Papers of John Gawsworth

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The collection consists of poetry, articles, and notes by John Gawsworth together with a large quantity of correspondence (mainly transcribed), family, personal and business papers, drawings by John Gawsworth and photographs of Gawsworth, his family and friends.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Gawsworth was born Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong in London in 1912, the younger of the two sons of Frederick Armstrong, a colonial broker, and his wife Ethel Jackson. Gawsworth was proud both of his father’s Scottish descent and of his mother’s ancestor Mary Fytton, supposedly Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, from whose home, Gawsworth in Cheshire, he derived his pen name.

While still at Linton House and Merchant Taylor’s schools in London Gawsworth earned the nickname of Book Boy for his obsessive collecting of books and literary memorabilia. Leaving school at 16 he found employment in a central London bookshop, his poetry gained early recognition and he became an established part of the capital’s literary scene. In 1933 he married Barbara Kentish (who divorced him in 1948) and in 1938 he became the youngest Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Benson medallist. In many ways this was the height of his career.

Throughout his life Gawsworth cultivated the friendship and championed the causes of many writers who he felt were unjustly neglected. Among these writers were the novelists George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne), Arthur Machen, Edgar Jepson and M P Shiel and poets Betram Warr and JohnMetcalfe (both Canadian) and Anna Wickham. From Shiel Gawsworth inherited the throne of the kingdom of Redonda, an uninhabited island near Montserrat, styling himself King Juan I.

Gawsworth joined the RAF in 1941 and served on the Algerian, Tunisian, Sicilian and Italian campaigns. He also spent some time in Cairo where his eccentric literary persona fitted in with the atmosphere of that time and place. He ended the war in India and returned to England in 1946.

After the war Gawsworth found it hard to fit into the changed literary scene. He was married for a second time, to Estelle Hayward, in 1948 and his Collected Poems were published in 1949 but he could not fulfil his early promise and began a prolonged descent into alcoholism which tested his relationships to breaking point. He was an able editor of the Poetry Review from 1949-1952 but his erratic behaviour led to his dismissal and he never held another job. In his later years he lived off the sale of his enormous collection of literary manuscripts (which he routinely transcribed) and books, as well as grants of Redondan titles.

In 1955 Gawsworth was married for a third time to Anna Downie, but this relationshipfollowed the pattern of others, blighted by alcohol and Gawsworth’s unfaithfulness. By the late 1960s Gawsworth was destitute and homeless. A fund for his benefit was set up and his long-suffering though faithful friend Ian Fletcher agreed to administer it. Although his health was failing Gawsworth demanded money from the fund and flew to Italy to try and recapture remembered happiness but he collapsed, was flown home and died in Hospital in London in 1970 at the age of 58.

Arrangement

Summary of collection:

  • 3547/1 Literary works by JG
  • 3547/2 Literary correspondence [mainly transcripts by JG]  
    • 3547/2/1 Correspondence and works of individuals
    • 3547/2/1/1 Douglas, Lord Alfred
    • 3547/2/1/2 Dunne, Mary Chavelita [pseud George Egerton]
    • 3547/2/1/3 Ellis, Havelock
    • 3547/2/1/4 Jepson, Edgar
    • 3547/2/1/5 Machen, Arthur
    • 3547/2/1/6 Metcalfe, John
    • 3547/2/1/7 Meyerstein, EHW
    • 3547/2/1/8 Shiel, M.P [Boxes
    • 3547/2/1/9 Warr, Bertram James
    • 3547/2/1/10 Wickham, Anna
  • 3547/2/2 Collected transcribed correspondence
  • 3547/3 Personal and family correspondence and papers  
    • 3547/3/1 Correspondence between JG and family
    • 3547/3/2 JG personal correspondence
    • 3547/3/3 Correspondence from others relating to JG  
      • 3547/3/3/1 Letters about 50th birthday tribute to JG
      • 3547/3/3/2 Correspondence about Gawsworth Fund, JG's decline and death
    • 3547/3/4 Personal and business papers
    • 3547/3/5 Diaries and journals
    • 3547/3/6 Photographs and drawings
    • 3547/3/7 Newscuttings etc

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 Ian Fletcher

Other Finding Aids

An item-level list is available

Archivist's Note

This description was created by Gil Skidmore