Last week I visited the John Masefield Society Archive in Ledbury. It is always nice to get out from behind the desk, and having been a fan of Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights since childhood I found myself driving to Ledbury with some excitement.
The John Masefield Society Archive is based at the wonderful Master’s House. The building was originally a fifteenth century mansion, and has been lovingly converted into Ledbury’s public library (and incidentally is the nicest public library I’ve ever visited). I was warmly greeted by Bob Vaughan, who spent the next two hours showing me the collection and giving me a fantastic overview of Masefield’s life and works.
Masefield was born in Ledbury in 1878 to a middle-class family. After being orphaned at a young age he attended King’s School in Warwick before being sent to join HMS Conway as a young mariner. The influence of the sea can be found throughout his work, in poems such as his Salt-Water Ballads (1902) to pirate rats in The Box of Delights (1935). His maritime career ended abruptly after he discovered he suffered from seasickness, and Masefield abandoned his occupation on arrival in New York in 1895. He then lived as a vagrant in New York State, working in bars and even a carpet factory, which he describes in detail in his autobiography In The Mill (1941). Masefield returned to England in 1897, after deciding to become a writer. He initially found employment as a bank clerk in London, but went on to form an enduring friendship with W. B. Yeats and published his first volume of poetry (Salt-Water Ballads) in 1902. Masefield continued to publish both poetry and prose alongside writing for the Manchester Guardian. His publication of The Everlasting Mercy (1911) became an instant hit.
Masefield went on to complete war work in a British Red Cross hospital on the Western Front during the First World War, then took charge of a motorboat ambulance service (despite the seasickness). He completed a lecture tour of the United States, and in 1930 became the 16th Poet Laureate after a nomination from Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. He continued to write, including subjects from children’s novels to social issues. Masefield died in 1967, aged 88.
The Archive is a fantastic resource, incorporating just about all of Masefield’s published works along with original letters, photographs and objects. As archives have a way of doing, I’m inspired to find out more about the man, his works and life, and I can think of no better place to start than this collection. We also hold a selection of Masefield’s publications in our Gloucestershire Poets, Writers and Artists Collection at the University of Gloucestershire (being a contemporary of the Dymock Poets and from just over the border in Herefordshire), and a set of John Masefield Society Journals. Get in touch if you’d like to find out more.