Ivor Gurney- Poet and Composer 1890 – 1937 Part Four

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A version of this article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday 8 June 20014.

“Last night I wrote to Dr Vaughan Williams to get me Death, for this I cannot endure. Rescue me to something. For Death I long for.”


Ivor Gurney  went to live with his brother Ronald and his wife at their home in Worcester Street, Gloucester. Ivor was not an easy tenant. He shut himself up in the front room and shouted at Ronald and his wife to keep away. He complained that ‘electrical tricks’ were being played on him and sat with a cushion on his head to prevent the electric waves from the radio getting into his brain. Ivor made several suicide attempts and was certified insane by Dr. Soutar and Dr. Terry on 28 September 1922. He was committed to a private mental hospital on the outskirts of Gloucester called Barnwood House.


Barnwood House

I believe that I have been in that room in Worcester Street. I think that I have been in the house from which Ivor Gurney was committed. I have also been in the place to which he was committed.


WorcesterStreetI used to go to children’s Christmas parties at Barnwood House, when I was around four or five years old, and my mother worked as an orderly there. I remember seeing movies like Charlie Chaplin in City Lights and getting a copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales as a present. As people do, my mother brought home gossip from work. I learnt that Miss French was a martinet and that Miss Butler (who bore, I thought, a resemblance to the comedian Tommy Cooper) was kindly soul. There was a contingent of young women from Iceland working there and I got stamps from that country for my collection – I was puzzled that they bore the legend ‘Island’. I was also puzzled that the high walls of Barnwood House had broken glass embedded in the top. Barnwood House was a private mental hospital, generally for patients from affluent families. I recall that a relative of the Conservative minister Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller (known to his many enemies as Reggie Bullying-Manner) was a patient at Barnwood House when my mother worked there.



Ronald Gurney

When I was a teenager in the last century, tight trousers were de rigeur. Whenever I bought a new pair, I took them to a tailor near Kingsholm rugby football stadium, to be narrowed. The house was a large three storied one rather sparsely furnished and grubby. The address was Worcester Street.


The tailor’s name was Gurney. Ivor Gurney’s father, David, was a tailor. David died long before my time but this man in Worcester Street could have been carrying on the family craft. I think it could have been Ronald. After all these years I have a clear mental picture of him – tall, stooped, wispy grey hair, greasy complexion with yellow spots around the nostrils, rather scruffily dressed and wearing carpet slippers. I think this may have been Ivor Gurney’s brother Ronald.


The author wearing Ronald’s work


Ronald has got a bad press and in his letters he comes across sometimes as peevish and resentful. History has been unkind to him as the man who threatened to destroy Ivor Gurney’s papers. Joy Finzi, wife of the composer Gerald Finzi, is seen as a heroine for standing up to Ronald and persuading him to donate the papers to Gloucester Public Library.

finziGerald Finzi

Ronald was not a cruel man. He may have resented the attention Ivor had always got and felt there was a kind of zero-sum game, which meant he, Ronald, was left with insufficient attention. Ivor was born in 1890, Ronald in 1894. Their father had let the tailoring business slide and Ronald, after getting a compassionate discharge from the Welsh Guards reluctantly became head of the family. He had dreamed of being a doctor, but he had joined the family tailoring business because what little money there was to spare had gone on Ivor’s education.

Ronald’s letters reflect this resentment and irritation at the interference of Ivor’s famous and arty friends whom he felt did not understand the family situation and made Ivor’s condition worse by indulging him. “Never again will I permit kind but lenient and letting him have more or less his own way kind of people… I shall be glad if you will refrain from giving him anything but simple thoughts to think about. He thinks far too much about things that are far too deep for everlasting pondering upon. He thinks and thinks about such ungodly things, that his head is in a huge unwieldy mess.”

Ronald was an exasperated and disappointed man and perhaps a frightened one. In his anger, he also empathised: “I understand better than anyone else in the world the inner state of his mind – for the simple reason that I have exactly the same nervous system and temperament. As a matter of fact I have travelled a long way down the same road that he has gone. I am convinced that nothing on earth will do Ivor much good till by Iron discipline he has had his natural obstinacy and stubbornness broken down.”


Ivor’s Illness and Treatment

Barnwood House was the first institution in Britain to practise electro-convulsive therapy and leucotomy. Ivor Gurney was a patient too early to benefit from these “most modern methods of treatment” that Barnwood House later advertised. He was never subjected to ECT because it had not been invented. The electrical invasions he complained of were not related to ECT. Indeed, Barnwood House had a good reputation in Gurney’s time. I recall it as a rather forbidding redbrick building from the outside, the inside with long echoing corridors tiled in hygienic shiny white. It was popular with the military and clergy and once counted an Archbishop amongst its patients. Even the sewerage system was a model of good asylum practice. After the First World War, servicemen were treated with a regime of psychotherapy and recreations such as cricket.

Gurney was not happy at Barnwood House. On 9 November 1922, Arthur Townsend, the superintendent, wrote to Gurney’s friend, Marion Scott: “I am sorry to say that Mr Gurney managed to escape last night, at 9 o’clock he suddenly took hold of a large clock, hurled it through the window and hurled himself after it.”

On one occasion, in 1923, he escaped and went to Vaughan Williams’s house in Cheyne Walk. He wrote to Marion Scott: “Save me, I pray you. Get Dr Steen to release, I pray. There is no reason I should not be released from this confinement- these rules.”

