The Writer that Rocked

 

In the swinging sixties the bedrooms of Britain vibrated to the sounds of Rock and Roll. Opposing the monopoly of the BBC, pirate radio stations were broadcasting popular music to the masses, with none more infamous than Radio Caroline.

News cutting of an article by Ronald Duncan

50 years ago today, indignant at this flagrant disregard for its laws, parliament passed the 1967 Marine and Broadcasting Offences Act. This Act banned not only the act of broadcasting, but the operation of broadcasting equipment, or the knowing collaboration or assistance with the broadcasting of Pirate Radio stations. This meant that for the first time writers supplying Radio Caroline with scripts would also be risking jail.

Ronald Duncan was one of a number of writers who openly campaigned against the act on the grounds of freedom of speech. Writing a number of newspaper columns on the subject and going so far as to openly claim that he had broadcast from Radio Caroline every day for a month in protest, despite attesting that he hated pop music.

Extract from a workbook showing a handwritten script for Radio Caroline

A handwritten script and recording held within the Ronald Duncan collection suggest that Duncan likely followed through with his claim to write for Pirate Radio, though as these were written under the generic pseudonym ‘Mr X’ it would take a great deal of research into the depths of Radio Caroline’s archives to see if he did indeed ever spend a week aboard the ship. Either way, his campaigning on behalf of the pirate stations’ freedom of speech earns him a small place in the
annals of radio history.

Listen to a short extract of a recording of Ronald Duncan’s script for Radio Caroline below.

Happy Birthday Ronald Duncan!

 

Ronald Duncan on his 50th birthday 6th August 1964

I can’t think of a better way to mark Ronald Duncan’s birthday than with one of his own poems.

They tell me it’s my birthday. How old am I?

Too innocent to be 10;

Too arrogant to be 20,

Too rich to be 30

Too poor to be 40.

Not ambitious enough to be 50;

Not wise enough to be 60

If 70, women would need me

and love me more; if 80, my family

would look more hopeful;

If 90, they would appear more frustrated

Nor can I be 100 for then I,

as all the world will know.

So, 15 must be the age of me

If age is measured by maturity.

 

Ronald Duncan, 1970

 

Ronald and Briony Duncan celebrating Ronald’s birthday in August 1969

Exploring daily life in the twentieth century at Syon Abbey

What was life like for the community at Syon Abbey in the twentieth century? What did the nuns and sisters do during the day? And did major world events have an impact on life in this enclosed community? These questions and more can now be explored through recently-catalogued material in the Syon Abbey archive.

Photograph of the community in 1961. From ‘The Poor Souls’ Friend’ 1960-1, p. 178.

Community Diaries

A valuable archival resource for exploring daily life at Syon Abbey are the 101 diaries, kept by the community between 1890 and 2004. These diaries provide details relating to spiritual matters, such as prayer, feast days, and religious ceremonies, but also offer greater insight into the intricacies of day-to-day life in a religious community. These include references to: recreation; visitors to the Abbey; growing crops and raising livestock; construction and repairs to buildings; correspondence sent and received; and observations about the weather. The diaries also reveal that the Syon nuns were aware of national and international news outside of the enclosure, including the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the death of Joseph Stalin. Furthermore, the diaries indicate that global events, such as the First and Second World War, did have an impact on the community. For example, the diarist writes much about the Belgian refugees living in the local town of Chudleigh between 1914 and 1916, as well as the American soldiers who in the 1940s were encamped on land belonging to Syon Abbey. Finally, the diaries also bring to light the personalities and interactions within the community through several light-hearted as well as heartfelt entries.

The community diaries can be searched in our online catalogue here.

Syon Abbey Community Diaries (Ref: EUL MS 389/ADM/5)

Diary 1947-1950 (Ref: EUL MS 389/ADM/5/47) The entry for the 26 April 1947 reads: ‘1st annivers:[ary] of Lady Abbess Consecration – day opened with a chimney on fire in Presbytery – sung mass – tea & happy recreation.’

The Book of Customs

Another useful document for gaining insight into the daily routine at Syon Abbey is the so-called ‘Book of Customs’ or ‘Customs Book’, which provides guidelines on community life, both spiritual and secular. It includes instructions on conduct in the choir, where and when silence should be kept, and how often different types of laundry may be washed. The Book of Customs also contains details of the duties of the different offices the nuns could hold, such as those of the cellaress (responsible for food and drink), the sacristan (responsible for church furnishings), and the infirmarian (who nursed the sick). There are a number of manuscript copies of the ‘Book of Customs’ in the archive, transcribed into notebooks and dating from the late nineteenth century to approximately the mid-twentieth century. Several notebooks contain handwritten amendments, indicating that the Book of Customs was revised regularly.

