Category Archives: Modern

Archiving web content related to the University of Oxford and the coronavirus pandemic

Since March 2020, the scope of collection development at the Bodleian Libraries’ Web Archive has expanded to also focus on the coronavirus pandemic: how the University of Oxford, and wider university community have reacted and responded to the rapidly changing global situation and government guidance. The Bodleian Libraries’ Web Archive team have endeavoured (and will keep working) to capture, quality assess and make publicly available records from the web relating to Oxford and the coronavirus pandemic. Preserving these ephemeral records is important. Just a few months into what is sure to be a long road, what do these records show?

Firstly, records from the Bodleian Libraries’ Web Archive can demonstrate how university divisions and departments are continually adjusting in order to facilitate core activities of learning and research. This could be by moving planned events online or organising and hosting new events relevant to the current climate:

Capture of http://pcmlp.socleg.ox.ac.uk/ 24 May 2020 available through the Bodleian Libraries’ Web Archive. Wayback URL https://wayback.archive-it.org/2502/20200524133907/https://pcmlp.socleg.ox.ac.uk/global-media-policy-seminar-series-victor-pickard-on-media-policy-in-a-time-of-crisis/

Captures of websites also provide an insight to the numerous collaborations of Oxford University with both the UK government and other institutions at this unprecedented time; that is, the role Oxford is playing and how that role is changing and adapting. Much of this can be seen in the ever evolving news pages of departmental websites, especially those within Medical Sciences division, such as the Nuffield Department of Population Health’s collaboration with UK Biobank for the government department of health and social care announced on 17 May 2020.

The web archive preserves records of how certain groups are contributing to coronavirus covid-19 research, front line work and reviewing things at an extremely  fast pace which the curators at Bodleian Libraries’ Web Archive can attempt to capture by crawling more frequently. One example of this is the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine’s Oxford Covid-19 Evidence Service – a platform for rapid data analysis and reviews which is currently updated with several articles daily. Comparing two screenshots of different captures of the site, seven weeks apart, show us the different themes of data being reviewed, and particularly how the ‘Most Viewed’ questions change (or indeed, don’t change) over time.

Capture of https://www.cebm.net/covid-19/ 14 April 2020 available through the Bodleian Libraries’ Web Archive. Wayback URL https://wayback.archive-it.org/org-467/20200414111731/https://www.cebm.net/covid-19/

Interestingly, the page location has slightly changed, the eagle-eyed among you may have spotted that the article reviews are now under /oxford-covid-19-evidence-service/, which is still in the web crawler’s scope.

Capture of https://www.cebm.net/covid-19/ 05 June 2020 available through the Bodleian Libraries’ Web Archive. Wayback url https://wayback.archive-it.org/org-467/20200605100737/https://www.cebm.net/oxford-covid-19-evidence-service/

We welcome recommendations for sites to archive; if you would like to nominate a website for inclusion in the Bodleian Libraries’ Web Archive you can do so here. Meanwhile, the work to capture institutional, departmental and individual responses at this time continues.

Frankenstein Revisited at the Bodleian Libraries

The Abinger Papers (manuscripts of the Shelley and Godwin families, including drafts of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) can undoubtedly be counted among some of the greatest treasures of the Bodleian Libraries and, last year, I was invited by the Bodleian Libraries’ Education Team to take part in three study days bringing the text of Frankenstein to life (as it were).

The Bodleian Libraries held two successful Frankenstein Revisited study days for KS4 and KS5 pupils from local schools in November 2019, building upon the success of three study days originally held in 2018 as part of the bicentenary celebrations of the publication of Frankenstein. Due to popular demand, a further study day was held in January 2020, but in a slightly different format. The study days were funded by the Helen Hamlyn Trust and, in total, 163 students from seven local state schools attended. The format of the days was designed to be varied and tie in with the curriculum for English Literature.

The November study days included two half-hour university style lectures (for the KS5 pupils) and a contemporary theatrical performance (‘The Two-Body Problem’ by Louis Rogers, performed by Martha Skye Murphy) followed by three ‘hands-on’ sessions when the students were split into smaller groups: one with live demonstrations of historical artefacts at the History of Science Museum, one looking at original Shelley-Godwin family manuscripts at the Weston Library, and one textual editing session focussing on the original manuscript of Frankenstein.

The creature comes to life: page from Mary Shelley’s manuscript of Frankenstein, with annotations by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Abinger c. 56, fol. 21r

I led the half-hour sessions with the original family manuscripts to small groups of students: though this meant running the same session several times back to back, the students all got the opportunity to get close-up to the manuscripts. Once the groups had settled down, I began a roughly chronological journey through the manuscripts charting the life of Mary Shelley: beginning with the last notes from her mother Mary Wollstonecraft to her father William Godwin on the day of her birth, through to the journals chronicling her elopement with Percy Bysshe Shelley and the death of their first child, the manuscript of Frankenstein and finishing with Percy Shelley’s ‘drowned’ notebook.

