Frederick William Harvey is remembered today as a poet and central figure in a circle, including Ivor Gurney and Herbert Howells, which emerged in Gloucester before the First World War. In the inter-war years, working as a solicitor, Harvey became a popular BBC broadcaster who was involved in talks, plays and musical productions. His innovative programmes presented poems, humorous reflections on life, and extolled the virtues of the Forest of Dean and its people.

Harvey was born in Hartpury, Gloucestershire, and grew up in Minsterworth. He was educated at the King’s School, Gloucester, where he formed a close friendship with Ivor Gurney. On 8 August 1914, Harvey joined the 5th battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment as a private. Shortly afterwards he became a Roman Catholic. His battalion was posted to France, where he was promoted to lance corporal and awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. On 17 August 1916 he was captured in the German front-line trench while carrying out a reconnaissance patrol, and spent the remainder of the war in prisoner-of-war camps, including those at Gutersloh, Crefeld, Schwarmstedt, Holzminden, Bad Colberg, and Stralsund. His first volume of poems, A Gloucestershire Lad At Home and Abroad, had been published shortly before his capture, and he began to write more intensively while imprisoned, sending his poems back to England. His second collection, Gloucestershire Friends, appeared in 1917, and his time in the camps is held to be his most productive period of writing. His most celebrated poem was inspired when, returning from a spell of solitary confinement at Holzminden after a failed escape attempt, Harvey saw that a fellow prisoner had drawn a picture of ducks in a pool of water over his bed in chalk. ‘Ducks’ has been regularly used in natural history, comic and children’s programmes since 1922, and was voted one of the nation’s 100 favourite poems in 1996 in a nationwide poll conducted by the BBC. He returned home from war in 1919

Harvey married Anne Kane, an Irish nurse, in 1921. They had two children, Eileen Anne (b.1922) and Patrick (b.1925). Harvey was an adherent of the distributism movement, described as a ‘third way’, in opposition to both socialism and capitalism, and was influenced by the work of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. After the war, he worked largely as a defence solicitor and became known as the ‘poor man’s solicitor’; his work was not financially successful, and Harvey is said to have often recklessly given away his professional services and income. In 1920 he published a memoir of his prison-camp experiences, Comrades in Captivity. In later life Harvey said he craved the camaraderie he had found in the trenches and was disappointed that the new social order he had anticipated never happened. His later poetry of remembrance captured those feelings, but retained the essential humour of his early work, and he continued to write verse in local dialect. Gurney and Herbert Howells, another local composer, also set a number of his rhythmical and comic verses to music

In the late 1920s, Harvey’s gift for oration and skill at scripting led him to become a popular radio broadcaster at the BBC Bristol. A highly confident speaker, having given lectures on a variety of subjects in the prisoner-of-war camps, his lyrical and versatile Gloucestershire voice and talent for mimicry made him well suited to the medium. His engaging style, appreciation of music and literature, and authoritative knowledge of local traditions, formed the basis of a broadcasting career that lasted for thirty years. Harvey died in 1957, and was buried at Minsterworth. In 1980, he was commemorated by a slate memorial tablet in the south transept of Gloucester Cathedral

These rare recordings of Harvey reading his own work in 1938 are taken from a BBC archive, and the Poetry Archive is grateful to be able to present them here. Across even these few poems, there is a wonderful sense of Harvey’s range and versatility: the almost reserved, resonant voice that reaches us in ‘From the Mouths of Babes’, unfeigned and genuinely moved, is no less of a revelation than the good-humour and gentle wit of the dialect poem ‘Willum Accounts for the Price of Lamprey’, or the sheer relish of sound and rhyme in ‘Elvers’.


Recordings from a CD of Selected Poems, used with kind permission of the Estate of F W Harvey and the BBC.

Poems by F. W. Harvey

‘Out of the Mouths of Babes-‘ - F. W. Harvey
Willum Accounts for the Price of Lamprey - F. W. Harvey

Books by F. W. Harvey