Surrey author and screenwriter Robert Cedric Sherriff (1896-1975) is famous throughout the world for Journey’s End, the greatest play in the English language to explore the experience of serving in the trenches of the Western Front. In 2013 Surrey Heritage was awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant for a First World War commemoration project entitled To Journey’s End and Beyond: the Life and Legacy of R C Sherriff which has celebrated Sherriff’s life and cultural legacy. As a junior officer in the East Surrey Regiment, Sherriff spent four gruelling months on the Western Front until he was wounded at Passchendaele in August 1917. His papers contain the hundreds of letters he wrote to his parents and friends. He later drew directly on these letters in the writing of his iconic and deeply moving play Journey’s End, the action of which is set in a British dugout on the eve of the great German offensive of March 1918. First performed in 1928 with a young Laurence Olivier in the lead role, it remains a key part of the literary legacy of the Great War.
Sherriff went on to become a successful Hollywood scriptwriter, responsible for such classics as ‘The Dam Busters’ and ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’. Letters relating to this period of his life when Sherriff became the highest paid British scriptwriter in Hollywood abound with famous names.
The papers contain dozens of scripts for his plays, and radio adaptations of them. There are hundreds of press cuttings for his works, reviewed wherever they were performed, from the West End to local amateur dramatic societies, and across the world.
Transcript of Sherriff’s letter to his mother:
“My Company Commander did not write a letter with his present – but he just sent his card inside the letter case – I am sending the card, and I value it just as much as I would a long letter – he says “In memory of New Year’s Day”, and New Year’s Day will always be memorable as I was with him all day from 3 in the morning till 2 in the afternoon, during which time we were shelled almost incessantly…”
What has the project achieved?
The HLF funded project was completed in May 2016 and through the following activities has explored and commemorated all aspects of Sherriff’s long and productive life, and his wide-ranging literary output:
- The project blog has revealed new discoveries from Sherriff’s papers and allowed us to delve deeper into aspects of Sherriff’s life and career not previously investigated. Visit the project blog.
- Sherriff’s extensive letters and papers held at Surrey History Centre in Woking, which document his life and creative activities in unique detail, are now catalogued and preserved. The three collection catalogues are now complete and available online:
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
- Volunteers were trained in archive conservation and packaging skills as they assisted the project archivist in sorting portions of the collection, particularly the newscuttings and photographs. These precious records are now fully accessible to the public for the first time and a range of finding aid including a spreadsheet charting every production of Journey’s End, both amateur and professional, have been created.
- Workshops were run in four schools in Elmbridge Borough using Sherriff’s letters to his parents from the trenches to help students to understand what it was like to serve in the trenches. The output of these workshops, “One Among Millions”, can be viewed on YouTube (see below). These two short films, produced by Grant Watson of Pursued by a Bear Productions, explore Sherriff’s service in the Great War and use music, original film footage and the students’ extraordinary and poignant creative responses to Sherriff’s letters home to evoke life on the Western Front.
- A new play exploring the genesis of Journey’s End in Sherriff’s own wartime service with the 9th Battalion, the East Surrey Regiment. The play called ‘How Like it All is’ by Roland Wales was commissioned and had a rehearsed reading by Kingston Grammar School students at the Rose Theatre in June 2014, followed by a full performance by students at the school on 25 September 2015.
- A newly created touring exhibition travelled to a number of venues around the county. Click here for the virtual exhibition.
- A collections leaflet has been created to bring Sherriff’s life and writings to a wider audience. Download a pdf () copy of the leaflet here.
- A study day was held at Surrey History Centre on 24 October 2015, with talks from experts on every aspect of Sherriff’s life and career. Speakers included Roland Wales, David Grindley, Juliet Gardiner, David Cottis, Michael Lucas, and Zoe Karens.
- A free learning resource has been created to enable KS4 English and History teachers and students to study documents and photographs from Sherriff’s archive in order to deepen understanding of how Journey’s End came to be written. Click here to access the resource.
One Among Millions
Two short films were created as part of the project.
- One Among Millions: Letters from the Frontline features letters from the trenches created and narrated by students from four schools in Elmbridge Borough who were inspired by the letters of playwright R C Sherriff, author of Journey’s End.Click here to see the YouTube video.
Click here to download a pdf () copy of the accompanying ‘One Among Millions: Letters from the Frontline’ booklet.
- One Among Millions: The military career of RC Sherriff tells the story of playwright R C Sherriff’s service in the Great War with the 9th Battalion, the East Surrey Regiment. The film features contributions from Sherriff experts Michael Lucas, Roland Wales and project archivist, Zoe Karens.Click here to see the YouTube video.
Click here to download a pdf () copy of the transcript of the One Among Millions: The military career of RC Sherriff video.
For further information on the project is available from Mike Page, County Archivist on 01483 518756 or email: [email protected]
Sport, War, Hollywood and more – view an online gallery of 40 images from the Sherriff collections charting his life and works.
Click here to read the RC Sherriff project blogs which delve deeper into Sherriff’s fascinating papers.
Explore the Sherriff Archive and Library Collections and finding aids.
Discover Edward Cole’s caricatures of officers from the 9th Battalion, The East Surrey Regiment, some of whom fought alongside Sherriff and inspired characters in Journey’s End.
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. R C Sherriff lived in a house called “Rosebriars” in Esher until his death in 1975, whereupon he left “Rosebriars” to Elmbridge Borough Council for social and cultural purposes. The capital realized on its sale established the RC Sherriff Trust. 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/.
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.