John Davidson was born in Barrhead in Renfrewshire in 1857, a son of the manse. He spent his childhood years in Greenock, and after working as a pupil-teacher and briefly attending Edinburgh University, taught in schools in Glasgow and Perth. In 1889 he removed to London where he made his living as a journalist and critic. Several dramas had been published while he was still in Scotland, but in the 1890s he turned to poetry, and published several collections which were very popular: In a Music-Hall (1891) and Ballads and Songs (1894) amongst them. These were poems which chronicled urban working class life, and his sense of outrage at the poverty of the ordinary man, as expressed by the much-anthologised ‘Thirty Bob a Week’. At the beginning of the new century he moved away from the lyric and began writing in blank verse which incorporated much scientific language; this series of Testaments were not as successful as his earlier ballad style, though Hugh MacDiarmid was to pay tribute to Davidson’s attempts to combine poetry with scientific ideas.
Despite the early popularity of the poetry, financial difficulties constantly plagued Davidson; he had no choice but to continue with the journalism he disliked in order to support his family and other dependents. Sadly the money worries, combined with ill-health and depression, drove him to committ suicide in 1909.