Life writing at Churchill Archives Centre
Many of the sources scholars use for their research can be categorised as life writing. Broadly, life writing encompasses any source where someone reflects on their life. It could be their own, it could be that of a family member, friend or research subject.
Life writing takes many forms, from autobiographies, diaries, and letters to more unusual sources such as photo albums, scrapbooks, comics, or blogs.
Here at Churchill Archives Centre, thousands of life writing sources live on our shelves, awaiting their reader. This research guide showcases the variety of material we have in our collections. This is by no means exhaustive, but a menu of life writing ready for your delectation and delight.
Autobiographies are one of the most common forms of life writing, where individuals reflect on their lives in their own words. Sometimes people might write an autobiography on their whole life; others will just write on a specific episode which they deem important.
Lady Diana Cooper (1892-1986), aristocrat and socialite, published several autobiographies, documenting her experiences leading the society group ‘The Coterie’, working as a nurse during the First World War, embarking on a brief theatrical career, and supporting the work of her husband and ambassador Alfred Duff Cooper, 1st Viscount Norwich of Aldwick.
Churchill Archives holds Lady Diana’s literary papers, including those relating to her published autobiography. We also preserve a few shorter documents where Lady Diana writes on a specific topic of interest to her.
One of these topics is her friendship with French industrialist Commandant Paul-Louis Weiller, which started when she moved to France with Duff in 1944, when he became Ambassador to France.
When Lady Diana moved to France, she initially reflected on how she:
“was as green as a cabbage and knew really no French people at all. In those very early days after the liberation of Paris, there was constant whispering of the fearful word ‘collabo’”.
She met Weiller when he came to use the piano in their house. Reminiscing on the friendship years later, Cooper writes
“It is said that ‘friendship is love without wings’ but my long attachment to Paul-Louis had and has wings – not Cupid’s frail ones – but strong, protective, sheltering wings and I think we both wear them for the other.”
Find out more about:
- Lady Diana’s and her husband Duff Cooper’s respective diaries at the Archives Centre, or read a published version of Duff Cooper’s diaries edited and introduced by his son John Julius Norwich.
- Working with autobiographies, by reading James Olney’s Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical and Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader.
Other autobiographies and memoirs within our collections:
- Clement Attlee’s autobiography, 1883-1955, GBR/0014/ATLE 1. The drafts for the autobiography were begun at least as early as 1951 when Attlee left office. Quite lot of the material was not used, partly because it was not strictly relevant to the theme of the book and partly to avoid embarrassment to people still living. In addition the contents of the early chapters were re-arranged so that paragraphs appear in a slightly different context. The draft is not complete and in this catalogue the dates and chapter headings refer to the draft rather than the printed book.
- Captain Arthur Clarke autobiography, Contented Sailor, 1898-1974, AWCL 2. This collection includes the official and private log books he compiled during the period while he was a midshipman, with fine plans and sketches, perhaps the most interesting of which are those relating to the Dardanelles campaign. The collection also contains a number of photograph albums showing the life of these very young officers – Clarke and his contemporaries – during this period. The collection is completed with Captain Clarke’s two-volume biography which describes, as well as his World War I experiences, the next forty years of a full and varied career which took him all round the world and ended with nine years as Chief of Naval Information.
- Dame Enid Russell-Smith’s draft memoir, 1925-1963, RUSM 2/1. Comprising two drafts of 53 pages, with manuscript annotations.
- Sarah Churchill drafts of autobiography Keep on Dancing, 1981, SCHL 3/5/2. Comprising annotated typescript drafts and notes from press cuttings, covering the years 1940-60.
- Margaret Thatcher’s memoir of the Falkland’s conflict, 1983, THCR 1/20/3/1. Over Easter 1983, working alone at Chequers, Thatcher wrote this 128 page recollection of the Falklands War. See it in our Reading Room or view it online here.
- Sir Antony Part’s papers concerning The making of a mandarin, 1986-89, PART 1. Papers concerning the compilation and publication of Part’s autobiography, The making of a mandarin; with other papers including speeches given before and after Part’s civil service career and business papers after his retirement.
Biographers can often be the first people to look at an archival collection in detail. Stephen Roskill, Archives Scholar of Churchill Archives fame, was one of the first people to submerge himself in the collections of Maurice Hankey (1877-1963), 1st Baron Hankey.
After a career in the navy, Hankey moved into Whitehall, working as the Naval Assistant Secretary to the committee of the Imperial Defence before becoming the Secretary of the War Cabinet. Hankey was also the first ever Cabinet Secretary.
