Untold lives blog

31 posts categorized "Writing"

17 January 2020

William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Place

2020 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wordsworth.  To commemorate this the British Library is hosting a free exhibition on the poet that opens today in our Treasures Gallery.  Entitled ‘William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Place’ this exhibition tells the story of Wordsworth’s life and explores the role place played in his poetry.  Visitors will be able to see original documents from the British Library’s collections including early drafts of Wordsworth’s verse, his notebooks, his annotated books, correspondence and more.  The earliest surviving draft of Wordsworth’s poem ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ can be seen alongside books bound in one of Mary Wordsworth’s old dresses.

Manuscript draft of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’Manuscript draft of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ prepared for the printers, 1806. Add MS 47864. Noc

Wordsworth was born on the edge of the Lake District in Cockermouth, Cumberland, on 7 April 1770.  Throughout his life he found solace and inspiration in the natural world and expressed this in his poetry which was often closely connected with specific locations.

‘Place’ is more than a geographic area but a host of associations.  As a concept it encompasses the, often highly personal, emotional, cultural, political, and religious responses an individual – or group – attaches to a territory.  Wordsworth fully understand this concept of ‘place’ and his poem ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ is a landmark in this regard.  The poem invokes personal memory, experience and feeling to convey the private meaning the abbey has for the poet.

The South East View of Tintern AbbeyFrederick Calvert, The South East View of Tintern Abbey (London: Burkitt & Hudson, 1815). Maps.K.top.31.16.k.2. Noc

Wordsworth first saw the abbey as a troubled, ‘thoughtless youth’ in 1793, having just made his French mistress, Annette Vallon, pregnant in Revolutionary France before becoming separated from her by the French Revolutionary Wars.  Upon ‘revisiting’ the abbey, five years later, in 1798 the tranquillity of the site and his hope for a better future inspired the poem.  By expressing the personal emotional connotations the abbey held for him, Wordsworth establishes ‘Tintern Abbey’ as poem of ‘place’ rather than ‘landscape’. By reflecting upon his current and former self within a powerful and unchanging landscape the poem marks an important divergence in the genre of topographical poetry which had traditionally simply praised an estate or particular view.  ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ was published shortly after Wordsworth’s visit in Lyrical Ballads in 1798.

‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ in Lyrical Ballads ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ in Lyrical Ballads (Bristol, 1798). Ashley 2250. Noc

Many of Wordsworth’s poems contain in their titles claims that they were ‘composed’ in the places they describe.  This is the case with several poems on display in the British Library’s exhibition, including the poems ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ and ‘To a Friend.  Composed near Calais on the road leading to Ardres’.  The titles consciously convey Wordsworth’s understanding of ‘place’ and that poetry can express the emotional responses that a particular location can elicit.

‘To a Friend. Composed near Calais on the road leading to Ardres, August 1802’ ‘To a Friend. Composed near Calais on the road leading to Ardres, August 1802’ prepared for the printers, 1806. Add MS 47864. Noc

Both poems, ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ and ‘To a Friend’ were originally written by Wordsworth as he travelled to meet his illegitimate daughter, Caroline, in France for the first time.  As such, the places Wordsworth passed through on his journey attained a new importance that he expresses in these powerful poems.

‘William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Place’ is open in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery from 17 January –31 May 2020.

Alexander Lock
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:
Stephen Gill, Wordsworth’s Revisitings (Oxford: OUP, 2011)
David McCracken, Wordsworth and the Lake District: A Guide to the Poems and their Places (Oxford: OUP, 1985)
Fiona Stafford, ‘Wordsworth’s Poetry of Place’ in The Oxford Handbook of William Wordsworth, ed. by Richard Gravil & Daniel Robinson (Oxford: OUP, 2015), PP.309-324

 

09 January 2020

Internment during the Second World War – Part One: the diary of a Jewish refugee confined by Britain

This blog is the first of a series on internment, highlighting the experiences of both civilians and military personnel detained across the globe in the Second World War.