I tried to get the groups to think about the nature of a manuscript and what they thought were the major differences between a copy of the printed text and the manuscript written by Mary Shelley. I also raised the question of manuscript survival and the memorial nature of many of the items, reverently kept in turn by surviving members of the family. Percy Shelley’s water-damaged notebook also raised questions of the physicality of items: the groups were generally able to surmise what had caused the damage to the notebook and some of the older pupils were able to second-guess before I explained that it was on board Percy’s boat when he died.

Overall, the sessions were successful and we received lots of positive feedback from the students including: ‘Fascinating to see Mary Shelley’s more personal thoughts and the original, unedited tale’. The students wrote that the sessions made them ‘feel more engaged to the text’ and found it ‘amazing to be close to the story so physically’. Perhaps most importantly, it was ‘surreal and completely different to school’.

– Rachael Marsay

More information about items in the Abinger and Shelley collections can be found via Shelley’s Ghost, the Bodleian Libraries’ online exhibition, Digital Bodleian, and also The Bodleian Libraries Podcasts (BODcasts).

A longer version of this blog post was originally published on the Archives for Learning and Education Section of the Archives and Records Association’s blog on 10th April 2020.

Please note that, following guidance from the UK Government and Public Health England, the Bodleian Libraries are closed until further notice. Please check the Bodleian Libraries website and Bodleian Twitter for the latest information.

‘On behalf of the Strike Committee’: MS. Top. Oxon. c. 523

“The vales, the streams, the meadows, hamlets of Cotswold stone—they make a pretty picture for your second family home. But they hide away a story of labour, toil and skill of the children, men and women in the Cotswold textile mills.”
Andy Danford, “The Ballad of Bliss Tweed Mill”.[1]

With nearly 56,000 references, the Summary Catalogue of Western Manuscripts showcases the wide diversity of archival material held by the Bodleian libraries, and that is one of my favourite aspects of working on this project. Today, I have chosen to explore yet another side of the catalogue: local history. When I worked on the retroconversion of MS. Top. Oxon. c. 523, I was quite fascinated to learn that this particular box held papers relating to a strike that happened in 1913-1914 in an Oxfordshire factory. My knowledge of British labour history was mainly focused on Northern regions and on earlier decades, so I was curious to check out the manuscript. It starts with a note written by the historian Sir George Norman Clark, who compiled the papers.

The papers in this file were put together in 1919: they are all that I could find on this subject in my possession. It does not seem that many can be missing. I first heard of the strike at the end of February, when I came back from Italy where I had spent the winter. Lady Mary Murray, on the day before the police-court hearing of the charge of riot against Shepard (sic) and others, told me that the strike was in progress and asked me to go over and see what happened at the police-court. I went with [George Douglas Howard] Cole and these papers give the rest of the story as far as it concerns me, except that I told the strike committee at a meeting at Selincourt’s house that they must drop the scheme for a new factory. They agreed, but with great regret. 

G. N. Clark.

MS. Top. Oxon. c. 523 contains the story of the strike that took place between December 1913 and June 1914 at Bliss Tweed Mill in Chipping Norton, about 20 miles North of Oxford. If today the factory building has been converted into residential apartments, at the time of the strike it was buzzing with around 400 workers. About two thirds of these workers (237) took part in the strike, amongst whom a slight majority of women (125).

Bliss Tweed Mill

The Bliss family had been active in the cloth sector in the Chipping Norton area since the middle of the eighteenth century when they upgraded their site to a large-scale fully steam-powered factory in the nineteenth century. By 1870, according to Mike Richardson, Bliss mill employed up to 700 people.[2] This growth is the evidence of the prosperity of the business the Bliss family had established. They specialised in tweed, one of the trading strengths of the region since the middle ages.

However, in 1872, a fire caught and destroyed part of the mill, along with three human casualties. The factory had to be rebuilt and the owner, William Bliss, had to borrow a large sum of money from the bank. This, along with a decrease in product sales, plunged the company into recession.

In 1896, the Bliss family left Chipping Norton, and a man called Arthur Dunstan was appointed as managing director. A few chosen lyrics from Andy Danford’s “Ballad of Bliss Tweed Mill” show how the employees felt towards the man: “Some called this man a tyrant …, some called the providence to send him to his grave.”[3]

What led to the strike?

