Dr Percy Withers (1867-1945)

Dr Percy Withers

Written by David A Cross

Occupations: Friend of Poets and Artists and Physician

Early Life

Percy Withers was born in Sale, Cheshire, on 6th July 1867, the son of John Withers [1824-1876] of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire and his wife Elizabeth Oliver [1825-1882], whose father was involved in the lace trade. John was a clerk in a silk business, living at Temple Mead, Sale but died in 1876 when Percy was nine, a ‘baffled, bruised and beaten man’, followed to the grave by his wife in 1882. These losses may have contributed to Percy’s fear of the dark but solace came from his ‘beloved old nurse Martha’ [ms Autobiography]. Following his attendance at a dame school, run by the Misses Evison, Percy was taught in the Academy, a small private school in a former chapel, run by the one-legged teacher John Armstrong, a who taught him Latin. He recalled the happy elements but also ‘with shuddering, its cruelties, dirty mindedness, terrors and deceits’ [ms Autobiography]. He then attended Manchester Grammar School from 1880, under the High Master, the dynamic [Sir] Samuel Dill [1844-1924; DUB] and was supported by his elder brothers Oliver [1858-1937] and Sheldon [1860-1934] who were both general practitioners. Many of the masters he disliked, others he fooled, a few he idolised and he found himself to be able at Greek. Though his childhood was beset with illness, he was able to enjoy rugby and his intellectual life was stimulated by listening to conversations between his brothers and a corn dealing uncle in Stockton-on-Tees. Percy studied medicine at Owen’s college, Manchester, then King’s College, Durham, where he graduated M.B. and B. Surg. in 1894. He began by putting up a brass plate and though he disliked being woken by patients at all hours, soon had a significant practice. During this period he ‘fell in love violently and out again swiftly’ [ms Autobiography].  His third brother Stanley [1863-1927] began as a journalist and was the first registrar of the Royal Manchester [now Northern] College of Music, founded by Sir Charles Halle [1819-1895] in 1893, for which he wrote a manuscript history for the 25th anniversary. Stanley’s scalp hunting collection of literary and artistic autographs, including those of Mrs Gaskell, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, may have been the inspiration for Percy’s more intensive and engaged literary lion hunting. Percy also absorbed Stanley’s enthusiasm for church architecture. In time, Oliver married Mary Allen [b.1865]; John married Hannah Oliver [b.1861] and then Christabel Wake; and Stanley married Rose Davison [b.1872].

The Summers Family and Marriage

As early as 1894 George Faulkner, in Manchester, published Poems: by Percy Withers, his first collection of verse, which manifested the young doctor’s dual expertise. Percy also wrote book reviews and his other recreations were walking, gardening and tennis. Having successfully treated a member of the wealthy Summers family, he met his future wife at a family party. Mary ‘Mamie’ Woolley Summers [1870-1947], had studied from 1888-91 at Somerville College, Oxford, which at that date did not award degrees to women. She was the youngest child of John Summers [1822-1876], an ambitious clog maker of Dukinfield and his wife Mary Woolley [1828-1870] who had died soon after her birth. Realising the savings which could come from making his own nails, John had bought a failing nail making business and at the Great Exhibition in 1851, astutely spent all his savings on a new nail making machine. By 1871 he was an iron merchant employing 250 people at the Globe Iron Works in Staleybridge, but died five years later when Mamie was only six. So she went to live at Ryecroft Hall, Ashton-under-Lyne, the home of her sister Hannah [1851-1897] and brother-in-law Abel Buckley [1835-1908] M.P., a very wealthy cotton manufacturer with interests in collieries and printing. Nineteen years older than her small sister, Hannah was a severe surrogate but Mamie was fortunate to have Nanny Walker in the household, who told her loving tales of her late mother. 

