, whose editor was one of the few to befriend Davidson during his time in Penzance, would later refer to “his desire that no reference should be made to the fact that he was living at Penzance”. This was put down to Davidson’s desire to avoid “conflict… with local prejudices” against his “unorthodox” views. A correspondent later described his time in Penzance as an “exile, necessitated by “poverty”.
The new resident was of a melancholy cast, and throughout his career had endured literary and financial disappointment. Davidson’s thoughts – and pen – turned habitually to suicide; in 1901 he had written sardonically that, once down to his “last sixpence”, he would – if he had already pawned his revolver - drown himself in the Thames.
Arrived in Penzance, his thoughts turned once more to arming himself. Within weeks of his arrival, he applied for a gun license: “to shoot the fauna of the place, cats and small boys”, he wrote to a friend, explaining that “the latter are turned out into the streets all day and the former all night”. And a further shock was in store; settling down to work on a new section of his long final poem, he was disturbed when “a discordant bellowing of horns burst out”. May had arrived. “Marbles are out; and horns are in” he complained, “the week after it will be the spinning of tops”. The comment suggests not only the nature of the usual street nuisances, but also Davidson’s ignorance of – and lack of interest in - the established May Horns tradition.
Possibly the location Davidson had chosen – close to the National School, with the dense housing of Daniel Place opposite – was unwise, however good the prospect and imposing the façade of his new home. But it wasn’t just the children that proved an annoyance - the bandstands on the Promenade and in the gardens behind the house do not seem to have impressed him either: his gun, he speculated, might also serve to “pick off a military bandsman now and then”. Even the topography would confound Davidson – after living in Penzance for nearly two years he fell over a “four feet raised pavement”, at Greenbank, on the north side of Alverton Road.
In fact, Davidson was disenchanted with Cornwall as a whole, which within a year of his arrival he characterised as “a low lying land of unworked tin mines, four hundred of them, grey, ghastly scabby ruins,” dismissing the Cornish Riviera as “a delusion of the guide books and the interested railway”.
A little brightness may have been brought into the poet’s life by his acquaintance with Herbert Thomas, editor of the Cornishman. Both men were wordsmiths, both journalists, and perhaps Davidson even encouraged Thomas as a versifier. Another friend was Filson Young, who was only 29 when the two men met and would later enjoy a successful broadcasting career (including the St Hilary Christmas plays). After Davidson read Young’s first novel, he advised his young friend to give it a tragic ending. Young replied – rather tellingly – that Davidson “seems to like being out of sympathy with the public”.
Young later remembered the two of them spending three hours sitting on a bench overlooking the town and the sea, and is said to have later confirmed that Davidson “knew he would die while he was in Penzance”. Young wrote a tribute to the older poet, pointing out to the literary establishment that although “a master of the crafts and mysteries of the highest form of Literature”, Davidson had “failed altogether to reap material reward, or even… material wages”. He was identified as a religious poet “imprisoned in the civilisation of 1907”, and his “greater, deadlier, diviner purpose” contrasted to the lighter mode favoured by the Edwardians. After Davidson’s death, Young wrote that Davidson had been “hounded out of life… by the indifference of his own fellows”; that Penzance was a town “he loathed as his prison, and knew would be his grave”.
Despite these two supportive friendships - and despite his visits to the Penzance (now Morrab) Library, and trips to his favourite barber – Davidson’s mood remained low. During his first Cornish winter, he experienced “dismay and despondence from prolonged insomnia; and the hideous enfeeblement of asthma”. This was later followed by influenza, and he afterwards warned potential health tourists: “should you ever require to get well, don’t come to Penzance”. A letter to Max Beerbohm makes clear that the abundant winter flora, which many find cheering, had quickly lost its charm. “Here, in Penzance”, he wrote, “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”.
In March 1909, after nearly two years in Coulson’s Terrace, Davidson’s affairs had come to a crisis. Over the preceding weeks, he had come up with a number of increasingly bizarre suggestions for publications: a magazine with “no prizes, no fiction, no news, no poetry; no illustrations”; a collection of Napoleon’s sayings; poems on controversial figures from history gathered under the title When God Meant God. But he had also worked productively, and had poems and other work ready, some for his agent and some for his publisher in London.
On the evening of Tuesday March 23rd, Davidson carefully packed up two parcels, allowed his son to take one to the post, and then did something odd – wrote out, in a shaky hand on a ceramic tablet, a menu for an ideal imagined dinner. His choice was plain food: beef stew, mash, cauliflower cheese, rice pudding, but all given Frenchified names. Then he walked up to the Post Office at the top of Jennings Street, probably through the Morrab Gardens. In his pockets were a new packet of his favourite tobacco –“Bordman’s” – a briar pipe and an ivory letter-opener. He posted the second parcel, and then called in at the Star Inn for a whisky and a cigar. Still smoking, Davidson left the Star and turned towards home. He was never seen alive again.