Correspondence surviving in Roskill’s archive showcase what was involved in writing a biography when family members, in this case, Maurice’s wife, Adeline, and their children Robin and Ursula were still alive.
Roskill, Adeline and Robin were frequently in correspondence about the 3-part biography. Roskill invited Adeline to read over chapters and, in some cases, to provide photos.
As well as official papers charting his career, Adeline also sent across private letters exchanged with her husband, which Roskill read and extracted the most ‘serviceable’ parts for his biography.
Writing a biography while family members were still alive was occasionally tricky for Roskill. His correspondence with Adeline records her concern over Roskill’s publication of her husband’s criticisms of certain work colleagues, and Roskill’s attempts to alleviate her worries.
Roskill sent Adeline a letter on 20th July 1970 re-emphasising the conditions on which he decided to write the biography: namely that he would have access to all papers, would retain sole editorial rights, and not collude with the family on censorship. For a brief period, Roskill shifted his efforts from working on Hankey’s biography to his history of Naval Policy between the wars.
The seriousness of the letter sparked Robin to respond 5 days later, apologising on his mother’s behalf about the number of comments she made on Roskill’s manuscript; ‘she had not realised at all the seriousness of what she had done to the manuscript’.
Reading Roskill and the Hankeys’ collections together at Churchill Archives reveals the emotional labour which goes into writing a life and the competing agendas which a biographer has to manage.
Find out more about:
- The collections of Stephen Roskill, alongside Adeline and Maurice Hankey at Churchill Archives Centre.
- Maurice Hankey in Stephen Roskill’s Hankey: man of secrets. 3 vols. London: Collins, 1970-1974.
- Autobiography as a genre, by reading “Mimesis: The Dramatic Lineage of Auto/Biography.” In Essays on Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice, edited by Kadar Marlene, 195-212. Toronto; Buffalo; London: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Other biographical material in our collections:
- Biography “Rebel Advocate” and Correspondence, 1983, GARD 9. “Rebel Advocate” by Muriel Box (Lady Gardiner) and correspondence, mainly public and political.
- The Onslows and the Royal Navy, ONSS. A typescript biographical work about the naval careers of various members of the Onslow family including Admiral Sir Richard Onslow, Captain Richard Francis John Onslow and Admiral Sir Richard George Onslow which includes a chapter about two ships named HMS Onslow.
- 3. Memoir of Victor Rothschild, 1976-1994, WARN 2. Suzanne Reeve wrote a memoir of Victor Rothschild for the series “Biographical Memoirs of the Fellows of the Royal Society”, 1993.
- ‘Kinnock: the biography, 1998-2001, KNNK AS 2. Material relating to Kinnock’s biography by Martin Westlake with Ian St John (Little, Brown, London, 2001).
- ‘The Story of my Family’, 2008, HMTN 4/1. History of the Adamson family, with a chapter devoted to Mary Agnes Hamilton, researched and compiled by Commander Robert V. Adamson.
- Interview with Lady Soames about the publication of ‘Clementine Churchill, the biography of a marriage, 1980’, MCHL 12/2/13. Interview for the Broadcasting Foundation of America, on Lady Soames’s biography of her mother.
Correspondence is another valuable source of life writing, chronicling a life as it was lived and shared with other letter writers. We have a wealth of correspondence here at Churchill Archives, which chart the contours of personal and professional life.
One cache of letters is those written by the novelist and poet Mary Borden (1886-1968) to Brigadier General Edward Louis Spears (1886-1974) during the First World War. During the war, Mary used her inheritance money to run a mobile hospital in France. She ran this hospital, with no medical training, whilst also continuing her prolific writing efforts – and winning prestigious awards, such as the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur.
It was also during this time that she met Spears and embarked on an affair with him, whilst married to George Douglas Turner. Letters from 1917 reveal her husband’s suspicions about her affair, after he was sent an anonymous letter referencing an ‘erotic outburst’ – a poem that Mary had written for Spears. Even after receiving the note, Mary tells Spears how her husband ‘does not believe that they are true – he thinks it is some woman that hates me’.
Despite her husband’s dismissal of the revelation, the culture of secrecy took its toll on Mary, who writes how ‘I am feeling curiously ill. I wonder if it can be that such mutual and emotional anguish should produce that same physical pain I had before.’ Throughout her life, Borden continued to be blighted by poor health.
In 1917, Mary wrote to Spears noting how ‘she cannot deal any longer in lies’ – even though her husband did not ask her about the affair, she ‘could not…explain away the poem – it speaks for itself’. Very shortly, she would go on to divorce Turner and marry Spears in 1918. Their marriage went on to last 50 years, despite Spears’s later affair with Nancy Maurice, his secretary, whom he married upon Mary’s death.