Percy married Mamie on 9 June 1896 at St Michael’s, Ashton-under-Lyne; the bride, wearing ivory satin with Irish lace was supported by four bridesmaids in pink satin and a pageboy nephew ‘in antique costume’. His friend Herbert Mothersill [1868-1937], a Cheshire based authority on cotton and an Alpine climber was his best man. Hannah and her brother Frank Summers were witnesses at the ceremony, prior to a lavish celebration held at Ryecroft Hall. Mamie’s six brothers had shared for twenty years the administration of the business. James Woolley Summers [1849-1913] M.P. married Edith, the daughter of Hugh Mason M.P. [1817-1886], a kindly millowner, and lived latterly at Emral Hall, Worthenbury, Flintshire. Brother William [1853-1893] graduated from both London University and University College, Oxford, became a barrister and M.P. but died in Uttah Pradesh of smallpox, while attending the Indian National Conference. John [1857-1910] attended Owens College, Manchester and married Ada Jane Broome [1862-1944; ODNB], who was later the first lady mayor of Staleybridge. Alfred [1861-1887] attended Owens College but did not graduate. He was an all-round sportsman, but aged only twenty six he was killed by a train, returning from a lecture by W.E. Gladstone. Walter [1863-1944] attended Owens College, was called to the bar, married Dorothy Vernon and their daughter Lilias married Cyril Gerald Valerian Wellesley [d.1915], a great grandson of Canon Valerian Wellesley, brother of the ‘Iron Duke’. The youngest brother Frank [1868-1926] married Constance Taylor [1876-1934], was keen on country sports and was less involved with the firm, retiring early to Hampshire.

The most forceful of Mamie’s brothers was Harry [1865-1945], who attended Owens College and married Minnie Brattan. Led by Harry, in 1889 the brothers signed a partnership deed and John Summers and Sons diversified into galvanised steel and the rolling of iron bars. Harry then drove ahead with a new works at Hawarden Bridge on the Dee estuary and then established a steel company in Buenos Aires. The firm went on to specialise in iron sheets for motor car bodies, until 1951 when John Summers and Sons was nationalised as part of British Steel. The firm generated significant incomes for all the siblings, eventually including Mamie. 

Married Life in Altrincham and Keswick

After a honeymoon in Scotland, Percy and Mamie settled down in Altrincham, where his early medical practice provided only a modest income but his marriage ‘established me in sanity and content’ [ms Autobiography]. As before, his health was not robust but as time went on he built up a good practice and enjoyed a special place in the community. Their first daughter Monica [1900-1990] was born on 17 October 1900 and the following year they moved to Ashford, Ashley Rd., Sale. By 1902 he was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and working as a house surgeon at the Manchester Royal Infirmary. During this period he also gave lectures for the Ancoats Brotherhood, founded by Charles Rowley [1839-1933], who established a programme of art, literature and music for the working men of the city. One was entitled ‘The Cry of the Children’ [Somerville mss]. Their second daughter Audrey [1905-2001; ODNB] was born on 7 March 1905 and at her baptism, her godmother was an Oxford friend of Mamie’s, Cornelia Sorabji [1866-1954; ODNB], India’s first woman barrister and a champion of women’s rights.

Eighteen months later, Percy developed double pneumonia and the family resources soon became insufficient. At this point, Mamie’s iron master brothers dropped in for tea. After their departure, an envelope was found on the hall table containing a very large cheque, representing Mamie’s belated share of John Summers and Sons. This capital enabled the family to live comfortably in future but the immediate goal was to restore Percy’s health. So they moved to their holiday cottage at Abbots Bay, on the west shore of Derwentwater, below Cat Bells and south of Brandlehow Woods.  This arts and crafts cottage they had built in 1902 on a three acre woodland promontory, the property including the adjacent Otters Island. There was no running water, log fires provided the heating and the lighting was from oil lamps. Logs were sawn and split and all the water was pumped by hand. Bread and basic groceries were available at nearby Grange-in-Borrowdale and other goods were brought by bicycle from Keswick, eight miles distant. When the weather was clement, the alternative was to row three miles in their little boat. They had two servants and a governess and here the girls had an idyllic childhood, observing the natural world, boating, swimming, picking bilberries and making bonfires. They grew to be adept at identifying buzzards, owls, great crested grebes, tree creepers and wrens and Percy put up nesting boxes. Red squirrels abounded; there were foxes to be spied and the girls were encouraged to be independent, to ask questions and to read omnivorously.

