Actor, playwright and private in the East Surrey Regiment

Sir Noël Coward by Dorothy Wilding,1951 (Courtesy of LGBT History Month. Copyright Tom Hustler/National Portrait Gallery)

Sir Noël Coward by Dorothy Wilding,1951
(Courtesy of LGBT History Month. Copyright Tom Hustler/National Portrait Gallery)

Noël Pierce Coward (1899-1973) was conscripted into the East Surrey Regiment on 23 March 1918.  The regimental recruitment register gives his address as 111 Ebury Street, Eaton Square, London, and shows he transferred to the 28th Battalion (Artists Rifles), London Regiment.  Due to a tubercular weakness he was later found to be unfit for military service and discharged in August that year.

The Quintessential English Gent

Despite his adopted persona as the quintessential, upper-class English gent, Coward, was born in Teddington in 1899, the son of a piano salesman.  He made his stage debut aged 11 and by his late teens his theatre career had already taken off; he began mixing with high society, the setting for most of his plays.

Coward and the Great War

In the last stages of the First World War Coward served in the East Surrey Regiment.

He was conscripted on 23 March 1918. The regimental recruitment register (SHC ref 2496/28) gives his address as 111 Ebury Street, Camberwell and shows he transferred to the 28th Battalion (Artists Rifles), London Regiment. Due to a tubercular weakness causing ‘30 per cent degree of disablement’ he was later found to be unfit for military service and discharged in August that year.

The East Surrey Regiment recruitment register (SHC ref 2496/28)

The East Surrey Regiment recruitment register (SHC ref 2496/28)

Noël Coward’s military service papers are held at The National Archives and are among more than two million soldiers’ service records that have been digitised and are now available on Ancestry.co.uk They can be searched for free at Surrey History Centre. His papers show that he never saw active service and that soon after transferring out of the East Surrey’s, he reported sick with a neurological condition.

The medical notes read:

“At 9 years old he was knocked down by a bicycle & concussed. Since then he has been suffering from headaches & vertigo & general nervous debility. He was called up to join the army in June but soon after he reported sick with Neuroasthenia. Admitted to GMH Colchester on 25/6/18”.

Coward’s condition was recorded as ‘hereditary” rather than “constitutional” or “aggravated by service”. The medical assessor noted that while his character might have been “sturdy”, Coward “looks pale, shaky” and that he had an “emotionally unstable family history”. Neuroasthenia, with symptoms including fatigue and headaches, was a popular diagnosis in Edwardian times but less so after the First World War.

See Coward’s lifestory on the Lives of the First World War website.

A Successful Career

By 1929, Coward had become one of the world’s highest-earning writers, with an annual income over 50,000.  He achieved enduring success as a playwright and composer, producing dozens of musical shows and publishing more than 50 plays, including Blithe Spirit and This Happy Breed.  He also penned over a hundred songs, including Mad Dogs and Englishmen, London Pride and Don’t Lets be Beastly to the Germans.

Also an accomplished film director, Coward was screenwriter and producer/director of eighteen films, In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter being two of the most acclaimed. As an actor, he turned down roles in Dr No and Lolita and his last film was The Italian Job with Michael Caine in 1969.

Second World War Work

During the Second World War Coward gave up theatre to run the British propaganda office in Paris and work on behalf of British intelligence.  He concluded that “if the policy of His Majesty’s Government is to bore the Germans to death I don’t think we have time”! At Churchill’s request he ceased war work and began entertaining the troops.

Sexuality and the public persona

Coward was homosexual but as with the majority at that time never publicly admitted it and he remained ‘the congenital bachelor’.  In 1913, he became the protege and probably the lover of Philip Streatfeild, a society painter.  From the 1940s to his death, his long term partner was actor Graham Payn, although among his lovers were playwright Keith Winter, actors Louis Hayward and Alan Webb, his manager Jack C Wilson and the composer Ned Rorem, who published details of their relationship in his diaries.  Coward firmly believed his private life was exactly that and even in the 1960s, he refused to confirm his sexual orientation publicly, wryly observing, “There are still a few old ladies in Worthing who don’t know.” Coward did, however, encourage his secretary Cole Lesley to write a frank biography after his death.

Noël Coward died in Jamaica in 1973. His papers are held at the University of Birmingham Special Collections.

Coward is an LGBT history icon.

Sources:

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