The secret life of Henry Reed

Mark Eccleston, Archivist at the Cadbury Reserach Library

Mark Eccleston, Archivist at the Cadbury Research Library

Henry Reed, as a literary figure, is well known to audiences as the author of the Second World War poem ‘Naming of Parts’. His personal papers, held at the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, demonstrate that he also wrote well-received radio plays, was a talented linguist and excellent translator.

Henry was born in Erdington on 22 February 1914. He was awarded a scholarship to the University of Birmingham and became one of the so called ‘Birmingham Group’: a circle of writers and artists including W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice and Walter Allen.

Henry’s public persona was debonair, even aristocratic: the archetypal literary man about town. A talented actor and director, Reed produced numerous plays including a number performed by the Birmingham University Dramatic Society (BUDS). He deliberately lost all trace of his Birmingham accent, developed a very quick wit and must have been a most engaging companion.

Henry Reed

Henry Reed

Yet behind these successes, his private life was somewhat more troubled.  Personal correspondence held at the Cadbury Research Library sheds light on how Henry coped with his homosexuality. These letters, mostly written during the 1940s, were sent to Henry’s younger lover, Michael Ramsbotham. Michael retained the letters, gifting them to the University and thereby making them available for research for the first time.

The letters paint a picture of the couple’s somewhat turbulent relationship. The couple met at Bletchley and were romantically involved through much of the 1940s. They parted and reunited on numerous occasions. In one letter, dated July 1944, Henry wrote to Michael: ‘I have loved you very much […] but the world without you is flat and insipid […] and such laughter as there is, causes a pang at the thought that it can’t any longer be re-laughed with you’.

The couple parted permanently during 1950. They only corresponded with each other occasionally after this date. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s Henry went into premature decline. The impulse to write had disappeared and in his last decade, drink and self-neglect undermined his always fragile health. Henry became increasingly incapacitated and was removed to hospital. Here he died on 8 December 1986, Michael returning to be at his side.

As a public figure Henry was unafraid of including homosexual references and explicit comments in his literary work. His ‘Hilda Tablet’ radio plays, first broadcast during the 1950s, contained numerous gay references and suggestions. Even his most famous creation, ‘Naming of Parts’, is as much about masturbation as anything else.

Yet perhaps this public openness concealed, in part, the hidden angst we see in his letters to Ramsbotham? Maybe his sexual confidence was all a front and his close friend and contemporary, Walter Allen, was referring to the ‘real’ Henry when he writes, in a manuscript held at the Cadbury Research Library, that Henry’s ‘tragedy was that he could never come to terms with his homosexuality’.

The papers of Henry Reed are catalogued online with full description of their content (Finding Number: MS31)

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“Tell us how it was then”

Laura Beers

Laura Beers

When a producer for the BBC Radio 4 program “The Long View” invited me to commentate on women, political advertising and the 1929 general election, I assumed that she would want me to phone in from my local BBC station, or perhaps, if the Beeb was feeling extravagant, to record the program in a London sound studio with the host, the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, and the various other expert commenters.  So, I was thrown for a loop when the she told me that we would likely record at three locations, starting with the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, where the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin gave his famous speech to the party faithful kicking off the 1929 campaign. I gamely agreed, but couldn’t resist a few jokes to my husband that evening about the uses to which the BBC was putting our license fee.

Yet, when we assembled at the massive Drury Lane theatre on the appointed morning, even amidst the paraphernalia for the current production of Willy Wonka, I began to feel the power of the place.  The gates of the chocolate factory notwithstanding, the theatre had changed little from when Baldwin, surrounded by members of his cabinet, took the stage to tell a carefully assembled demographically representative sample of the Tory faithful what his government had achieved over the previous four and half years and what they would do if their mandate was renewed.  It was an event planned as spectacle, and, standing in theatre’s royal box, it was easy to appreciate how spectacular it must have been.  From Covent Garden, we went across town to the Victoria & Albert, to look at a selection of 1929 campaign posters from the V&A’s collection.  I had seen reproductions of the posters before, but standing in front of the originals, they appeared bolder and more vivid.  Whether we managed to convey the atmosphere of the theatre or the visual thrill of the original posters over the medium of radio remains to be heard.  But, by the time recording wrapped up that afternoon, I had come to appreciate the premium the program put on recording “on location”.