As their property was beside Brandlehow Woods, purchased by the National Trust in 1902, Percy volunteered to be the guardian of the woods and thus encountered Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley [1851-1920; ODNB], vicar of Crosthwaite church, Keswick and a co-founder of the Trust. This involvement suited Percy’s environmental consciousness and led to his membership of the Trust’s council. In later years Percy, already an enthusiastic visitor to Norman churches, was also very keen on visiting National Trust properties, as they were absorbed into the growing organisation. Despite his chest problems, while at Abbots Bay Percy swam in the lake daily, sometimes having to break the ice. Undeterred by the isolation, Percy and Mamie were hugely hospitable, having numerous visitors and building a huge bonfire every November 5th with an effigy of Guy Fawkes and fireworks. A crowd of neighbours came on foot, by carriage, or across the lake by boat to enjoy the event, an enthusiasm for festive conflagration very much in the spirit of Rawnsley, who was renowned for his celebratory bonfires, inter alia for the tercentenary of the Spanish Armada in 1888 and the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 1897. Indeed, an undated letter from the canon refers to a visit to see Withers recuperating at a clinic at 4 Wimpole St., remarks that they had enjoyed ‘a quite glorious evening’ for a Skiddaw bonfire, and adds: ‘what I saw from Skiddaw top you may see in the Manchester Guardian of yesterday’ [Somerville ms]. 

Some Early Publications

Before 1909, Percy and Mamie travelled widely in Egypt for several months and Percy took numerous photographs, including one of a fine felucca, which illustrated his subsequent Egypt of Yesterday and Today [Frederick A. Stokes, 1909]. Next he was commissioned by Grant Richards [1872-1948] to select verse for an anthology The Garland of Childhood: A little book for all lovers of children [Riverside Press, 1910], dedicated to Mamie, which demonstrates both his familiarity with a wide range of published poetry and his determination to share this knowledge with his children. The eclectic selection includes work by Hartley Coleridge, Thomas Dekker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walter Savage Landor, Mary Russell Mitford and Walt Whitman. He was also a relaxed and freethinking father, a Labour voter and rather outspoken against foxhunting. 

It was a very happy time for the growing family. On 7 March 1910, Mamie gave birth to a son, Michael [‘Mick’] Derwent Withers [1910-1954], who was named after the river which flows from Borrowdale, through Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite Lake and down to the sea. Percy would have known that Samuel Taylor Coleridge [1772-1834; ODNB] had given this name to his second child Derwent Coleridge [1800-1883; ODNB], who became a great scholar. Mick was a quiet child, of whom his mother was hugely protective, as he had to cope with mild cerebral palsy. Soon afterwards the challenges of their relative isolation began to tell on Mamie and Monica needed a fuller education than that provided by the governess. Also, as they were living on Summers resources, a fact which may have been critical in their discussions, the decision was made that the family would leave Abbots Bay in 1912. Percy went along with the new plan but felt ‘heartbroken’ [Lifespan], as he knew he would miss the rowing, the woodsmanship, the wildlife, the fell walking, and the spectacular views. He held ‘a secret hope’ [Dale] that he would return to live there but he never did. If they had stayed in Lakeland until 1923, their neighbour at nearby Brackenburn would have been the novelist Hugh Walpole [1884-1941; ODNB].

