Henry Brereton Marriott Watson (H.B. Marriott Watson) was a prolific author of his day. His novels and collections of short stories gained him a reputation as one of the better and best-known writers of his time. He occasionally turned his hand to the supernatural, the Gothic, and the horrific, which in some cases are now being re-discovered and republished. However, he is now largely forgotten; perhaps it is time to reflect on his contribution to English literature.
This man who lived most of his life in England was born in Victoria, Australia with Tasmanian connections. His ancestors were from London and before than Ireland and county Rutland descending from the Watsons of Rockingham Castle.
H.B. was born 20th December 1863 at Caulfield in the colony of Victoria. His father was an Anglican priest, the Rev. Henry Crocker Watson, who was born in Sorell, Tasmania. The Rev. Henry was also an author writing futuristic fantasies. The name “Marriott:” was a family name taken from Angelina Marriott, daughter of the Rev. George Marriott and niece to Sir James Marriott J.P. and Judge of the Admiralty. Angelina married John Watson of London and they had a son, Brereton, hence the additional name of our subject. First name, Henry, was obviously after his father.
From Victoria, the family moved to New Zealand where H.B. was educated at Christ’s College, Christchurch and Canterbury College, graduating in 1883. Two years later he travelled to London where he took up journalism and became a protégé of William Ernest Henley. Of this period H.B. wrote: “It was there that, outside certain newspaper articles I first appeared in Punch (the magazine). The occasion was memorable to me, a youth of two and twenty. I discharged various sets of verses of a light character at the editor of Punch and these had come back to with civil and mainly unreadable notes.” And “I lived in the traditional garret; that is to say I lodged in a bed sitting room in Alfred Place off the Tottenham Court Road.” He gained a living by occasionally contributing to such papers as were open to “outsiders”. A close friend to be, J.M. Barrie, was in 1887, stated H.B., contributing also to “outsiders” such as the St James Gazette and the Pall Mall Gazette magazines.
By the turn of the century he was a published author and had developed a character called “Galloping Dick” who was an adventurous romantic, suave and brave highwayman of the previous century. This series was a great success together with another adventure series called “The Princess Zenia” and he was churning out books every year. By now he was a literary celebrity together with his friends, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bernard Shaw, Conan Doyle and J.M. Barrie. He was described as being “the sweetest gentlest of creatures, never angry, usually amused and had no sympathy with any kind of violence” Another wrote: “He was tall, young, blonde, good looking something exotic, foreign in the good looks that I put down to New Zealand, not as quite as truculent in talk as in print, more inclined to fight with a smile.” H.B. also turned his hand to playwriting, although not successfully. In 1891 he wrote with J.M. Barrie, a play called Richard Savage, who was an English poet and satirist more than 150 years before. The play was first presented at an afternoon performance at London’s Criterion Theatre but it was short-lived.
His close friend, J.M. Barrie, creator of “Peter Pan” and he, were often seen together and were quite a contrast as Barrie was but 5’1” while H.B. was a good 6’ and it is said H.B. “had a good crop of hair”
H.B.’s life, however, was to see stormy times with the coming of Graham R’; his future common-law wife.
Graham R whose real name was Rosamund, was beautiful and independently minded. She was a successful authoress in her own right, being a gifted poet and a writer on gardening matters. By 1884 she had published volumes of poetry including Tares, Summer Night and After Sunset. She was also a novelist when in 1900, An Island Rose was published, her works selling as far afield as the USA. She was a friend with the Oscar Wilde family and to Andrew Lang, a premier poet of the day. By the time of her meeting with H.B. she had already been married twice, first to George Armytage a fellow poet, whom she left to wed the artist Arthur Graham Thomson. That she had done so was a scandal and with her poems being of an aesthetic nature and occasionally avant-garde she ruffled the Victorian sensibilities. She was to scandalise polite London society further, when after falling in love with H.B. they had an affair that everyone chose to ignore. Bernard Shaw in writing to her referred her as “Mrs Marriott Watson” even though they were unmarried. They had now moved in together, which was risky business. Having divorced from her second husband, they finally eloped going to Lands End staying at an inn. It was here that H.B. came dangerously ill with typhoid. The scandal that surrounded Oscar Wilde soon pushed aside to some degree the gossip surrounding the Marriott Watsons.
