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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.’

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‘Handicapism is a mental disease of the able-bodied …and it affects us all…’

So reads a pin badge found in the collection of Keith Armstrong at the Bodleian Libraries Special Collections. The Bodleian holds just one box of Armstrong’s collection (the rest are held by the Bishopsgate Institute in London), but within it we can find evidence of Armstrong’s multifaceted life. Born in South Africa in 1950, Armstrong was an activist and public campaigner for disability rights. At six months old, he contracted polio, confining him to a wheelchair for most of his life. He spent much of his childhood in Oxford, attending Ormerod School, a school for children with physical disabilities. In his adulthood, he helped found the Liberation Network of People with Disabilities, and at different intervals, he was a member of the London Transport Passenger Committee and the committee of Camden Dial-a-Ride.

His collection at the Bodleian Libraries gives us an insight into the different aspects of Armstrong’s life: as a campaigner and voice for disabled rights; a creator of typewriter art; and a poet. It also shows us a darker side to his beliefs. At age 16, he began editing and publishing his own poetry and literature magazine, The Informer. The first issue of his magazine contained an article written by a contributor, Brian Crittindon, containing a repeated number of racial slurs and seeming to argue for Jim Crow laws in the US and against immigration into the UK. As the editor-in-chief of The Informer, it is impossible to ignore Armstrong’s role in producing and distributing material containing hateful language. With the records available, it is difficult to know whether Armstrong held onto these views into adulthood, or if he would have looked back with regret later in life. Whilst his achievements as a disability rights activist are undeniable—his work led to improvements in train and tube access, and to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995—it does remind us of the fact that when examined from all sides, those we admire in history often held views that are incompatible with our own values. It’s therefore important to be able to understand and appreciate the work of those who came before us, whilst acknowledging the impact of their faults and facets which were harmful to others.

Written by Kasturi Pindar, Bodleian Libraries intern, Summer 2023.

UK Disability History Month – 16 November – 16 December (

Collection: Papers of Keith Armstrong, typewriter poet | Bodleian Archives & Manuscripts (

Lord Woolton’s papers – catalogue now online

Lord Woolton

Lord Woolton

Fred Marquis (1883-1964), Lord Woolton, was born to working class parents in Salford. Educated at Manchester Grammar School and Manchester University he pursued academic research into social issues whilst also working directly in social welfare in Liverpool’s docklands. After working for the government during the First World War, he joined the firm of Lewis’s and eventually rose to become its Chairman. His business acumen and knowledge of social issues, led to his appointment to the government in 1939, and he became Minister for Food, 4 Apr 1940. From the outset Woolton understood that as well as ensuring the nation’s food supply he had to retain the goodwill of the general public and keep up morale. In notes for his first speech he wrote, ‘He who touches the Nation’s food is courting trouble’.

Notes for his first speech as Minister for Food, Apr 1940

Notes for his first speech as Minister for Food, Apr 1940

He made communication a key aim and gave regular radio broadcasts directed towards housewives, who he called his ‘Kitchen Front’. His name was immortalized in the ‘Woolton Pie’, a meat-less pie, based on root vegetables with a pastry or potato topping.


Recipe for Woolton Pie from The Times, 26 Apr 1941.

Although he was a non-party government minister during the war, he was appointed Chairman of the Conservative Party in 1946 and is credited with reforming the party structure and aiding Churchill’s re-election in 1951.

His papers were given to the Bodleian Library in 1973 and the catalogue has recently been made available online. The papers can be consulted in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room in the Weston Library.

Geoffrey Dawson catalogue now available online

Papers of Geoffrey Dawson (1874-1944), editor of The Times

Geoffrey Dawson started his career as a civil servant working mostly in the Colonial Office in South Africa, where he became a member of Milner’s ‘kindergarten’, an informal group of colonial administrators gathered around Alfred Milner, who supported the unification of South Africa as a means of promoting British interests in the region. He left the civil service to become editor of the Johannesburg Star and combined this with a position at The Times as South Africa correspondent. In 1912 at the age of only thirty-eight he became editor of The Times, under its owner, Lord Northcliffe. He remained editor for seven years until mounting frustrations over Northcliffe’s interference led to his resignation. Following Northcliffe’s death in 1922, Dawson was re-hired as editor by the new owners John Jacob Astor and John Walter, and remained in post for a further 19 years, retiring due to ill-health in 1941. During his tenure it has been said that he was ‘privy to more Cabinet thinking and secrets than most members of the government’ (R. Cockett, Twilight of Truth).