Percy recapitulated their idyll in two books: In a Cumberland Dale [1914] and Friends in Solitude, [1923], the latter being dedicated to the poet Alice Meynell [1847-1922; ODNB], who had just died.  The former contained a dedication by Percy’s friend Lascelles Abercrombie [1881-1938; ODNB] which averred that readers would hold it in ‘admiration and affection’. He added that Withers had not only ‘the eye’ of both a poet and a naturalist but also a ‘relish for human nature’. In the earlier book Percy describes the property, the lake and the nearby fells ‘of every altitude and gradient’ with warm appreciation. Waxing poetic in the last pages he wrote of the ‘heather-grown promontory, where years ago two eremites built their cottage under the pines, and where little figures, white-frocked and bare-legged gathered fir-cones and wild flowers, or played their make-believe of fairy, faun, or pirate by land and water’ and ended with the words ‘And now farewell to you, land of lakes and mountains.’  In using the metaphor ‘eremite’, Percy may be expressing his familiarity with the life of St Herbert on Derwentwater, as told by St Bede and retold by Hardwicke Rawnsley. To modern readers Percy’s prose is somewhat prolix and though Grevel Lindop described this volume as ‘full of small pomposities’ he also referred to its more appealingly ‘pleasant self-satisfactions’.  

Life in the Cotswolds

Moving south in January 1911, they lived at Kylsant House, Broadway in the Cotswolds, a 17thc property with gables and mullioned windows. There was a long cloistered room which became the library, housing Percy’s four thousand books. Despite her education, Mamie was not a reader but she would personally remove all the books to dust them, once a year. She was more interested in the garden and was a knowledgeable plantswoman, generous with attractive pots and cuttings. Their resident staff in 1911 included a cook and two maids and a governess, Mary Cranford, who had been born in Calcutta. The village provided accessible shopping on foot, cars being still unusual, and they would hire a pony trap when a great aunt came to stay. The landscape designer and illustrator Alfred Parsons R.A. [1847-1920; ODNB] also lived in Broadway and had designed the garden for Percy’s neighbour, the American actress Mary Anderson [1859-1940], whom Percy had seen in the 1880s creating the double role of Hermione and Perdita in A Winter’s Tale. The village had a community of actors, singers and artists, now gathered in thrall to Anderson but having their origin in the residence of artists including Francis Davis Millet [1848-1912], a friend of Mark Twain and John Singer Sargent [1856-1925; ODNB] from 1885. On 15 April 1912 the village was shocked to hear of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, with Millet on board. In 1918 Mary held a fundraising performance of Macbeth in the village, for Belgian artists and it may be that this village influence led to dressing up becoming popular in the Withers family. This certainly brightened birthday celebrations and Christmas, with Percy wearing a favourite wig, waistcoat and satin breeches. He also invited a company of travelling actors who performed The Merchant of Venice to an audience of delighted Souldern villagers. There were musical concerts too and the poet Gordon Bottomley [1874-1948; ODNB] induced Percy to buy a gramophone, giving him a list of suggested 78 rpm recordings. As Percy missed his daily swimming, Mary and her Basque husband Antonio de Navarro [1860-1932], a sportsman and barrister, gave him access to their pool. St Eadburgha’s church in Broadway, with its Saxon capitals, were yet another local benefit. Percy, who had ceased to practice as a G.P., described himself in the 1911 census as an ‘author and publisher’s reader’. Also he recorded daily temperatures and sent monthly rainfall figures to the Met office. 

Monica was sent to a small girls’ boarding school in Woking, later to be joined by Audrey. The curriculum and discipline here proved not at all satisfactory, so the girls were transferred to St Leonard’s school at St Andrews, which had an enthusiastic and committed staff, under the exceptional Mary Bentinck Smith [1864-1921; ODNB], a graduate of Girton College, Cambridge. Monica’s chequered education was here improved upon, enabling her to become a teacher, a headmistress and eventually an inspector of schools, but she remained unmarried. In her retirement, she travelled in the Middle East and Africa and reported to the UN about projects in Botswana.

