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

Harry Daley was born on 14 November 1901 in Lowestoft, Suffolk. He had a very happy childhood with four siblings, Annie, Janet, Joseph, and David, and he attended the local school. Tragically, his father, Joseph, drowned in the Lowestoft Fleet shipping disaster of September 1911 and Harry left school to become an errand boy. Harry lived his boyhood years enjoying the halcyon days of the Edwardian era but these were brought to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the First World War. In 1916, fearing Zeppelin raids and invasion, his mother, Emily, moved the family to Dorking where Annie, her eldest daughter, was already living. The family lived at 7 Hart Gardens, a terraced house not far from the town centre. Harry’s older brother, Joseph Daley, served with the Suffolk Regiment and then the Machine Gun Corps and tragically was injured and sent to a casualty clearing station where he died on 7 November 1918, just days before the Armistice. He is buried at Busigny village Communal Cemetery extension, France.

In his posthumous autobiography, This Small Cloud (1987), Daley 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 at Denbies, 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 at Norbury Park, 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. (From This Small Cloud: a Personal Memoir (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, classical music and art galleries. When his well-meaning guardians and their neighbours proffered a sweetheart to Harry, he knew this was not what he wanted – he wrote: “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.

Harry longed to be part of London life and joined the Metropolitan Police in 1925, working beats in Chiswick, Hammersmith and Wandsworth. It was not an obvious choice of career, especially as Harry described himself as ‘well below average plain common sense; sexually both innocent and deplorable; honourable if not exactly honest; trusting; truthful; romantic and sentimental to the point of sloppiness‘ (This Small Cloud,  p.78). He soon became 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. Considering that homosexual activity was illegal at the time, astonishingly, Harry’s openness never affected his career. There is true irony in the fact that he was a gay man, and a policeman, but was never himself arrested. He was affable, gregarious, and had a good sense of humour, which seems to have been key in avoiding recrimination.

Harry was working-class but was a self-taught man, with an voracious appetite for classical music, opera and literature; he adored The New Statesman. 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 in 1925 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, Lionel 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. Incredibly, the Metropolitan Police gave permission and reluctantly Harry agreed; the first broadcast ‘Not a happy one?’ went out on 25 March 1929, followed by others, all subsequently published in The Listener magazine (edited by Ackerley). 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 This Small Cloud: a Personal Memoir (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 friendship with the artist Duncan Grant, who in 1930, 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 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 lively and all-embracing.  Daley’s relationship with Forster ended in 1932. 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. Harry was different, working class, self-taught but with a love of culture. However, his indiscretion prevailed and he fell out with the Bloomsbury Set, which caused bitterness and resentment. Even years later when Forster was in a relationship with Bob Buckingham, a young married policeman, this bitterness led Daley to inform Bob’s wife of her husband’s relationship with Forster.

Harry could be vain but he was also vulnerable. He was kind to the criminals he encountered, many of whom were simply petty thieves and of the same class as him. He was also attracted to them, as well as his colleagues. Commenting on the fact that the 1920s Depression had driven many middle class public schoolboys to become policemen, Daley remarked that for the first time the police were better looking than the criminals!

Later days in Dorking and reflections

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

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

The 1939 Register, compiled as part of the National Identity Card Registration initiative at the beginning of the Second World War, shows Harry recorded as a Police Sergeant, living at the Police Section House, 40 Beak Street, City of Westminster, along with his colleagues. During the war Harry experienced the full horror of the Blitz, with dead bodies and destruction all around him. He recalled that friends and colleagues who enlisted in the services ‘were killed almost as soon as they could be trained’.

Harry left the Police in May 1950 and moved back to Dorking, residing at ‘Hillview’ (now 78 Pixham Lane), a cottage which he shared with his younger brother, David, who was also gay, and David’s partner, John Kenny. Their mother, Emily, had moved to this cottage in 1939, and lived there with David until her death in 1944.