In 1940, Winston Churchill ordered what he later referred to as ‘a deplorable and regrettable mistake’: the internment of men and women living in Britain from enemy countries.  This included Germans, Austrians, and Italians; among them were refugees who had fled Nazi persecution, including Jews.  One was nineteen-year-old Konrad Eisig, whose diary of internment on the Isle of Man and his voyage to Australia on HMT Dunera is held by the British Library.

The first page of the diary, noting Konrad’s arrest and journey to the Isle of Man The first page of the diary, noting Konrad’s arrest and journey to the Isle of Man – Add MS 89025 Noc

Konrad had escaped Germany on the eve of the War, settling in Leicester.  When he applied to travel to the Lake District for a holiday, the police showed up at his door in May 1940 to detain him. He entered the Onchan Internment Camp on the Isle of Man in June.  He worked as a cook, attended numerous classes, and was involved with the camp university and youth organisation. Writing to his girlfriend, he exclaimed: ‘I want to see you, I want to be free!…but we shall come together again.  We must’.

However, Konrad was transported to Australia on HMT Dunera, setting sail on 10 July.  The voyage was horrific, with more than 2500 men on board, 1000 over capacity - Jewish refugees, Nazis, prisoners of war, and Italian refugees who survived the sinking of the Arandora Star.  Konrad reported that British soldiers ‘robbed and plundered us’.  Detainees were kept in a hold which was not big enough, and were only allowed ten minutes of air and exercise each day.  One man committed suicide by jumping overboard.  Another was thrown down the stairs by soldiers for not taking his wedding ring off quickly enough, and another ‘got a bayonet into his back’ for daring to ask for permission to keep his prayer book.

The seventh page of the diary, showing Konrad’s journey to HMT DuneraThe seventh page of the diary, showing Konrad’s journey to HMT Dunera – Add MS 89025 Noc

A torpedo missed the Dunera by only 50-100 yards two days after setting sail.  The ship eventually arrived in Australia in September.  The internees were well treated by the Australians, who quickly realised most of the men were not the evil Nazis they had been expecting.  The men were taken to Hay, New South Wales, which was ‘much better than we expected’, though the climate was a vast change from England and Germany!  Konrad again attended many classes ‘in order to leave as little time for thinking as was at all possible’.

Konrad’s diary finishes abruptly on 1 August 1941.  The fear of German invasion by Nazis disguised as refugees had died down, and arrangements were being made for refugees to return.  Joining the Pioneer Corps gave priority.  However Konrad was disdainful of this option: ‘it is an insult, a crime against all justice’.  It appears that he waited for a later ship.

The final page of the diary, explaining Konrad’s misery and the effect of internment on his life expectancy The final page of the diary, explaining Konrad’s misery and the effect of internment on his life expectancy – Add MS 89025  Noc

Konrad had escaped persecution but then been unjustly incarcerated where he thought himself safe.  He says: ‘We were called “Refugees from Nazi Oppression”, we were used as England’s best advertisement.  Then suddenly “Intern the damned fifth columnists” and here we are’.

The diary covers a variety of themes: justice, mental health, anti-Semitism, homosexuality, and more.  It gives a unique insight into an experience which has not received much attention, reminding us that the War affected innocent refugees, even in Britain.

Jack Taylor
Doctoral researcher at the Open University. His CHASE-funded research explores sexual violence between men in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Further reading:
Add MS 89025 – Letter diary of Konrad Eisig's voyage on HMT Dunera and his internment in Australia
Cyril Pearl, The Dunera Scandal: Deported by Mistake (1983).
Rachel Pistol, Internment during the Second World War: A Comparative Study of Great Britain and the USA (2017).

