Monday, 4 November 2019

J.R. Ackerley (1896 – 1967) – WW1 soldier poet and playwright

J.R. Ackerlwy, WW1
Joe Randolph Ackerley was born on 4th November 1896 in Herne Hill, Kent. His father was Roger Ackerley, a successful fruit merchant and his mother was Janetta Aylward, an actress.

Joe Ackerley attended Rossall School in Fleetwood, Lancashire, played hockey for his House and became Captain of the School shooting team. His literary ambitions were fostered by S.P.B. Mais, a young schoolmaster who set up a debating and literary society which met in his rooms every Saturday night. Mais regarded Ackerley as a promising poet and in1923 wrote: “I’ve watched the progress of this young poet since he was 14.”

Ackerley left Rossall School in 1914 and was commissioned into the 8th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment straight from school. The East Surreys went to France in June 1915. He sent the occasional poems back to his old school, one of which was entitled “R.H. in the Trenches”.

Ackerley was wounded at the Battle of the Somme, on the first day of the Somme Offensive - 1st July 1916 - and was sent back to Britain. A few months later, he returned to the front to serve in the same Regiment as his brother Peter, who also attended Rossall School. Peter was wounded in February
1917. In May 1917, Joe Ackerley saw action at Arras and was wounded again. While waiting to be rescued, the Germans arrived and took Joe prisoner. His brother, Peter was killed on 17th August 1918. Joe was fortunate in that he was released into internment in Switzerland in December 1917, after six months in hospitals and prison camps.

The war left a lasting impression on Ackerley as is revealed in his poem “The Everlasting Terror”. It was written in memory of his friend Bobby Soames who was killed on 1st July 1916.   After the war, Ackerley went to Cambridge University. When his father died in 1929, Ackerley discovered that his father had a second family. His father’s mistress, Muriel Perry, had been a nurse during WW1. Roger and Muriel had three daughters, one of whom was Sally Grosvenor, Duchess of Westminster.

Following a move to London, Ackerley met E.M. Forster and other literary stars of that time. In 1923 he had a poem published in an anthology of young British Writers. Forster arranged for Ackerley to
travel to India to work as secretary to the Majaraja of Chhatarpur, a position he held for about six months.

As well as poetry, Ackerley also wrote a play called “Prisoners of War” which was finally produced in 1925 and performed initially in London at The Three Hundred Club, before transferring to The Playhouse. This enabled Ackerley to meet and mix with some of the famous names of the London theatrical scene of the 1920s, among them John Gielgud.

In 1928, Ackerley joined the BBC, which had been set up in 1927, to work in the department that arranged radio lectures. In 1935 he became Literary Editor of “The Listener”. During his time at the BBC, Ackerley helped many young aspiring writers such as Philip Larkin, W.H. Auden, Stepen Spender and Christopher Isherwood. He left the BBC in 1959, travelled to Japan and when back in London worked on his memoir about his father. Ackerley died on 4th June 1967 in Putney, where he had lived since 1941. His memoir “My Father and Myself” was published in 1968.

“R.H. in the Trenches” by J.R. Ackerley

He’s snoring on his bed,
His mouth is wide;
And black strands of moustache
Dip down inside.
Like some great fallen log,
Bereft of sense;
His feet encased in boots
Appear immense.
A curse upon his head
For lying there;
His hand beneath his head
Of matted hair.
How can I write to thee,
My pretty one?
With this unwieldy thing
Beneath the sun.

First published in “The Rossallian”, Rossall School Magazine and reproduced here by their kind permission.

Sources:  The Rossall School and


Rossall School was founded in 1844 by St. Vincent Beechey and had connections with Marlborough College, which was founded in 1843. The idea of having a boarding school on England's Fylde Coast came from a Corsican called Zanon Vantini, who owned the North Euston Hotel in Fleetwood. As
the school was close to the sea and had its own stretch of beach, for many years the boys swam in the sea every day before lessons.

During WW1, the North Euston Hotel, just along the coast to where the school was situated, was the Headquarters of the Gunnery School, of which the firing ranges were situated on Fleetwood Golf Links. Wilfred Owen was posted to the Gunnery School in Fleetwood in October – November 1916.  Bearing in mind that the Hotel was owned by Zanon Vantini, and that one of the Rossall School Teachers held a regular poetry meeting, we think it highly likely that Wilfred Owen would have attended at least one of those meetings while he was based in Fleetwood.