Papers of Henry Reed

Scope and Content

Typescript copy of Reed's 1979 play adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick . The collection also contains four more radio plays, broadcast between 1947 and 1959: his Greek play Pytheas ; two biographical plays charting the life of the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, with whom Reed heavily identified himself, The Unblest and The Monument ; and the seventh and last play in his Hilda Tablet series, Musique Discrte . There is also some fragmented material in various stages of drafting relating to the play Dimitry which Reed worked on over a number of years but which was neither completed nor published. In addition to this there are some manuscripts, typescripts and Listener cuttings of translations "from the Italian"; including a typescript of one of Reed's most well known translations, The Advertisement , from Natalia Ginzburg's L'insorzione .

There are several notebooks in the collection, containing working notes on, amongst others, the proposed script for the radio play Mycenae , and the television play on Richard Strauss which Reed was working on with Ken Russell in 1969 and which was Reed's only foray into the medium of television.

However, the main bulk of the collection consists of Reed's poetry and personal letters. The poetry is largely in manuscript or typescript form with emendations in Reed's hand. There are also cuttings of various poems, mainly taken from The Listener ; and some amended galley proofs, including those for the Clover Hill, 5th edition of The Complete Lessons of the War , printed in 1970. Some of the poetry contained in the Birmingham collection was published for the first time in Professor Jon Stallworthy's Henry Reed: Collected Poems (Oxford University Press, 1991); some appears never to have been published: for example, The Candidate or The Summer Exam , Liberal Rhymes for Liberal Times and Voyage Autour de ma Chambre .

The 137 letters and postcards held at Birmingham are mostly from Reed to his family (mother, father, sister Gladys and niece Jane), and to Michael Ramsbotham. They have survived because they were retained by the recipients. Unfortunately, Reed did not keep the correspondence he received; although, interestingly, the collection does contain a photocopy of a letter written to Reed by E. M. Forster and praising Reed's poem The Return which was broadcast on BBC radio on Christmas Eve 1944. To have kept the letter Reed must have highly valued Forster's praise. The letters are an invaluable source of information for anyone researching Reed and have in fact been used recently as part of a Masters dissertation on critical editing. Some of the letters are extremely witty; some are full of despair. Together they demonstrate the duality of Reed's nature.

Administrative / Biographical History

Henry Reed was both in 1914 in Erdington on the northern edge of Birmingham and attended University of Birmingham in the 1930s, graduating with first class honours before being awarded his Master of Arts for a much acclaimed thesis on Thomas Hardy.

Reed began his working life as a freelance journalist and had only just taken up a teaching post at King Edward VI Grammar School, Aston when the Second World War intervened. He was then conscripted into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps where he was rather incongruously given the role of drill instructor. Ill health, and perhaps the Army's realisation that Reed's linguistic abilities could be better utilised, secured his transfer to Naval Intelligence in the Code and Cypher School at Bletchley, where he was to spend the rest of the war.

Reed's writing talents had lain particularly in the composition of poetry and this he continued to pursue throughout his military service. As the war entered its final stages in 1944 Reed's poetry was brought to the attention of the Drama and Features Department of the British Broadcasting Corporation. This was at a time when the BBC were looking to restructure their radio service in preparation for peacetime audiences, and were intent on searching out new writers to enhance their more intellectual programmes.

From then onwards, Reed became a major contributor to BBC radio: as poet, critic, playwright, and translator/adaptor. His last play for the BBC in 1979 was a reworking of the first one he had written for them in 1944: an adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick .

Reference: Linda J Curry, The University of Birmingham: Research Libraries Bulletin ( Number 6, Autumn 1998 ).

Access Information

Access restrictions apply to the letters from Henry Reed to Michael Ramsbotham which remain closed until after Mr Ramsbotham's death.

Acquisition Information

This collection was purchased from two separate sources.

Other Finding Aids

Please see online catalogue for further details.

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to make any published use of any material from the collection must be sought in advance in writing from the University Archivist, Special Collections. Identification of copyright holders of unpublished material is often difficult. Special Collections will assist where possible with identifying copyright owners, but responsibility for ensuring copyright clearance rests with the user of the material.


Further deposits are not expected.

Related Material

University of Birmingham Information Services, Special Collections Department also holds the archives of the University of Birmingham and archives of other former staff, officials and students. Other research libraries including Kings College, Cambridge, John Rylands Manchester, and Reading University hold some material relating to Reed, and another significant collection is located in the BBC Written Archive Centre, comprising business correspondence relating to his work for BBC radio, scripts for broadcast, and recordings of plays.