 

03 January 2020

Cache of hidden letters in the Granville Archive

The Granville Archive recently acquired by the British Library includes a collection of supplementary material previously hidden from public view.  When Castalia Leveson-Gower prepared her edition of the private correspondence of diplomat and statesman Granville Leveson-Gower (1773-1846), her father-in-law – the bulk of them are letters from his lover, Harriet Ponsonby, Lady Bessborough (1761-1821) – she carefully omitted any letters referring to the couple’s passionate affair, the secret births of their two children, and the delicate discussions between them and Lord Granville’s eventual wife, Harriet’s niece.  Even letters that were chosen for inclusion in the published edition had to be carefully filleted to cut out any tender endearment or reference to their illegitimate daughter and son.  The entire collection of original letters, including those published, was retained in private hands.  Its whereabouts was unknown to researchers until its acquisition by the British Library (along with Castalia Leveson-Gower’s research papers and her own private correspondence with her husband, the second Earl Granville).  The collection arrived at the Library, bundled in boxes and trunks, at the same time as the main, larger, Granville Archive (Add MS 89317).  Now the supplementary collection has been catalogued (Add MS 89382), and it provides a fascinating complement to the main family archive.

Trunk of papers from the Granville Archive Trunk of papers from the Granville Archive Noc

The new cache of letters will be a rich new source for researchers into late 18th and early 19th century politics and upper class society.  They shed particular light on the personal and political lives of aristocratic women of the period.  Besides the intimate letters between Lady Bessborough and Lord Granville relating to their clandestine affair and children, there are letters from other members of their circle of friends and relations, including Lord Granville’s mother, Susanna Leveson-Gower, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (Lady Bessborough’s sister), and Caroline Lamb (her daughter).

Letter from Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire to her daughter Harriet, written before leaving for France, 1789 'I leave you and give you the only valuable gift in my power, wrote in my blood, my blessing.'  Letter from Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire to her daughter Harriet, written before leaving for France, 1789 (Add MS 89382/3/4) Noc

Alongside discussion of the latest books and politics, perennial concerns about reputation, scandal and money run throughout this correspondence.  Huge gambling debts were a worry for many in their circle: in a bundle of letters to Lord Granville, the Duchess of Devonshire pleads urgently for funds to stave off creditors.  When the Duke of Devonshire died in 1811, a litigious dispute arose between his heir, the sixth Duke, and his widow, former mistress Lady Elizabeth Foster, over the family diamonds.  Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum there are smaller sums, such as the itemised accounts for housing and educating their illegitimate children which feature in Lady Bessborough’s letters to Lord Granville.

Expenditure on the two children 1805-1807.  Letter from Lady Bessborough to Lord Granville, June 1807. 'I have just given 30 guineas for a piano forte for tho it is a lump down it is cheaper in the end than hiring.'  Expenditure on the two children 1805-1807.  Letter from Lady Bessborough to Lord Granville, June 1807 (Add MS 89382/2/27) Noc

The letters from Lady Bessborough to Lord Granville tell a vivid story of their long relationship.  Frequent, often daily, letters passed between them, from their first meeting in Naples in 1794, when she was a married woman of 32 and he a 20 year old ‘Adonis’, until her death in Florence in 1821.  They describe the course of their affair through flirtation, intimacy, subterfuge, and passion, and the enduring friendship that survived it, cemented by the birth of their two children and his eventual marriage into her family in 1809.

Tabitha Driver
Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts
 
Further reading:
Lord Granville Leveson Gower: Private Correspondence, ed. Castalia Granville (London, 1916)
Amanda Foreman, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire (London, 1998)
Janet Gleeson, An Aristocratic Affair: the Life of Georgiana's Sister, Harriet Spencer, Countess of Bessborough (London, 2006)

23 December 2019

A Christmas entertainment

I was browsing the British Library catalogue for appropriate collection items to share on the blog over Christmas.  When I came across a play called The Christmas Ordinary published in 1682, I decided to investigate.

Title Page of The Christmas OrdinaryTitle page of The Christmas Ordinary (London, 1682) Noc

Imagine my delight when I saw that the first character listed was my namesake, a Mr Make-Peace.  And as I have a son named Phil, I was thrilled to discover that Mr Make-Peace has an astronomer son called Astrophil. 