1929 was the first general election to feature multiple party election broadcasts from each of the three main political parties.  The listeners couldn’t see their interlocutors, but that did not stop Stanley Baldwin broadcasting in his signature lounge suit, or the flamboyant Winston Churchill, in contrast, recording in a tuxedo, or Megan Lloyd George addressing the microphone in a fur-trimmed coat of the latest style, an archetype of the modern young “flappers” whose votes her party hoped to win.  Their attire helped to create an atmosphere, and somehow, they hoped, that atmosphere would make itself felt across the airwaves.

“The Long View: The 1929 General Election and the Art of Political Persuasion” will air on Radio 4 on Tuesday 24th at 9:00am, and will be available online.

Poster Campaigning: Sex and sexualities in the modern British world, 1880-1980

QcRpgJBB_reasonably_smallStudents from Matt Houlbrook’s, Sex and Sexualities in the Modern British World, 1880-1980 class have had a go at creating posters on women’s rights, feminism, and campaigning about women’s bodies from 1880-1975. We thought we would share these on the Blog despite the ahistoric use of felt tipped pens.


 1890 – Fight the Double Standard in Hyde Park!

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1925 – Autonomy of our bodies!

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1950 – The Labour Party and Abortion

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1975 – The State does not define you!

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“How are we meant to educate ourselves?” What Libraries did for us

Izzy Mohammed

Izzy Mohammed

Saturday 7 February was National Libraries Day. This celebration of libraries contrasted with the protest against the proposed reduction of services at the Library of Birmingham.  It is a good time to think about the value of libraries. As our colleague Chris Callow pointed out  – the history of Birmingham is for everyone. The MBS blog has already reflected upon the important cultural work done at the Library of Birmingham. Here, Izzy Mohammed offers a biographical account of what libraries meant growing up in Birmingham. Images of Aston Library come courtesy of its former manager Inge Thornton.


In 1973, a Bangladeshi boy was born at 107 Frederick Road, in Aston, Birmingham (the house is no longer there). He would come to be the eldest of seven brothers.

In 1975, his family moved to Newtown.

In 1978, he started at Lozells Primary School. He arrived, not having attended nursery nor having received any other kind of schooling. He started school knowing only two English words; ‘Car’ – and ‘Toilet’.

He remembers how at the age of six, he was laughed at by his classmates. They had been allowed to progress onto the next reading and writing level, but he was held back until he could show he’d genuinely progressed. His memories of that moment are still fresh. He remembers the embarrassment. He remembers feeling upset. He also remembers thinking that he needed to do something. He just wasn’t sure what.

Remnants of a Portrait of a Bangladeshi family

A Family Portrait

At the age of seven, his class was taken on its first visit to their nearest local library, which happened to be Aston Library.

Aston Library

He recalls this as if it were an awakening. He had never seen anything like it. He remembers the towering shelves. He remembers the smell of the books. He remembers having to be orderly even though he wanted to be let loose.

He and his classmates were read a story. He listened intently, mouth open wide. His imagination firing.

The librarian then told the students they could each take out a book. On subsequent visits, they were told they would be allowed to borrow four at a time. And that they could change them all every time their class visited the library.

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Not long later, he remembers feeling this wasn’t enough. But giving them a hope, he and a friend were told by a librarian they didn’t have to come with school. If they brought their library cards, they could come in their own time. He remembers feeling that for once he could take charge of his own life. His own destiny. That he could use his own initiative because ‘grownup’ said he could.

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Aged eight or nine, he and his friend made a pact. It wasn’t long before they were visiting the library together on Saturdays, in between their school visits, even though this meant walking over half-a-mile, across several busy roads. You couldn’t do that now.

Soon their teacher started asking why they had different books on their library visits with school. He doesn’t remember his answer – only that the teacher didn’t seem pleased. May be they were worried because they knew the journey to the library was dangerous for an eight year old. He never asked.

He remembers that while his friend would pick story books, he found himself interested in books about the First World War, the Second World War, Greek Mythology, Roman Civilisation, ‘Under the Oceans’, Guinness books of World Records, and Astronomy and Cosmology.

By the age of nine, his teacher noted that in ‘reading’, he had somehow progressed ahead of everyone in his class. Every book he was given to read, he would read quickly and return to be tested (he would pass). At times this seemed to please his teacher; at times it seemed to bemuse him; at times it seemed the teacher was just plain worn out by this his prolific reading.

