Papers of Bernard Spencer

Scope and Content

The collection consists of manuscript and typescript poems; letters from Bernard Spencer to Ian Fletcher and others; photographs and material relating to an exhibition held in Reading University Library in 1982

Administrative / Biographical History

Bernard Spencer was born in 1909 in Madras where his father, Sir Charles Gordon Spencer, was a High Court Judge. Bernard's health was delicate so at the age of 18 months he was sent back to England to join his older sister and brother. They were brought up by a variety of clergy relatives and guardians in Southampton, Oxfordshire and Gosport. In 1923 Bernard followed his brother to Marlborough and managed to pursue his interest in poetry and drawing in the company of John Betjeman and Louis MacNeice among others. Later the three of them were at Oxford together where Bernard also became friends with Stephen Spender, Arthur Calder-Marshall and Isaiah Berlin. Tall, handsome and charming, Bernard was involved in the Oxford literary scene, contributing poems to several magazines edited by his contemporaries, but he was reticent about claiming an identity as a poet.

Leaving Oxford in 1932 with a second-class degree in Greats, Bernard Spencer moved to London and made a precarious living in a variety of jobs as a schoolmaster, an advertising copy-writer, a film script-writer and a biographer. He continued to write poetry, although his output was never large and from 1935-1938 he contributed to and helped to edit New Verse. His father died in 1934 and his mother in 1936 and in the same year he married Nora Gibbs, a tall striking actress in provincial repertory. On the outbreak of the Second World War Bernard applied for a job with the British Council, for which he worked, mainly abroad, for the rest of his life, and in 1940 he and Norah set out for Salonika. Although, in the face of the German advance, Norah soon returned to London and Bernard was transferred to Egypt in early 1941, Greece made a great and lasting impression on him and on his writing.

Egypt in war-time was full of English exiles, both civilian and military, many of whom, such as Lawrence Durrell, Olivia Manning, and G.S. Fraser, were writers. Taking advantage of this Bernard Spencer began the magazine Personal Landscape as well as writing for the British Council's journal Citadel. Soldiers on leave also contributed to the literary scene, notably Keith Douglas, with whom Bernard Spencer had a particular rapport. In 1945 Nora came to Egypt for a short time before they both returned to London to wait for Bernard to be confirmed as a permanent employee of the British Council. For a year Bernard renewed contacts with his literary friends and worked sporadically for the BBC, although both he and Nora were dogged by ill-health. Late in 1946 Bernard was posted to Italy and his first volume of poems, Aegean Islands and other poems, was published. However Nora had tuberculosis, her condition worsened and in June 1947 she died in Rome. Bernard caught the disease himself and had to go to a clinic in Switzerland for a painful cure before returning to London at the end of 1948. He remained convalescent for almost a year and was then posted to Madrid in 1949.

Bernard remained in Spain for six years and then spent three years in Athens and Ankara before returning to Madrid for another four years. Although his elegance and urbanity made him popular and he was well regarded as a teacher, he had no ability as an administrator and little ambition. He was still writing poetry occasionally and his friends were always glad to see him on his brief visits to London, but he remained an outsider, an exile both physically and temperamentally. A few of his poems were published by John Lehmann and Alan Ross in London Magazine and a small book, The Twist in the plotting, was produced by Ian Fletcher of Reading University in 1960.

A new phase in Bernard Spencer's life began in September 1961 when he married Anne Marjoribanks, a Scottish girl almost 30 years his junior whom he had met three years before in Madrid. Happiness gave him the impetus he needed to produce more poems and get everything out. He agreed a publisher's contract for another book of poetry, With Luck Lasting, before his transfer to Vienna in autumn 1962 and in February 1963 his son Piers was born.

Unfortunately Bernard's happiness was short-lived. He became ill with symptoms of fatigue, memory loss and fever for which a definite cause could not be found. In September 1963 he was admitted to a clinic in Vienna from which he disappeared before he could be seen by a doctor. The following day his body was found beside a railway track outside the city. He had been struck by a train but the exact circumstances of his death have never been explained.

Bernard Spencer's death at the early age of 53 came as a shock to his many friends and in response to this Alan Ross published the Collected Poems in 1965. Another Collected Poems, including several previously unpublished manuscripts was edited and introduced by Roger Bowen in 1981.

Access Information

Open to all researchers. No reader's ticket is required but an appointment is necessary. Check for contact details and opening hours.

Acquisition Information

Gifts from Ian Fletcher; gift and loan from Mrs Anne Humphreys


This description was written by Gil Skidmore with reference to the preface to Bernard Spencer's Collected Poems by Roger Bowen, OUP, 1981

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