The life and poetry of Ivor C. Treby

Written by Kasturi Pindar, Bodleian Libraries intern, Summer 2023

Ivor C. Treby (1933-2012) was a biochemistry teacher by profession, though outside of his professional life, he considered himself a gay literary activist, as well as being an avid traveller and a collector of sand. He is perhaps best known for his research and work on Michael Field, the pseudonym of the Victorian lesbian poets, Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper. As a gay literary activist, he wrote his own poetry, which was published in magazines and journals internationally, and in collections released under his own imprint, De Blackland Press. He was also a member of the Gay Authors Workshop from its early years. By the time of his death, he had published five books on Michael Field and over 400 of his own poems. The motifs, imagery and sentiments found in his poems often reflects the various aspects of his life. Though his poetry is less well-remembered, his talent as a poet is clear when exploring his archive. Therefore, this post will highlight some of his poetry through the lens of his life experiences.

Born in Devonport, Plymouth, the son of a shipwright, Treby grew up by the coast. He lived here until he eventually moved to study, attending Exeter College, University of Oxford, where he studied biochemistry. The sea and the shore are themes that run throughout his poetry, testifying to the influence of life by the sea on his formative years. Many of his poems link the sea to his coming-of-age, or to romantic and sexual encounters that impacted his life. Others, such as ‘Respite’, simply express a feeling of calm and restful detachment that he felt when near the sea. His poem, ‘Sea Light’, describes the sea as part of his heritage, as the son of a shipwright, but importantly too as a young, gay man. He references areas of Plymouth that he frequented as a teenager, during his coming-of-age. The first and fourth verses are reproduced below.

‘Sea Light’

The sea was part of my heritage
I know all the old nautical traditions
Have heard of the phantom toffee-gobbler
Could give lessons on how to blow the man down
In a variety of interesting positions

Whenever I see a sailor now, I am back on Citadel Hill
Of an autumn twilight. Across the Hoe’s windy arena
The matelots come. My lads do you still
Walk the Barbican, and wait in Devonport Park
Still relish the hand of a youth on your trouser-leg’s dark concertina?

MS. Treby 16 © Darren Perry

After graduating from Oxford, Treby moved to London to teach biochemistry, working at Concord College in Tunbridge Wells, then Chiswick Polytechnic, before moving to Paddington College (now City of Westminster College). In 1978, he was charged and convicted of gross indecency under Section 13 of the Sexual Offenses Act 1956. By this time, he was out to his family and his colleagues. Nonetheless, he was subjected to disciplinary proceedings by Paddington College, as well as intervention by the Department of Education and Science who considered determining him to be a person ‘unsuitable for employment as a teacher’ as a result of his conviction. Historically, his case is important as it shows the limitations of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which is commonly thought to have legalised homosexuality in the United Kingdom. Though the 1967 act legalised homosexuality under certain circumstances, research has shown that following the passing of the act, policing of homosexual activity increased, and convictions of homosexual men for ‘gross indecency’ went up by more than 300%. Men continued to be arrested for actions as small as winking and smiling at other men in the street, or public displays of affection such as kissing and cuddling.

As his career was jeopardised by the Department of Education and Science, Treby defended himself vocally. In a written response to the Department of Education and Science, he wrote:

I feel myself under no obligation to give a ‘full explanation’ of a matter which,
(a) is totally irrelevant to my abilities as a teacher
(b) could only have arisen in a society with a grotesque attitude toward a minority of its people who obtain sexual fulfilment and love with adult members of their own gender. Kindly note the word love.

His conviction, and his vocal defence of himself, testify to how difficult it was to be openly gay, even 10 years after homosexuality had been supposedly legalised in the UK. His poem, ‘We Who Burn’ was written the year after the Sexual Offences Act 1967 and was one of his earliest open avowals of his sexuality. It was first published in The Gay Journal in the year of his conviction. The poem explores what it meant to Treby to be gay in the mid-twentieth century. Themes of silence, death and darkness are interspersed with the loss of youth and a reference to ‘cottages’. Writing about the poem later in life, Treby suggested that it may ‘have a permanent place in the history of gay poetry.’

‘We Who Burn’

We who burn close concealed internal tapers,
Whose lives slow-smoulder in consuming fevers
Latticed and shuttered from enquiring eyes;
Who keep still shrouded secrets pent in cages
While deep within some lost thing cries and rages
Splintering bones and sinews as it dies;

Ours is the art of sense sustained by dreaming,
Sequestered lightings, trumpets and parading,
Of passions muted for a silent space;
We rise at dusk from subterranean porches
And search Death’s mansions with our living torches,
Hoping to glimpse again a young man’s face.

MS. Treby 16 © Darren Perry


Treby was very well-travelled. He took time to travel throughout his life, for example backpacking across the US on Greyhound buses in his youth. After he retired, he travelled even more. It was around this time that he began collecting sand, both naturally occurring on beaches, and sand taken from manmade areas such as flowerbeds and footpaths. His collection of sand demonstrates the multitude of interests he pursued: his scientific background and teaching wasn’t just a career to him, but also one of his hobbies that fitted around his love of travel. His sand collection is now held at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter.

