William Miller, the poet, died on the 20th of August, 1872.
William Miller was known as ‘the laureate of the nursery’ because he wrote mainly children's verse. He is best remembered for the classic nursery rhyme, ‘Wee Willie Winkie’, which is recited all over the world. It has been translated into many different languages – including English as it was written mainly in Scots. Miller began writing poetry and rhymes for children in his native language, and a lot of his output was originally published in the ‘Whistle-binkie’ books. Whilst his night-time poem brought Miller a degree of fame at the time, it did not make his fortune. He worked as a cabinet maker for most of his life and died, penniless, in Glasgow's East End. However, he is remembered through a monument in Glasgow's Necropolis, which was paid for by public subscription. And, on the 2nd of September, 2009, Glasgow’s then Lord Provost unveiled a bronze plaque to commemorate the life of the ‘nursery poet’. It is placed on the wall of the Tennents Brewery in Dennistoun, which sits on the site of Miller’s former house.
William Miller was born in Glasgow in August, 1810, and lived most of his life at No. 4 Ark Lane in Dennistoun, a suburb to the east of the City Centre in what is now the City's Parkhead area. Miller suffered from ill health and, because of that, was unable to fulfil his ambition of becoming a surgeon. Instead, he was apprenticed as a wood turner. He subsequently became a skilled craftsman with a particular talent for cabinet-making; a trade at which he continued to work for most of the rest of his life. In 1871, Miller’s leg became ulcerated and he had to retire. Despite his earlier fame, he had never managed to make a career as a poet and at the time of his retirement he was effectively penniless. Within the year, Miller was dead. His leg became infected and he suffered from complications. William Miller died of spinal paralysis on the 20th of August, 1872, at No. 21 Windsor Street in Glasgow. He was buried in an unmarked grave near the main entrance of Tollcross Cemetery.
William Miller began writing poetry early in his life and became an accomplished poet and songwriter. His poems were published in various magazines of the day and reappeared in later collections of nursery rhymes and poems. His famous rhyme ‘Willie Winkie’ first appeared in an 1841 edition of ‘Whistle-binkie’ entitled ‘Whistle-binkie: Stories for the Fireside’. It later became ‘Wee Willie Winkie’ due to its popularity and from the poem’s first line. It was later reprinted after Miller’s death, in an 1873 edition called ‘Whistle-Binkie; a Collection of Songs for the Social Circle’. The titular figure of ‘Wee Willie Winkie’ has become synonymous the world over as ‘the Sandman’ and such was the popularity of the character that it has become one of several bedtime entities such as Scandinavia’s ‘Ole Lukøje' and the ‘Dormette’ of France. William Miller’s other poems include 'A Wonderful Wean', 'Gree, Bairnies Gree', 'The Sleepy Laddie' and 'John Frost'.
The songs contained in ‘Whistle-binkie’ were published in distinct series throughout a period of fifteen years, with the first appearing in 1832. In the preface to ‘Whistle-binkie: A Collection of Songs for the Social Circle’, published in Glasgow by David Robertson, and referring to its content, it is stated that “the songs are of different degrees of merit – a few exhibiting more marked felicities than others”. It also suggests that “it will be found that most of [the poems/songs] express some feeling or sentiment which the heart delights to cherish.” It goes on to say that, the work, taken altogether “presents a remarkable instance of the universality of that peculiar talent for Song writing for which Scotland has always been distinguished, and that it will be considered a favourable specimen of the national genius in that pleasing department of literature.” We can rest assured that Miller’s contributions were in the ‘marked felicities’ category.
The curious title of ‘Whistle-binkie’ was a term originally used to identify someone who attends a ‘penny wedding’, but without paying anything and who, therefore, has no right to participate in the entertainment; being left as it were, as a mere spectator. It later came to be applied to entertainers whose intellectual powers were either devoted to whistling, singing or story telling, or any other source of amusement that caught the fancy and received the encouragement of their fellow men.
Here’s a taste of ‘Wee Willie Winkie’ to remind you:
“Wee Willie Winkie rins through the toon,
Up stairs an' doon stairs in his nicht-gown,
Tirlin' at the window, crying at the lock,
"Are the weans in their bed, for it's now ten o'clock?"
"Hey, Willie Winkie, are ye comin' ben?
The cat's singin grey thrums to the sleepin hen,
The dog's speldert on the floor and disna gie a cheep,
But here's a waukrife laddie, that wunna fa' asleep.”
Email me if you want a translation.