The strike at Chipping Norton was decided for local reasons, but happened in the midst of a larger national period of unrest. Strikes flourished in the years 1910-1914, so much so that the journalist and historian George Dangerfield called the era “the workers’ rebellion”.[4]

At Bliss Tweed Mill in November 1913, Arthur Dunstan discouraged his employees from joining the local branch of the Workers Union, threatening them with the loss of their jobs should they choose to syndicate. Bliss Tweed Mills workers had indeed many reasons to join the union: Dunstan’s style of management was harsh, as the lyrics quoted above show; he was hated by his employees for keeping wages low and working conditions poor. In his 2008 article, Mike Richardson states that over 230 workers joined the union regardless of their boss’ threats.[5]

In December 1913, three employees, who were very active union members, were sacked. Their co-workers tried to negotiate with the hierarchy to get them reinstated, but negotiations failed and as a result, on 18 December 1913, 237 workers stopped their work. Their strike would last six months.

MS. Top. Oxon. c. 523

Many documents were produced during the time of the strike at Bliss Tweed Mill. Some emanated from the workers, others from the outside, like newspaper reports. George Clarke collected all he could find, and they now form MS. Top. Oxon. c. 523. These papers tell the story of what happened in the Chipping Norton mill in 1913 and 1914 better than this blog post ever could.

Lists of the workers containing their names, marital status, job titles and wages; communications from the mill’s management or from the strike committee; cuttings… 135 items, both printed and manuscript now form MS. Top. Oxon. c. 523.



You can view the catalogue of this manuscript in the Bodleian Archives and Modern Manuscripts interface. Once the library reopens, it will be available to request and view in the Weston Library Reading Rooms.


References:

[1] “The Ballad of Bliss Tweed Mill”, written and performed by Andy Danford, 2014, https://www.brh.org.uk/site/articles/ballad-bliss-tweed-mill/ (accessed May 2020)

[2] Richardson, Mike. ‘“Murphyism in Oxfordshire” – the Bliss Mill Strike 1913–14: Causes, Conduct and Consequences’, Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, vol. 25/26, 2008

[3] Danford, Andy. Op. Cit.

[4] Dangerfield, George. The Strange Death of Liberal England, Constable: London, 1935.

[5] Richardson, Mike. Op. Cit. p. 89

Read more:

Bliss Mill Strike 1913-1914: A week by week account of the strike in Chipping Norton 100 years ago 

Bristol Radical History Group’s online material relating to the strike 

Lost Leader: The Archive of Mick Imlah

The catalogue of the archive of the poet Mick Imlah is now available online.*

Michael Ogilvie Imlah, better known as Mick Imlah, was born with his twin sister on 26th September 1956 in Lewisham Hospital to James and Bathia Imlah. Whilst James and Bathia both originally came from Aberdeen, the Imlah family relocated from Bromley in Kent shortly after the twins’ birth to Milngavie near Glasgow, where Mick attended the local primary school.

After a decade or so, the family moved back to Kent and Mick attended Dulwich College from 1968. Whilst at Dulwich he wrote poems as well as a short stories for the school magazine The Alleynian, one of which was inspired by Kafka. His early notebooks, started around this time, were (like his later ones) full of ideas and drafts for verse alongside copious notes about cricket scores and teams.

Mick went on to read English at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1976 where his tutors included John Fuller and Alan Hollinghurst. At Magdalen, he also indulged his love for sport, playing in both rugby and cricket college teams. After graduating with a first in 1979, Mick embarked upon a DPhil on Arthurian myth in Victorian Poetry; though this was never completed, he held junior lectureships at the college until 1988.

Whilst at Magdalen, Mick continued to write poetry and his first pamphlet of poems, The Zoologist’s Bath and Other Adventures, was printed by Fuller’s Sycamore Press in June 1982. In the title poem, a dramatic monologue, an eccentric Victorian evolutionary theorist is convinced that mankind will return to its origins – the sea – and therefore refuses to get out of the bath, having convinced himself that he is developing a fin. Imlah was a perfectionist and his poems in particular would undergo revision after revision as demonstrated by the multiple notes and drafts of poems in the collection (he later admitted, ‘I revise, much too much’).

In 1983, following in the footsteps of Andrew Motion, Mick became editor of the Poetry Review (a post shared at first with Tracey Warr) until 1986. The same year, Mick resurrected the publication of Oxford Poetry. From 1987 to 1990, Mick took an editorial post at the luxury travel magazine Departures (ironically, having previously never travelled very far).

Birthmarks, Mick’s first main collection of poems, was published in 1988. He left Magdalen for London that same year and became Poetry Editor at Chatto & Windus in 1989, a post he held until 1993. His income was supplemented by writing reviews of fiction, non-fiction, television programmes, and films for the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, The Observer and The Independent on Sunday among others. His reviews were written out long-hand in his neat handwriting, ready for the fax machine.

Mick Imlah’s drafts for the poem ‘Birthmarks’, c.1988, MS. 12919/1. With kind permission of the literary executors of Mick Imlah.

After Birthmarks, poetry took somewhat of a back seat until 1992, when the Times Literary Supplement commissioned Mick to write a poem on the centenary of Tennyson’s death, ‘In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson’. This would go on to become, along with ‘B.V.’ (a poem about the poet James Thomson), the sequence ‘Afterlives of the Poets’ in his final collection of poems.