Here is the full list of the play’s characters:
‘Dramatis Personae
Mr. Make-Peace, A Countrey-Justice
Astrophil, An Astronomer, his Son
Humphry, The Justice’s Man
Drink-Fight, A Jovial Souldier
Austin, An Hermit
Shab-Quack, A poor Chyrurgeon
Roger, An Apprentice to Shab-Quack
Win-all, An Host of an Ordinary’.

Well, I was hooked!  What sort of story could connect a justice of the peace, an astronomer, a jovial soldier, a hermit, a poor surgeon and the host of an ordinary (an inn).

This is the synopsis of the plot:

‘Roger escaping from his Master Shab-Quack, at Christmas Time, meets with Drink-fight, and joyns with him in a Knot of Merriment.  They also inveigle the Hermit and Astrophil.  Mr. Make-peace being pensive at his Son’s Departure, sends Humphry to enquire him out, who, in the Disguise of a Traveller, finds them frolicking at an Ordinary; who insinuates himself into their Mirth.  Afterwards, with false Dice, cheats them, and escapes.  They afterwards, wrangling about the Reckoning, beat their Host, who summons them all before the Justice, and runs to Shab-Quack for Cure.  Mr. Make-peace, perceiving his Son Astrophil amongst them, joyfully entertains him and the rest. Shab-Quack pardons his Servant’s Christmas Merriment, and the Hermit, in a jolly Humor, is bound Apprentice to the Host’.

What fun! 

Drunken frolics of 17th-century menDrunken frolics of 17th-century men from John Ashton, Humour, Wit, & Satire of the Seventeenth Century (London, 1883) Shelfmark 11621.h.7. BL flickr  Noc

I instinctively focused upon Mr Make-Peace’s devotion to his son.

‘O this Astrophil doth so Banquet me with joy, that I am almost cloy’d with my Felicity, and I grow hoarse in Gratulatory Praises.’

‘Not yet return’d my Son? Then let me weep my Body dry to Dust, and make this Chair my Coffin.’

And when Astrophil returns home safely –
‘Methinks there is a young Spring in all my Limbs, my Blood trips Coranto’s in my capering Veins… Come, follow me all, and I will satisfie you with a pleurisy of Delights’.

And so I wish you all a Happy Christmas, cloyed with felicity and a pleurisy of delights.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

 

17 December 2019

Out of the Fire: Lady Charlotte Canning’s diaries

Making collections available to all is an integral part of the archivist’s role.  We launch our catalogues into the world, hoping our (fair and balanced) descriptions will inspire research and enable users to find what they need.  But what happens if materials aren’t physically fit for consultation, if allowing researchers to use them will cause harm?  At the British Library we are able to call on the professional skills of qualified conservators in the British Library Conservation Centre (BLCC).

Lady Charlotte Canning sitting in a howdah on an elephant Lady Charlotte Canning sitting in a howdah on an elephant Images Online

The papers of Charles and Charlotte Canning formed part of a major acquisition of Canning family material purchased by the Library from the estate of the 7th Earl of Harewood.  Napoleonic intrigues, Catholic emancipation, the anti-slavery movement, South American independence, the 1857 Indian Uprising and the transformation of the government of India all feature in the collections, while correspondents include Pitt, Lord Liverpool, Peel, Wellington, George III, Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale.  The papers include those of the politician and statesman George Canning (1770-1827), his son Charles, Earl Canning, Viceroy of India (1812-1862), and Charles’s wife Charlotte (1817-1861).  Lady Charlotte Canning travelled quite extensively during the period 1858-1861, visiting the Nilgiri Hills and Coonoor in South India, Simla, and Darjeeling.  She also travelled with her husband to Oudh (Awadh) and the Punjab on the Viceroy’s first tour, and Central India on his second.

