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A look at Francis Thompson's life and work


The influence of Francis Thompson on Henry Williamson


Henry Williamson and Catholicism


'A First Adventure with Francis Thompson' in The Mistress of Vision


'In Darkest England' in The Hound of Heaven




Henry Williamson and the Francis Thompson Society



There is a long gap with no mention of FT in HW's personal papers, until suddenly in 1966 one finds that he is President of the Francis Thompson Society. Details concerning this have been difficult to establish, for HW's diary entries around that time tend to note only his personal problems surrounding the various females appearing and disappearing in his life.


HW's diary records on 20 January 1966, with no previous mention whatsoever:


Sent to Francis Thompson Society life membership (I am President) £10‒10‒.


The Francis Thompson Society was formed in 1963 (probably at the very end of the year, for they celebrated their tenth anniversary in 1974) by Dr Gutala Krishnamurti (not to be confused with Jiddu Krishnamurti, the philosopher and writer). Officially the Secretary, he was, in effect, the founder and driving force of the society. Their membership application form sets out the aims of the society:



ft society



The following proof of an entry in Gale's forthcoming edition of Encylopaedia of Associations was sent to HW for checking, and it serves as a useful reference point:



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I have been unable to trace details of the society’s early days or of its first contact with HW, but a letter from Krishnamurti dated 11 January 1966 shows a relationship that is well-established; indeed at one point Krishnamurti notes, 'when we last met'.


The opening paragraph of the letter details work is well in hand on:


the exhibition and the publication of a book to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the publication of 'The Hound of Heaven' is progressing very satisfactorily . . . although the society has no funds to implement these schemes I am confident that we will be able to accomplish our plans.


(‘The Hound of Heaven’ was first published July 1890 in Merry England, then in Poems, 1893. This makes the 75th anniversary actually 1965. To clarify, the FT Society were also planning an exhibition, which at this point was proposed for June 1966.)


Krishnamurti continues with an invitation, on behalf of all members of the society, for HW to be the President – and if he agrees, then they can invite Prof. Paul van K. Thomson (an American, author of Francis Thompson: A Critical Biography, Thomas Nelson, 1961) to be Vice President, plus others, and so enable a letterhead to be printed.


He continues with details planned for the book: to contain about six articles on various aspects of FT's work, and he hopes HW will contribute one of them, and to include letters from high-ranking figures such as the Pope and the Dalai Lama. He then states that the first issue of the FT Society Journal is ready for posting. (This is not present in HW's archive.)


On the letter HW has noted: 'Accepted 19/1/66'.


Now, as has been noted, there are in fact two HW essays in two separate books, published by two different Catholic agencies: one being the Francis Thompson Society, the other St Albert’s Press (as represented by Fr Brocard Sewell, founder and editor of the Aylesford Review – see the entry for In the Woods for further explanation). The background to these essays is interesting, though complicated!


Fortunately, Brocard Sewell presented his letters from HW to the HW Society, complete with added explanatory notes. The originals are lodged, together with other HWS archive material, with the main HW archive at Exeter University and are a valuable resource for research. Typed copies of the letters were made by Dr Wheatley Blench and the then Chairman of the HWS, Major Tim Morley, for the HW Literary Estate (the copyright holders). Together with available letters from Fr Brocard to HW, it is therefore possible to piece together the background of this episode. I say 'available' because at that time in HW's life no filing took place. As letters (of which the main amount were from admirers of his work) arrived and were dealt with, they were thrown into a large cardboard box. When full, a fresh box was started. I have tried to retrieve important material from this muddle, but no doubt some will have been missed. Sadly very few letters from Krishnamurti are available, making that side of the story (and so this account) difficult to piece together; but the gist of it is as follows.


Returning to the actual sequence of events, it is worth noting for future researchers that a letter from HW to Fr Brocard, dated 15 January 1966 (so before the Krishnamurti letter of 19 January 1966 offering HW the Presidency of the FT Society) mentions the Presidency, which means that the subject had definitely been broached earlier by Krishnamurti. The relevant paragraph comes at the end:



ft hw bs 15011966



HW had in fact spent 17–19 December 1965 at Aylesford Priory, together with the poet Frances Horowitz, a member of the Aylesford group. This would have been an opportunity both to discuss the FT Society plans with Brocard, and to plant the suggestion that the Aylesford Review should also celebrate the occasion (which here he is urging with enthusiasm!)


