RC Sherriff (1896 – 1975)
Author Robert Cedric Sherriff lived in Esher for most of his life and was one of the 9 million men who served during the First World War. His experiences led him to write his first and most spectacular dramatic success Journey’s End.
There are three collections of Sherriff’s papers held at Surrey History Centre, all of which are now fully catalogued and accessible thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund, and support from Surrey History Trust, Kingston Grammar School, The RC Sherriff Trust, and Curtis Brown Literary Agents.
Robert ”Bob” Cedric Sherriff was born in Hampton Wick, Middlesex, on 6 June 1896, to insurance clerk Herbert ”Pips” Hankin (1857-1940), and his wife Constance, née Winder. Herbert’s family hailed from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, where his father had been the Governor of Aylesbury Prison. Herbert’s grandfather and great grandfather also seem to have been governors of the same prison. Constance (1871-1965) was also born in Buckinghamshire, but by the time she and Herbert had begun courting her family home was in the Mortlake/Richmond area, then part of Surrey. Her father Charles Winder is described as a ‘Baker’ and later ‘Managing Baker’ in successive census records. The same records also indicate that Constance was in fact her middle name, her Christian name actually being Annie. However, her preference was to be called Constance, and she is usually referred to as Constance in surviving archive material.
Sherriff was educated at Kingston Grammar School, where he was a member of the rowing, cricket and hockey teams, and took part in various school athletic events during his time there. He seems to have been more of a sporty than scholarly pupil, and won several sports prizes.
First World War
By the outbreak of the First World War Sherriff had left school and begun work as a clerk at the Sun Fire Office, the same company as his father. Although his employers preferred for Sherriff not to enlist, he joined up in November 1915 with the Artists Rifles. By January 1916 he had begun his training at Hare Hall Camp at Gidea Park, Romford, Essex. In September 1917 he obtained a commission with the East Surrey Regiment as a Second Lieutenant. Sherriff was sent to France, landing at Boulogne on 28 September 1916. He reached the 9th Battalion, the East Surrey Regiment, at Estrée-Cauchy on 1 October 1916, and served in France until he was wounded in action on 2 August 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres), and was sent back to England for treatment.
During his active service Sherriff mentioned suffering bouts of neuralgia in letters to his parents, and he would later portray the character of Hibbert in ‘Journey’s End’ as claiming to suffer from the same condition. He never returned to active service in France, and remained with the 3rd and 12th Battalions, the East Surrey Regiment, in Britain until he was demobilised in early 1919. Sherriff’s ‘Officer’s Record of Service’ shows that he retained the rank of Second Lieutenant throughout his active service in France. Later while on home service he was promoted firstly to Lieutenant on 5 March 1918, and then later to Captain on 8 January 1919.
Early plays before ‘Journey’s End’
In 1919 Sherriff unsuccessfully applied for a permanent commission in the army, and he returned to working for his pre-war employers. He devoted his free time to sport, creative writing and amateur dramatics. Prior to ‘Journey’s End‘ Sherriff wrote at least six plays on an amateur basis, often as a means to raise funds for local causes and organisations, including the Kingston Rowing Club. In 1921 came his first play, a farce called ‘A Hitch in the Proceedings‘, which was first performed by The Adventurers at the Gables Theatre in Surbiton. His final staged play prior to ‘Journey’s End‘ was ‘Mr Birdie’s Finger‘, which was first performed in 1926 by The Genesta Amateur Dramatic Club at Surbiton Assembly Rooms. Sherriff also acted in several of these early plays, as did his sister Beryl Sherriff (1893-1966).
In 1928 came ‘Journey’s End‘, his first and most spectacular dramatic success, which was produced by the Incorporated Stage Society and performed for just two nights at the Apollo Theatre in London on 9 and 10 December 1928. The play was set in the trenches in March 1918, and was based on his own experiences and comrades at the Western Front.
Previous war plays by other writers had not yet proved to be popular with audiences, and ‘Journey’s End‘ was viewed as a risky prospect by theatre managers. However, its first two performances were well received, and the play transferred to the Savoy Theatre in January 1929. It soon proved to be a critical and commercial success on an international basis, and was performed in places as varied as Estonia and Japan.
Watch Roland Wales’ video about the authenticity of Journey’s End (YouTube):
Career during the 1930s
During the 1930s Sherriff went on to write several more plays which reached the West End, including ‘St Helena‘ (1936), which he co-wrote with the actress Jeanne de Casalis. They met with varying degrees of success, but never equalled that achieved by ‘Journey’s End‘, He also published the novels ‘The Fortnight in September‘ (1931), which proved popular with readers, ‘Greengates‘ (1936) and ‘The Hopkins Manuscript‘ (1939), which saw Sherriff tackle the science fiction genre. For two years from October 1931 he held a special studentship at New College, Oxford, where he later (1937) founded a scholarship.
Sherriff also began his career as a screenplay writer during this decade. In 1932 he signed a contract with Universal Pictures in Hollywood, and the rest of the decade saw him travelling back and forth to California from Surrey, while he wrote and co-wrote various film scripts, including ‘The Invisible Man‘ (1933), ‘One More River‘ (1934) and ‘The Road Back‘ (1937). His biggest success came in 1939 when he was nominated along with Eric Maschwitz and Claudine West for an Academy Award for writing the adapted screenplay for ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips‘.