His Return to Medicine

During the 1st World War Percy returned to his profession as the resident medical officer at a convalescent home for war wounded at Standish Court, towards Stroud. Here the family lived in a tent in the huge grounds, a holiday haven for the girls, but after a year, Percy suffered another bout of pneumonia. Relinquishing his onerous duties, he become vice-chairman of the recruiting board in Cambridge in 1917, tasked with categorising new recruits as A, B or C.  Here he was shocked to encounter numerous sad physical specimens, but with the minimum standard fluctuating during the war, the army accepted very many of them. Cambridge high tables tended to be empty during the war and Percy became popular as he was able to converse about a huge range of subjects. One don said to Mamie: ‘your husband ought to be paid a salary just to come and dine’. The poet AE Housman, a Cambridge professor of classics, appeared in the Withers’ lodgings at the behest of Percy’s publisher Grant Richards and the basis of their friendship was established. The professor introduced Percy to Francis Jenkinson [1853-1923; ODNB], the university librarian, which enabled him to borrow books and gave him access to the Union buildings. Mamie herself worked during the war at the Cavendish Laboratory, at the end of the tenure of Joseph John Thomson [1856-1940; ODNB] and during the directorship of Sir Lawrence Bragg [1890-1971], the crystallographer; both men being Nobel laureates. It seems likely that she found this war work most fulfilling, though she continued to be a most supportive wife, an effective manager of the household and a gracious hostess. There is evidence that she was unhappy and dissatisfied intellectually, except at the Cavendish Laboratory where she was able to use her abilities more fully. 

From Broadway to Souldern

After the war they returned briefly to Broadway, where their mobility was improved by the gift of a Model T Ford from one of Mary’s brothers. This vehicle was rather underpowered, passengers having to get out to enable it to climb a significant hill and the worst inclines were only accomplished in reverse, a skill which Percy never fully mastered. In 1920, the lease on Kylsant expired and they moved to Souldern Court, a larger house, eight miles from Banbury, with a magnificent 16thc oak staircase, a three acre garden and a fine walnut tree. Here too they employed staff, which meant that the girls did not learn how to cook, but Mamie’s talent for housekeeping and for making numerous visitors welcome, was again in evidence.  Still missing the Lake District, Percy found Oxfordshire very dry and would stand out in the rain, when he had the opportunity. Following his high table successes, he led the conversation at his own table, ruling the loquacious and allowing the quietest their say. After a year, a diagnosis of diabetes led Percy to lose weight but the happy discovery of insulin in 1922 prolonged his life. At Souldern, he planted an orchard, built a thatched loggia in the garden, dug a swimming pool and was a warm and affectionate father. Mamie tended to be the reserved partner but when the villagers could not afford inflated coal prices during the general strike of 1926, she and Percy bought more cheaply in bulk, divided it into packing cases which they trundled round in barrows, selling coal at cost price to delighted neighbours. In an earlier project they had supported the provision of better housing for workers in Keswick.  

In 1924 Audrey followed her mother to Somerville, where she read PPE and unlike her mother was awarded her degree, Oxford having recognised by 1920 the need for academic equality. Having a fine home nearby enabled her to invite friends for reading parties, where they sometimes encountered the literary lions who had ‘crowned [Percy’s] life with happiness’ [Summers]. Familiar with Cambridge high tables, he was invited to lunch at The Rookery by the historian and educationist Sir Michael Sadler [1861-1943; ODNB], the Master of University College, Oxford.  Here Percy and his family enjoyed visiting Sadler’s impressive art collection which included works by Paul Cezanne [1839-1906], Paul Gauguin [1848-1903], Henry Matisse [1869-1954] and Pablo Picasso [1881-1973].