Diary of Charlotte Canning before conservation India Office Private Papers: Mss Eur F699 Diary of Charlotte Canning before conservation Noc

Back in 2018, I wrote a blog about the Indian diaries of Charlotte, Lady Canning, and how they and other of her papers had been damaged by a tent fire in December 1859.  Lady Canning, her husband the Governor General Charles Canning, and their entourage, were travelling through Oudh (Awadh) and the Punjab in a grand progress.  They held a series of Durbars or ceremonial gatherings in order to confer official thanks and gifts upon local rulers and dignitaries for their assistance during the Indian Uprising or ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857-58.

Diary of Charlotte Canning after conservationIndia Office Private Papers: Mss Eur F699/2/2/2/3 Diary of Charlotte Canning after conservation Noc

The papers of Charles and Charlotte Canning have quickly become one of the most well used collections in India Office Private Papers, with a range of researchers from family historians, PhD students, and academics all using the archive.  But of course part of the collection had to remain closed until it was conserved.  Now, the burned material is fully available for the first time. 

Burned fragments of Charlotte Canning's diary after conservationIndia Office Private Papers: Mss Eur F699/2/2/2/6 Burned fragments of Charlotte Canning's diary after conservation Noc

Our talented colleagues in the BLCC surveyed all the items one by one and worked to stabilise the loose papers and letters – including Queen Victoria’s – to enable handling.  The original diaries however required extensive conservation. Work went on behind the scenes to establish what was needed for each volume, as each required different processes.  Some volumes were slightly charred, others were missing boards and parts of spines, and one from 1859 was reduced almost entirely to brittle fragments.  Their transformation from ‘unavailable’ to ‘unrestricted’ has been a remarkable feat of conservation and it is a testament to the professional skills of our conservators that these materials are now available for consultation in our Reading Rooms.

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
India Office Private Papers: Mss Eur F699, Papers of Charles Canning and Charlotte Canning, Earl and Countess Canning

 

12 December 2019

Emma Ewart Larkins' last letter from Cawnpore

On 9 June 1857, Emma Ewart Larkins, the wife of an artillery officer in Cawnpore, composed a letter to family and friends in England.  Along with about a thousand others, she, her husband George, their three youngest children, and Munna, their cherished family ayah, were sheltering from bombardment under appalling siege conditions, and behind hopelessly inadequate defences.

 Letter written by Emma Larkins in Cawnpore 9 June 1857 and smuggled out by her AyahMSS Eur F732/1 Letter written by Emma Larkins in Cawnpore 9 June 1857 and smuggled out by her Ayah


Addressing a sister-in-law in London, Emma began: ‘I write this dearest Henrietta in the belief that our time of departure is come’.  She explained: ‘the whole of the troops rose here & we took refuge in a Barrack We are so hemmed in by overpowering numbers that there seems no hope of escape’.  Emma was right: death was staring her in the face.  But Munna would take the dangerous decision to attempt to slip away, and she successfully carried the letter with her.

Portrait of Emma Ewart Larkins, India, 1840Emma Ewart Larkins by L. Power, India, 1840. © Rebecca Gowers.

Months later it somehow reached England.  Within it were individual messages for Henrietta and several others, including Emma and George’s four oldest children, sent ‘home’ for their education.  One of these, Alice Shaffalitzky Larkins, then aged 11, was my great-great-grandmother; and I was brought up knowing that my own life depended on the fact that she had avoided the Cawnpore Massacre.  Emma’s last letter was kept by the family in a double-sided picture frame so that it could be read front and back, though the crossed writing made it incredibly hard to decipher.  My grandmother showed it to me as a child.  But four years ago, when I found myself wondering about it again, I realised I no longer had any idea where it was.

Photograph of George and Alice Larkins 1851George Larkins, Artillery Commander, Cawnpore, 1857, here with his daughter Alice: daguerrotype, India, Christmas 1851. © Rebecca Gowers.