Brocard's reply, dated 17 January 1966, although stating he is worried about the number of outstanding articles already on file whose authors expect immediate publication, gives a very detailed analysis of his ideas for a FT Special Issue of the Aylesford Review involving:


a) at least three articles (one of which to be HW's address at the proposed 'June Assembly' of the FT Society Exhibition).


b) the commentary by Monsignor John O'Connor (whom he reveals is the original for Chesterton's famous 'Father Brown'): 'a most remarkable verse-by-verse commentary' on The Mistress of Vision, printed in 1918 at the Ditchling Press (Sussex) by Hilary Pepler.


c) the essay on Thompson by Fr Vincent McNabb, printed by Pepler and himself in 1935. (Brocard had briefly worked at the famous Ditchling Press under Pepler.)


Brocard notes also that the Aylesford Priory library has copies of the 1913 3-volume Collected Works of FT and Everard Meynell's Life of . . . (which HW had offered to loan). HW's copies of these books are not in his archive, so presumably he gave them to someone – possibly one of the girls (perhaps Frances Horowitz, herself a poet) he met at Aylesford.


Brocard wants the issue of the magazine published before the proposed FT Society Exhibition that June, so he can sell it to their members. This seems to be a quite deliberate attempt to pre-empt any FT Society publication, and puts HW (though basically his own fault) in a somewhat compromising situation.


HW's reply to the above (wrongly dated by Brocard as 12 January: it should be 21 January as it answers Brocard's letter of the 17th) castigates Brocard's hesitance due to these 'outstanding articles'. He notes he has received FT Society Journal No. 1, 1964-5, suggesting Brocard should obtain a copy. As this item is also not in HW's archive, I am presuming he sent it on. HW also states:


If it would help, I'd do a brief introduction & sign [it] – I am a 100% F.T. fan.


Brocard notes underneath: 'The Editor [i.e. himself] not a 100% F.T. fan.'


HW diary notes on 28 January 1966:


7.15 pm. F. Thompson Society. Burgh House, New End Square, Hampstead.


There is no indication as to whether he attended this meeting, but his letter to Brocard the following day shows he has up-to-date information, so he probably did.


HW’s letter to Brocard dated 29 January 1966 reveals that Krishnamurti is trying to raise £500 to produce the publication of 'Heaven's Beagle' (HW is being a little naughty here, a beagle being a species of hound!). He (HW) has told him he cannot help with finances. He has also refuted (to Krishnamurti) the idea of including the 'Shelley' essay – and suggests here that Brocard uses it in his proposed publication of The Mistress of Vision. (HW was very conscious of the difficult financial situation of the Aylesford Review, and had already helped by donating his In the Woods monograph in 1960.) Brocard's endnote here explains that Krishnamurti was planning to publish The Hound of Heaven and gives details of his own planned publication, but not to include FT's 'Shelley' essay: 'the editor not sharing HW's enthusiasm for this essay'.


In a postscript HW mentions FT's poem 'Tom O'Bedlam' – that he had read it


in the war in 1917, and it filled the battlefield.


First publication of 'Tom O'Bedlam' would seem to have been in the Meynell's 3-volume Works; another pointer to HW having possessed this edition at that time.


There is then a letter from Krishnamurti to HW dated 2 February 1966: thanking HW for his of 28 January with its note of caution about 'signing' limited special editions (which HW does not want to do). He mentions Sir Francis Meynell as approving of signing. (This is Wilfrid Meynell's son who was FT's godson, born in 1891 and so now 75 years old; he was knighted in 1946; one wonders why he is not President of the FT Society, though in due course he appears as a Vice President.) Krishnamurti reminds HW of his proposed contribution for the forthcoming book, and hopes he can write on James Joyce's interest in the poem, which HW had previously rather rashly mentioned! He has had a letterhead printed and will send as soon as possible. A sample duly arrived:



ft socletterhead



It is by now evident that Brocard is planning to publish a book as well as the material in the Aylesford Review. HW sent a postcard agreeing to do a Foreword:


I propose to write of myself reading F.T. poems in France & Flanders during 1917.


