William Miller: The Glasgow poet who wrote Wee Willie Winkie for the world - but died in poverty

Miller's impact spanned time and place. Here, children in Edinburgh enjoy a Wee Willie Winkie party in their pyjamas in the early 1960s. PIC: TSPL.
Miller's impact spanned time and place. Here, children in Edinburgh enjoy a Wee Willie Winkie party in their pyjamas in the early 1960s. PIC: TSPL.
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William Miller’s poem of a wee boy running ‘up stairs an’ doon stairs in his nicht-gown’ has helped children fall asleep around the world for more than 170 years.

But despite widespread recognition for his work, William Miller, who became known as the Laureate of the Nursery, died in poverty on August 20, 1872.

William Miller is said to be buried in an unmarked plot in the east end of Glasgow with a memorial later placed in the Necropolis for the poet. PIC: Contributed/Creative Commons/Kim Traynor.

William Miller is said to be buried in an unmarked plot in the east end of Glasgow with a memorial later placed in the Necropolis for the poet. PIC: Contributed/Creative Commons/Kim Traynor.

Miller was a wood turner and cabinet maker in Glasgow and kept working his trade in order to support his family.

Ill health was to dog his later life with a public subscription launched to ease the burden on Miller, whose work in

Scots was translated in numerous different languages, after he was forced to give up work.

Willie Winkie first appeared in book in Whistle Binkie, Stories for the Fireside, a collection of new Scottish lyrics, in 1841.

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Publisher David Robertston was certain of its charm and universality but sought a second opinion from his peers after receiving the poem.

The manuscript was sent to a regular contributor to the publication in Edinburgh for consideration.

“He returned it at once as being a first-class song, and likely to be the gem of the collection,” one obituary recalled.

Miller was born in 1810 in Glasgow and raised in Parkhead, then a village “principally inhabited by the humbler orders of society, consisting of handloom weavers, carters, and labourers,” according to accounts.

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He was an ‘excellent workman’ who was devoted to reading and depicting ‘such pictures of humble life and feeling as were suggested to him but what he saw passing around him”, it was later recalled.

Miller shared his work with local newspapers and periodicals with most of his work completed before the age of 36.

But it was children that was his ultimate inspiration, with young ones inspiring his collection of verse, which included works such as Gree Bairnies Gree and The Wonderful Wean .

“Miller loved to write about kythesome cheery weans whom he met laffin and daftin’ and there is no doubt they liked the poet, for he was blithesomse, too, and very gentle and kindly,” one account said.

In the year before his death, Miller suffered from an ulcerated leg with his condition deteriorating over time.

He was nursed by an “affectionate wife” with the poet moving to live at the home of his “dutiful son” at his home in Blantyre in the last months of his life.

Friends of the poet launched a public subscription to generate funds for the family, who faced serious financial hardship given Miller’s dwindling condition.

An article in the Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, on July 29 1872, said one ‘handsome subscription’ had been made by a supporter in London but that the merchants of Glasgow had yet to show their support for the writer.

A report said: “We regret to see that the merchant princes of Glasgow are contributing - if they are contributing at all - on a scale which does not say much for their appreciation of poetry.”

The story continued: “And the bard, besides feeling a genuine poet, has been all his day a decent hard working, God-fearing man, paying his way and even when old and laid aside by illness, asking nobody to help him - nay so independent in spirit that he begged his friends to make no appeal on his behalf.

“To this true poet and true man, in his day or trouble, when he can no longer work for his bread, the merchant princes of Glasgow throw a contemptuous trifle which would not keep them in brandy and soda for a day. On the whole, we should prefer to see them give nothing.”

Miller is buried in an unmarked plot in Tollcross but a memorial to the poet stands in the Glasgow Necropolis. In 2009 a plaque was placed on the wall of the Wellpark Brewery, which stands on the site of his former home in Dennistoun.