R C SHERRIFF (1896-1975), DRAMATIST AND NOVELIST: CORRESPONDENCE AND PAPERS

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The Correspondence section (2332/1/-) covers a diverse range of subjects, including personal letters dating from largely during and just after Sherriff's army service in the First World War. A significant amount of these letters are ones sent to his mother and father, and shed light on his experiences as a soldier. He would later refer to these letters when writing the play 'Journey's End'. There is also further correspondence which relates to his later literary career (2332/1/1/9 to 2332/1/1/31 and 2332/1/2/1 to 2332/1/8), stretching from the time of 'Journey's End' to the 1970s, when he wrote the children's book 'The Siege of Castle', his final published work. It covers all three strands of his career as a playwright for the stage, radio and television, as novelist and as film screenplay writer.

The Scripts section (2332/3/-) also spans all three areas of his literary career, and includes scripts for plays he wrote on a amateur basis prior to 'Journey's End', as well as screenplays dating from the 1930s when he worked in Hollywood, through the 1940s and 1950s when he was based back in England. Scripts for successful films such as 'The Invisible Man' (1933)', 'Goodbye, Mr Chips' (1939), 'The Dam Busters' (1955) and 'The Night My Number Came Up' (1955) can all be found in this section. There also various scripts for proposed films which were never made, such as 'Dark Angel', written for film producer Dino De Laurentiis in the 1950s.

There are also newspaper cuttings (2332/5/-) which relate to Sherriff's career, in particular 'Journey's End' (2332/5/1/-). A number of cuttings refer to screenplays and other projects which Sherriff was rumoured to working on, but which never materialised. The photographs and artwork section (2332/6/-) includes photographs concerning Sherriff's army service, British and overseas productions of 'Journey's End', and set designs by James Whale for 'Journey's End' and also Sherriff's 1930 play 'Badger's Green'.

Other papers relating to Sherriff's time as a soldier in the First World War can be found in the First World War Papers section (2332/7/-), including his ''Officer's Record of Services'' and service certificates.

There are also personal financial records, including royalty statements (2332/4/-) and papers relating to Sherriff's private interests such as archaeology and rowing (2332/8/-).

Administrative / Biographical History

Robert "Bob" Cedric Sherriff was born in Hampton Wick, Middlesex, on 6 June 1896, to insurance clerk Herbert "Pips" Hankin (1857-1940), and his wife Constance, née Winder. Herbert's family hailed from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, where his father had been the Governor of Aylesbury Prison. Herbert's grandfather and great grandfather also seem to have been governors of the same prison. Constance (1871-1965) was also born in Buckinghamshire, but by the time she and Herbert had begun courting her family home was in the Mortlake/Richmond area, then part of Surrey. Her father Charles Winder is described as a 'Baker' and later 'Managing Baker' in successive census records. The same records also indicate that Constance was in fact her middle name, her Christian name actually being Annie. However, her preference was to be called Constance, and she is usually referred to as Constance in surviving archive material.

Sherriff was educated at Kingston Grammar School, Surrey, where he was a member of the rowing, cricket and hockey teams, and took part in various school athletic events during his time there. He seems to have been more of a sporty than scholarly pupil, and won several sports prizes.

By the outbreak of the First World War Sherriff had left school and begun work as a clerk at the Sun Fire Office, the same company as his father. Although his employers preferred for Sherriff not to enlist, he joined up in November 1915 with the Artists Rifles. By January 1916 he had begun his training at Hare Hall Camp at Gidea Park, Romford, Essex. In September 1917 he obtained a commission with the East Surrey Regiment as a Second Lieutenant. Sherriff was sent to France, landing at Boulogne on 28 September 1916. He reached the 9th Battalion, the East Surrey Regiment, at Estrée-Cauchy on 1 October 1916, and served in France until he was wounded in action on 2 August 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres), and was sent back to England for treatment. During his active service Sherriff mentioned suffering bouts of neuralgia in letters to his parents, and he would later portray the character of Hibbert in 'Journey's End' as claiming to suffer from the same condition. He never returned to active service in France, and remained with the 3rd and 12th Battalions, the East Surrey Regiment, in Britain until he was demobilised in early 1919. Sherriff's 'Officer's Record of Service' shows that he retained the rank of Second Lieutenant throughout his active service in France. Later while on home service he was promoted firstly to Lieutenant on 5 March 1918, and then later to Captain on 8 January 1919.

In 1919 Sherriff unsuccessfully applied for a permanent commission in the army, and he returned to working for his pre-war employers. He devoted his free time to sport, creative writing and amateur dramatics. Prior to 'Journey's End' Sherriff wrote at least six plays on an amateur basis, often as a means to raise funds for local causes and organisations, including the Kingston Rowing Club. In 1921 came his first play, a farce called 'A Hitch in the Proceedings', which was first performed by The Adventurers at the Gables Theatre in Surbiton. His final staged play prior to 'Journey's End' was 'Mr Birdie's Finger', which was first performed in 1926 by The Genesta Amateur Dramatic Club at Surbiton Assembly Rooms. Sherriff also acted in several of these early plays, as did his sister Beryl Sherriff (1893-1966).

