May’s father used to take his three daughters rock climbing in the Lake District, Scotland and Switzerland with some of his academic friends.May was very interested in literature and the girls devised their own magazine. In 1907, the girls produced an anthology of poetry – “The Tripled Crown”, for which Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote a poem of introduction. May’s first poem was published in 1908 in “The Scotsman”, and in the same year, Dorothea and May were sent to Downe House Boarding School in Kent.
At the age of 18, May joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and trained as a nurse, attaining the rank of Quartermaster. The VADs came under the control of the Red Cross. In 1913, May was instructed to set up a small hospital of 60 beds if need be but when war broke out she had to step down in favour of a higher ranked officer and worked as an auxiliary nurse.
May went to Rouen early in 1915, where she helped to run the canteen at the railway known as the Coffee Shop in Rouen for four weeks. Her most famous poem ‘Rouen’ recalls this period of her life.
Following that, May returned to Oxford and with her sisters, worked during much of the war with their father at Oxford University Press because, after the introduction of conscription in 1916, many men had left for the war. The Oxford University Press’s output at that time included works produced by the Government’s War Propaganda Bureau.
In 1918, May went to work at the War Office Department in Paris for the intelligence department. She met up with and became engaged to Bevil Quiller-Couch in Paris in December 1918. Bevil, who was in the Royal Artillery and survived the war, died of influenza in Germany in 1919. After his death, Bevil’s horse “Peggy” was returned to England to his father, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a writer and lecturer at Cambridge University, who had made arrangements for the horse to be returned to his home. May’s poem “Riding” describes her feelings when riding the horse in Cornwall and is extremely moving.
May published three volumes of her poems – “In War Time” in 1917, “The Splendid Days” in 1919, which she dedicated to her fiancé, and “The House of Hope” in 1923, which she dedicated to her father. May wrote a novel based on her life experiences – “The Lonely Generation” - and in her 70s wrote her autobiography “Grey Ghosts and Voices”, which was published after her death.
May’s poem ‘Rouen’ is the most anthologised women’s poem from the First World War and was selected by Philip Larkin for his Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, which was published in 1973. He felt it had “all the warmth and idealism of the VADs in the First World War…”
May married Percival James Slater who had been a balloonist in the Royal Flying Corps and had been wounded during the First World War. In WW2, Slater was promoted to the rank of Brigadier.
May died in Pangbourne, Berkshire on 11th December 1973.
My grateful thanks to Clara Abrahams who is the only granddaughter of May Wedderburn Cannan. Clara lives in rural Herefordshire and grows wildflowers for woodland and wetland habitats. Clara was eight years old when she first learned that her grandmother was a poet, when May’s poem ‘Rouen’ went into the 1973 Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse. She remembers May, in her seventies, writing her autobiography, typing away on a tiny, portable typewriter.
According to Clara, “May’s writing is always at its best when she is writing about the landscape. May loved Scotland, the Lake District, Cornwall and Devon, as well as Oxfordshire and Oxford. Her pastoral poetry was among her best work, but circumstances made her a war poet…”
Sources:Clara Abrahams, May’s Granddaughter and www.oxforddnb.com who kindly supplied the photographs and gave me permission to put some of May's poems on the exhibition panel.
May’s most famous poem “Rouen” recalling the time she spent working at the Lady Mabell Egerton Coffee Stall at St Sever Station can be found on www.poetrybyheart.org.uk This has been set to music with Clara’s permission by north-west composer Chris O’Hara and will be performed for the first time by the Manchester Chorale on Saturday, 2nd July 2016 at St. Ann’s Church, Manchester M2 7LF.
Dame Lucy Innes BRANFOOT, who also served at the Coffee Stall, died of bronchitis on 16th March 1916 aged 52 and is buried in St. Sever Cemetery, Rouen, Seine-Maritime, France.