Many of his poems were inspired by travelling and illustrate some of his experiences as a traveller. His second published collection, Foreign Parts, contains many poems from his travels, each of which is marked with a date and location. In the blurb to Foreign Parts, Treby wrote that the poems in the collection were ‘not intended as snapshots of more or less exotic locations, nor even as an aide-mémoire to less or more erotic encounters, though both do occur. Rather, they have developed as “songs of travel”…’ The humorous poem ‘Head of a Young Roman’ is one such poem from Foreign Parts.

‘Head of a Young Roman’

The Roman youth
Whose cold white cheek I kissed
Under the eyes of these his marble peers
Could not, poor fellow, very well resist.

Yet round the mouth
He smiles. To look at him
You’d think he’d felt across two thousand years
Love’s bold salute. His envious friends stay grim.

Copenhagen: Glyptotek, Ny Carlsberg.

MS. Treby 16 © Darren Perry


Treby had a sharp sense of humour and didn’t take himself too seriously. Another of the activities he engaged in outside of work was reviewing London bathhouses. Some of these reviews are held in the collection at the Bodleian Libraries and contain excellent examples of his humour. In a scathing review of Saunabar, Convent Garden, he wrote that the only highlight was “an old dear with bright red toenails. (Not me).” Other poems, particularly from his earlier years, are full of jokes and humorous wordplay, particularly in the form of limericks.

He also had a softer side, and seemed to desire companionship throughout his life and into his older age. He wrote many poems that testified to this romantic side. Around the year 2000, he prepared to publish another collection of poetry under his imprint, De Blackland Press. This collection, entitled Queer Enough: one gay life, sadly never went to press. Queer Enough contained 97 poems from previous collections that were out of print by the time it was compiled. The poem, ‘one gay life’, with its mournful tones, hints at a feeling of regret at looking back on a life of ‘unsuccess’ in romance. The first, third and final verses are reproduced below.

‘one gay life’
tonight he’s alone again
he won’t stay long in the bar
he stands for a while at the back
a silent, unnoticed intruder
his half-pint gripped as a passport
he looks for no-one in particular
and they do not talk to him
he might be a fly on the wall—
yesterday’s newspaper,
a used glass, a dead beetle—
he’s not ignored, they don’t see him
it’s nothing personal
he turns his back to the wind
at past and future looks less
feels now he will never know
the cause of his unsuccess
how he had distanced himself
by his sad seriousness
MS. Treby 16 © Darren Perry
A Wide Shore
Probably the longest of Treby’s poems, ‘A Wide Shore’ is a verse cycle in 22 parts. Treby didn’t necessarily intend for it to be printed in its entirety, as individual parts appeared by themselves in various magazines and literary journals during his lifetime. However, in a box of drafts held in his collection are two manuscript copies of the poem in full. Both handwritten, presumably by Treby himself, one is bound and the other unbound. In the unbound copy, each verse is accompanied by a postcard depicting a work of art. His catalogue notes tell us that each verse was written with the art on the postcard in mind, and some make direct references to their adjoining postcard.
The first verse of ‘A Wide Shore’ was written in 1969. In his catalogue, Treby recalls that he wrote the verse cycle during a love affair with a man whom he thought would be ‘He at last’. His love and commitment to this man is clear throughout, though the final verses betray a sombre mood as their relationship came to an end. Recalling one of their country walks on a sandy bay in the Lake District, Treby wrote, ‘It is perhaps this key memory which provides the later title to the cycle; the shore was wide also in that we never bridged the gap between us.’ From his records, it seems that Treby never found the long-term partner he hoped for, though he nonetheless lived a rich life of close friendships, travel and fulfilment in other ways. It’s not clear whether the verses in ‘A Wide Shore’ were originally written on the back of the postcards (the final one was ‘never sent’), or if they served a different purpose. The final verse is reproduced below.

A Wide Shore, verse xxii, MS. Treby 15

A Wide Shore


Remember these good days,
The autumn light,
And underfoot
A drift of gold.

Remember you were held
Close in my arms;
Remember my concern,
The trust you put
In love’s long sight.

Remember mile on mile
Of rolling weald,
Deep beds of fern,
The sea’s wide shore.

Remember youth’s alarms
And love’s good night,
Remember with a smile,
Remember them once more,
When we are old.

October 17th 1969
Accompanying postcard: Maurice Utrillo, Montmartre c. 1912
MS. Treby 16 © Darren Perry

Tatchell, Peter, ‘Don’t fall for the myth that it’s 50 years since we decriminalised homosexuality’, The Guardian (2017). [accessed 28 August 2023]
RAMM, ‘Ivor Treby (1933-2012)’. [accessed 31 Aug 2023]
Treby, Ivor C., A Wide Shore manuscript copies, Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Treby 15
Treby, Ivor C., Foreign Parts (faulty printed copy), Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS Treby 16
Treby, Ivor C., ‘Head of a Young Roman’, in Treby, Foreign Parts (faulty printed copy), Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Treby 16
Treby, Ivor C., letter to Department of Education and Science, Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Treby 2
Treby, Ivor C., ‘one gay life’, Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Treby 15
Treby, Ivor C., poetry catalogue, Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Treby 14
Treby, Ivor C., review of Saunabar bathhouse, Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Treby 7
Treby, Ivor C., ‘Sea Light’, Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Treby 16
Treby, Ivor C., ‘We Who Burn’, Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Treby 16

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