With the outbreak of the Second World War Sherriff attempted to return to Britain to help with the war effort, but various circumstances beyond his control meant he was not able to leave Hollywood for several years. During this time he wrote and co-wrote more screenplays for the studios, including ‘That Hamilton Woman‘ (1941), ‘This Above All‘ (1942) and the Academy Award winning ‘Mrs Miniver‘ (1942), for which he was an uncredited writer.
By the end of 1944 Sherriff had managed to secure a passage home, and on his return to Britain he resumed play writing, beginning with ‘Miss Mabel‘ (1948). Four further plays of his were staged between 1950 and 1960. One of these plays was ‘The White Carnation‘ (1953), which was revived in late 2013 at Finborough Theatre in London, and later transferred to Jermyn Street Theatre in early 2014. Sherriff’s principal hobby, archaeology, is reflected in his play ‘The Long Sunset‘ (1955), which is set in AD 410, and tells the story of the last of the Roman families left in Britain following the collapse of the Empire. He again channelled his interest in history when he wrote the children’s novels ‘King John’s Treasure‘ (1954), and ‘The Siege of Swayne Castle‘ (1973), which was his last published work. However, it was his work as a screenplay writer which yielded his most notable successes during the post-World War Two phase of his career. In 1956 Sherriff was nominated for BAFTA Best British Screenplay Awards for ‘The Dam Busters‘ and also ‘The Night My Number Came Up‘, both of which had been released in 1955.
Sherriff’s memoir, ‘No Leading Lady‘, was published in 1968. He never married, and remained devoted to his mother, with whom he lived, latterly at his Esher house ‘Rosebriars’, which he had bought in March 1930. The pair lived together at ‘Rosebriars’ until Constance died in 1965, after which Sherriff lived alone. He died in Kingston Hospital on 13 September 1975, and was survived by his younger brother Cecil ‘Bundy’ Sherriff (1899-1989), an insurance official. His sister Beryl had died in 1966, just one year after their mother.
Sherriff bequeathed his papers to the Governors of Kingston Grammar School, while his royalties were divided between the School and the Scouts Association. He also bequeathed his home to Elmbridge Borough Council as an arts venue. It was later sold, and the capital realized on its sale established the RC Sherriff Trust (formerly the Rosebriars Trust), which supports the arts within Elmbridge Borough.
For a definitive list of RC Sherriff’s literary works compiled by Roland Wales, including both published and unpublished plays, books and films, click here.
View an online gallery of 40 images from the Sherriff collections charting his life and works.
Discover more about Journey’s End and the man behind the play
Find out more about the HLF project ‘To Journey’s End and Beyond: the life and legacy of RC Sherriff’
Click here to read the RC Sherriff project blogs which delve deeper into Sherriff’s fascinating papers.
Use the following links to browse the Sherriff archive collections catalogues or search the collections by using the keyword box at the top of the page:
SHC ref: 2332 – R C Sherriff (1896-1975), Dramatist and Novelist: Correspondence and Papers, 1862-1975
SHC ref: 3813 – Robert Cedric Sherriff (1896-1975), Dramatist and Novelist: Additional Papers, 1871-1958
SHC ref: 9314 – R C Sherriff [1896-1975), Dramatist and Novelist: Additional Papers, 1925-2015
The R C Sherriff Trust is an independent charitable trust with the aim of advancing and developing the arts in the Borough of Elmbridge in Surrey, www.rcsherrifftrust.org.uk
RC Sherriff’s literary agents are Curtis Brown. For further details of Sherriff’s literary output and Curtis Brown’s work, see their website http://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/r-c-sherriff/
For details of Kingston Grammar School see their website http://www.kgs.org.uk/. The school’s archive has retained a small amount of material relating to RC Sherriff, and the archivist can be contacted at [email protected]
To search the KGS Online Archive of digitised copies of school magazines from 1883 onwards go to http://archive.kgs.org.uk/
Persephone Books have reprinted Sherriff’s novels, The Hopkins Manuscript (1939) and The Fortnight in September (1931), with Greengates (1933) due to be launched in October 2015. Their website http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/ links to The Persephone Forum which features fascinating articles about these novels and their context.
A podcast of Michael Lucas’ talk ‘The Journey’s End Battalion: The 9th East Surrey and RC Sherriff in the Great War’, based on his book of the same name, is featured on The National Archives website see http://media.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php/author/mlucas/
For Twickenham Museum’s information page about RC Sherriff see http://www.twickenham-museum.org.uk/detail.php?aid=310&cid=7&ctid=1
For an online project, run by Pascal Mantel, to record the wartime memories of Estree Cauchy, the village where RC Sherriff joined the 9th Bn East Surrey Regiment at the beginning of October 1916, see Mémoires d’Estrée Cauchy (Facebook).
Roland Wales, author of the new RC Sherriff biography From Journey’s End to the Dam Busters: The Life of R.C. Sherriff, Playwright of the Trenches (2016, Pen & Sword) has set up a blog featuring Sherriff’s letters home from the trenches on the date they were written, one hundred years ago, see www.rolandwales.com. The book is available now https://www.amazon.co.uk. Contact the author, Roland Wales, on twitter (roland_wales).