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 Harry’s life was very quiet. Retiring from the Merchant Navy, Harry nursed his Siamese cat and gardened at his cottage. He also worked for a time at Friends’ Provident where he met John Coombes. John, who later became a book dealer, and his wife, were great friends with Harry and instrumental in preparing Harry’s manuscript for publication; they visited him regularly at the end of his life whilst he was ill in Dorking Cottage Hospital. Harry suffered from diabetes and died on 12 March 1971. His ashes were scattered on Box Hill. Probate valued Harry’s estate at £803.

Reflecting on his life, Harry 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!”

Peter Parker, J.R. Ackerley’s biographer, contributed the Dictionary of National Biography entry for Harry, and of This Small Cloud he comments: ‘This remarkable book is not only funny, touching, and self-deprecatory, but is an important social document.’

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.

As part of Pride in Surrey 2020, Di Stiff, Collections Development Archivist at Surrey History Centre in Woking, talks about Harry Daley of Dorking and his memoirs: This Small Cloud.

Download a pdf (PDF) copy of a transcript for this video.


For Duncan Grant’s portrait of Harry, painted in 1930, see the The Art UK website.

Read Harry’s entry by Peter Parker in the online Dictionary of National Biography.

Peter Parker, Ackerley (1989)

P. N. Furbank, E. M. Forster: a life, 2 vols. (1977–8)

The letters of J. R. Ackerley, ed. N. Braybrooke (1975)

Stephen Bourne includes a chapter about Harry Daley and his time in the London Blitz in Fighting Proud, (2017)

Stephen Bourne’s article about Harry’s as a gay policeman in the 1920s, can be read at https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-oldie/20191201/281590947356262

Stephen Bourne talks about This Small Cloud on You Tube

A photograph of Harry Daley directing traffic on Hammersmith Broadway, c.1929, can be seen at https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/8284772588

For details of Harry Daley’s death see his entry on Find A Grave

Baptism of Harry Daley, son of Joseph and Emily, 3 January 1902, Lowestoft, Suffolk (index only via Ancestry.co.uk; original at Suffolk Record Office)

National Probate Calendar: Harry Daley, probate granted 7 April 1971 (via Ancestry.co.uk)

1939 Register: shows Sgt Harry Daley living at the Metropolitan Police Section House, 40 Beak Street, City of Westminster (via Ancestry.co.uk)

Electoral registers for Reigate and Dorking Constituencies, 1927-1971 (Surrey History Centre (SHC refs CC802/- and via Ancestry.co.uk). Emily and David Daley resided at 7 Hart Gardens, Dorking, from 1916 to 1939, and then moved to ‘Hillview’, 78 Pixham Lane, Dorking. In 1944 Emily died (Jan Qtr). and thereafter, David lived on his own until 1951 and thereafter with his partner, John Kenny. Harry is also registered at the cottage from 1951 until his death in 1971.

11 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.

  5. SB says:

    When did Harry actually complete his memoirs?

  6. Duane D. Brodnick says:

    Where can I found a copy of this book? I couldn’t find it on Kindle.

    1. ESP Admin says:

      Hi Duane

      I’m afraid there’s still no easy way of tracking down a copy of ‘This Small Cloud’, apart from second-hand book sellers. You might, however, like to take a look at Stephen Bourne’s article about Harry at https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-oldie/20191201/281590947356262 and his interview on You Tube https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=Harry+Daley&ei=niYGX6zqFZXE8gLxgb7IAg&start=10&sa=N&ved=2ahUKEwissZfWub7qAhUVolwKHfGADykQ8NMDegQIERBD&biw=1607&bih=766#spf=1594239597783 There is a chapter about Harry in Stephen Bourne’s excellent book about gay men on the First and Second World Wars, ‘Fighting Proud’ (published by I B Tauris/Bloomsbury, 2017), which includes his wartime life during the London Blitz. One of the comments on the video mentions that Stephen Bourne did recently approach the publisher of ‘This Small Cloud’ to enquire about re-issuing it. It might be worth getting in touch with Stephen via his website http://www.stephenbourne.co.uk/.

      Di Stiff
      Surrey History Centre

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