By now Percy was also on the council of the National Trust and the committee of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, both organisations actively protecting British architecture. To facilitate his regular visits to London, he joined the Savile club, founded in Mayfair by writers, where among the members were his correspondents William Butler Yeats [1865-1939; ODNB], Max Beerbohm [1872-1956; ODNB] and A.P. Herbert [1890-1971; ODNB]. Having a good eye, he enjoyed the commercial art galleries, bought a number of good drawings and, at the encouragement of Laurence Binyon [1869-1943; ODNB], Japanese prints. 

Audrey Withers and Vogue Magazine

Audrey was married in 1933 to Alan Hay ‘Jock’ Stewart, whom she met as a colleague, when working for the long established booksellers John and Edward Bumpus, where she administered the re-binding of clothbound volumes in pigskin and calf. The wedding was at a registry office, which did not trouble the atheist Percy and the reception was held at Percy’s club. Audrey then managed, in a difficult climate, to find a job with Vogue and stayed there for the rest of her career, becoming the editor from 1940-1960. She was busy during the war as a consultant to the government on sartorial austerity and memorable was her publication of a Cecil Beaton photograph of an exquisite model on a bomb site entitled: ‘Fashion is Indestructible’. A passionate advocate for women’s rights, she was well able to communicate with young people. Once divorced from ‘Jock’ in 1952, she married the following year the Russian photographer Victor Asarius [Kraminsky] Kennett [1894-1980], an entrepreneur who had shown great courage during the war in seeking out numerous British radar vans in Europe, for destruction prior to Dunkirk. She also collaborated with Kennett on The Palaces of Leningrad [1973], following the careful post war restoration and wrote an autobiography Lifespan [1994]. She was later honoured with an OBE and the bi-centenary medal of the Royal Society of Arts, the latter as she had ‘applied art and design to good effect’. In later retirement she volunteered during the 1980s in the offices of the Social Democratic Party.

His Correspondence with Poets

Percy had ‘a rare talent for friendship’ [Somerville] and cultivated an astonishing number of writers and artists who expressed their gratitude for his genuine interest in their work, his professional support as a publisher’s reader and his kindly observations. The poet Wilfred Gibson [1878-1962] wrote: ‘such letters as yours [are] recompense for years of penal servitude’ and the artist Frederick Landseer Maur Griggs [1876-1938] wrote: ‘your kind praise of my work…..touches me deeply.’   Gordon Craig [1872-1966], a stage designer living in Italy, shouted to his son: ‘Here’s someone who likes my work !!  Quick, send him all I’ve done to look at !’ [Lifespan]. Unlike his brother Stanley, he was evidently more than a scalp hunter and many of his 90 correspondents express their great affection for him; a correspondence which began ‘Dear Withers’ often ended with ‘Dear Percy’. His archive of letters, papers, cuttings, visitor’s books and photographs, deposited at Somerville college by his daughters, sheds an ‘unique light on the output, the personal relationships and working practices of some of the 20th century’s most important writers and artists’ [Somerville]. Their letters are often ‘candid and unguarded’, as Percy was neither a rival nor a critic. Despite his friendships with these literary men, Percy was very aware of his own creative limitations.