At the age of twelve, whilst attending Holte Comprehensive (his local secondary school), his school class was taken to visit the Central Library of Birmingham. This visit was timely. By this time, the young boy had developed an interest in Astronomy and Cosmology. The planets, space and spaceships fascinated him. At Aston Library, he’d read all the books on these topics; or at least the ones he could understand. He got stuck on the maths in the astrophysics books and decided that he needed to go somewhere else. Though he was continuing to use Aston Library, he could now scour the Central Library for the books that would build on his thirst for knowledge (he knew he was a geek and that he had bad hair – but he always argued, “…so did Albert Einstein and look at where he got”).

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Each visit was complicated by the fact that he and his friend never had the money for bus fare. He couldn’t remember how they used to get there. His friend had to remind him. Journeys to Central Library were on foot. If the weather was bad, the books were late.

He remembers leaving school in 1990. He was one of only three or four pupils at the time to leave with all their GCSE’s (he achieved eight A-C’s). But he knows his education – his real education; the one that got him his grades – happened at these two libraries. It was at these public sites of knowledge he educated himself.

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Fast forward to 1995: the now-young-man enrolled at the University of Keele to begin a BA Honours degree in Visual Arts and International Politics. He’d always questioned whether he belonged in such a place. But, regardless, he now found himself proudly beginning a new journey. He was grateful. Though he couldn’t afford it, he lived in country at a time when that didn’t matter.

Fast forward again, this time to 2001: The young man enrolled, full-time, on to the University of Leicester’s Masters in Museum Studies programme. He was grateful for the scholarship that made this possible.

In 2013 he enrolled onto a part-time PhD at the University of Birmingham.

He is proud to have gotten this far. He feels he is ‘Representing’. He sees the political dimension of his life and that of others. But struggles with how the world privileges some and complicates the lives of others. He struggles with how the obviousness of these issues aren’t sufficient to bring about social change.

He feels that when he thinks about his own journey he is not simply reflecting on his own education and betterment. He can see how is life is completely unexceptional in its roots and its nature. Just that in his case, the law of probability – and lot of luck – has seen him progress, even if the journey had been painful. He knows it was meant to be – for him. But he feels it is not right that so many others are limited by birth and by place.

He now ponders about what it takes to enable someone from an ‘ordinary’ background to realise their potential. He knows the popular narrative; “…you can make it if you really try”. He understands how this is a problematic oversimplification. He knows he would not be the person he is today if Aston Library had not been there for him. No matter how brazen, a nine year couldn’t make it two miles, across busy roads, to get to the next nearest library. He knows Aston Library was his first critical step to meeting the big wide world and involving himself in it.

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The decimation of Library services erodes the principles of meritocracy and democracy upon which the societies of developed nations are purportedly built. But the task of saving libraries should not be compartmentalised. This challenge needs to be seen as a part of a wider struggle to return to a society in which there is genuine equality of opportunity, social justice and plain fairness. People don’t just ‘make it’ through sheer determination. People are born into a world crossed with the tramlines of privilege and disadvantage.

Without local community libraries, how are swathes of people meant to educate themselves? Without community/public libraries, ordinary folk will have reduced opportunities for self-development. This will materially constrain many peoples’ life chances and prospects.

For the ordinary folk, no community library means no social mobility.

Peter Hayman, PIE and PREM 19/588: An Alternative Account

Chris Moores

Chris Moores

Dr Chris Moores writes about Peter Hayman, the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), the release of National Archives files PREM 19/588 and an alternative account of the prosecution of PIE members.


The discovery and release of Government papers detailing the investigation into the conduct of the diplomat Peter Hayman have generated substantial press coverage over the past week. The PREM 19/588 files released by the National Archives can be seen on the blog of Ian Pace and Spotlight on Abuse; both of which provide substantial resources on historical child-sex offence cases.

In many respects the official documents confirmed much of what we already knew about Hayman. A retired diplomat and former British High Commissioner in Canada, he was exposed in the pages of Private Eye in 1980, named by the Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens under Parliamentary privilege in 1981, and scrutinized in the press during the early 1980s. These accounts linked his activities with the now notorious paedophile advocacy group the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE).

It is interesting, but not entirely surprising, to learn that reports on Hayman crossed the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s desk and that a press ‘line’ was agreed. The documents are also demonstrative of long-standing Cold War anxieties about the subversive potential of sexual blackmail; a key concern of the authorities was the potential national security implications that Hayman’s activities might have created.

