May Wedderburn Cannan was born on October 14th 1893 at St Giles in Oxford. Her twin sister, Frances, died two months later, leaving May as the second of three sisters: Margaret Dorothea (known by her second name) and Joanna Maxwell. May’s father Charles was a Classics tutor, who went on to become Dean of Trinity College, Oxford and the family, including May’s mother Mary (née Wedderburn), lived in Magdalen Gate House, which they rented from Magdalen College.
The three girls were initially educated at home, but then in 1902, they began attending Wychwood School, where May first developed her love of English Literature, enhanced by her father having become Secretary of the Oxford University Press. In 1908, the three girls published an anthology of children’s verse entitled The Tripled Crown, which they compiled entirely by themselves. Dorothea and May were then sent to Downe House School in Kent, where May was quite unhappy, especially after Dorothea left in 1910. May missed her final two terms at Downe, having become seriously ill with pneumonia, following which she was allowed to complete her education at Wychwood.
In 1911, May passed the necessary examinations and joined her mother in working for the Voluntary Aid Detachment. She also spent her spare time writing poetry, attending house parties, picnics and dances and meeting young men, including Bevil Quiller-Couch, the son of one of her father’s friends, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. In addition, May would help at the Oxford University Press, compiling indexes for various books.
In the build-up to the First World War, May (by now a Quartermaster in the VAD), was sent lists by the War Office, of equipment required to set up a hospital of sixty beds, which she promptly set about doing and when war was declared, her hospital was mobilised within two days. She then awaited her orders, only to be told that, despite all her hard work, her hospital was no longer required, as the authorities wanted to employ military units instead. Disappointed, May offered her facilities to the nearest military hospital, whose commander accepted them graciously, as he had been told to be prepared to receive wounded men, but had nowhere to put them.
Meanwhile, Bevil Quiller-Couch, who was an army reservist, set sail for France on 17th August 1914, having been refused permission to visit May prior to embarkation. He had hoped to propose to her before leaving for France, but this became impossible, so he had to wait.
May was now uncertain as to what she should do and initially decided to continue to help her father at the O.U.P., where most of the men had gone off to fight. The family also took in refugees from Belgium and May took special care of the youngest child, who suffered from nightmares.
In April 1915, May and a family friend, Lucie Raleigh, went to work at a canteen at Rouen in France for four weeks. May often worked at night, feeding thousands of soldiers as they passed through the station. At the end of her stay in France, May was reluctant to return to England, but knew that her father needed her back at the Press. She did, however, return to her work as a VAD, on a part-time basis.
May continued to write poetry (as well as frequent letters to Bevil) and in 1917, published her first anthology, entitled In War Time. In 1918, May received a letter offering her a job in a War Office Department in Paris and, following two interviews, she was accepted for this mysterious position and given two day’s notice to leave for France. She worked in an office known as the “British Mission” which was part of MI5 and was soon promoted to Acting Head of the Women’s Espionage Unit, a position which she thoroughly enjoyed. On the morning of November 11th, May was summoned into the colonel’s office, where she was ordered to take down a dictation of the Terms of the Armistice. She returned to her desk and typed out the four copies of the document that had been requested. Then she sat down and cried: the war was finally over.
A few days later, Bevil arrived unexpectedly at May’s office and she realised for the first time, how deeply in love she really was. Bevil had five days leave and at the end, he proposed marriage to May, which she gladly accepted. By early December 1918, May was back in England, awaiting Bevil’s return and during his leave in January 1919, they fixed their wedding date for June 3rd. Having returned to his unit, Bevil wrote to May on February 2nd to say that he had caught a chill. This turned into influenza and on 5th February, May received word from Bevil’s father that he was seriously ill. On the evening of 7th February, she received a telegram informing her that Bevil had died the previous day. Despite her best efforts to get to him in Germany, he was buried there in her absence.
After the war, May spent a great deal of time with fellow poet, Carola Oman and threw herself back into her work at the Press. Following the death of her father, May and her mother travelled around Europe before settling in London, where May initially found work at King’s College, and then became the first woman ever to work at the Athenaeum Club where she re-catalogued the library. She lived a quiet and solitary life, despite the urgings of Bevil’s father that she should not grieve so much.
Early in 1924, May received a letter from a solider and admirer of her poetry, named Captain Percival James Slater, who expressed an interest in meeting her. She accepted his invitation and following a very short engagement, the couple were married on 26th July 1924. They had one son, named James Cannan Slater and settled at Pangbourne in Berkshire. During the Second World War, Slater was promoted to the rank of Brigadier and commanded an anti-aircraft brigade. May survived her husband, dying of a heart attack on 11th December 1973, leaving behind a manuscript entitled Grey Ghosts and Voices, which was later published. This contains one of the best and most vivid descriptions of life before, during and immediately after the First World War, detailing its effects on a generation for whom life would never be the same again.