Dawson's diary 1936

Dawson’s diary for 1936

His papers include a long series of diaries, personal papers including contemporary notes of meetings, and correspondence with many of the key political figures of the day. The papers provide primary source material for research on: Milner’s ‘Kindergarten’ – its promotion of the unification of South Africa, and its later influence on British foreign and colonial policy; the formation of the National Government in 1931 in response to the financial crisis; the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936; Britain’s policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany; the ‘Cliveden Set’ and their effect on the policy of appeasement; the political sway of newspaper magnates, and the struggle for editorial integrity.

Dawson's diary entry for the abdication of Edward VIII

Dawson’s diary entry for the abdication of Edward VIII

The whole Press in London broke out on the King Crisis according to their lights – the News Chronicle peculiarly mischievous in pressing for a “morganatic” compromise. Evening papers practically devoted to stories & pictures of “Wally”. I lunched at the Office betw[een] Auck[land] Geddes, who was all for probing the Simpson divorce to the bottom, & a Canadian who reported a strong anti-King reaction in his country. Thence to the H[ouse] of C[ommons], where the PM got a great cheer but could make no statement yet. I began, & BW finished, a leader on the case against a marriage under whatever guise…The evening was rather hectic, w[ith] constant news of comings & goings between the Palace, the Fort, Downing St & Marlb[orough] House. All the Royal Family cancelled engagements.

Dawson’s papers can be consulted in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room in the Weston Library.

‘Unblushing bribery and corruption’ during the General Election Campaign, 1906

Supporters of Arthur Ponsonby, the Liberal parliamentary candidate for Taunton were furious at the tactics employed against him by the Conservative candidate during the general election campaign of 1906. Letters written to Ponsonby after his defeat on 15th Jan 1906, speak of an unholy alliance between:

the Brewers, Licensed Victuallers, & Church Clergy [who] have moved earth and a worse place to secure the return of the Tory Candidate. Unblushing bribery and corruption have been practised.

Others denounced the:

wretched and corrupt little borough of Taunton,

and put the blame squarely on the voters who:

had they been men that would not be bought for a shilling you would have undoubtedly have been returned.

[MS. Eng. hist. c. 653, fols. 57, 63, 66-67]

Ponsonby was the principal private secretary to the Prime Minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who had taken over from the Conservative Prime Minister, A.J. Balfour, a month earlier in December 1905. He swiftly called a General Election, which the Liberals were to win with a landslide victory. The Prime Minister, who was still campaigning in Scotland, wrote to Ponsonby to commiserate on the loss of Taunton but as a Glaswegian he was unable to temper his elation at Liberal victories in Scotland:

Letter from Campbell-Bannerman to Ponsonby, 20 Jan 1906

Letter from Campbell-Bannerman to Ponsonby, 20 Jan 1906 [MS. Eng. hist. c. 653, fol. 64]

We have done splendidly in Scotland, It was a needless humiliation for them to send A.J.B. [Balfour] up to Inverness to counteract my meeting. He travelled there & back in the same train (though at diff. ends of it – I never saw him) with exultant crowds at the stations; my meeting was greatly bigger than his; and his man was kicked out!

Although the result had been called for Taunton, the election was still continuing across the country. Before 1918 general elections were not held on one specific day: polling took place over a period of weeks. The 1906 general election was held between 12th January and the 8th February.

Amongst Ponsonby’s supporters was a Miss Agnes Sibly, headmistress of a girls’ school in Taunton, who highlighted the issue of women’s suffrage:

You would be safe of our vote more if women were not classed with lunatics & paupers!

Women were not able to vote in a general election until 1918, and even then suffrage was restricted to women over the age of 30 who met a minimum property qualification. Full suffrage on the same terms as men was granted to women in 1928.

Election address for Arthur Ponsonby, 1923

Election address for Arthur Ponsonby, 1923 [Conservative Party Archive]

By 1922 Ponsonby had switched his allegiance to the more radical Labour Party and was elected MP for Sheffield Brightside, joining the first Labour government two years later in 1924.

The catalogue of the papers of Arthur Ponsonby (1871-1946), politician and peace campaigner, has recently been added to the online catalogue and is available here.