Material relating to customs can be searched in our online catalogue here.

The Book of Customs (Ref: EUL MS 389/RUL/4)

Minutes of the Chapter and the Council

The minute books of the Chapter (all the sisters in solemn vows, as well as the sisters in temporary vows who had been professed for three full years) and the Council (a small group of advisors to the abbess) shed light on a broad range of matters regarding the management of Syon Abbey. The Conventual Chapter generally discussed and voted on matters such as the election of abbesses and councillors, new admissions to the Order, and any sister wishing to make her vows. The Council would meet with the abbess to discuss issues on a wide variety of administrative matters relating, for example, the appointment of staff, revisions to the constitutions, and the management of the estate. The minute books of both the Chapter and the Council provide fascinating insight into the day-to-day administrative challenges of managing a monastery in the twentieth century.

The Minutes of the Chapter can be searched in our online catalogue here.

The Minutes of the Council can be searched in our online catalogue here.

Notebook entitled ‘Minutes of the ‘Discreets”, 1898-1907 (Ref: EUL MS 389/ADM/2/2)

On a personal note…

As an archivist with little knowledge of religious orders and women religious prior to embarking on the Syon Abbey archive cataloguing project, these records were invaluable in gaining an understanding of the community and the day-to-day operation of a monastery. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

By Annie Price, Archivist, Syon Abbey archive

Ronald Duncan’s Welcombe

 

The Ronald Duncan Collection contains a wealth of photographs of the Duncan family, their friends and areas of North Devon. In order to identify these photographs I recently travelled to meet Ronald Duncan’s daughter Briony Lawson at West Mill, Welcombe. Spending a few days in one of the most picturesque parts of Devon is undoubtedly a tough job, but I was up for the challenge.

My accommodation for the trip was at Home Farm Bed and Breakfast, run by friendly hosts Mike and Alison. Home Farm was previously owned by Ronald Duncan and remained the home of his wife Rose Marie Duncan after his death. Though the house has now been extended, it remains broadly as it was in Duncan’s time, along with the connecting Mead Farm which is now holiday cottages.

Home Farm today

My room was a small building at the bottom of the garden known as ‘The Old Dairy’. Though this may once have been true, both Mike and Briony reliably informed me that it more recently served as Ronald Duncan’s tool shed. Mike happily recalled the salvaged nuts, bolts and other assorted wonders he found hoarded there, some of which now take new life as part of a bird sculpture in the Garden. Down in the guest lounge it was lovely to see well-worn copies of Duncan’s books which had clearly amused scores of walkers on rainy days.

‘The Old Dairy’ at Home Farm, or Ronald Duncan’s shed!

Having arrived a little early I decided to take a trip down to Welcombe Mouth beach, a favourite beach-combing site of Duncan’s and the scene of many photographs of family picnics. Alison took one look at my Ford KA and warned me that I’d better not attempt the track down and should park near the Post Box at the top. Too busy staring at the scenery, I missed the post-box and carried on down the track. A few nerve racking minutes later I emerged to a dirt car park filled with 4×4’s and a stunning view out over the mouth.

Briony, Mole and Bunny Duncan picnicking on Welcombe Beach c 1960s

Welcombe Beach today

It’s clear why Duncan loved this beach. Its lack of accessibility means there were only a few people enjoying the scenery and dramatic ridges of rock rise up out of the sea and sand. Here and there someone had built a tower of stones and scattered rocks bore messages from visitors. It was easy to imagine that I might find the initials RD if I looked long enough. Round the corner a beautiful waterfall trickled down onto the beach and scattered around were bits of rope and sea-glass ready for any beach-combers.

Welcombe Mouth from the top of the waterfall c late 1930s

Welcombe Mouth from the top of the waterfall today

A little reluctantly I left the beach and attempted the steep ascent. Luckily my car is made of stern stuff and I managed to get up from the beach and down the steep track to West Mill without mishap. The valley was incredibly picturesque and Briony and Andrew Lawson were ready to welcome me warmly with a lovely cream tea. West Mill today is a far cry from the early photos in the collection. Its days without electricity and central heating are long gone and Briony remarked that she couldn’t imagine how the family used to survive there in the winter.

