Walter Raymond

Walter Raymond was born in a humble cottage in Yeovil in 1852. His father, Cuthbert, worked in the glove industry in the town, although most of his ancestors had been farmers. When he was 2 years old his mother and sister died of typhoid and Walter was sent to Marston Magna to live with his grandparents. He also had typhoid but was nursed back to health. His grandfather soon died and he and his grandmother went to live in the school house, his aunt being the village school mistress. There he grew to love the countryside and gained a knowledge of natural history from his own teacher.

Cuthbert remarried and Walter returned to Yeovil only soon to be sent to school at Sherborne. His stepmother, Matilda, had six children of her own but brought Walter up as her own. Cuthbert built up his own glove manufacturing business, which Walter entered about 1875. Walter was keen on reading and natural science and Cuthbert had thought of sending him to university but felt that he would be better off in the glove trade. The gloves were sewn from calf and kid skins by women in cottages in the surrounding countryside. Walter recalled visits to these cottages in later novels. He spent more and more time in such visits and lost interest in the factory.

In 1878 Walter met Mary Johnston and married her the same year. Cuthbert retired from business in 1882 and moved to Southampton, leaving his house in Yeovil to Walter and Mary. They remained there for ten years. They produced five daughters and three sons, much to the delight of both, as were later grandchildren. Sons Cuthbert and Walter were sent to Blundell’s School at Tiverton and later emigrated to New Zealand. The work of the glove factory became more complex and demanding and in 1892, at the age of 40, Walter gave it up to embark on a literary career. He had often written articles and poems for local papers and in 1888 his book Misterton’s Mistake was also published locally.

Walter and Mary moved to Preston Pluknett so that he could devote himself to country writing. His next published works were Taken at His Word and Gentleman Upcott’s Daughter. The latter, probably his best novel, was the first under the pseudonym of ‘Tom Cobbleigh’. Walter had earned the nickname of ‘Uncle’ because of ‘Uncle Tom Cobbleigh’ in ‘Widdecombe Fair’, which he often used to sing. In quick succession came Young Sam and Sabina, Tryphena in Love and Love and Quiet Life. The books were very simply written. Walter never attempted involved plots, philosophical analyses or wordy descriptions. However, his writing was spontaneous and charming, suited the Somerset country life that was the subject of the writing and won much critical acclaim.

Around 1900 Walter began to take an interest in the work of the Dorset dialect poet William Barnes. The two men wrote about similar subjects and in a similar, simple style. Walter gave many recitals of Barnes’ poems and lectures on dialect and folk lore in various parts of the country, including the Exmoor area. These brought him acclaim from Thomas Hardy. His novels, however, were of varying quality and he found it difficult to write to order.

In 1905 Walter moved his family to London but he never cared to stay long there and, with a friend, Mr F Maggs, took the lease of a cottage at Withypool, behind the Royal Oak inn. He said: “I cannot loose connection with Somerset, so have taken a very quaint old cottage on Exmoor, eight miles from any station, at a place called Withypool. Very quaint. I shall have to put it in a book.” That he did in The Book of Simple Delights. The first few chapters describe the taking of and settling into the cottage. From then until 1914 he spent much of his time at Withypool, walking on the moors, fishing in the Barle and observing the people and their ways. Most of his subsequent books were written there or at Knighton Farm, where friends would put a quiet room or empty house at his disposal. He would often spend his evenings in the Royal Oak, listening in silence to the village gossip. Here he had the happiest time of his life, in which he had undisturbed time for writing and study. His family often spent their holidays with him, whilst he would return to London from time to time.

At that time Withypool was still a rich source of folklore. Cecil Sharp came there to search for folk songs and Walter joined him, along the Rev. F Etherington of Minehead and the Rev Charles Marson of Hambridge. They talked to the gypsies still common on Exmoor and some of Cecil Sharp’s best known songs were discovered in that area. Walter was also interested in sketching – in pen and ink, watercolour and pastel – and artist friends came to stay with him from time to time. In addition he had a keen interest in historic buildings and archaeology and was involved in several digs, including that of the stone circle on Withypool Common. In 1906 he had published A School History of Somerset, later republished as A Short History of Somerset, which became a long used text. He was a long and active member of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society.

Mary was not in good health and in 1910, after a bout of serious illness, she was moved to a nursing home in Southampton, where she had family. She never fully recovered and died there in 1912. Walter then divided his time between his daughter, Gladys, in London and his cottage at Withypool. His distress at the death of his wife led to the publication of a philosophical book A Wayfaring Soul. Although he regarded it as his best work, it was not understood by his usual audience. It was his final book, much of the remainder of his career being spent writing articles in journals and lecturing.

Walter continued his literary activities until the First World War, when demand, especially for his lectures, all but ceased. In 1915 he went to live with Gladys in Kensington and started work as a clerk in a London office. In 1917 he moved to Shanklin, on the Isle of Wight, to be near another daughter, Mrs Bradford. Soon Gladys moved to Southampton and he spent time there cleaning at the YMCA. By 1920 he and Gladys had moved again, to Nether Stowey. He took a house there and at the same time relinquished the cottage at Withypool, which he seldom visited again, although he never loved anywhere quite as much. The cottage has now been much modernised and is known as 'Raymond's Cottage'. At the same time he began research into children’s singing games. He gave many lectures on the subject, often illustrated by children enacting the games. This led to a broader interest in Somerset folk dances and customs. He became active in the Somerset Folk Society and wrote articles for the Somerset Folk Press.

Gladys returned to London and, finding life in Nether Stowey lonely, Walter took a new house in Street. He spent much of the remainder of his life on the promotion of his novel Two Men o’ Mendip as a play. After years of effort, he managed to arrange for its production locally, then in London, although it was never the success that he had hoped. In 1930 he had a stroke and spent the remainder of his life being nursed by his daughters in Street and Southampton. Walter died in Southampton in 1931. After cremation, his ashes were buried with his wife in Yeovil cemetery.