Harry Daley (1901 – 1971)

Surrey History Centre holds the memoirs of Harry Daley of Dorking (1901-1971), Metropolitan Policeman, Merchant Seaman and one-time lover of the novelist E M Forster.

Early years in Dorking

Daley’s father had drowned in the Lowestoft Fleet shipping disaster of 1911 and the family moved to Dorking in 1916. He lived his boyhood years enjoying the halcyon days of the Edwardian era, brought to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the Great War. In his posthumous autobiography, This Small Cloud (1987), he admitted that his lack of ambition led him to take the first real job that came along, a delivery boy for the select grocers Kinghams. Delivering throughout the Dorking area, he called at Lord Ashcombe’s House, as well as Polesden Lacey, the home of famous Edwardian hostess, the Hon. Mrs Greville. He met the Prime Minister, Bonar Law, the infamous Marie Stopes and media magnate Lord Beaverbrook. Recalling customers in Peaslake, Harry remembered “Miss Wallace Dunlop, the suffragette, impressive in tweeds and a no-nonsense manner, with her pretty niece and comparatively dim companion, all painting on their easels at the edge of the sunlit common outside their cottage, became a well-known sight and a vivid memory”. (From Harry Daley’s memoirs, ‘Dorking 1916-1925’, p.11, SHC ref 7832/3).

He had lots of customers – friendly, kind and the opposite – but he was still lonely.

Being Gay

Harry in uniform, 1940s.<br /> (From <em>This Small Cloud: a Personal Memoir</em> (London, 1987))

Harry in uniform, 1940s.
(From This Small Cloud: a Personal Memoir (London, 1987))

Daley realised he was gay at an early age. He had always felt different and kept himself apart from other children, immersing himself in books, the theatre and art galleries. When his well-meaning guardians and their neighbours proffered a sweetheart to Harry, he knew this was not what he wanted – Throughout my life I have had a recurrent nightmare in which, having just been married, I lead my beautiful bride to the church door. At this point I cry out in despair “Oh what a bloody fool I am” and I wake sweating gradually realising that I have not really ruined two lives.

He saw no wrong against the general opinion at the time – in being gay nor in striking up close relationships with other men. In 1914, he met a young seaman, Nobby Clark. Very soon rumours were spreading. Threatened with punishment and prison, Harry could not believe love and affection were things to be ashamed of. He viewed his relationships as only having done him good and certainly no harm.

He joined the police force in 1925 and was soon aware that his homosexuality was widely known both among his colleagues and higher officers. Although he bore the jibes and comments stoically, he still felt the same prejudice that he felt as a boy and he wished it would stop.

Occasionally, he would encounter some more belligerent police colleagues and superiors. His policy was always not to deny his being gay nor to allow them to ride roughshod over him.

In considering the implications of gay relationships which crossed the class divide, Peter Burton in ‘Across the Great Divide’, Gay Times, February 1987, writes that Harry met gay author JR Ackerley, after being stationed in Hammersmith as a constable. Burton quotes P N Furbank, the freelance writer and critic who wrote the forward to This Small Cloud: ‘They met casually in the street early one morning and by pleasant chance it turned out in conversation that Daley, who was an indefatigable theatergoer, had seen a production of Ackerley’s play The Prisoners of War at the Lyric, Hammersmith. It initiated a long, indeed a lifelong, friendship, and quite soon, through Ackerley, Daley had become friendly with quite a number of Ackerley’s literary and artistic acquaintances, amongst them Raymond Mortimer, Duncan Grant, Gerald Heard, Leo Charlton, and E M Forster.”

Harry was persuaded by Ackerley, who was then working for the BBC, to make some radio broadcasts on the Home Service, talking about his experiences ‘on the beat’ and the criminal activity he encountered on London’s streets. Reluctantly Harry agreed and the broadcasts were subsequently published in The Listener magazine. Later, in the 1940s, Harry wrote a number of short stories and submitted them to Ackerley, now literary editor of The Listener but none were ever published. However, it was Ackerley who encouraged Harry to write his memoirs following his retirement from the Police.

