JR Ackerley (1896-1967)
Novelist, dramatist, poet, editor and Captain in the East Surrey Regiment
Joseph Randall Ackerley was born in Kent in 1896. Known for his eccentricity, he became the archetypal British ‘gay man of letters’ and his personal and professional friends, including many Surrey Gay icons, were all part of the homosexual literary set. Ackerley joined the BBC in 1928 and was literary editor of its Listener weekly magazine from 1935 to 1959.
Ackerley was profoundly affected by his First World War service and he was haunted by ‘survivor’s guilt’. His play Prisoners of War (1925) based on his wartime experiences, was outspokenly pro-gay, as were his other books and poems.
Ackerley and The Great War
‘I was a pretty boy and used to being run after’.
Like most middle class boys in public school education, Ackerley applied for a commission at the outbreak of war and was gazetted a second lieutenant in the 8th (Service) Battalion East Surrey Regiment on 14 Sep 1914; he was a few months short of his 18th birthday. He was later promoted to a captain. In April 1915, he was billeted in Colchester, along with Captain ‘Billie’ Nevill, who was later killed in the famous East Surrey football charge at Montauban, on the first day of the Somme, 1 July 1916. During final training in Salisbury, in May 1915, Ackerley met his best friend of the war, Bobby Soames.
Two incidents on the Western Front haunted Ackerley for the rest of his life. On the first day of the Somme, the British suffered 60,000 casualties; Ackerley was shot in the arm and peppered with glass shards. Frightened and dazed, he lay in a shell-hole for six hours as men all around him were picked off by German snipers. Ackerley’s cap was shot from his head but he was eventually taken to the safety of a first-aid post. This attack saw the death of Bobby Soames.
Later that month, in an attempt to exorcise the nightmare memory Ackerley wrote The Everlasting Terror, which was published in the November issue of the prestigious English Review. It is dedicated ‘To Bobby’ and ends with a memorial to him:
And so through all my life and days,
In all my walks, through all my ways,
The lasting terror of war
Will live with me for evermore.
Of all the pals whom I have missed
There’s one, I know, whom Christ has kissed,
And in his memory I’ll find
The sweetness of the bitter rind –
Of lonely life in front of me
And terror’s sleepless memory
The second incident occurred in May 1917 as Ackerley lead his men on an attack at Cérisy, Arras. The troops were unprepared for a counter-attack and Ackerley, shot in the buttock and thigh, was again left lying in a shell hole for hours, with dead and dying officers. He was eventually collected by a German stretcher-bearer and after an exhausting journey wrapped in louse-ridden blankets, he ended up at a hospital in Hanover.
Recovery and awakening
After recovering, Ackerley was sent to a string of POW camps before being transferred to a neutral site at Mürren, in the Swiss Alps. He used this experience as inspiration for writing The Prisoners of War, which revolves around a Captain’s comfortable captivity in Switzerland and his longing for an attractive young lieutenant. At Mürren, Ackerley met the author Arnold Lunn, who confronted him about his sexuality. Lunn immediately set him to read the ‘standard works’ on the subject of homosexuality such as Otto Weinberger and Edward Carpenter. Such writers were a revelation to him.
The war dragged on; Ackerley’s brother, Peter, a Lieutenant also in the 8th Battalion, was killed in France in August 1918 and Ackerley narrowly avoided Spanish Flu, which killed several of the inmates at Mürren. Ackerley finally returned to England in December 1918. Experiencing a precarious relationship with his father, Ackerley felt that the wrong son had returned from the war and this haunted him throughout his lifetime.
No service papers can be found for Ackerley and we assume that he did not apply for his medals as no medal index card can be found either.
Ackerley, Forster and others
Ackerley is linked to many other Surrey LGBTQ+ icons including EM Forster, Noël Coward and Harry Daley; he also discovered and promoted the writer WH Auden, who had been a pupil at St Edmund’s School, Hindhead. John Gielgud was a friend of Ackerley’s and he attended the opening night of The Prisoners of War.
Ackerley met Forster in the early 1920s and the two became great friends, Forster acting somewhat as a confident and adviser on Ackerley’s complex love life. The two exchanged hundreds of letters over the years and towards the end of his life, Ackerley sold his letters from Forster, for £6000. Ackerley did not live long enough to enjoy the money, dying of a coronary thrombosis at his home in Putney on 4 June 1967. His autobiography, My Father and Myself was published posthumously in 1968 and two years later Portrait of E M Forster was published, with a collection of his own correspondence, The Ackerley Letters, following in 1975.
Harry Daley, a gay policeman originally from Dorking, who was stationed in Hammersmith had also seen a production of The Prisoners of War at the Lyric, Hammersmith. P N Furbank, the freelance writer and critic who wrote the forward to Daley’s memoir This Small Cloud recalls: ‘They met casually in the street early one morning and …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.” Daley and Forster later became lovers.
Daley 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 Daley 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.
Ackerley speaks out
In November 1942, Ackerley wrote to the editor of The Spectator about the suffering and unjust legal treatment of homosexuals:
“During the course of the legal proceedings against twenty men recently concluded at Abergavenny, one youth of nineteen committed suicide on the railway lines, and two others attempted unsuccessfully to do away with themselves by hanging and poison, to avoid the shame of exposure. The reports from which these facts are gathered were published on August 23rd and November 8th in the newspaper referred to above. It would be interesting to know whether public opinion today regards such suffering as merited, and the savage sentences, up to and including ten years’ penal servitude, allowed by the law and imposed by the judge, as the most enlightened method of dealing with this matter”.
From: The Letters of J. R. Ackerley, ed. Neville Braybrooke (1975)
- Photograph of Captain J R Ackerley, c.1916 can be found in an East Surrey Regiment photograph album (SHC ref ESR/18/2/2 p.6)
- Photograph of Ackerley (far right), with fellow officers, possibly in France, c.1916. This photograph comes from an album compiled by the brother of Captain Billie Nevill, who was killed at Montauban (SHC ref ESR/25/NEVI/1, p.26)
- The nominal roll for the 8th Battalion shows J R Ackerley went overseas with the unit on 27 July 1915. The ‘remarks’ column states that he was wounded and missing from 6 May 1917 and recorded as a Prisoner of War. The roll also records Ackerley’s brother, Peter, who was killed in action in August 1918 (SHC ref 8227/2/5).
- The war diary for the 8th (Service) Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, at Montauban, the first day of the Somme, 1st July 1916, runs to seven pages and includes the deaths of Capt Billie Nevill and Ackerley’s best friend Lieutenant Bobby Soames. The First World War diaries of both the East Surrey and the Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) regiments are available to view online courtesy of The Surrey Infantry Museum http://www.queensroyalsurreys.org.uk
- Obituary notice for Captain J R Ackerley, Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment Newsletter, November 1967, p.5
- Peter Parker, A Life of JR Ackerley, 1989
- Peter Burton, ‘Across the Great Divide’, Gay Times, February 1987
- Daley, Harry, This Small Cloud, 1987
- For an essay by Rictor Norton, ‘Just Like Home: The Gay Love Letters of JR Ackerley’ (1997-1998), see http://rictornorton.co.uk/ackerley.htm
To find out more about EM Forster in the First World War click here.
The Prisoners of War (first performed 5 July 1925)
Escapers All (1932)
My Father and Myself (1968)
E.M. Forster: A Portrait (1970)