In 1992 he joined the staff of the Times Literary Supplement and in 1995 succeeded Alan Hollinghurst as Poetry Editor, a post he held until his death. Having generally avoided word processing until now, Mick was finally forced into using a computer for this role.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Mick also worked on biographical entries for The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry (published in 1994); wrote an introduction to Anthony Trollope’s Dr Whortle’s School (1999); co-edited with Robert Crawford The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (2000), which also had a profound effect on his own poetry; and published a selection of verse by Alfred Lord Tennyson for Faber and Faber’s ‘Poet to poet’ series (2004). He published a number of new poems in Penguin Modern Poets 3 in 1995 and the Clutag Press printed Diehard in 2006, a taster of poems for his final collection of poems, then still work in progress.

In autumn 2007, Mick was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. His second – and final – collection of poetry, The Lost Leader, which had been at least 10 years in the making, was published in 2008 and won the Forward Prize for best poetry book of the year. Drawing heavily upon his Scottish roots, Mick also paid tribute to his partner and daughters. Mick died in early January 2009, aged 52, and was buried in Ayrshire after a funeral service at Magdalen College.

The archive contains many drafts of verse and prose: much of the material in the archive (especially the notebooks) demonstrate how the different strands of Mick Imlah’s work (poetry, prose, criticism and review) and interests (particularly cricket) were inextricably entwined. Similarly, there is evidence that Imlah’s notes written at college and university were re-used and re-cycled throughout his career.

– Rachael Marsay

A recording of Mick Imlah reading his poem ‘Muck’ (from The Lost Leader), recorded in 2008 as part of the Archipelago Poetry Evening at the Bodleian Library, can be heard as part of The Bodleian Libraries (BODcasts) series.

*Please note that this collection is not currently accessible to readers as, following guidance from the UK Government and Public Health England, the Bodleian Libraries are now closed until further notice. Please check the Bodleian Libraries website and Bodleian Twitter for the latest information.

The Economist or The Political, Commercial, Agricultural and Free-Trade Journal

A catalogue of the archive of The Economist newspaper is now available online*.

Portrait of James Wilson

Hon. James Wilson by Sir John Watson-Gordon, oil on canvas, 1858, NPG 2189 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The archive was donated to the Bodleian Library in 2017 by The Economist Newspaper Limited. The newspaper, originally called The Economist: The Political, Commercial, Agricultural and Free-Trade Journal, was founded in 1843 by James Wilson (1805-1860), a self-educated businessman, economist and Liberal politician, to campaign for free trade. It was solely owned by Wilson for the first 17 years and he was Editor until 1849. The basis of the paper was a systematic weekly survey of economic data and it quickly became invaluable as a source of trade and financial statistics. Wilson wrote much of the paper himself, assisted by Richard Holt Hutton (1826-1897) and Walter Bagehot (1826-1877). (Bagehot became Editor in 1861.)

The archive has suffered from the bombing of the newspaper’s London offices in 1941, when many records were lost. The bulk of the archive thus dates from the second half of the 20th century. It contains an incomplete set of minutes of the Board of Directors of The Economist Newspaper Limited and related papers, from its incorporation in 1929 to 2015, and correspondence and papers of Managing Directors (later CEOs), Editors, and staff of editorial departments. Other records include materials relating to property, finance, staff, production, and promotion and marketing.

In 1847, James Wilson entered Parliament as MP for Westbury. From 1848 until 1852 he served as Secretary of the Board of Control, which oversaw the East India Company’s relationship with British India. He later served as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Paymaster-General, and Vice-President of the Board of Trade. In 1859 he resigned his offices and his seat in Parliament to sit as the financial member of the Council of India. A bundle of letters received by Wilson and other items addressed to the Wilson family, 1838-1860, was passed to The Economist by Wilson’s great great granddaughter in 2008 and now forms part of the archive. This includes letters to Wilson from Earl Canning, Governor-General of India, Jan-May 1860, during Wilson’s time in India, tasked with establishing a tax structure and a new paper currency, and remodelling the finance system. Wilson sadly died of dysentery in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in August 1860 at the age of 55. These papers complement the correspondence of James Wilson and his family, 1840-1924, concerning political, literary and family matters, acquired by the Bodleian in 1979 (shelfmarks MSS. Eng. lett. d. 468-9), containing letters from Walter Bagehot and Lord Palmerston.

The archive also contains records of the celebration of the company’s 150th anniversary in 1993, and research for The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1834-1993 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1993) by Ruth Dudley Edwards. This is an engaging and well-researched history of the newspaper and the personalities behind it. Incidentally, Dudley Edwards is known not only as a historian but also as a writer of crime fiction. One of her novels features a copy of The Economist as the murder weapon!

