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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