Many have found it easy to assume that his later mental problems were a result of his experiences during the First World War. Pamela Blevins, who has written much about Gurney, wrote to me in a personal note: “Gurney’s 1918 breakdown was triggered by the failure of his relationship with a nurse, Annie Nelson Drummond and not by his war experience as is so often assumed”.


Philip Lancaster believes that Gurney and Margaret Hunt were in love with each other. Margaret was one of two sisters, who lived in Wellington Street, near the Gurney shop. Emily played the piano and Margaret the violin and had been professional music teachers in South Africa before the Boer War. Margaret is the dedicatee of numerous works by Gurney. Pamela Blevins does not deny their closeness but thinks the 16-year age difference prohibitive. She accepts that Gurney sought women whom he could love but who would also take care of him and provide everything he needed in order to follow his dreams,


Even as a youth, he displayed some eccentricity that might have been a harbinger of his later problems. He showed signs of suffering from some kind of eating disorder which could have caused protein and vitamin deficiency. He was often reluctant to sit down at a table and eat a normal meal and went for long periods without eating anything. He would then consume vast quantities of apples or buns. Herbert Howells recalls being with him in Brotherway’s restaurant on Eastgate Street when Gurney voraciously consumed a dozen fancy cakes. Even in other people’s houses, he would sneak into the pantry and wolf down a half-pound of butter and a melange of leftovers.These odd eating habits caused him digestive problems throughout his life. What he labelled “the trail of the dyspeptic serpent” was frequently wrapped around him.

He would go for long walks, sometimes staying out all night, sleeping under the stars or in a barn. He would walk by night and had been, he once wrote, “a night-walker from age sixteen”. A friend, William Bubb, reminisced in 1963: “It was useless to interfere. The truth was, he did not seem to belong to us… he simply called on us briefly, and left again without a word.”

This kind of behaviour might indicate a wandering fugue state. Ian Hacking has described Automatisme Ambulatoire,a pathological syndrome appearing in the form of intermittent attacks during which the patient, carried away by an irresistible impulse, leaves his home and makes an excursion or journey justified by no reasonable motive. The attack ended, the subject unexpectedly finds himself on an unknown road or in a strange town.

gurney scottBlevins

Pamela Blevins believes that Gurney suffered from manic depression rather than paranoid schizophrenia. According to Blevins, one of the key questions contemporary psychiatrists ask when distinguishing between manic-depressive and schizophrenic patients is: “Does the patient like people?” “Gurney did not withdraw from the world voluntarily in 1922.  He did not choose to be imprisoned in an asylum or to be cut off from society.  He was committed because his younger brother Ronald believed that’s where Gurney belonged despite Ivor’s episodes of sanity amid the cyclic chaos of his mind.  Ivor knew he was troubled, but he also believed he was not mad.  He begged for help, but it was not forthcoming. ‘Rescue me while I am sane,’ he pleaded in a letter to Marion Scott written shortly after he was first admitted to an asylum in Gloucester.”

Perhaps incarceration made his condition worse. Blevins wrote: “He retreated deeper and deeper into himself in the asylum.  He had nothing in common with his fellow inmates and wanted nothing to do with them.  By separating himself from other patients, he was trying to protect himself as best he could from the negative atmosphere and influences in the asylum, a place in which he knew he did not belong. Unfortunately, between 1922 and 1937, when Gurney was in the asylum, modern drugs and sophisticated psycho-analytical treatment were not available.”


Helen Thomas, the widow of the poet Edward Thomas, who had died in the war, visited Gurney in hospital at Dartford from  1932. In 1960, she recalled those visits. On one visit, she took Edward’s ordinance survey maps of Gloucestershire and traced their fingers over the routes Edward had walked and Ivor loved so well. “He spent that hour in re-visiting his beloved home, in spotting a village or a track, a hill or a wood and seeing it all in his mind’s eye, a mental vision sharper and more actual for his heightened intensity. For he had Edward as his companion in this strange perambulation; and he was utterly happy, and without being over-excited.”
Helen Thomas wrote: “Ivor Gurney longed more than anything else to go back to his beloved Gloucestershire, but this was not allowed for fear he should try to take his own life. I said ‘But surely it would be more humane to let him go there even if it meant no more than one hour of happiness before he killed himself.’ But the authorities could not look at it in that way.”



In 1937, Ivor Gurney died of a bi-lateral pulmonary thrombosis while a patient at the City of London Mental Hospital shortly before dawn on 26 December 1937, aged 47.. He was buried at Twigworth in Gloucestershire. Alfred Cheesman took the service, with Herbert Howells playing the organ.


Despite his humble origins, Gurney’s musical and literary talent enabled him to mingle with the likes of, in the musical world, Ivor Novello, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sir Charles Stanford, Herbert Howells, Sir Arthur Bliss, Sir Hubert Parry, Arthur Benjamin. In the literary world, he knew WE Henley, Lascelles Abercrombie, AE Housman, Charles Scott-Moncrieff (translator of Proust), JC Squire, Edward Thomas and Walter de la Mare. After his death fellow poets Edmund Blunden and PJ Kavanagh championed his poetry and Gerald Finzi and Vaughan Williams promoted his music.


Composer Gerald Finzi was at the funeral. He described the scene. “The press has given him in his death more attention in a week than they gave his life in 47 years…people are discovering that they had manuscripts of his; that they knew him quite well ‘and were always amazed at his genius’; that they visited him regularly when he was in the asylum; that they were his best friends, etc. etc….”