May Wedderburn Cannan

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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May Wedderburn Cannan (1893–1973) was a British poet, active in World War I.

She was the second of three daughters of Charles Cannan, Dean of Trinity College Oxford (he was in charge at the Oxford University Press from 1895 until his death in 1919).

In 1911, at the age of 18 she joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment, training as a nurse and eventually reaching the rank of Quartermaster. Sharon Ouditt, writing of women's role in the war, noted that: "For the nurses it was, like the nun's cross, the badge of their equal sacrifice. In a poem by May Wedderburn Cannan the Red Cross sign is seen to be equivalent to the crossed swords indicating her lover's death in battle: And all I asked of fame / A scarlet cross on my breast, my Dear, / For the swords by your name. "

During the war, she went to Rouen in the spring of 1915, helping to run the canteen at the railhead there for four weeks, then returning to help her father at the Oxford University Press, but finally returning to France in Espionage department at the War Office Department in Paris (1918), where she was finally reunited with her fiance Bevil Quiller Couch.

May published three volumes of poetry during and after the war. These were "In War Time"(1917), "The Splendid Days"(1919) which was dedicated to Bevil Quiller Couch, and "The House of Hope"(1923), dedicated to her father. In 1934, she wrote one novel "The Lonely Generation", which was semi-autobiographical.

Philip Larkin chose her poem "Rouen"[1] to be included in "The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse"(1973), commenting that it "had all the warmth and idealsim of the VADS in the First World War. I find it enchanting".

Although May ceased writing for publication in the 1920s, in her final years she completed an autobiographical work entitled "Grey Ghosts and Voices"(1976). The book looks back to her Edwardian childhood, the war years and those years immediately afterwards.

Further unpublished poems from a handwritten notebook, were published in "The Tears of War"(2000) by her great-niece Charlotte Fyfe, which also tells the story of her love affair with Bevil Quiller Couch through autobiographical extracts, and the letters from Bevil to May.

In 2005, BBC Radio 4 presented a dramatised version of "The Tears of War" as the afternoon play for Armistice Day.


She was the sister of the novelist Joanna Cannan. She was the daughter of the academic Charles Cannan and cousin to the British novelist and playwright Gilbert Cannan. She is also related to the famous Pullein-Thompson sisters and the British dramatist and playwright Denis Cannan being an aunt to them, and a great aunt of Charlotte Pullein-Thompson (Christine Pullein-Thompson's daughter).

She was engaged to Bevil Quiller-Couch, son of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Bevil served as gunner in World War I, and survived without injury only to die in the Spanish flu pandemic on 1919. She subsequently married Percival James Slater,a balloonist in World War I, and promoted to Brigadier in the World War II.


  • 'Recollections of a British Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment, No. 12, , May Wedderburn Cannan, (1971) Oxford University, March 26th 1911-April24 1919', TS.
  • The Splendid Days Oxford, May Wedderburn Cannan, Blackwell, 1919.
  • Grey ghosts and voices, May Wedderburn Cannan; Roundwood Press; 1976; ISBN 0900093501
  • The Tears of War: The Love Story of a Young Poet and a War Hero, May Wedderburn Cannan; Publisher: Cavalier Books; 2000; ISBN 1899470182
  • First World War Poems by Andrew Motion, Thomas Hardy, Rupert Brooke, Helen Mackay, Julian Grenfell, W.B. Yeats, May Wedderburn Cannan, Charles Hamilton Sorley, Edward Thomas; Publisher: Faber and Faber; 2003; ISBN 0641685580
  • 'Great Expectations': Rehabilitating the Recalcitrant War Poets, Gill Plain, Feminist Review, No. 51 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 41-65
  • Fighting Forces, Writing Women: Identity and Ideology in the First World War. ,Sharon Ouditt, Routledge,1994.
  • Poem: Rouen
  • Poem: Lamplight
  • School Site with photo and extracts from Poems and Autobiography
  • May Wedderburn Cannan - a poet and a woman in the First World War
  • The story of how Charlotte Fyfe came to collate The Tears of War, Daily Telegraph, 2000
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