Among the poets were Robert Bridges [1844-1930; ODNB], Siegfried Sassoon [1886-1967; ODNB] and Edmund Blunden [1896-1974; ODNB]. The novelists included Marie Corelli [1855-1924; ODNB], John Galsworthy [1867-1933; ODNB] and E.M. Forster [1879-1970; ODNB]. Artists were represented by the designer Charles Robert Ashbee [1863-1942; ODNB], founder of the Chipping Camden guild; Francis Bacon [1909-1992; ODNB] and Henry Moore [1898-1986; ODNB]. A more eclectic group includes the traveller and writer, Charles M. Doughty [1843-1926; ODNB]; the ubiquitous George Bernard Shaw [1856-1950; ODNB]; the Nobel Laureate, Ernest Rutherford [1871-1937; ODNB] and the art historian, Kenneth Clarke [1903-1983; ODNB]. As a keen photographer Percy took photographs of Robert Bridges, who used one of them as a frontispiece for his New Verse [1925] and noted that ‘the pictures are the best portraits that have been done of me’ [Lifespan].  His photograph of the austere Housman, appears in Percy’s A Buried Life [1940]. Like many writers, Percy felt the urgent need to put pen to paper but his letter writing, in the view of his daughter Audrey, was ‘a time-filling substitute for the writing of books’ [Lifespan]. His health may have limited his published output, but Wilfred Meynell [1852-1948], the catholic editor, paid homage to him, writing: ‘you are among men, what a greyhound is among dogs’. For Lascelles Abercrombie, he lobbied successfully for a Civil List pension and he raised funds for memorial tablets to both George Gissing [1857-1903; ODNB] and Francis Thompson [1859-1907; ODNB] at Owens college, Manchester. In 1924 he was asked by Siegfried Sassoon to contribute towards a clavichord to be built by Arnold Dolmetsch in honour of the 80th birthday of Robert Bridges, which he did. Despite the encouragement and the plaudits from friends, his proposed volume of reminiscences did not appear, but his autobiographical notes survive at Somerville.

Major Visitors to Souldern

Percy was visited several times by Paul Nash who painted The Pond at Souldern [1923; Wolverhampton Art Gallery], engraved Hanging Gardens at Souldern [1926] and drew a fine pencil portrait of Audrey. She fell in love with him, but as a married man he did not exploit this opportunity.  Finding Souldern an inspiration ‘as much for its mental atmosphere as for anything it offers in terms of subject matter,’ Nash wrote on another occasion, ‘I should love to have a long talk. May I run down in the Spring ?’ [Lifespan]. Percy loved having visitors, appreciating ‘their personalities, charm, wit, wisdom, friendliness, appreciation [and] felicities’ [Autobiography], but Souldern Court eventually became too expensive to run. Consequently, from 1936 they lived at Epwell Mill, Banbury and their reduced staff of two, Roderick and Elizabeth McKenzie, lived in. In order to make the new house large enough they rebuilt and extensively remodelled both the mill and its adjacent barn. This gave Percy enough space for his growing library, housed in bookcases which had been designed for Souldern by Ernest Gimson [1864-1919; ODNB]. At this date he describes himself as a ‘retired general practitioner’.

Percy was particularly friendly with the poet Alfred Edward Housman [1859-1936; ODNB], most famous for his cycle of verse The Shropshire Lad.  Having met in Cambridge, they corresponded from at least 1918-1936 and Housman observed Percy writing ‘with ease, elegance and evident enjoyment’ [Lifespan]. The poet periodically stayed with the family in both their Oxfordshire houses, where they shared a knowledge of the flowering dates of key garden trees and shrubs. Adopting his habitual role of encouraging costive poets, Percy had the temerity to badger Housman, asking him whether work was in progress, or not. Surprisingly the poet did not take umbrage, but seemed amused and Percy flattered himself that he had contributed to the production of the poet’s Last Poems [1922]. On one visit Percy played Housman a recording of Vaughan Williams’ 1909 setting of ‘On Wenlock Edge’ from A Shropshire Lad on the gramophone; this was a serious error.  Nonetheless in 1940 Percy published A Buried Life: Personal Recollections of A.E. Housman and has been described as ‘one of Housman’s most perceptive friends’ [Efrati]. He observed the poet’s ‘shell of callousness’ and his ‘easy resort to mockery and scoffing’, concluding that all this was a ‘grim deceit’ under which beat ‘as warm and generous a heart…….as I have ever known’ [A Buried Life]. Lascelles Abercrombie later wrote of the ‘affectionate kindness in which one lives in Souldern, as an element’ and added ‘well can I understand how it is that that shy unicorn A.E. Housman will visit none but you’ [Lifespan]. This enthusiasm for entertaining eventually stretched Percy and Mamie’s dwindling resources too far. 

