Letters from John Heath-Stubbs to Peter McNair

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 133 PMN
  • Dates of Creation
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      8 items. 0.1 linear metres
  • Location
      Collection available at John Rylands Library, Deansgate.

Scope and Content

Letters from the poet John Heath-Stubbs to Peter McNair. The archive spans a two year period from 1938 to 1940. During the writing of this series of letters to Peter McNair, Heath-Stubbs migrated between four locations, the two most noteworthy being Worcester College for the Blind and Queen's College, Oxford. Their content focuses on the activities and thoughts of the writer. The letters refer to plays, ballets and dinners Heath-Stubbs has attended, his thoughts on friends and acquaintances and comments about international events.

The letters will be of significant interest to those researching this early, transitional period of Heath-Stubbs's life. They give clear indications to his movements and whereabouts. Furthermore, their conversational tone gives the researcher an idea of Heath-Stubbs' practice as a correspondent. Particular points of interest will be his comments on the early stages of the Second World War, and in relation to this, evidence of anti-Semitism in Bournemouth. As the war begins to have greater influence, he mentions bombings in New Milton. The letters are evidence of Heath-Stubbs's interest in music, theatre and dance. They refer to poetry he is writing, creative anxieties and bouts of mental depression. He also notes various literary, dramatic and debating committees he has joined, as well as publishing work in the Creswell.

Administrative / Biographical History

Peter McNair was the father of Kate Gavron, who is the Chair of Carcanet Press, Manchester. McNair’s relationship to John Heath-Stubbs was one of friendship and the letters reveal that they met at Bembridge College, a boarding school on the Isle of White.

The poet and critic, John Heath-Stubbs, was born in London during the final year of the First World War on 9 July 1918. He began his years of education, with deteriorating eye-sight, at Bembridge College boarding school on the Isle of White. From here he attended the specialist Worcester College for the Blind where he was able to learn Braille. In 1942 he graduated from Queen's College, Oxford with a First Class honours degree in English Language and Literature.

Oxford University was a hive of literary activity during this period. Notable English novelists and poets such as Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch studied there while developing their interests and styles. Although linked to this now recognised "generation", the writing of John Heath-Stubbs has remained on the outside of the canon, and until more recently overlooked by popular and academic readership. Following the publication of his Collected poems (1988) and The literary essays of John Heath-Stubbs (1998) a decade later, he has gained wider, deserved attention in the field of literature.

Heath-Stubbs was a highly learned and ever curious individual. From an early age he was fascinated and deeply influenced by former traditions of writing. His greatest literary achievement is testament to his learning. Artorius (1973) makes use of the myth of King Arthur, while taking the twelve signs of the zodiac as its structure. Consequently, as a result of his relentless personal and academic studies he had an astonishing memory for all he had learned and written. What emerges from the following set of letters, which he wrote at the tender age of twenty, and later in the poetry and criticism, is a dry and witty sense of humour, a great awareness of ongoing developments in twentieth century events and literature. On the flipside he could be comically scathing, perhaps resentful, of many of his contemporaries.

Throughout his life, John Heath-Stubbs held a number of different posts and received medals of recognition. He took up professorships in Alexandria between 1955 and 1958, and at Ann Arbor in Michigan from 1960–1961. Some years later he was a tutor at Merton College, Oxford from 1972–1992. In between he made some money working as a teacher and critic in various review papers. For the fruits of his labour he was awarded the Queen's Medal for poetry in 1973 and received the OBE in 1989.


The holograph letters have been arranged in chronological order where dates are given. Items with no date are placed at the end. Fortunately, one item with no date is on Queen's College headed letter paper and thus places the letter in some context. With the letters in this arrangement it also orders the collection geographically. Chronological order reflects the sending and receiving of the correspondence as well as mapping the activities of the sender.

Access Information

The archive is open to any accredited reader. The papers contain personal data about living individuals, and readers are expected to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998 in their use of the material. This finding aid also contains personal data about living individuals. Under Section 33 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), The John Rylands University Library (JRUL) holds the right to process such personal data for research purposes. The Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2000 enables the JRUL to process sensitive personal data for research purposes. In accordance with the DPA, the JRUL has made every attempt to ensure that all personal and sensitive personal data has been processed fairly, lawfully and accurately.

Acquisition Information

The letters were donated and received as a gift by the Robert Gavron Charitable Trust to the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester on 6 September 2007.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

All items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Keeper of Manuscripts and Archives, John Rylands University Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The letters were in the possession of recipient Peter McNair until bequeathed to his daughter Kate Gavron.

Related Material

The John Rylands University Library holds a number of other significant archived letters from John Heath-Stubbs to various recipients. The John Heath-Stubbs Collection includes photographs, letters and literary drafts. Information on John Heath-Stubbs is also available in the Archive of Carcanet Press. Five letters from Heath-Stubbs to Chris McCully are included in the Papers of C.B. McCully, and there is a further letter from Heath-Stubbs in the Adam Johnson Papers. Also held in the John Rylands Library are two letters and a postcard from Heath-Stubbs to the poet, Norman Nicholson in the papers of Norman Nicholson.

Other U.K institutions holding documents of John Heath-Stubbs include Eton College Library, Brotherton Library of Leeds University, Bodleian Library, Oxford, Cambridge University Library and the library at Reading University.

Archives can also be found in the United States at the University of Texas at Austin: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center Library, the State University of New York: Buffalo State College and Emory University Library: Special Collections and Archives.


Watson, Tom. Heath-Stubbs, John Francis Alexander, 1918-2006. Literature Online biography. http://lion.chadwyck.co.uk/ Date accessed: 06/12/2007

Meyer, Michael. Obituary of John Heath-Stubbs. Guardian, 29 Dec 2006. http://books.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,1979674,00.html Date accessed: 24/10/2007