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robertson davies

robertson davies

I wrote the following article in December 1995 when hearing of the death of Robertson Davies, the Canadian novelist. I cannot remember to whom I tried to sell the story, but I can see easily why it would have been rejected. There is not much wrong with the writing, but I called the story an “appreciation” of Robertson Davies, while it was much more about the 19th century writer, Henry Cockton. It is also, in a way, such an obscure story that there would probably be few places in the world that would be interested in publishing it, and I obviously did not find one. That said, it really does illuminate Davies’ extraordinary sense of intuition, and it is also one of the few such detailed accounts of the life of this now obscure 19th century writer – Cockton – who was nevertheless a best seller in his day, with is book, The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox the Ventriloquist, having been constantly in print for 80 years.


It was with shock last week that I learned of the death of Robertson Davies, probably my country’s greatest man of letters.

Shock? Some might argue he was eighty-two years old, and had it coming. But that is to ignore the Davies ethos. His wise, bearded face on the cover of his official biography, “Man of Myth,” reminds me of George Bernard Shaw. I always thought Davies would live to ninety-four, and die by falling out of a tree he was trimming, as did Shaw. (I’m ignoring Davies’ girth.)

Henry Cockton

Henry Cockton

I was also touched personally because I exchanged a couple of letters with Davies, and experienced a side of him that showed he was not just an extraordinary novelist, but a man of unusual insight.

In the early 1980s I was a student of literature at the University of Toronto, and a collector of books on ventriloquism. When my rare book dealer procured a beautiful edition of a 19th century novel called “The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, the Ventriloquist,” I decided to investigate to find the edition’s exact date.

In the catalogue of the university library I found another novel by the Vox author, Henry Cockton, in the Massey College library. The Massey librarian later said to me: “Did you know that Cockton is one of the Master’s old favourites?”

He was speaking, I knew, of Robertson Davies, founding Master of Massey College. Davies mentioned Cockton in more than one book, but the fullest reference was in the 1960 book, “A Voice From the Attic.” (The “voice” was Davies; Canada being the U.S.’s “attic.”)

I bought the Davies book, and the edition of Valentine Vox, and eventually several other Cockton books. And I had in mind a project to bring his best-known book back into print, and also perhaps to make the author the subject of a thesis.

In 1984 I wrote Davies to ask if he would do an introduction for a new edition of Valentine Vox. Davies wrote back–starting his letter in a beautiful calligraphic hand-writing–that he thought a new edition would be a risky business. He did have another idea, however.

“I have a strong intuition,” he wrote, “that if somebody did some serious digging into Cockton’s personal history it would reveal a very strange man indeed. As I hinted in “A Voice from the Attic,” it seems to be a paranoid personality that is speaking through the novels, and there is a bitterness and an intensity of family disagreement in some of them which sounds too raw to be really good fiction. I think he was a bad writer, but perhaps an extremely interesting man and he might provide you with material for a first class book.”

While my projects never came about, I did go to England to see what I could find out about Cockton. Almost nothing was known about this man whose books were in print from the 1840s to the 1920s, and whose “Valentine Vox” was an influence on genre literature, and inspired generations of children to try ventriloquism.

I went to the town of Bury St. Edmunds where Cockton died of consumption in 1853, at the age of 46. I learned that Cockton was an itinerant salesman, and visited Bury St. Edmunds regularly. He stayed at an inn attached to the house where lived the inn’s owner, Eleanor Howes and her daughter Ann, the future Mrs Cockton.

“Valentine Vox” received excellent reviews, and by the time it came out in 1840, Henry had begun his next novel, “Stanley Thorn,” published in excerpts in Bentley’s Miscellany. But publishing a novel and being printed in one of the top magazines did not prevent Henry from being cheated by its editor. He made practically no money, fell into debt, and in 1842 his wife returned to her mother with their two young children. Cockton rented a room in London and churned out a book called “England and France,” a comparison of contemporary life in the two countries, that appeared in installments in The Illustrated London News. Then came another novel, “Sylvester Sound, the Somnabulist.”