I looked idly online, and found the letter selectively quoted in a number of books on the Indian Mutiny.  The British Library held a rough transcript, but where was the original?  While I tried to solve this question, I stumbled on an outré, unproven theory: that another of the four children to survive, Henry Thomas Larkins, also addressed in Emma’s letter, just might be the same person as ‘Major Harry Larkyns’, a mysterious, louche character murdered in 1874 by the famous photographer of galloping horses, Eadweard Muybridge.  To my surprise, this was a theory I found myself able to verify almost at once.  And it has led to my writing a book about Harry’s genuinely extraordinary exploits.  Setting about this project, I badgered numerous relatives about boxes in their attics that might contain Larkins-family archive, with the particularly gratifying result that I ended up being given not only Emma’s final letter, but others that had preceded it too.  This reassembled correspondence forms a total of about a hundred letters whose terrific details I could only hint at in my book.

It was a great pleasure for me recently to donate the whole collection to the British Library, where I hope they will be of interest to other writers and historians.  Emma's last letter was in a frail state indeed, but it has now been conserved, and digitised as well, meaning that this pitiful survivor is now available for all to see.

Rebecca Gowers
Writer

Further reading:
MSS Eur F732 Papers of Emma Ewart Larkins (d. 1857), wife of Major George Larkins (1807-1857), Bengal Artillery
Rebecca Gowers The scoundrel Harry Larkyns and his pitiless killing by the photographer Eadweard Muybridge (2019)

 

26 November 2019

Sending sad news from India in 1858

A letter reporting the death of a friend in India in 1858 was donated earlier this year to India Office Private Papers.  Alfred Eteson of the Bengal Medical Service wrote from Camp Amorka Gorruckpore on 4 April 1858 giving an account of the death of Dundas William Gordon, Bengal Artillery, who was killed at Lucknow on 8 January 1858 during the Indian Uprising. 

EtesonMss Eur F731 Letter from Alfred Eteson at Camp Amorka Gorruckpore 4 April 1858, giving an account of the death of Dundas William Gordon

Eteson asked a friend, Mrs Barnett, to pass on the sad news to the Gordon family: ‘I think it is incumbent on every survivor in these troubled times to send home if he possibly can, any account of those who have fallen, more particularly if he has been at all intimate with any one of them’.  From clues in the letter, I have identified the recipient as Eliza Barnett, wife of medical practitioner Henry Barnett, living in Blackheath, Kent.  Her son James was serving as an officer in the Madras Army - Eteson reported that he thought he had caught sight of him in Burma.

Alfred Eteson and Dundas Gordon had lived in the same house in Burma from November 1854 until May 1857.  They then travelled together to Calcutta where they separated in July. Eteson went with Major Vincent Eyre to Arrah whilst Gordon was disappointed to be left in Ghazipur to guard the opium in the warehouses. 

The young men were reunited in September 1857 and went on together to Allahabad.  Eteson then stayed behind, ill with fever, and that was the last he saw of his friend.   He wrote to Gordon several times but the letters may never have reached him as the post was so uncertain at that time.  Eteson received no reply.  He only heard of Gordon’s death when he met up with two sergeants of their old battery a few days before he wrote to Mrs Barnett.

Gordon had been in charge of an 8-inch howitzer gun at the Alambagh in Lucknow.  He was leaning over the parapet, looking through his glasses, when a stray round struck the top of his head killing him instantly. Eteson said he felt full of hatred and vengeance at losing an old friend in this way.

Gordon never told Eteson anything about his family and so he did not know their address or even if the parents were alive.  Eteson had found out by accident that Gordon knew his friends the Barnetts.  When talking about batting, Gordon mentioned that he had been a pupil of ’Felix’ at Blackheath – Nicholas, or ‘Felix’, Wanostrocht was a schoolmaster and famous amateur cricketer.  Eteson then asked if he knew the Barnetts of Blackheath.  Gordon said he did and that he had just received a letter saying that his sister had gone to a ball with Miss Barnett.  

Eteson wanted to pass on to the Gordons £30 which was his friend’s share of the house in Burma.  He had instructed his agents to keep this money separate from his estate should anything happen to him meanwhile.  He expressed his willingness to do anything necessary in Bengal for the Gordon family. 