He needs to know how many words and overall content wanted – 'good editors' always tell one this! He suggest Brocard's FT book must appear before the magazine comes out. He has just finished No. 14 novel and is 'almost' starting the final novel, 'quaking' (The Gale of the World). In early March HW again notes in a letter to Brocard: 'I must concentrate on my novel now – or perish.'


It is interesting to note that HW's last volume of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight – The Gale of the World (1969) – which he began working on at this point is imbued with thoughts of Francis Thompson and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Thompson's poem ‘Buona Notte’, written in commemoration of Shelley's death, is a central theme of the novel, as is Thompson's essay ‘Shelley’. Thus the entry on The Gale of the World (forthcoming) and this entry on FT complement each other with cross-references; they really need to be read in conjunction.


Letters between HW and Brocard continued.


Brocard to HW, 4 March 1966:


Thanks for card and valued suggestions. Yes, you are right. Mistress of Vision must come out in book form first. Then we will print poem and commentary only in the Review.


He then sets out exactly how he plans to proceed: suggesting 500 copies at two guineas each.


There is an interesting point to note here. On the inside of the cover of The Aylesford Review, Vol. VII, No. 4, Winter 1965/Spring 1966 there is a full page advertisement for this forthcoming book. There is not, however, a date for the actual appearance of this issue, which would have been very useful. It does seem rather curious to publish a book and then to also print its main contents (poem and commentary) in the magazine.



ft aylesford ad



HW to Brocard, 6 March 1966:



ft hw bs 06031966



This proposed 'letter' mentioned by HW would appear to have been sent, as HW's next letter enclosed 'alteration'.


HW to Brocard, 14 March 1966 (with Brocard's note in square brackets underneath):



ft hw bs 14031966



HW's diary, 17 March 1966, states: 'Do 3000 words on F. Thompson & self in 1917.'


HW to Brocard, 19 March 1966:


Here is the best I can do, with my diminished and few-remaining senses.


(He is overworked and in midst of personal crises over the females in his life.)


However, that also had revision.


HW to Brocard, 20 March 1966:



ft hw bs 20031966



HW's typescript is in the file, including his revisions in MS, and marked with a few 'printer's instructions' by Brocard (indicating new paragraphs, italics, etc.) and also a couple of small clarifying insertions of his own. Also present are galley-proofs of the Preface and Commentary by F. Vincent McNabb, O.P. (Order of Preachers).


HW's diary, 25 March 1966: 'F.T. meeting, where? 7.15 Kingsway Hall.'


Regrettably there are no further details about this meeting.


Brocard to HW, 13 April 1966: a short letter enclosing page-proofs of HW's essay which he would like returned as quickly as possible. There is also present a galley-proof of Brocard's 'Editorial' for the Summer 1966 Aylesford Review, in which he advertises the forthcoming F.T. Society exhibition. Here the date is given as 8‒15 June, although in the actual magazine it states 'in the autumn'. (Krishnamurti was having problems.)


HW to Brocard, not dated but answers the above, so presumably mid-April 1966 (though has been marked as July). HW is a little tense!



ft hw bs april1966a


ft hw bs april1966b



Brocard has noted on the back, regarding (1) and (2) above:



ft hw bs april1966c



This letter also contains an interesting PS to do with HW's final novel (see forthcoming entry for The Gale of the World).


HW's diary entry for 8 May 1966 records the showing of his film The Survivor on BBC. The following week he was dealing with proofs of A Solitary War; while Lucifer before Sunrise is also in the pipeline; and he is already working on the final volume, The Gale of the World. At this time too he wrote the superb series of three articles to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme; they were published in the Daily Express during July 1966 (and reprinted in Days of Wonder (ed. John Gregory, HWS, 1987; e-book 2013).


In his diary 'Notes', opposite the week beginning 30 May and the first days of June, he had written:


Francis Thompson 75th Anniversary of Hound of Heaven festival London this month.


As noted, this was postponed. There are no actual details available, but Krishnamurti was clearly struggling with the considerable problems attendant on this project.


HW to Brocard, 12 July 1966 (postcard). Evidently HW has realised that they have pre-empted Krishnamurti and the FT Society’s own book and is feeling guilty.



ft hw bs 20071966



Further details of the Aylesford Review publication can be found under The Mistress of Vision section.