Find out more about:
- Mary Borden on a website dedicated to commemorating her life or by reading Jane Conway’s Mary Borden: A Woman of Two Wars. Munday Books, 2010.
- One of Mary Borden’s most popular books, The forbidden zone. London: Heinemann, 1929.
- Working with letters as historical sources in Miriam Dobson, ‘Letters’, in Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth and Twentieth Century History, ed. Miriam Dobson and Benjamin Ziemann (London: Routledge, 2009), 57–73.
Other correspondence in our collections:
- Letters relating to Anne Seagrim’s relationship with Charles Percy Snow, SEAG 3.
- Letters to Lord Esher from members of the Royal Family, including King Edward VII, Queen Alexandra, King George V, Queen Mary and Edward, Prince of Wales [later King Edward VIII and Edward, Duke of Windsor], 1878-1923, ESHR 6.
- Letters between Alexander Cadogan, Lady Theo and their eldest son, Ambrose, 1913-1968, ACAD 3.
- Professor Lise Meitner’s correspondence, including general and miscellaneous correspondence and correspondence with family and colleagues, 1911-1969, MTNR 5.
- Letters from Enoch Powell to his parents, 1940-1951, POLL 1/1/10.
- Randolph Churchill’s correspondence, with his own friends and those of his father, 1916-1992, RDCH 1.
Diaries are another type of life writing we archive here at Churchill Archives Centre. Sometimes people were life-long diarists, giving readers today an intimate view on their day-to-day life. Others however start and stop a diary at different moments in their lives. As some readers might know, some diaries can be detailed, while others are short and perfunctory. Either way, these sources allow us to consider what was important to individuals at the time and why they turned to a diary to immortalise these thoughts.
Though many of our life writing collections focus on adults, some of our collections detail the life of prominent individuals in their younger days. Delving into the collections of academic, diplomat and civil servant Sir Roger Stevens (1906-1980), we find a slim volume entitled ‘The Children’s Calendar’.
The volume comprises a page dedicated to each month of the year, next to a jottings and photos page, where parents are invited to record their child’s progress.
The introduction to the volume reads:
“Little facts about our children, if not noted when they occur, may easily slip our memories. The small events in a child’s daily life – from baby’s first tooth or distinct word to big brother’s first cricket match or elder sister’s scholarship – can be noted here for future reference. A series extending over several years will thus form a complete history of the lives of our children.”
Entries include records of when Roger lost his first tooth, his first visit to the Zoological Gardens, as well as when he asked thought-provoking questions, such as in February 1910, “why can’t we see God, why can’t we see him looking out at the sky?”
Readers are treated to a sweet description of Roger’s morning play habits, noting how:
“Roger sleeps well now usually from 7.pm until 6.a.m. When he wakes in the morning amuses himself by reading to his animals or holding a service for their benefit. His family of animals play a very important part just at present and one or more he usually takes everywhere with him. He talks to them and answers for them and they keep him happy and amused.”
Placing this diary in the context of Steven’s prolific journaling later in his life raises questions about generational traditions of life writing – and what we can learn about broader elite life writing practices. The diary was clearly important to Stevens, holding onto it despite regularly moving around in his capacity as British Ambassador to Sweden and Persia.
Find out more about:
- – Stevens’s life writing collections at Churchill Archives Centre, STVS 8.
– Working with diaries by reading:
- Irina Paperno’s What can be done with Diaries?
- Victoria Stewart’s “Writing and reading diaries in mid-twentieth-century Britain.” Literature & History 27, no. 1 (2018): 47-61.
- Joe Moran’s Diarykeeping is an exceptional and heroic act published in The Guardian or watch his lecture for on a similar topic here.
- – The winning entries from our Covid-19 diary competition.
Other diaries in our collections:
- Lise Meitner’s pocket diary, 1914, MTNR 2/3 (see just how small it is here).
- Winston Churchill’s desk diary, 1918, WCHL 6/78 (get a glimpse here).
- Mary Agnes Hamilton MP diary collection, 1938-1945, HMTN 1 (and you can read a blog on Mary’s archive here).
- Phyllis Wilmott diary on her work as a medical social worker and life in Hackney, c.1950s, WLMT 1/10.
- Julian Amery MP diary from the time of Suez Crisis, 1956, AMEJ 4/1/9.
- Sir Ian Jacob diaries on his early army career, his work as Assistant Military Secretary to the War Cabinet and as Director General of the BBC, 1917-1982, JACB 1.