The Roaring 20s – E M Forster & The Bloomsbury Set

Harry with friends in London in the 1920s. (From <em>This Small Cloud: a Personal Memoir</em> (London, 1987))

Harry with friends in London in the 1920s. (From This Small Cloud: a Personal Memoir (London, 1987))

In 1926, Harry, now part of the Bloomsbury Set, began his short relationship with E M Forster, who found him worryingly indiscreet. Forster was convinced that Harry’s indiscretion would get them all arrested.  Harry soon struck up a relationship with the artist Duncan Grant, who painted a portrait of Harry in uniform, now in the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London.  In this social circle he also became friends with J R Ackerley, Edward Sackville-West, Desmond Shawe-Taylor and other figures in the literary and musical world. His social life in the late 1920s and early 1930s was certainly gay and all-embracing.  There were many parties where several men fell in love with him but he was attracted to what he described as normal men, older, rougher and stronger than himself.

Last days and reflections

Harry Daley's manuscript memoirs SHC ref 7832/1-3

Harry Daley’s manuscript memoirs SHC ref 7832/1-3

Just short of retirement, Harry was employed as Master-At-Arms in the Merchant Navy. He faced the prospect of coming out to new friends, superiors and colleagues could he face the whispering, the sniggering, the leg pulling, the shouted insults, the cold shoulder? Yes, on the whole, he could bear all those things.

The close of Harrys life was very quiet. Retired from the Merchant Navy, he gardened and nursed his Siamese cat. He died in 1971. His ashes were scattered on Box Hill.

Reflecting on his life, he wrote:

My life has been delightful and given a chance by God or somebody of another life at the end of this then I’d say without hesitation, Same Again, please! Harry Daley’s memoirs and a copy of his posthumous autobiography This Small Cloud (1987), are held at Surrey History Centre where they are freely open to study, reference 7832/-; click the link to see the archive record.

Daley is an LGBTQ history icon.

For Duncan Grant’s portrait of Harry, painted in 1930, see the BBC’s ‘Your Paintings’ survey.

Read Harry’s entry in the online Dictionary of Biography.

8 thoughts on “Harry Daley (1901 – 1971)”

  1. Laura says:

    ‘This Small Cloud’ is a pretty astonishing book. Harry’s good humour, optimism and self-belief, sometimes in the face of great misfortune, is an inspiration, and we have people of his strength to thank for the slightly more civilised treatment of minorities now. Well worth reading by people interested in social history, police history, and anyone interested in the experience of sexual minorities in the early 20th century.

  2. Ross says:

    I read Harry Daly\’s autobiography when it first appeared and found it a stunning record of the social history of Britain in the years it covered. Daly was an interesting man, vain, vulnerable but kind to those he encountered, whose only crime was to be poor. One sentence from the book still makes me laugh years later. Commenting on the fact that many posh public schoolboys had been driven to become policemen through the Depression, Daly was delighted that \” for the first time the police were better looking than the criminals!\”

  3. John Proesch says:

    The more I hear about Harry, the more amazing he is to me. I doubt that people appreciate today what an extraordinary and courageous individual he was. Actually, I doubt that many people today even know who he was! I have not yet read his autobiography because I have yet to find a copy. I hope more people, especially other gay men, will come to know him and what he was about.

    1. Franco says:

      You can find a copy of Harry Daley’s book pretty easily on Amazon. It doesn’t cost the earth and it’s a fabulous read.
      Beautifully written, in a deceptively simple, sometimes almost naive style, he’s far too much of a gentleman to dish the dirt on anyone, but he’s deeply perceptive – and there are some lovely hints dropped about his personal relationships (including the fact the fact that he obviously got pretty fed up with the selfishness of the Bloomsbury lot.)
      He must have been a good person to know, and we should be grateful he left his book behind. It’s a gem.
      NB Duncan Grant’s rather nice portrait of Harry Daley is actually in the Guildhall Art Gallery (behind St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London) – certainly not the National Gallery, as suggested above – or even the National Portrait Gallery.

      1. ESP Admin says:

        Dear Franco

        Many thanks for the comment. We’ve updated the page to give the correct location for Harry’s portrait, added a couple of extra links and some more information. It’s good to know that Harry’s book is still readily available.

        1. Franco says:

          Excellent! Keep up the good work.

  4. richard shone says:

    Grant’s portrait of Daley (Guildhall) was included in Tate Britain’s Queer Art exhibition in 2017. Grant was not a sculptor (see main article [the main article has been edited as a result of this comment]) and he did not have an affair with Daley. I met Daley twice in 1968 (once in Dorking, along with Ackerley’s sister Nancy and Harry’s brother David and his (male) partner) and knew Grant very well. He told me he went to bed with Daley just once.

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