Born in Hull on the 20th September 1902, Stevie Smith was
christened Florence Margaret Smith. The second daughter of Ethel
Rachel Spear and Charles Ward Smith, she was called Peggy by her
family. She acquired her nickname as a young woman at the age of 19
or 20, whilst riding on one of the London commons with a companion
who compared her to Steve Donoghue, a popular jockey of the time.
‘Steve’ became ‘Stevie’ and the name caught on among her
When Stevie Smith was three years old her father joined the
Merchant Navy as a ship’s purser and left home for a life at sea.
Following her father’s departure Stevie moved with her mother and
sisters to Palmers Green in North London, to a house in Avondale
Road, which was to be Stevie’s home for most of her life. Later
when her mother became ill her Aunt, Madge Spear, came to live with
them. Aunt Maggie played an important role in raising Stevie and
her older sister Molly following the death of their mother in 1918,
and was called the ‘darling Lion of Hull’ by Stevie. She continued
to live with her aunt until 1968 when her Aunt Maggie died at the
age of ninety six.
Education & Work
Stevie was educated
at Palmers Green High School, North London Collegiate for Girls and
Mrs Hoster’s Secretarial Training College. From 1923 to 1953 she
worked as private secretary to Sir Neville Pearson, chairman of
Newnes Publishing Company, and later Sir Frank Newnes. She retired
from Newnes Publishing Company in 1953 following an attempted
The first work by Stevie
Smith to be published was a collection of six poems, which appeared
in the New Statesman in 1935. Later that year, she
submitted further poems to the publisher Chatto and Windus but was
advised to ‘go away and write a novel’. This she did, writing at
home and in her office, using the yellow paper used at Newnes
Publishing Company for carbon copies.Novel on Yellow Paper or
Work It Out For Yourself was published in 1936 (by Jonathan
Cape rather than Chatto and Windus) and was an instant success. Her
first volume of poetry, A Good Time Was Had By All, was
published in 1937.
Stevie’s poetry was at first less successful than her novels had
been and during the late 1940s and early 1950s she was
comparatively neglected as a poet. However, following the
publication of her best known collection Not Waving But
Drowning in 1957 she became more widely known and throughout
the 1960s was increasingly popular in Britain and America, as she
gave poetry readings and broadcasts that gained her new friends and
readers among a younger generation.
Stevie Smith was awarded the Cholmondeley Award for Poets in
1966 and the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry in 1969. She died of a
brain tumour on 7th March 1971.
Details of Stevie Smith related collections held at the
History Centre and a further reading list are available.