The documents address press concerns that there was an official attempt to protect Hayman. They say that he was not considered immune from prosecution and that there was no evidence linking him to specific crimes.  Accordingly, Hayman was not central to PIE’s operations and there was no evidence to link him with the charge of ‘conspiracy to corrupt public morals’ which was directed against other PIE members.

Such official observations contrast with other contemporary observations of the trials of PIE leaders. The accounts of the PIE trials written by members of the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) Gay Rights Sub-Committee interpret the conduct of the prosecutors differently. It is now fairly well-known that PIE had links to the NCCL’s Gay Rights Sub-Committee in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Two PIE members briefly and occasionally served on that Sub-Committee.

As with many organizations from the ‘gay left’, this body was concerned about the potential implications that the PIE trials might have on the future policing of ‘non-normative’ sexual behaviour including homosexuality. Many civil libertarians were also very anxious about the vagueness of conspiracy charges. Subsequently, the NCCL Gay Rights Sub-Committee monitored the PIE trial very carefully.

Moreover, it was close to the defence team involved in the PIE trials. Peter Thornton, a member of the NCCL’s executive, served as a barrister in PIE cases and its Gay Rights Officer, Barry Prothero, attended the committal proceedings to decide what evidence might be used against PIE. After the collapse of the first PIE trial in November 1980 Prothero wrote to gay rights campaigners in Canada noting on the case that ‘the DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions] seems to be negotiating to drop the conspiracy charges’ because ‘there is another man who may have been charged and who was not because of his connections and blowing the cover-up is likely to be worse for the DPP than proceeding with the prosecutions’.

Prothero observed that ‘although assisting in a “cover-up” may be distasteful, not only the defendants but the entire gay movement in this country would be delighted if this one succeeded in order to keep the case out of court’.[1]

A second letter, written in February 1981, was even more specific. Prothero wrote that the first PIE trial used a ‘tiny fraction of the evidence presented at the committal proceedings’ and called only four of the thirteen witnesses present at the earlier hearing. ‘Of the hundred odd boxes of material that were used at the committal, only five magazines and a handful of letters were used at the trials’.

Accordingly Prothero observed that ‘it is clear that most of the evidence that was not used was dropped because Hayman, the erstwhile HC to Canada, was the central figure in its production. The defence barristers tell me that he began the “round Robin”, as the letter writing circle is called, which generated most of the material upon which the committal was based’.[2]

Such reports may be dismissed as the ill-informed writings of an over-worked pressure group officer holding a position on a Sub-Committee which had already demonstrated an ill-judged sympathy towards PIE members and which was also involved in campaigning against the use of conspiracy charges on civil liberties issues.

While the NCCL Gay Rights Sub-Committee’s interest in PIE was hugely problematic, it did mean that its gay rights workers were well-informed on the civil liberties issues raised by PIE. Questions must still be asked about how to reconcile these competing explanations and whether further evidence might found to explain the DPP’s decisions on Hayman and PIE.

The contents of these documents show some of the difficulties in searching for documents about historic sex offences. We need to be aware that paper archives are always limited and partial. There are constraints on the past that they capture, and the processes which permitted their assembly and compilation frame what has been included, excluded and catalogued as part of the historical record.

Certainly much will be revealed, if files exist, can be found, and are opened. However, it seems that such official documents are unlikely to contain smoking guns outlining “cover-ups”. Now that we have an official inquiry into historic child sex offences, it is not just important that official reports and documents are properly investigated and loose-ends chased up, but that these are combined with evidence produced outside of the apparatus of the state and, most importantly, that the testimonies of survivor groups are properly evaluated.

Consideration of the abused is, of course, completely absent from the pages of PREM 19/588. If the National Archives documents fail to show the ‘establishment’ cover-up that journalists and campaigners are eager to find – a “cover up” which certain members of the NCCL felt took place – they are nonetheless demonstrative of an official attitude favouring protection over investigation, seeking to shut-down avenues of inquiry rather than open them up.

[1] Barry Prothero to The Body Politic Collective, 19 November 1980, Liberty Archives, Hull History Centre, UDCL/688/11. [2] Barry Prothero to Gerald Hannon, 10 February 1981, Liberty Archives, Hull History Centre, UDCL/688/11.