Sherriff idealised the English countryside as a refuge from the ugly realities of modern society. As far back as May 1917 he wrote to his brother, Cecil “Bundy” Sherriff, how he would like to become a farmer if he survived the war: “I am very struck with the idea of…a farm in Good Old England somewhere…” (SHC ref. 2332/1/1/4/5). Later he wrote several plays in which he portrayed the unsavoury forces of modern urbanisation and materialism threatening the wholesomeness of traditional village life.

Cover design by Hilda Le May for a programme for ‘Cornlow-in-the-Downs’, 10 December 1923 (SHC ref. 2332/8/12/13)

Cover design by Hilda Le May for a programme for Cornlow-in-the-Downs, 10 December 1923 (SHC ref. 2332/8/12/13)

Click on image to enlarge

In 1923 came Sherriff’s fourth play Cornlow-in-the Downs, which was first performed at The Gables Theatre in Surbiton on 10 December. The plot centres on Tom Maraway, a ruthless businessman who sacrificed the love of his life to make his fortune. He has now become depressed, and as a cure he’s advised to stay in Cornlow-in-the-Downs, a remote village tucked away in the Sussex Downs. His doctor tells him that the vicars of the village long ago realised that the secret to safeguarding their parishioners’ happiness lay in cutting the village off from the outside world:

Extract from page 9 of a draft script for Cornlow-in-the-Downs, c.1923 (SHC ref. 2332/3/2/4/5)

Extract from page 9 of a draft script for Cornlow-in-the-Downs, c.1923 (SHC ref. 2332/3/2/4/5)

Extract from page 10 of a draft script for Cornlow-in-the-Downs, c.1923 (SHC ref. 2332/3/2/4/5)

Extract from page 10 of a draft script for Cornlow-in-the-Downs, c.1923 (SHC ref. 2332/3/2/4/5)

Click on images to enlarge

When Maraway goes there he discovers that his long lost love Mary has married the local vicar, and now lives in the village. He becomes besotted with their daughter Daphne, and plans to take her back to London with him. To this end he offers Daphne’s brother Leslie a position in his business, and in return asks him to help persuade Daphne to marry him. Maraway returns to London when Daphne refuses his proposal, and the serenity of the village is preserved.

Sherriff’s 1926 play Mr Birdie’s Finger focuses on the sleepy Hampshire village of Tinker’s Dell which is threatened by modern development. Relations between those who support and those who oppose the scheme became increasingly fraught:

Unpaginated page from a script for Mr Birdie’s Finger, c.1926 (SHC ref. 9314/4/2)

Unpaginated page from Act One of a draft script for Mr Birdie’s Finger, c.1926 (SHC ref. 9314/4/2)

Click on image to enlarge

However, a cricket match between Tinker’s Dell and the rival village of Ragolt saves the day. Mr Birdie, the star slow bowler of Tinker’s Dell cricket team, injures his finger and can’t play. Mr Winter, who is spearheading the development scheme, is a keen cricketer, and agrees to play as Mr Birdie’s replacement. Mr Winter realises he prefers to play and preserve the village’s honour against Ragolt more than anything else, and he skips an important meeting in London which, if he had gone to it, would have condemned Tinker’s Dell to the developers’ clutches. This plot probably served as the basis for Sherriff’s 1930 play Badger’s Green, which followed in the wake of Journey’s End.

Scene from an amateur production of 'Badger's Green' by Aldro School, Eastbourne, March 1935 (SHC ref 2332/6/10/2/1)

Scene from an amateur production of Badger’s Green by Aldro School, Eastbourne, March 1935 (SHC ref 2332/6/10/2/1)

Click on image to enlarge

Sherriff’s desire to retreat from what he apparently saw as the disruptiveness of urban living may have played an important role in his decision to buy “Rosebriars” in Esher in March 1930. “Rossendale”, the long time Sherriff family home in Hampton Wick, was becoming increasingly engulfed by the ever expanding sprawl of Greater London. Once a quiet village, the railway had arrived in the 1860s, and a tramline was driven through the High Street in the early 1900s. In his 1968 autobiography No Leading Lady Sherriff wrote that:

My bedroom faced on to the main road. It was on a tram route. When the trams were reasonably full the weight of them subdued the noise of the iron wheels on the rails, but the empty trams that went by late at night on their way back to the depot made a hideous row, like big empty tin boxes being dragged along at breakneck speed.

Sherriff, R C – No Leading Lady Victor Gollancz, 1968, p. 59

Perhaps memories of those noisy late night trams were ringing in his ears when he urged Bundy in a letter of 10 July 1935 that: “The great thing is to get away From Hampton Wick, which gets more impossible every day” (SHC ref. 3813/2/3). Sherriff and his mother Constance moved into “Rosebriars” in early April 1930. His father Herbert, Bundy and sister-in-law Hazel stayed put at “Rossendale” until October 1935, when they moved to 23 Couchmore Avenue in Esher, a newly built house bought for them by Sherriff. “Rossendale” was later converted into flats, and finally demolished in 2011.

This is my final post for the R C Sherriff blog, which will be continued by other posters until the end of 2015. I hope you’ve found my posts interesting. Thank you for reading them!

I’ll be giving a talk as part of the R C Sherriff Study Day on 24 October 2015 at Surrey History Centre in Woking, a full day of talks and discussion which will cover every aspect of Sherriff’s life and career. Other speakers include the military historian Michael Lucas and Sherriff’s biographer Roland Wales. The tickets are free but must be pre-booked, click here for more details.

Best wishes,

Zoë Karens

Read more about Surrey Heritage’s R C Sherriff project.

Find out more about Surrey Heritage’s First World War projects.

Share →

One Response to Escape to serenity…R C Sherriff’s literary portrayals of rural England

  1. Angus Graham says:

    I see I am the first, I am sure I am not the only one to thank Zoe for her contributions to this blog. They have been something very much to look forward to in what are otherwise rather dull excursions into hyperspace.

Leave a Comment

Comments posted using the form below will be published on the website. It is therefore recommended that you do not include any personal details or contact information in the comment.

If you have a question and want to provide personal details we recommend you use the 'Contact Us' form instead.

Your email address will not be published but it may be used to contact you with a reply to your comment. Required fields are marked *