In 1928 came 'Journey's End', his first and most spectacular dramatic success, which was produced by the Incorporated Stage Society and performed for just two nights at the Apollo Theatre in London on 9 and 10 December 1928. The play was set in the trenches in March 1918, and was based on his own experiences and comrades at the Western Front. Previous war plays by other writers had not yet proved to be popular with audiences, and 'Journey's End' was viewed as a risky prospect by theatre managers. However, its first two performances were well received, and the play transferred to the Savoy Theatre in January 1929. It soon proved to be a critical and commercial success on an international basis, and was performed in places as varied as Estonia and Japan.

During the 1930s Sherriff went on to write several more plays which reached the West End, including 'St Helena' (1936), which he co-wrote with the actress Jeanne de Casalis. They met with varying degrees of success, but never equalled achieved by 'Journey's End', He also published the novels 'The Fortnight in September' (1931), which proved popular with readers, 'Greengates' (1936) and 'The Hopkins Manuscript' (1939), which saw Sherriff tackle the science fiction genre. For two years from October 1931 he held a special studentship at New College, Oxford, where he later (1937) founded a scholarship. Sherriff also began his career as a screenplay writer during this decade. In 1932 he signed a contract with Universal Pictures in Hollywood, and the rest of the decade saw him travelling back and forth to California from Surrey, while he wrote and co-wrote various film scripts, including 'The Invisible Man' (1933), 'One More River' (1934) and 'The Road Back' (1937). His biggest success came in 1939 when he was nominated along with Eric Maschwitz and Claudine West for an Academy Award for writing the adapted screenplay for 'Goodbye, Mr Chips'.

With the outbreak of the Second World War Sherriff attempted to return to Britain to help with the war effort, but various circumstances beyond his control meant he was not able to leave Hollywood for several years. During this time he wrote and co-wrote more screenplays for the studios, including 'That Hamilton Woman' (1941), 'This Above All' (1942) and the Academy Award winning 'Mrs Miniver' (1942), for which he was an uncredited writer. By the end of 1944 Sherriff had managed to secure a passage home, and on his return to Britain he resumed play writing, beginning with 'Miss Mabel' (1948). Four further plays of his were staged between 1950 and 1960. One of these plays was 'The White Carnation' (1953), which was revived in late 2013 at Finborough Theatre in London, and later transferred to Jermyn Street Theatre in early 2014. Sherriff's principal hobby, archaeology, is reflected in his play 'The Long Sunset' (1955), which is set in AD 410, and tells the story of the last of the Roman families left in Britain following the collapse of the Empire. He again channelled his interest in history when he wrote the children's novels 'King John's Treasure' (1954), and 'The Siege of Swayne Castle' (1973), which was his last published work. However, it was his work as a screenplay writer which yielded his most notable successes during the post-World War Two phase of his career. In 1956 Sherriff was nominated for BAFTA Best British Screenplay Awards for 'The Dam Busters' and also 'The Night My Number Came Up', both of which had been released in 1955.

Sherriff's memoir, 'No Leading Lady,' was published in 1968. He never married, and remained devoted to his mother, with whom he lived, latterly at his Esher house, "Rosebriars", which he had bought in March 1930. The pair lived together at "Rosebriars" until Constance died in 1965, after which Sherriff lived alone at the house. He died in Kingston Hospital on 13 September 1975, and was survived by his younger brother Cecil "Bundy" Sherriff (1899-1989), an insurance official. His sister Beryl had died in 1966, just one year after their mother.

Conditions Governing Access

There are no access restrictions.

Acquisition Information

Deposited by the Governors of Kingston Grammar School in March 1979. A second deposit was made by the School in April 2014.

Other Finding Aids

An item level list is available on the Surrey History Centre online catalogue

Archivist's Note

This detailed catalogue replaces a temporary box list which was originally the main finding aid for these papers. The catalogue was produced as part of a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund during 2014-2015 to publicise and improve access to the Sherriff papers.

Conditions Governing Use

Any requests to publish material in this collection should be directed to Surrey History Centre in the first instance, who will seek permission from the depositor on the searcher's behalf.

Custodial History

Sherriff bequeathed his papers to the Governors of Kingston Grammar School, while his royalties were divided between the School and the Scouts Association. He also bequeathed his home to Elmbridge Borough Council as an arts venue. It was later sold, and the capital realized on its sale established the RC Sherriff Trust (formerly the Rosebriars Trust), which supports the arts within Elmbridge Borough.

Related Material

For further correspondence and papers of R C Sherriff, deposited by Elmbridge Museum at Surrey History Centre, see 3813/-. Additional material can also be found at 9314/-, deposited by various donors during 2014-2015.

The Exploring Surrey's Past website has a guide to the Sherriff papers which includes lists of archive material relating to Sherriff held elsewhere in the United Kingdom and in Australia and the USA.

Sherriff’s library collection of books formed part of his personal library and have also been transferred to Surrey History Centre from Kingston Grammar School Library for safe keeping and to facilitate access for researchers. Further details of these and other titles can be found on the Surrey Libraries Catalogue. Amongst the highlights of this collection are first editions of Sherriff’s novels and plays. The international appeal of Sherriff’s writing is demonstrated by the many foreign language translations of his works. The collection includes over a dozen translations of Journey’s End into languages as diverse as Polish, Siamese, German, Croatian and Japanese.