The pay was barely enough to keep him going, so in the mid 1840s he was asked back to Bury St. Edmunds to take over the daily operation of the inn. There he found some old brewing equipment that hadn’t been used for a century or so, and he thought that with the coming of free trade the great debate of the day would come a removal of the malt tax, and a change in the laws that forbade the inn from selling beer. He persuaded his mother-in-law to buy vast amounts of barley grain to make beer the moment the laws were changed.

Free trade came, but no change in the malt tax. So the barley rotted in sacks behind the inn, and Henry had no choice but to turn to writing again to try and pay back his mother-in-law. But while he wrote plenty more, it just didn’t bring enough money.

His mother-in-law banished him from seeing his wife and children and gave the hotel management to a family of illiterates (who eventually signed Henry’s death certificate, with an X) and Cockton got sick and died.

Cockton’s daughter probably died in infancy*** and his son refused to talk about him but made known his sentiments when he tried, in 1884, to prevent a commemorative plaque from going up in the cemetery where Cockton was buried. The bestselling author was given a pauper’s funeral and buried in an unmarked grave, its exact location unknown even today.

Fortunately, the careers of Cockton and Davies could not be further apart. Davies enjoyed critical and financial success with his internationally bestselling books. Historically speaking, Davies knew practically none of this tale of Cockton’s tragic life. But, a devoted Jungian, Davies knew it through his highly developed intuition. His insights as a man will be missed, while his books will live on to give readers pleasure for years.

(***Nearly four years after writing this, I heard from a member of Cockton’s family, whose comment is posted below and says that his daughter did not die in infancy; so this information has been passed on apparently through incorrect word-of-mouth.)


  1. Pingback: The Robertson Davies, Henry Cockton Link « Brad Spurgeon's Blog

  2. Dear Brad Spurgeon

    I believe we share an interest in Henry Cockton. I have lived in Bury St Edmunds since 1966. Had I not lived in Bury St Edmunds I would not have heard of Henry Cockton. But I did find him a figure of interest. Between 1983 and 1988 I worked in Moyses Hall, the Museum of Bury St Edmunds. Did you do your research on Henry Cockton then? There was a local author and journalist called Mary Basham who was interested in Henry Cockton. She used to come to Moyse’s Hall, and I did discuss Henry Cockton with Mary Basham: she may have mentioned your name. We had the idea of putting together a Henry Cockton exhibition in Moyse’s Hall, but a public appeal for information only resulted in a few people loaning us copies of Valentine Vox. Actually Mary Basham told me about the article about Henry Cockton by Donald MacAndrew in the East Anglian Magazine: your blog entry on Henry Cockton suggests that you are acquainted with this article.

    In 1988 I left Bury St Edmunds and went to the USA. Now here is something amazing: while you found out about Henry Cockkton as a student in Canada, while in the USA I saw John Sutherland’s Companion to Victorian Literature, just after it was published. This gave some interesting leads on Henry Cockton, which I was able to follow up via the US University system. Ultimately this led me to pursue enough reseach to write a new biography of Henry Cockton, admittedly very short, for NOTES AND QUERIES, SEPTMEBER 1994, 349-51.

    Recently I was doing an internet search for Henry Cockton, and I found your blog, so i thought I would drop you a line in case you wish to discuss our mutual friend further.

    Every best wish

    Robert Halliday

    • This is very cool news, and yes, I was researching the Cockton stuff in Bury in 1984, and I met Mary Basham! I will write a longer letter to your email account when I find the time in the next few days, but thanks very much for taking the time to write! Fabulous!

    • Hi
      My name is Damian Edgar henry cockton. Henry cockton is my great grandad and ashamedly I know very little i would be very interested if you could let me have a copy of the biography that you mentioned. Would really appreciate your help to find out more about my name sake. Many thanks.