*Please note that the collection is not currently accessible as, following guidance from the UK Government and Public Health England, the Bodleian Libraries are now closed until further notice. Please do check the Bodleian Libraries website and Bodleian Twitter for the latest information.

 

The Composer who Defied the BBC

Robert Simpson. ©Robert Simpson Society

Robert Simpson (1921-1997), was an English composer and writer on music and, from 1951 until 1980, a well-respected BBC producer and broadcaster. His pioneering and popular radio programme ‘The Innocent Ear’ ran for many years introducing the British public to music of lesser-known composers. As well as his work for the BBC, he published a distinguished body of music, including 11 symphonies, 15 string quartets and other chamber music. He was a highly regarded composer and was even afforded the unusual honour of having a society founded in his name during his lifetime (https://robertsimpson.org.uk/). As a particular expert on Beethoven, Bruckner and Carl Nielsen, he wrote extensively and illuminatingly on these and other composers.

Robert Simpson’s contract with the BBC, dated 1953 (MS. Simpson 21).

Housed in the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Oxford, the Simpson collection brings together the archive of the Robert Simpson Society and additional material gifted by the late Angela Simpson, the composer’s widow, and others.

A small section of the Robert Simpson archive

Simpson’s original music manuscripts are in the British Library but the Archive in the Bodleian includes photocopies of many of the music manuscripts, often further annotated by the composer himself. The Bodleian archive also contains original correspondence and writings, broadcasting scripts, concert programmes, recordings and more. It has recently been catalogued for Archives Bodleian (https://archives.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/repositories/2/resources/3681#) as part of the ongoing Music Manuscript cataloguing project. All the archival material quoted in this post can be found in a box bearing the shelfmark MS. Simpson 21.

It reveals that the 1980s were a trying time for Simpson. His disagreements with the BBC, particularly over the Proms, eventually resulted in his resignation, and his passionate hatred for the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher led him to move to the Republic of Ireland in 1986.

In 1980, tensions between various musicians, music producers and the BBC came to a head due to severe cuts in funding, which threatened the loss of a third of the BBC’s musicians and the scrapping of five of its orchestras. In fact, a strike by the orchestras caused the cancellation of 20 Proms concerts that year. Despite this, the BBC were not planning to showcase less music but to increase its output of records and foreign tapes. The Musicians’ Union stated that ‘over 60% of B.B.C. radio output consists of music but less than 5% of radio expenditure is on staff orchestras’ (such leaflets can be seen below), claiming that the BBC had therefore broken its agreement with the Union.

Material documenting the musicians’ dispute with the BBC (MS. Simpson 21)

Robert Simpson disapproved greatly of the BBC’s decision on this issue, believing Britain’s cultural integrity to be at risk. It also becomes clear from the papers in MS. Simpson 21 that the composer, always forthright in his views, was rather irritated by the BBC and those who defended it.

In a letter to Robert Ponsonby, Director of the Proms from 1974 to 1986 and Controller of Radio 3 (who died last year at the age of 92), Simpson scathingly wrote, ‘Your public support of them wins no respect…’. Regarding other people in the music profession who had written to the press in defence of a dwindling cultural life, Simpson declared, ‘I wish I could follow their example, and it is contractual duress not false loyalty that prevents me from doing so’ (12 March 1980). However, just four months later Simpson would rebel against this ‘contractual duress’.

After The Times had jumped the gun and falsely reported Simpson’s resignation on 11 July, Simpson retaliated with a response that the BBC had persuaded him to delay his resignation due to the fragile negotiations with the Musicians’ Union and their wish to avoid negative publicity. However, after the hearsay over Simpson’s relationship with the BBC he brought his resignation forward, just months away from retirement, which would have enabled him to claim a full pension.

In his letter to the editor published in The Times on 18 July 1980 he states ‘I have resigned from the BBC, for reasons wider and deeper than the current argument over the orchestras, which is only the symptom of a larger problem.’ Simpson argues that, ‘When I first joined the Corporation nearly 30 years ago it was a wonderful and promising place to be at, with the Third Programme at the height of its achievement… Since the BBC’s capitulation to the urge to compete on the lowest level with commercial broadcasting values have degenerated.’

Simpson ends this letter with a harsh testimonial: ‘I can no longer work for the BBC without a profound sense of betrayal of most of the values I and many others believe in… It is now necessary for me to be able to say what I wish to whom I wish when I wish, without the shackles imposed by that all too sinister phrase “corporate loyalty”. This is why I have resigned’.

Simpson immediately began to receive overwhelmingly supportive responses from fellow composers, musicians and admirers. Many key phrases such as, ‘courage’, ‘marvellous letter’, ‘what you said certainly needed saying’, and ‘thank you’ jump out from this correspondence, showing how much opposition there was to the BBC’s attitude and its decisions at the time.