There was no initial alarm. Davidson was in the habit of taking a twilight walk. He would fortify himself against the breeze, buttoning his coat right up to the neck, and then turning the lapels up to his chin – the actions of a man conscious of a weakness in the throat or chest. His boots – locally made, and without a toe-cap – had recently been repaired and fitted with protectors, to help them to withstand the lengthy strolls.
Only when it was fully dark, and Davidson had still not returned, was a search begun. His son, Menzies Davidson, and a neighbour by the name of Aston walked to and fro along the Esplanade, and out towards Mousehole, but with no success. Telegrams were sent to London. The next morning, one of the posted parcels duly arrived at the publisher’s. Margaret sought help from the local police, and Davidson was officially named as a missing person.
After two days the Daily Mail agreed to fund the search in return for exclusive interviews, and the reporting took a turn for the sensational. Desertion or suicide would sell more copies than news that the missing poet had been found safe and well. On Monday 29th, the Evening Tidings reported possible sightings of Davidson at Hayle, Carbis Bay, Lamorna, and Truro – but all were false leads. The hat that had been washed ashore at Lariggan turned out to belong to another man.
Chief Inspector Kenyon of the Penzance police force was pressurised to search more fully - but (rather unhelpfully) suggested that the missing man had probably fallen down a mine shaft. There was later a complaint that the local police had been “extremely supine” – and it is tempting, although possibly unfair, to speculate that Kenyon merely wanted the problem exported to the other side of the Lariggan - and hence off his patch.
By April 1st the national press had moved on to new stories, and the Cornishman, perhaps relieved that the field was now apparently clear for their own staff, reported on April 3rd that: “the journalists who have undertaken detective work in their motor-cars have returned to London baffled”. Davidson’s family and friends were thrown back onto their own resources, and whatever help the local police could offer. A reward bill was prepared, and the detail includes “brown piercing eyes”, a varicose vein, and a scar where a wart had been removed from one finger (although no mention of another scar – where shortly before his disappearance, Davidson had used nitric acid to burn away a cyst on his scalp). The description confided that Davidson “always carries one eyeglass, is well known as a literary man, walks very quickly, and has the appearance of a Frenchman”.
Despite this revelation of intimate physical detail, this laying bare of weakness, Davidson remained elusive. But although there were no further sightings, other evidence began to surface. Davidson was £19 in debt, with both an overdraft and rent outstanding. His revolver was missing, along with two cartridges.
When the second parcel was opened, the evidence seemed conclusive. The contents included a letter from Davidson to his agent, making his intentions explicit. Also included were the following words, which would in due course appear verbatim as a preface to his final, posthumous collection of verse: “the time has come to make an end. There are several motives. I find my pension in 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”. In fact, there is no evidence that Davidson had any reason to suspect cancer - it was later revealed that he was being treated for piles.
Margaret Davidson had been convinced since his disappearance that that her husband “fell into the sea, which has not yet given up its dead…he has been washed out to sea where he will never be found”. But of course, the sea often does – and in this case did – reveal its secrets in due course. On Saturday 18th September, two Mousehole fishermen – Orlando Humphreys and James Harvey Lawson - noticed gulls hovering by Carn Dhu: ‘Black Carn’. One gull was sitting on a decomposed body which was clad in a dark coat. The men towed the body in, and it was taken up to the toll house above Penlee Point. Menzies was sent for, and identified in the coat pockets his father’s pipe, matchbox and paperknife. At the inquest, two gunshot wounds were noted: an entry wound on the right temple, an exit wound on the left. The verdict? ‘Found Dead’.
Davidson had requested burial at sea, but fishermen complained that his coffin would snag the nets. A suggestion that his body be taken seven miles out did not remove the objections – which, despite the practical rationale, were perhaps religious (or superstitious) in origin. Even Gladstone, to whom appeal was made, was unhelpful. Eventually, the coffin had to be brought by road to Penzance, and taken out from there in the steam launch Nora.
The day was sunny. A crowd had gathered on the pier and, as the Nora pulled out of the harbour, the fishermen and other onlookers took off their hats.
John Davidson, First of the Moderns, John Sloan, 1995 pp 198, 228, 237, 254-255, 259-262, 267, 270-280
John Davidson, Poet of Armageddon, J Benjamin Townsend, 1961 pp 3-5, 12-13, 16-17, 432-433 - also includes photographs of the burial ceremony
Fleet Street and Other Poems, John Davidson, published posthumously, 1909
Cornishman 27 3 1909, 1 4 1909, 22 4 1909, 23 9 1909,
Evening Tidings 29 3 1909, 3 4 1909
http://vingoe.tripod.com/penzance_1820.htm (accessed 14 9 2018) for Miss Hatfield
The cover of Ballads & Songs is captured from a copy for sale on ABE books.