      • Hi Damian, Sorry to take so long to respond on this. I have been insanely busy! I know no more about him than what is posted here, and I have not seen what that other man who commented calls a biography. I think he really means an article, however, and his post seems to give a clue as to where it was published. Thanks. Regards, Brad

  3. Wow, that’s told me so much more about Henry. As a Bury St. Edmunds resident I knew little more than the presence of the 2 plaques (one on his home, one in the churchyard) and his Wikipedia entry is minimal. Please consider sending Wikipedia an update.

    • Thank you for that comment, and also especially for the brilliant idea of beefing up the Wikipedia entry. I will make that a project to deal with in the next month as I enter my winter holiday period. Thanks again!!!

  4. Henry’s daughter, called Eleanor Ann did not die in infancy. She married Robert Tuck and they were my great grandparents.

    • This very interesting. I wonder how that idea came about that his daughter died in infancy! My apologies for responding after such a long time, but I was extremely busy all month and wanted to respond correctly. I’ll have to change that bit in my post. Thanks for this message!

    • Hi Norma
      It would seem as though we are related my grandad was Henry’s son. I know very little about my family history. And it would seem my extended family. Would love to find out more.
      Will leave you my email address
      Yours Damian cockton

  5. I live in Bury St Edmunds and have been studying Henry Cockton for several years. I have just updated Henry Cockton’s WIKIPEDIA entry with some information on Henry Cockton. Have a look at the new wikipedia entry for Henry Cockton: it might be of interest

    • Hello again

      I’ve read through the Wikipedia article and I must say I like it better than the others I’ve seen.

      I’m descended from Henry’s daughter Eleanor Anne Cockton. She married Robert Tuck 29th October 1863. One of their children was Arthur Robert Tuck, born 10th July 1865. Arthur died 23rd June 1903 at the age of 38, just three months after my father George Thomas Tuck was born. Arthur’s death certificate shows that the death was witnessed by his mother Eleanor Tuck. She died December quarter of 1925 in Norwich.

      Despite the fact that Henry Cockton didn’t make a fortune with his writing, the two children did get educated. The 1961 census shows Eleanor as School mistress at Colton, where Robert Tuck lived. Edward S. Cockton is shown as a teacher at the National School Bury St. Edmunds. The 1891 census shows Edward as Organist and Music master in Greenwich. Needless to say, Eleanor had to give up work to be a good wife and make babies!

      I look forward to further correspondence


    • Slight error on my part. My grandfather’s name was Arthur John Tuck, not Arthur Robert. He named one of his sons William Arthur Robert. Arthur’s older brother was caller Henry, no doubt named after Eleanor’s father.


  6. I am an art/antique restorer, and am currently restoring a wooden sign for ‘Valentine Vox Ventrilloquist’. Originally, I thought this might be a mid-19th century stage sign. Upon much research into the many folks who have used the name, and published the book, I believe the piece to be a book advertising sign for the book of the same name. Could anyone suggest any info on tracking the publishing rights/dates for VVV? earliest is suggested as 1841, but it appears to be still in print long toward the end of the 19th century. Thanks! Chris Benson

    • Thanks for the message. That sounds absolutely fascinating. I have a few first and other editions of Valentine Vox, and at the time I was more interested in him I recall having found that the book was in print continuously up until 1920. After that there was no other edition. I don’t know if that has changed, but I suspect it has not changed. I would have been interested in that sign 30 years ago, but it doesn’t interest me now – I mean as something to purchase – but it sounds fabulous. Thanks again for the comment.

  7. Henry Cockton, who wrote Valentine Vox, died in 1853: that was over 150 years ago. Robert Tyas the publishing company which first published Valentine Vox, disappeared from the records in the 1840’s. Valentine Vox was published in 1840: it was last republished in 1920: that was over 90 years ago. I therefore doubt that anybody has copyright on Valentine Vox, and I think that anybody could now do whatever they liked with the book or name without any legal consequences.

  8. Hi Chris
    Fascinating find by all accounts. Would be interested in seeing some pictures of the sign,and may be interested in Knowing if it is for sale. I am Henry’s great great grandson and would be certainly interested in knowing more about the piece.
    Many thanks Damian Cockton

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