The letter ends with him sending good wishes to the Barnetts although he added: ‘I can scarcely flatter myself by supposing any of the younger ones remembering me after so long an absence’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Mss Eur F731 Letter from Alfred Eteson (1832-1910), Bengal Medical Service, at Camp Amorka Gorruckpore 4 April 1858, giving an account of the death of Dundas William Gordon, Bengal Artillery, who was killed at Lucknow on 8 January 1858.  Kindly donated in 2019 by Lucy Henley, great great niece of Dundas William Gordon.

 

26 September 2019

The Theatre Censors Part 4: The Lord Chamberlain’s Office and the Policy of Appeasement

The 1930s were a problematic time for the Earl of Cromer, Lord Chamberlain from 1922 to 1938.  It fell to him to balance representations of Fascism on stage with the policy of appeasement that the British Government espoused at the time.


Portrait of Rowland Thomas Baring, 2nd Earl of Cromer 1930Rowland Thomas Baring, 2nd Earl of Cromer after Randolph Schwabe (1930) NPG D20814 © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG CC By

In 1933 the Examiner of Plays, George Street, recommended the play Who Made the Iron Grow, for licence, but he suggested that it might present some political difficulties.  The play was a domestic drama that focused on the persecution of Jews in Hitler’s Germany.


Detail from Who Made the Iron Grow Reader ReportDetail from Who Made the Iron Grow Reader Report, LR 1933/4

The Lord Chamberlain disagreed with Street’s assessment and refused the play a licence.  When the author, Alan Peters, took issue with the refusal the Lord Chamberlain laid out the anxieties he had about the play:
‘The whole thing is a strong indictment of atrocities and excesses committed by the Nazis in Germany, and while possibly there is much truth in it all, I did not think that the British stage was a vehicle for this sort of propaganda...’.

Take Heed (1933) by Leslie Reade, was upfront in its criticism of the Nazi Third Reich.  Its plot culminated in the suicide of the protagonist’s Jewish wife and a vitriolic verbal attack on the evils of Fascism.  Street again saw merit in the play saying that he disliked the brutality of the Nazis, but Lord Cromer had the German response in mind and contacted the Foreign Office for advice.  The Foreign Office agreed that the play should be refused a licence, adding that giving a licence could be seen as an official endorsement of its themes.

Detail from Take Heed Reader ReportDetail from Take Heed Reader Report, LR 1934/4


It is this idea of the licence being interpreted as an endorsement that conflicted with the policy of appeasement.  Elsewhere in the UK’s media, the government was seeking to stem the flow of anti-Nazi sentiment, but the policy of appeasement could most easily enforced in the theatre because of the official role of the censor and their importance as a representative of the Crown.

Such policies would be abandoned after Britain went to war in 1939 and in retrospect would be highly criticised by figures such as Winston Churchill.   It is debatable whether these censored plays could have mobilised public opinion one way or the other given the dominance of other media.  However, there is no doubt that amongst these refused plays is a startling insight into the fate of the Jews in Germany.  Authors in 1933 and 1934 were already outlining the shocking consequences of state sponsored antisemitism.

Heroes was submitted in 1934 and promptly refused a licence.  The play described some of appalling experiences that many Jewish people on the continent would soon face, including removal, abuse, harassment, violence and murder.  Its portrayal of a Jewish family suffering under the Nazis emphasised the horrors that were both present and yet to come, but its vision and warning were silenced when public empathy with the Jewish people was most needed.

The Lord Chamberlain’s licence refusal on the Reader Report for HeroesThe Lord Chamberlain’s licence refusal on the Reader Report for Heroes, LR 1934/5


Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
The Censorship of British Drama, 1900-1968, Volume 2 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2005)
Dilemmas, Choices, Responses: Britain and the Holocaust – Online Exhibition The Weiner Library
Lord Chamberlain Plays, Licence Refused: Add MS 68816 - 68850
Lord Chamberlain Plays Reports, Licence Refused: Original Reference LR 1903- LR 1949

 

Image from The Life of the Buddha

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