The planned FT Society Exhibition finally took place on 21 January 1967.



ft invitation



On his way up to London from Devon to attend the event HW had an accident in his Triumph Herald car near Taunton, hitting the kerb and turning the car over. He was luckily not hurt, but was shaken and spent the night at his daughter Margaret's home before continuing by train the next day.


The Exhibition, held at 47 Palace Court, once the home of the Meynells, was clearly a quite splendid occasion. The reading of The Hound of Heaven by the well-known actor Marius Goring would have been superb. A draft copy of HW's own speech is in the archive: see the section for The Hound of Heaven.



ft catalogue1      ft catalogue2



ft catalogue3



There are 211 separate items listed – some of which had multiple parts. Brocard, never one to miss an opportunity, took a full-page advertisement at the back of the catalogue.


The Times, 27 January 1967, reported the occasion:



ft times



A second exhibition was held later in the year courtesy of Hatchards, who had shown interest at a fairly early stage, and offered to hold a drinks party. (Hatchards, prestigious booksellers, was established by John Hatchard in 1797, in what is termed 'Egyptian Hall', a wonderful Dickensian-type building, in Piccadilly, London; it is now owned by Waterstone's.) At this exhibition, although there was no official signing, HW unofficially signed several copies of The Hound of Heaven at the request of an enterprising young bookseller, Stephen Francis Clarke:



ft hoh signed



Journal No. 2 of the FT Society appeared in 1968. It contains articles plus reviews of The Hound of Heaven volume and of John Walsh's biography Strange Harp, Strange Symphony (W. H. Allen, 1968). The Chairman's report gives the membership as having risen to 74, and there is a list of Officials (which included Stephen Clarke, later a founder member of the HW Society). Sir Francis Meynell is noted among the Vice Presidents.


Letter from Krishnamurti, 15 January 1968, alerting HW of the AGM to be held on 16 March; adding: 'Good news: Fr. Brocard has joined the F.T. Society and he will be our next Chairman.'


HW has written on this letter in red felt-tipped pen: ‘I replied saying I shall resign from Presidency.' (He obviously retracted that, as he remained in office!)


The Catholic Review asked HW to review Walsh's Strange Harp, Strange Symphony:



ft catholicherald1



ft walsh



ft walshreview1


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The FT Society continued. I have already noted the 1972 entry for Gale's Encyclopaedia of Associations, which gives useful information. Among the archive items is the following 1973 AGM luncheon card:



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A letter from Krishnamurti, 15 September 1973, notes how pleased he was to see HW 'at the 1890s Exhibition':


Everybody present felt your presence a bonus. All the newspapers wrote about you and of your interest in F.T.


The letterheading here has Sir Francis Meynell as a Vice President: while the Chairman is no longer Fr Brocard.


There is a two-page 'Newsletter' dated 8 June 1974, reporting that year's AGM, and including a statement to the effect that preparations for the journal, 'a bumper issue this year', were well in hand,  and listing five future talks already arranged, including one by Fr Brocard Sewell, 'The Olive Custance Centenary Lecture'.


All appears to be well with the society. But by 4 July 1975 (and with no other information available in the archive) it is clear from the following letter that the FT Society has been incorporated into the Eighteen Nineties Society, and that HW is now President of that.



ft 1890s



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(There is no information available about the Eighteen Nineties Society: presumably with the FT Society struggling, Krishnamurti sought to widen the interest and so increase membership. That too is now defunct, seemingly since 2002, when its last journal was issued. A registered charity, it was removed from the Charity Commission’s register on 27 August 2009 with the succinct comment, ‘does not operate’.)


Sir Francis Meynell died on 10 July 1975, and his two remaining sisters soon after. This year also marked HW's total breakdown into dementia, shortly after his 80th birthday on 1 December 1975.


I did have some personal contact with Dr Krishnamurti, and informed him about HW's situation; but at that time I had not realised the importance of this whole episode, and did not perhaps follow that up as I should have done. He was obviously a man of great patience and integrity, and there is no doubt it is through his very sincere efforts that Francis Thompson came into such prominence during those ten years between 1965‒1975.







Go to:


A look at Francis Thompson's life and work


The influence of Francis Thompson on Henry Williamson


Henry Williamson and Catholicism


'A First Adventure with Francis Thompson' in The Mistress of Vision


'In Darkest England' in The Hound of Heaven