Papers of Edward Thompson

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The collection contains notes by Muriel St Clare Byrne for an unpublished edition of Kate Terry Gielgud's A Victorian Playgoer; correspondence between Edward Thompson as editor of Heinemann Educational Books and various authors including letters from Robert Bolt (68 letters), John Gielgud (28 letters), Tyrone Guthrie (1 letter), James Reeves (56 letters) and Elmer Rice (10 letters); correspondence relating to Theatre Arts Books acting as U.S. distributors of Heinemann Drama Library Series; copy of First Meetings and After, or the pleasures of publishing, an autobiography by Edward Thompson.

Administrative / Biographical History

Edward Thompson was born in 1917 in Surrey, the youngest of five children of a builder. At the age of 12 he was taken for the first time to see a play, Romeo and Juliet at Stratford, by his mother who also gave him a copy of Shakespeare's works. This began his life-long passion for the theatre.

Educated at Sutton Grammar School Edward did not shine academically, as the only subject he was interested in was English. He left at 17 and became a clerk, working unhappily for a short time as a rent collector for a London estate agents, before joining his father's firm in Birchington, Kent to keep the books. After two years Edward became restless and found another job in London as a clerk for a firm of car and motorcycle dealers. The move gave him more opportunities to expand his social life and continue his theatre-going.

On the outbreak of war Edward registered as a Conscientious Objector. His pacifism dated back at least to his schooldays when he had refused to join the Army Cadet Corps. His employers were sympathetic but things became difficult when they applied for army contracts and after his Tribunal in 1940 Edward decided to leave and work on the land. He became a pupil on a farm in Shropshire for a year and then joined the Land Army. At the same time he took the opportunity to read a great deal and to join WEA classes to extend his education. He was greatly influenced by his teachers, particularly Elsie Green, who taught drama and in 1943 started the Epsom Drama Group for which Edward acted several leading roles.

Unfortunately at this point Edward became ill with chronic back pain, eventually diagnosed as Ankylosing Spondylitis. After two years he was somewhat improved and began to consider what he wanted to do after the war. He decided to try to become a professional actor and had successfully auditioned for Basil Dean's company when his back trouble returned and he remained bedridden for six months. Although the professional stage was no longer a possibility Edward knew that he wanted to work in the field of literature and grasped an opportunity which arose to work for the publishers Heinemann.

Joining the firm in London in 1945, in 1946 Edward was asked to become assistant to Alan Hill, the director of Heinemann Educational Books, and was given the job of creating its drama list. Amongst the first authors that he secured were John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, and Michel Saint-Denis. Edward later discovered Robert Bolt after seeing a performance of his Flowering Cherry, and arranged for its immediate publication. Although Edward's ill-health continued the firm accommodated him, moving the headquarters of Heinemann Educational Books out of London to Kingswood in Surrey, and he repaid them with his taste and enthusiasm for his authors, many of whom became personal friends, and for new writing.

In the early 1970s Edward moved to Hove, partly because of the annual Brighton Festival with which he was closely associated. His attractive and spacious flat, filled with thousands of books, sculptures and pictures, became a haven for anyone interested in writing or the theatre. He joined the Brighton Campaign for Homosexual Equality, and later the Gay Community Organisation, becoming a focus for Brighton's gay culture.

In 1982 Edward retired from Heinemann and in his retirement continued to be a generous host and patron of the arts. He died in 2001 at the age of 84.

Conditions Governing Access

Open to all researchers. No reader's ticket is required but an appointment is necessary. Check www.reading.ac.uk/special-collections/using/sc-using.asp for contact details and opening hours.

Acquisition Information

Gift of Edward Thompson

Note

This description was written by Gil Skidmore with reference to First Meetings and After, Edward Thompson's autobiography.

Other Finding Aids

An item level list of the collection is available

Related Material

Edward Thompson gave an interview to the National Life Story Collection project about his life as a publisher, a summary of which can be found at http://cadensa.bl.uk/cgi-bin/webcat