Archive of Ronald Duncan

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The archive is the largest collection of Duncan documentation in existence and provides a sources of research for post nineteen-thirties literary culture, the cultural heritage of the south west, including Duncan's farming experiments, the establishment of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre, composition of opera, modernist poetry, artistic connections, literary criticism and literary/artistic relationships. It consists of personal papers including photographs and diaries, manuscripts, librettos, letters and artworks.

Administrative / Biographical History

Ronald Duncan (1914-1982) was born of Austro-German parents in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe) in 1914. When World War One broke out Ronald came to South London with his mother and sister. His father was due to follow, but died of an illness before he could join them. As a boy Duncan holidayed in Welcombe, North Devon and aged 18 rented a cottage there with the hope of settling one day. In 1933 he went up to Cambridge University to read English with F.R. Leavis at Downing College. After graduating Ronald worked briefly in a mine near Chesterfield and became sympathetic with the strikers' cause and the politics of peaceful protest. This led to him writing a pamphlet for the Peace Pledge Union in 1936 and he met Benjamin Britten through the pacifist leader Dick Sheppard. Such connections prompted an invitation to visit the Mahatma Gandhi in India in 1937. On his way back the young traveller called in on Ezra Pound in Italy. The exiled poet became a long time friend as did the British-Hispanist Gerald Brenan who Duncan also met at this time. During the Second World War Duncan ran a community farm near Bideford in North Devon. His wife Rose Marie was an artist and their son and daughter were born during the war years. His main home was based at West Mill from 1937 and during that time visitors included Britten, Peter Pears, the singer Kathleen Ferrier, Lord Harewood as well as glamorous actresses of their day, Virginia Maskell and Anna Proclemer.

Duncan farmed, rode, fished, wrote and welcomed friends from both near and far to Welcombe including Henry Williamson, a close neighbour who had himself farmed in Norfolk and who was a regular visitor in the 1940s (EUL MS 44). Duncan died on 3 June 1982 at the age of 68.

Ronald Duncan is perhaps now best known for preparing the libretto for Benjamin Britten's opera The Rape of Lucretia, first performed in 1946 but he had an extremely productive literary career encompassing fiction, poetry, film scripts, plays, journalism and autobiography. He wrote the film script for the filrm Girl on a Motorcycle (Jack Cardiff 1968) and his own plays include This Way to the tomb (1946) and Ableard and Heloise (1961). He also published an epic poem Man (five books, published as Man: The Complete Cantos, 1970). Three controversial autobiographies, All Men are Islands (1964), How to Make Enemies (1968) and Obsessed (1977) described his relationships with contemporaries in literature and theatre and his personal life.


Currently arranged in a sequence of file numbers.

Conditions Governing Access

Usual EUL conditions apply

Other Finding Aids

A printed catalogue is available in the reading room and this will be transferred to electronic format shortly

Archivist's Note

Description compiled by Christine Faunch, Head of Heritage Collections, from material created by the Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation, Sept 2012.

Conditions Governing Use

Copying is not permitted without prior permission

Custodial History

This archive was formerly housed at University of Plymouth until 2010 when it was transferred to University of Exeter.



Location of Originals

Further Duncan materials are available at the Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas, Austin.