A small selection of the responses, all dated 19-20 July 1980
One such letter, dated 19 July 1980, begins with ‘I read your letter… with some sadness as I have obtained great pleasure for many projects with which you have been associated as producer, but also with a feeling of reassurance that there are still people who are prepared to act according to their professed principles… am grateful for your example.’
After his resignation Simpson remained a vocal critic of the BBC and campaigned for music funding. He also continued his career as a composer, completing several further works. With time tensions with the BBC subsided slightly, and his compositions were once again played on BBC stations, although perhaps not as often as they deserve.

Robert Simpson suffered a debilitating stroke in 1991 which all but ended his composing career. He died in 1997, aged 76. The Robert Simpson Society continues today. 2021 marks the centenary of Simpson’s birth so do look out for performances of his music next year. It’s well worth getting to know!

Jen Patterson, Archives & Modern Manuscripts
Martin Holmes, Alfred Brendel Curator of Music, Bodleian Libraries,
and Robert Simpson Society Archivist

New catalogue: papers of Edmund Blunden

The catalogue for a collection of letters and papers relating to the poet Edmund Blunden is now available online.*

Perhaps best remembered for being a war poet, Edmund Blunden is commemorated alongside fellow war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. Many of his war poems, however, were written in retrospect and have the added poignancy of being written by an author over whose entire remaining life the First World War cast a long shadow. His poetry, like that of his literary hero John Clare, often evoked nature and explored how the natural world was affected by the devastating effects of war.

Born in London on 1st November 1896, the eldest of nine children, Edmund’s formative years were spent in Yalding, Kent. He attended Christ’s Hospital in Horsham, Sussex. When he left school in 1915, he joined the Royal Sussex Regiment as a Second Lieutenant and fought on the front line. His war years were not without distinction and he was awarded the Military Cross in 1917. He would later write about his experiences in his acclaimed prose work, Undertones of War, published in 1930.

During the last year of the war, when on camp in Suffolk, he met, fell in love with, and married Mary Daines, a local 19-year-old girl. Their first child, Joy, was born the following year but tragically died after only a few weeks. Joy’s death was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Mary carefully kept the letters Edmund sent her during their courtship when he was away with military duties; as she requested, however, her own love letters to him have not survived.

Edmund Blunden and Mary Blunden (née Daines), by Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1920 © National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

After demobilisation in 1919, Edmund started studying at The Queen’s College, Oxford but this was cut short, partly for financial reasons. He travelled alone to Buenos Aires in 1922 and then accepted the post of professor of English at the Imperial University of Tokyo in 1924. Both times he left Mary and his family behind, their daughter Mary Clare having been born in 1920 and a son John Clare in 1922. Edmund, always a prolific correspondent, sent home copious letters, postcards, and Japanese prints, which Mary and later Mary Clare kept carefully. However, the strain of living apart took its toll on an increasingly fragile relationship. Edmund returned home in 1927 and the couple were divorced in 1931.

Despite an inauspicious start at Oxford, Edmund became Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Merton College, Oxford between 1931 and 1947. In these years he met and married the writer, Sylva Norman (née Nahabedian). The marriage, perhaps based more on intellectual need than compatibility, was short lived. Shortly after the marriage was dissolved in 1945, he married Claire Margaret Poynting, a young teacher and Oxford graduate, who shared his love of literature and cricket. They had four daughters.

Edmund returned twice again to the Far East – firstly in a diplomatic role between 1947 and 1950, before returning for a longer period as Professor of English Literature at the University of Hong Kong between 1954 and 1964. This time, though, he took his entire family with him.

Publicly acknowledged for his works to literature, in 1951 he was made a CBE, received the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry in 1956, and was made a companion of the Royal Society of Literature in 1962. Upon his retirement in 1964, the family returned to Suffolk. Though his health was deteriorating, Edmund Blunden was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1966, a post he had to resign after two years. He died at his home in Long Melford in 1974 aged 77.

The collection contains an extensive series of correspondence, dating from 1918 to the 1960s, mainly comprising letters sent from Edmund Blunden to his first wife Mary. The collection also includes commonplace books, scrapbooks, newspaper cuttings, various papers and correspondence relating to biographies, and papers relating to Mary Blunden.

– Rachael Marsay

*Please note that the collection is not currently accessible as, following guidance from the UK Government and Public Health England, the Bodleian Libraries are now closed until further notice. Please do check the Bodleian Libraries website and Bodleian Twitter for the latest information.

New catalogue: Papers of C. Day-Lewis and his wife Jill Balcon

The catalogue of the poet and novelist C. Day-Lewis and his wife, Jill Balcon, is now complete and available online via Bodleian Archives & Manuscripts.* These papers were generously donated by Daniel Day-Lewis and Tamasin Day-Lewis to the Bodleian Library in 2012.

