Ivor Gurney- Poet and Composer 1890 – 1937 Part One

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

I have an article on the front page of Mosaic, the Arts section of Ceylon Today, May 18 2014.


Here is a version with a different selection of photographs.

I have been looking into the life of the composer and poet Ivor Gurney. My research has led me into a Joycean reconstruction of the Gloucester I knew as a child and adolescent.



This year, 2014,  marks the centenary of the start of the First World War. The BBC will be marking the centenary with four years of programmes covering the war. Among these programmes will be one presented by Tim Kendall, Professor of English at Exeter University, entitled The Poet who Loved the War: Ivor Gurney, 1914–1918. Hundreds of Gurney’s poems remain unpublished. Kendall, together with Gurney expert baritone Philip Lancaster, is preparing a three volume variorum edition of Gurney’s complete poetry, for Oxford University Press. Gurney does not fit easily into the category of “war poet”. I will limit myself here to saying that his work is not like that of Graves, Owen, Sassoon or Rosenberg. Readers who want a full critical analysis of the poetry should read the blogs of Kendall and Lancaster.

Gurney was also a composer who studied under Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music. Sadly, he descended into mental illness and died in hospital at the age of 47.




When I was a teenager in Gloucester in the early 1960s, it was de rigeur to have trousers eye-wateringly tight. As soon as one purchased a new pair, one would take them to a tailor to have them altered. I took mine to a Mr Gurney who lived in a tall house on Worcester Street almost opposite the home of Gloucester Rugby Football Club, Kingsholm.

In later years, I discovered the work of poet and composer, Ivor Gurney, who was born and brought up in Gloucester.
I now realise that my tailor was Ivor’s brother, Ronald.



herbert howells

 Herbert Howells
Ivor’s poems spoke strongly to me because they were about a landscape that I knew and loved. Gurney’s friend and fellow Gloucester composer, Herbert Howells, dedicated his Piano Quartet in A minor: ‘To the Hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it’. I used to walk from my home to the top of Chosen Hill and look at the city of Gloucester somnolent in the sluggish summer valley below me or sit in a St Bartholomew’s Church.



It stands on a man-made mound 511 feet above sea-level, within the enclosing banks of an Iron Age Camp. The present church is Norman in foundation and Roger du Pont L’Eveque, Archbishop of York, is thought to have been the builder in about 1175 AD. The same church was often visited by Wendy Craig in the TV series Butterflies. Motorways and industrial parks obliterated my route to Chosen. Gurney wrote about impermanence in the natural landscape and in poems like “Time to Come” described how the development of new housing in Gloucester affected the shape of the city and the mind-set of its inhabitants.

Time to Come


They will walk there, the sons of our great grandsons and
Will know no reason for the old love of the land.
There will be no tiny bent-browed houses in the
Twilight to watch, nor small shops of multi-miscellany.
The respectable and red-brick will rule all,
With green-paint railings outside the front door wall;
And children will not play skip-games in the gutter,
Nor dust fly furious in hot valour of footer;
Queerness and untidiness will be smoothed out.




Gurney long ago mourned the loss of old Gloucestershire. What would he think now to see Gloucester homogenized into a standard provincial conurbation and his beloved Cotswolds blighted by the second homes of investment banksters and media whores who have priced local people out of the market?

Early Life
Ivor Gurney was born in Queens Street, Gloucester in 1890 and his family later moved to Barton Street (where our family doctor was based opposite the furniture shop of England cricketer Tom Goddard). In the early fifties of my childhood the area was populated by large numbers of West Indians, today there are many mosques and Bangladeshi restaurants.

Gurney came from a modest background. His father, David, came from a family of builders in Maisemore, but was himself in business as a tailor. Ivor Gurney’s biographer, Michael Hurd, like me a native of Gloucester (he attended Crypt School and I attended the rival Sir Thomas Rich’s Bluecoat School), expressed it thus: “By the standards of the time they could be considered to have gained a tenuous foothold on the ladder of comfort and middle-class respectability.” How many people these days have slipped and fallen on that kind of tenuous foothold?

Gurney’s elder sister, Winifred, painted an unflattering portrait of their mother, Florence, describing life with her as “something akin to a bed of stinging nettles”. Winifred claimed that Florence Gurney “did not seem to enjoy her children, and so far as I could see she did not win their love”. Gurney’s brother, Ronald, remembered a “terrible streak in mother — not mad but certainly bad with a touch of…evil about her” and called her “a menace”. The Gurney children favored their father, recalling him as “the more home-loving, affectionate parent” who “was not allowed to give us as much love as he had for us.”




Florence resented David’s Saturday afternoon visits to Kingsholm to watch Rugby football, but was more displeased when he changed his habits and went drinking at the Conservative Club instead.
Ivor’s friend Marion Scott liked his father, describing him as “gentle and slightly puzzled by life in general and his eldest son in particular”. Scott thought Ivor from his mother “inherited his strange power of placing ideas in unusual juxtapositions,” but with a great difference between mother and son. “With him it was genius, and with her it was almost foolishness.”

In 1896, Ivor started Sunday School (the Sunday School movement had been founded in Gloucester by Robert Raikes) at All Saints School on Barton Street, (All Saints Church was described by Michael Hurd as “one of Sir Gilbert Scott’s less ambitious flights”) where the Reverend Alfred Cheesman, immediately recognised his musical talent and put him in the choir. Cheesman also encouraged the boy’s interest in literature and local history by allowing him free use of his library.

Later he attended the National School, on London Road (I was a mixed infant at St Peter’s Catholic School on London Road). Gurney’s walk from home to school was not long but perhaps far for a small boy. He would have passed what is now the ugly 1960s bus station, but was then, I remember it as such, Gloucester cattle market, which was right in the centre of the city next to a ballroom. It gave off an awful stench on market days and was populated by red-faced men in muddy leather spats.

The Old City — Gloucester
Who says ‘Gloucester’ sees a tall
Fair fashioned shape of stone arise,
That changes with the changing skies
From joy to gloom funereal,
Then quick again to joy…





Cheesman encouraged Ivor to compete for a place in the Cathedral Choir, which he won in 1900. This also meant a place at King’s School, the school, founded by Henry VIII, attached to the Cathedral. Gurney’s musical education was also helped by his visits to two sisters, Emily and Margaret Hunt, who lived in Wellington Street, (not far from where, in later years, Fred and Rose West committed their murders) near the Gurney shop. Emily played the piano and Margaret the violin and they had been professional music teachers in South Africa before the Boer War.

On leaving the Gloucester Cathedral Choir in 1906, Gurney took lessons in harmony and counterpoint with a Dr Brewer and helped to pay the fees by working as an organist at several churches around Gloucestershire. Another of Brewer’s pupils at the time was the songwriter, actor and matinee idol, Ivor Novello (star of Hitchcock’s The Lodger, composer of “Keep the Home Fires Burning” and lover of Siegfried Sassoon). Gurney struck up a friendship with another of Brewer’s pupils, Herbert Howells, later a notable composer.

Gurney did not always manage to hold his jobs for long. Cheesman said, “I am afraid that he was rather wanting in tact, and gave offence by being rather outspoken – sometimes even to the Vicars’ wives!”


He was happier at the Mariners’ Chapel in Gloucester’s dockland. Although on a map, Gloucester looks to be a long way inland it has long been a thriving port because of the Sharpness Canal and drew the attention of the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. I have often been in that tiny Mariners’ Chapel and imagined Gurney playing the organ. Sometimes he stood in for Brewer and played the organ in Gloucester Cathedral.


In 1911, Gurney took up an open scholarship in composition at the Royal College of Music.

More about that next week.