His Son Michael and his Later Life

Percy and Mamie’s son Michael endured a difficult childhood, being sent home from school after school, as he appeared unteachable and did not fit in. He also struggled to meet his parents’ aspirations, Percy in particular expecting ‘high standards of education and culture in those who surrounded him’ [Lifespan]. In maturity, finding it difficult to live alone, Michael lived with his parents for many years but a ‘black cloud hung over them’ in this aspect of their lives [Lifespan]. He was nonetheless ‘original and entertaining’ but struggled to use his hand or brain in a constructive way.’  In the years before his death he worked in a kennel, being involved with breeding dogs. Inevitably the challenge of Michael affected the relationship between Percy and his wife to the extent that Monica and Audrey suggested that they should separate, with Michael and his mother living together and Percy living with Monica. A further bone of contention was that Percy’s range of activities had even further diminished her inheritance. One of his many gifts is recorded in the Annual Report of the Bodleian Library 1938-1939.

Percy died on 19 June 1945 and was buried in St Anne’s churchyard at Epwell, followed by Mamie two years later. A pencil portrait by William Rothenstein was sold recently [Bonhams 15 June 2004; illus. Lifespan]. His estate was £12,755; he bequeathed £100 to the Contemporary Art Society who bought Fishing Boats [1946] by Tristram Hillier for their collection and gifted two prints to the British Museum by Nicolo Boldini [c.1500-c.1566], one after Albrecht Durer and another after Il Pordenone [c.1484-1539]. Ethel Walker’s watercolour Lazarus, from his collection, is now at the Friends Meeting House, Saffron Walden. As a slightly frustrated writer, he compensated in his literary friendships and correspondence. Although he contributed significantly to the cultural life of Britain, his abilities were more fully realised in the editorial life of his daughter Audrey, who energetically improved the quality and status of Vogue magazine.


  • Mary Anderson, A Few More Memories, 1936
  • Carol Efrati, The Road of Danger, Guilt and Shame: A Life of A.E. Housman, 2002
  • John Gross, ed., The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, 2009
  • Grevel Lindop, A Literary Guide to the Lake District, 1994
  • Hardwicke D. Rawnsley, Five Addresses on the Lives and Works of St Kentigern and St Herbert, 1892
  • Brian Redhead and Sheila Gooddie, The Summers of Shotton, 1987
  • Julie Summers, Dressed for War: The Story of Vogue Editor Audrey Withers, 2020
  • Audrey Withers, Lifespan: An Autobiography, 1994
  • Percy Withers, Egypt Yesterday and Today,1909
  • Percy Withers, In a Cumberland Dale, Jonathan Cape, 1914
  • Percy Withers, A Buried Life: Personal Recollections of A.E. Housman, 1940
  • The Dictionary of Ulster Biography [for Sir Samuel Dill]
  • Friends of the Bodleian Annual Report, 1938-39
  • Journal of the Alpine Club, 1937, Obituary of Herbert J. Mothersill, 261-2
  • The Medical Register, 1902
  • Medical Who’s Who, 1916
  • Musical Times, vol.69 1 March 1928 p.269, An Appreciation of Stanley Withers by Thomas Kingsley FRCO
  • Who’s Who, 1933 and 1936
  • Ancestry.com
  • His extensive archive of correspondence with poets and artists is at Somerville College, Oxford www.some.ox.ac.uk/wp - content/uploads/2015/07 ; of the mss, the largest groups were written by Paul Nash [27 letters], Robert Bridges [30], Robin Flower [44], Lascelles Abercrombie [58], Walter de la Mare [78], Gordon Bottomley [85] and Hugh Fausset [102]. Also one letter from H.D. Rawnsley’s ref PW04Misc A-Z
  • His unpublished ms autobiography, PW/16, Somerville college. Thanks to Somerville for their permission to quote from this.
  • His Ancoats lecture texts, PW/15 [h], Somerville 
  • Stanley Withers’ archive is at the Royal Northern College of Music and Manchester City archives.