C. Day-Lewis was Poet Laureate between 1968 and 1972; his earliest collection of poems, Beechen Vigil, was published in 1925, but the publication of Transitional Poem in 1929 saw Day-Lewis’s true emergence into the poetry world. Along with W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice, he became one of the influential young poets of the 1930s (perhaps unfairly given the collective name of ‘MacSpaunday’ by Roy Campbell). For some years a member of the communist party, his early poetry collections, including Magnetic Mountain (1933), reflected his left-wing political views. In 1934, Day-Lewis also wrote a manifesto, A Hope for Poetry, claiming the young poets of the generation to be the direct descendants of the previous generation of poets, in particular Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, and T.S. Eliot.

With a young family to support, Day-Lewis also turned his hand to writing detective fiction under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake. A Question of Proof, published in 1935, was the first of twenty Blake novels featuring the detective Nigel Strangeways. The success of the Blake novels allowed Day-Lewis to give up teaching to become a full-time writer. The novels achieved global popularity and were translated into several languages including Polish, Finnish, and Japanese.

Cecil Day-Lewis, by Howard Coster, bromide print, 1954, NPG x1808 © National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Day-Lewis worked for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War. In 1941, he began an affair with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann which was to last several years. After the war, Day-Lewis took up a part-time position at the publisher Chatto & Windus, a role he maintained until the end of his life; his autobiography, The Buried Day (1960), was published by them.

In 1948, Day-Lewis met Jill Balcon, a young actress and the daughter of the Ealing film producer Michael Balcon. Despite family opposition (Day-Lewis was still married to his first wife at the time), the relationship flourished and the pair married in 1951. They had two children, the writer Tamasin Day-Lewis and the actor Daniel Day-Lewis. The family moved to Greenwich in 1957.

C. Day-Lewis was awarded a CBE in the 1950 King’s Birthday Honours and was elected Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford in early 1951. In 1964, he took up the post of the Charles Eliot Norton Chair in Poetry at Harvard. Both Day-Lewis and Jill Balcon championed the reading of poetry and literature and were active members of the Apollo Society along with Stephen and Natasha Spender, and Peggy Ashcroft.

Draft autograph manuscript of poem by C. Day-Lewis, ‘At East Coker’, n.d. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. 6681/38. By kind permission of the estate of C. Day-Lewis.

Just before C. Day-Lewis’s death, the couple filmed a television series entitled A Lasting Joy at their home in Greenwich exploring some of Day-Lewis’s favourite poems. Day-Lewis died at the home of his friends, Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard in May 1972, composing poetry almost until the end. He was buried in Stinsford, Dorset, not far from his literary hero, Thomas Hardy.

Jill Balcon was a successful actress and broadcaster in her own right, becoming for many people the voice of George Eliot. After her husband’s death, Jill continued to act in both radio and film productions. She moved to a cottage in Steep, Petersfield and became the neighbour of Alec Guiness. She worked hard to promote Day-Lewis’s poetic legacy, editing both Posthumous Poems and The Complete Poems. She died in July 2009 and was buried near her husband in Stinsford.

The collection includes literary manuscripts, including early drafts, of Day-Lewis’s poetry and prose. The collection also contains photographs and audio recordings, alongside a wealth of professional and personal correspondence demonstrating their wide connections to the worlds of literature, drama and scholarship.

-Rachael Marsay

*Please note that this collection is not currently accessible as, following guidance from the UK Government and Public Health England, the Bodleian Libraries are now closed until further notice. Please do check the Bodleian Libraries website and Bodleian Twitter for the latest information.

“My longing to burst into print grew into an uncontrollable mania”—Handmade editions of poetry by Frederic Prokosch (MS. Eng. poet. f. 33)

Working in archives, there is one thing which I find really special, and actually quite magical: even with a catalogue description, I am never entirely prepared for what is waiting inside the box. MS. Eng. poet. f. 33 is a perfect example of this. The Summary Catalogue entry for this item reads:

Twelve booklets containing copies of works by 20th cent. poets, written, and decorated in colour, by Frederic Prokosch, ‘New Haven 1932’, probably made 1968-70; a colophon in each states that it is one of five numbered copies.

I was intrigued by the date uncertainty, and by the fact that these would be handmade editions so I was curious to check out the contents. Inside a small dark blue box lay indeed twelve booklets, most of them with colourful marbled covers, along with an enclosed letter.

December 2.

Dear Sir,

I am sending you, as a gift, a group of 12 little handmade pamphlets of poetry which I did long ago. (They look rather Art Nouveau to me now!) 
I hope they will amuse you.

Cordially,

Frederic Prokosch

There are six poets featured in the series—W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and W. B. Yeats, along with Prokosch himself—and two booklets per poet. Quite interestingly, the two that do not have marbled covers are works by Prokosch; an attempt, perhaps, to differentiate himself from his fellow writers? Apart from the difference in the covers, all booklets are built in the same way: around five leaves, with a unique illustration at the beginning, always containing gold elements, and the poem(s) in the middle of the booklet with an illumination for the first letter.