West Mill today

West Mill today

A view of West Mill and the surrounding Valley c 1930s

Considering the mound of photographs we had to identify I’m amazed at the pace at which we sped through them during the visit. Briony easily recalled the people, places, dates, and little anecdotes that brought them to life for me. The water wheel, lovingly restored by Duncan’s close friend Nigel Spottiswoode, has been converted to electric and is turned on for me to experience. Having read so much in Duncan’s autobiographies about the continual struggle to keep it working I’m glad that it still remains.

Work in progress – identifying the photographs from the Ronald Duncan Collection

Briony and Andrew Lawson in front of the water wheel at West Mill

One evening I climbed the steep cliff to Ronald Duncan’s writing hut, overlooking West Mill and the valley on one side and Marsland Mouth on the other. It was only a five minute walk from the house, nevertheless I was sweating by the time I reached the top. I can’t imagine climbing up and down the cliff several times a day to write.

Exterior of Ronald Duncan’s writing hut overlooking Marsland Mouth today

Interior of Ronald Duncan’s writing hut today

Originally an old lookout point, the hut was rebuilt by Duncan, who wrote his epic poem ‘Man’ there among other works. It has been maintained by the family and has information panels about Ronald Duncan and his work on the walls inside. The visitor’s book is a fascinating read and shows that the hut continues to provide shelter and inspiration to walkers. The view from the hut over the mouth was breath-taking, though its un-sheltered position must have made it a bleak, cold place to work in the winter.

Ronald Duncan lying on the roof of his writing hut c 1960s

Exterior of Ronald Duncan’s writing hut today

On my last day I visited Docton Mill. Now open to the public as a garden and tea rooms, this lovely old house used to be the home of Mole and Bunny Duncan, Ronald Duncan’s mother and sister. Briony and Andrew very kindly introduced me to the owners and I spent a pleasant couple of hours looking over old photos of Docton Mill with them and wandering round the beautiful gardens in an attempt to recreate the old photographs.

Docton Mill c 1950s

Docton Mill today

I left North Devon reluctantly with a greater understanding of Ronald Duncan’s life there and with an invaluable resource for researchers of the photographs in the collection.

More about the Ronald Duncan collection can be found here.

 

‘The past is a wastepaper basket’ – An Introduction to the Ronald Duncan Collection

Part of the Ronald Duncan Collection

Hello Readers!

2017 is shaping up to be an exciting year for the University of Exeter Special Collections Team. We have two interesting projects taking place, thanks to generous funding and we’re taking to social media to keep you all up to date on them. You can read my colleague Annie’s introduction to the Syon Abbey cataloguing project here.

I’m lucky enough to be working as Project Archivist on the Ronald Duncan Collection as part of an 18-month project to catalogue and improve access to this fascinating collection. You can follow the progress of the project through this blog and also through @UoEHeritageColl on twitter.

The archive was permanently acquired from the Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation in 2012, having previously been on loan for a number of years, and the foundation has now generously funded this project to ensure that the collection is accessible for future researchers. In addition to being a full resource on the life of a West Country writer, the archive is a treasure trove of material on literary, musical and stage culture from the 1930’s. Its contents include material relating to many notable figures of the day, including: Gandhi, Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, Jacob Epstein and George Devine. It covers topics ranging from Politics to Self-Sufficiency, and also holds material relating to Rose Marie Duncan (nee Hansom), Ronald Duncan’s wife and a talented artist in her own right.

In his first Autobiography ‘All Men Are Islands’ (1964) Duncan writes:

‘When the present is interesting we do not bother with the past. We try to remember only when we’ve lost the vitality of doing anything worth remembering. The past is a wastepaper basket. We burrow into it only when we feel we have no future.’

Well, no offence to Duncan, but I disagree. I find the past every bit as exciting as the present and I hope that you will continue to join me as I delve into Ronald Duncan’s ‘wastepaper basket’

 

A short biography of Ronald Frederick Henry Duncan (6 August 1914 – 3 June 1982)

Ronald Duncan as a child

Born in 1914 in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), Duncan spent his early life in London before reading English at Cambridge under F.R. Leavis. An interest in Pacifism led him to write the manifesto for the Peace Pledge Union and sparked an invitation to visit Gandhi at his Wardha Ashram in 1937. Later settling in Devon, Duncan ran a community farm at West Mill, Bideford during WWII and entertained notable figures of the day; including Benjamin Britten, Virginia Maskell, and Lord Harewood. His work on the Exeter Taw and Torridge Festival led to the establishment of the Royal Court Theatre in 1956.