Returning to London they faced severe financial restrains. H.B. was fortunate that he was able to contribute new tales to the magazine, “New Review”, edited by his friend Henley from 1895-97. Henley’s first novel to be serialised was H.G. Well’s “Time Machine”. H.B. was also to take the position of literary editor of the “Pall Mall Gazette”.
While their union was a happy and full one, it did affect H.B.’s career. Despite the continual successes of his Galloping Dick and Princess Zenia series and other fictional volumes, he was to experience continual financial difficulties. His sales were affected because some of the public had turned their back on him, especially as he wrote on such subjects as adultery, illegitimate children and prostitution.
Nonetheless, their relationship was a fulfilling one for them both, but sadly Rosaumund Marriott died of cancer in 1911. Being a truly sensitive man and loving her greatly H.B. fretted enormously. Their son and only child, Richard Brereton Marriott Watson (Dick) was 16 years old at the time. So remorseful was H.B. that he could not bring himself to attend her funeral nor it is believed ever visited her grave. In the following year he published a volume of Rosamund’s collected poems with the introduction being written by him. Times were hard and sadly for H.B. in an effort to keep the creditors at bay and to survive, he resorted to selling furniture, books and anything else of value. More on one occasion he turned to his friend H.G. Wells for money, to which Wells always obliged.
Their son, Richard, was a comely youth, 6’ 3” in height, who was a spitting image of his mother. He followed her footsteps into write poetry. When war was declared in August 1914 he enlisted with the Royal West Surrey Regiment. Later he was wounded and although he was released, his hospital report stated that he “complained about being jumpy and easily tired.” He requested a transfer to the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles and served as 2nd Lieutenant. He was wounded once again and was suffering from trench fever. H.B. managed to visit Dick at this time (he was also suffering from Shell Shock). H.B. wrote: “He is all I have left, my dear Euphemia, and I am often frightened.” Dick was safe while repairing and had received the Military Cross from the king. Promoted to Lieutenant he was sent back to the front 4th November 1917. He was killed in action 24th March 1918 in the retreat from St Quentin, during the battle of the Somme. Knowing the danger, H.B. wrote to Lady Harland “I am in deep anxiety about my boy, who is in the thick of this awful fighting”. . On Dick’s file, it is written” “This man became known as a poet”.
It is apt to print a moving poem from his hand:
“And a bullet comes droning, whining by
To the heart of a sentry close to me.
For some go early and some go late
(a dying scream on the evening air)
And who is there that believes in Fate
As a soul goes out in the sunset flare?
The loss of Richard was devastating to his father. H.G. Wells wrote to him, “You must be lonely indeed without Dick and it made me very sad to hear that he had gone. The world is left very empty to many. I have a man staying with me just now who has had three brothers killed and he himself badly wounded nine times. One of my boys was killed which made a difference to me too. If they had only been dead for the duration of the war.”
H.B. did not write again. Fretting from the loss of his dear ones, experiencing money worries, life was no longer a pleasure for him and he never recovered. He took to drink and died of cirrhosis of the liver, 30th October 1921. The Times wrote (4th November 1921) “He was not always wise for himself; but none of his friends who knew him could fail to love him.”
As a Tasmanian writer for more than forty three years, Reg. A. Watson, was fascinated some years ago to discover a well known, if not famous English writer who was related and had Tasmanian roots. Henry Brereton Marriott Watson (H.B. Marriott Watson) has long been forgotten, but according to Reg Watson, he led a marvellous, if not sad life. “Perhaps it is time to remember him”, he adds. Reg says that he recognises the many struggles and set backs that H.B. experienced. “It’s a writer’s lot,” he said. “Nonetheless, he wrote during the time of great English literature achievement and perhaps - to some degree at least - Tasmania should claim him,” says Reg.