The Gull by Prokosch (MS. Eng. poet. f. 33/10, fols. 1v-2)


Two Poems by Yeats (MS. Eng. poet. f. 33/11, fols.2v-3)

Frederic Prokosch was born in Wisconsin, in the United States, in 1908. He studied literature before becoming a writer himself, publishing his first novel in 1935 (The Asiatics), and his first collection of poems in 1936 (The Assassins). His memoir, Voices (1983), although proven to be mostly a fictional work, depicts Prokosch’s passion for the arts of the written word. In Voices, the reader is treated to a collection of anecdotes, including a tale of his newly discovered passion for poetry and printing: “I turned to poetry . . . My poems grew twisted, exotic, impenetrable. I wrote of mountains and deserts, of icebergs and caravans. My longing to burst into print grew into an uncontrollable mania.”[1] Although not printed editions, the booklets that form MS. Eng. poet. f. 33 probably were a product of this desire. Through the memoir, the reader also follows Prokosch as he encounters a great number of famous artists, many of them writers, including Auden, Eliot, Joyce, and Pound. Although there is no indication of any meetings with Yeats, the Irish poet is frequently mentioned throughout Voices. As questionable as those stories might be, they are nonetheless a testimony of Frederic Prokosch’s respect and admiration for his fellow writers.

Voices is not the only thing about Prokosch that raises suspicion regarding its accuracy. Robert Greenfield, who extensively studied the American writer in Dreamer’s Journey: The Life and Writings of Frederic Prokosch (2010), pointed out:

As a consequence of this medley of twists and turns, apocryphal claims, misstatements, distortions, and falsifications encompassing more than a century, even the simplest facts of his life, such as the date of his birth, are still subject to dispute.[2]

It seems MS. Eng. poet. f. 33 is no exception to this, falling in the very shroud of mystery described by Greenfield. It is quite unclear when Prokosch actually produced the booklets; although he claims they were made in New Haven in 1932, the New Summary Catalogue entry suggests otherwise: “‘New Haven 1932’, probably made 1968-70”. And they might even have been made slightly later than that. Indeed, upon close examination, some of the papers chosen by Prokosch bear (very faint but still visible) watermarks revealing the brand of the material—Arches and Ingres, both French brands. Quite interesting when one knows Prokosch spent the last decades of his life in the South of France. This would also be a perfect match to the biography written by Greenfield:

In 1972, Frederic abruptly ceased his travels and retired to ‘Ma Trouvaille’, a cottage in Grasse, in the south of France, where he played bridge, made some half-hearted efforts to cultivate a garden, revived his interest in printing private limited editions of his favourite poems and withdrew into invisibility.[3]

When I opened MS. Eng. poet. f. 33 I was, as always, quite unsure what would be sitting within the box. In this case, I found very beautifully made booklets of poetry, including some by one of my own favourite authors. But I also discovered Prokosch, a writer I had never encountered before working here, and more than that, I found myself in the middle of a date riddle. Pretty exciting for a small dark blue box.


[1] Prokosch, Frederic. Voices: A Memoir, New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1983, p. 45

[2] Greenfield, Robert. Dreamer’s Journey: The Life and Writings of Frederic Prokosch, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010, p. 21

[3] Ibid., p. 19

New catalogue – Oxford Women in Computing: An Oral History project

The catalogue of the Oxford Women in Computing oral history project is now available online.

This oral history project captures the experiences of 10 pioneering women who were active in computing research, teaching and service provision between the 1950s and 1990s, not only in Oxford, but at national and international levels. The rationale for the project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, through grants held by Professor Ursula Martin, was that women had participated in very early stages of computing; aside from a few exceptions their stories had not been captured – or indeed told. Among the interviewees are Eleanor Dodson, methods developer for Protein Crystallography and former research technician for Dorothy Hodgkin and Linda Hayes, former Head of User Services at the Oxford University Computing Service – now University of Oxford IT services. Leonor Barroca left Portugal in 1982 as a qualified electrical engineer to follow a boyfriend to Oxford – later that year she was one of three women on the university’s MSc in Computing course. Leonor also worked briefly as a COBOL (common business-oriented language) programmer for the Bodleian Libraries.

Themes throughout the interviews, which were conducted in 2018 by author and broadcaster Georgina Ferry, include:

  • career opportunities and early interests in computing
  • gender splits in computing
  • the origins and development of computing teaching and research in Oxford
  • development of the University of Oxford’s Computing Service and the commercial software house the Numerical Algorithms Group (NAG).

The Oxford Women in Computing oral histories serve as a source for insight into nearly half a century of women’s involvement in computing at Oxford and beyond.  The collection will particularly be of use to those interested in gender studies and the history of computing.

The interviews can be listened to online though University of Oxford podcasts here.

Communications programmer Esther White in the early days of the University of Oxford’s Computing Service. © University of Oxford