Duncan’s career spanned stage and screen, with over 25 plays to his name, including ‘Abelard and Heloise’, ‘This Way to the Tomb’ and ‘Don Juan’. In 1968 Duncan scripted Jack Cardiff’s ‘Girl on a Motorcycle and in 1969 the BBC Drama Workshop released a ground-breaking vinyl record ‘The Seasons’, setting Duncan’s poems to music by David Cain. Though largely ignored at the time, this recording achieved cult status in the 1990’s and was reissued in 2012. He also had a prolific literary career, publishing several volumes of poetry and short stories in addition to three rather controversial biographies and a five-part epic scientific poem entitled ‘Man’. He is however, perhaps best known for the libretto in Benjamin Britten’s ‘Rape of Lucretia’ and for his poem ‘The Horse’, written for the National Horse Show.

In 1941 Duncan married Rose Marie Hansom, a talented illustrator, and the couple had two children. Duncan died in 1982, age 68, leaving a fascinating archive and the Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation (set up during his lifetime) as his lasting legacy.

More information on Ronald Duncan and his works can be found on the website of the Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation here

For more about the University of Exeter Heritage Collections click here, and to search the current list of the Ronald Duncan Archive click here

Introducing the Syon Abbey Archive

Hello everyone, and a very warm welcome to this blog.

My name is Annie and I joined the team in November 2016 as the project archivist for the Syon Abbey Archive.

Syon Abbey was a monastic house of the Order of our Most Holy Saviour (also known as the Bridgettines), and the only English community of religious to have existed without interruption since before the Reformation. The house was founded directly from the Mother House in Vadstena in Sweden in 1415, and the community followed the Rule of St Bridget of Sweden. This enclosed Bridgettine community – comprising both monks and nuns and governed by an abbess – was renowned for its dedication to reading, meditation and contemplation. In the course of Syon Abbey’s almost 600-year history, the community faced great upheaval and demonstrated remarkable strength. In the wake of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, the community split into smaller groups and continued their religious practice, with some remaining in England whilst others sought refuge abroad. Although Syon Abbey was restored in England under the Catholic rule of Mary I, following the accession of Elizabeth I and the return to Protestantism, the community went into exile. The community then spent over half a century wandering through the Netherlands and France, experiencing, at times, extreme poverty and hunger, and along the way encountering rioters, war, and even pirates. The community eventually found a new home in Lisbon, Portugal in 1594 and remained there until 1861, at which time the sisters (the last brother of Syon Abbey having died in 1695) were able to return to England, initially residing in Spetisbury, Dorset. Following a further relocation in 1887 to Chudleigh, Devon, the community finally settled in South Brent, Devon in 1925. 86 years later, in 2011, on account of the decline in numbers and age of the remaining community, the decision was made to close Syon Abbey.

Photograph of the community in 1961. From ‘The Poor Souls’ Friend’ 1960-1, p. 178.

Of course, the archive – deposited for safekeeping with the University’s Special Collections in 2011 – has many more fascinating stories to tell from Syon Abbey’s extraordinary history than have been briefly summarised above. It currently spans around 114 boxes and comprises material from the 16th to the early 21st century, although the majority of records date from the 19th and 20th century. The archive is large and complex, containing a range of different records relating to daily life; worship; religious rule; the management of land, property and finances; relations with other religious communities; and much, much more. Once catalogued, the archive has the potential to be a rich and powerful resource, particularly for anyone interested in the history of women religious, ecclesiastical history, and women’s studies.

When I arrived, my first priority was to look at different material from the Syon Abbey archive and to learn as much as possible about the community and its history. This understanding then enabled me to draft out a hierarchical structure for the archive that reflects the main functions and activities of the community and provides context for how the records were originally used. Although an original order can be identified in several of the boxes in the archive – for example, some related papers have been kept together in chronological order – in other boxes the records are a little more jumbled up. Consequently, the arrangement of the archive that has existed up to now has meant that it would be difficult for both users (you!) and the archivist (me!) to find the information we are looking for within the archive and to understand how one record relates to another. My job as archivist on this project, therefore, is to arrange and describe the archive in a way that will make the records easier for you to search, find, understand and use.

Over the next year I will be re-boxing, cataloguing and promoting the archive, with an aim to make it more discoverable and accessible, and to encourage its use in teaching, learning, research and innovation. By the end of March 2018, the archive should be catalogued to at least file level, and be searchable using the online catalogue. I hope you will join me on this exciting journey as I share my progress, as well as highlights from the archive, with you via this blog and on Twitter @UoEHeritageColl.

Talk to you again soon!

Click here for more information on the Syon Abbey archive and other related collections.

Click here to search the University of Exeter’s archival collections via the online catalogue.

 

By Annie Price, Archivist, Syon Abbey archive