Scrapbooks are a bridge between different forms of life writing – functioning sometimes as a diary, photo album, autobiography, and broader archive. Scrapbooks often contain a range of material, including newspaper clippings, photographs, letters, pressed flowers, money, and other objects.
Take a scrapbook in our collections made by Charles Kimber. Kimber joined the Royal Air Force in 1928 and worked his way up from aircraft apprentice to the senior rank of Wing Commander in 1944-45. He retired from the RAF in 1957 and when he wasn’t teaching in a secondary school, he wrote Son of Halton The Memoirs of an Ex-Brat (1977).
After writing his memoir, he commented on what he called operation ‘clean-up’ to take back control of his home which became filled with ‘unwanted papers, memos and files’. What was ‘cleaned up’ found its way into a scrapbook.
Unusually, Kimber reflects on the process of compiling the scrapbook, noting that the different sized items made it impossible to keep to a chronological order. Despite this quirky ordering, the pages of Kimber’s 14lb scrapbook offer readers a window into the nature of Kimber’s military service and how he chose to record it. Compiled later in life, we see photographs of Kimber and his RAF colleagues, letters from the Queen and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as well as his receipt of various awards.
What did the material culture of military service entail? What do these material choices suggest about the blurring of civilian and military identities? What do the material choices about selection and arrangement reveal about the ways in which someone documents a life? These are just some of the questions we can ask when leafing through the pages of a scrapbook.
Find out more about:
- Kimber’s scrapbook at Churchill Archives Centre.
- Kimber’s memoir Son of Halton: The Memoirs of an Ex-Brat (1977)
- Working with scrapbooks as historical sources in this blog published by the Historical Association.
- Other scrapbooks in our collections in this blog on women’s scrapbooks on political and diplomatic activity in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Other scrapbooks in our collections:
- Lady Agnes Cooper’s scrapbook, 1846-1865, DUFC 17/1.
- Lady Spencer Churchill’s albums, 1890-1977, CSCT 5.
- Kathleen Wanstall’s scrapbook containing official documents and ephemera collected during the period 1914-18, mainly from Austria and Germany, MISC 98.
- Selwyn Lloyd’s scrapbook of cuttings and souvenirs, 1924-1925, SELO 3/20.
- Baron Noel-Baker’s Scrapbook of the Olympics, 1928, NBKR 6/1.
- Florence Horsbrugh’s early years as an MP, c.1930s, HSBR 2.
Max Ferdinand Perutz (1914-2002) was a molecular biologist. Alongside John Kendrew, Max won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1962 for co-discovering the structure of haemoglobin which transports oxygen around the blood. Amongst his papers is a comic strip of his life which survives alongside other biographical material.
Though we know little about who commissioned this comic, it nonetheless offers an insight into how the lives of prominent individuals are represented in cartoon form. The front of the comic carries a line drawing of Perutz in front of some mountains, signalling his love for mountaineering which had stayed with him since childhood.
The comic drawing captures Max’s frustrations at not meeting his father’s expectations on his career, his joy when his chemistry teacher told his students to abandon their textbooks, and the spark ignited in him from a simple class experiment.
In pictorially representing Perutz’s life, what moments are highlighted and concealed? What do specific textual and visual choices still tell us about the messages that the comic creator wanted readers to take away from Perutz’s life?
This comic strip survives with a wealth of other autobiographical material, as well as obituaries clipped from newspapers printed in the days after his death. Taken together, these documents not only tell us a great deal about Perutz’s life, but also invite researchers to think more broadly about the changing ways in which society commemorates the lives of scientists.
Find out more about:
- The Perutz comic strip at Churchill Archives Centre.
- Max’s life using this timeline.
- Max in the biography Max Perutz and The Secret of Life (2014) or by listening to his oral history interviews deposited in the British Library’s National Life Stories Collection.
- How Max’s life was represented in cartoon form in Heroes of Health (2018), a book created by MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences to mark the 105th Anniversary of the Medical Research Council. Max’s comic begins on page 59.
Explore other comics, cartoons, and doodles in our collection:
- Doodles by Clement Attlee, 1940, FLUD 1/5.
- Lord Duncan-Sandys’s various doodles done during Cabinet meetings, 1951-1964, DSND 19/26/19.
- Research into children’s reading of comics and juvenile magazines, 1954, ABMS 3/50.
- 3 Japanese comic books in the collection of Sir Aaron Klug, 1992-1993, KLUG 6/2/8.
- Poster of cartoon figures of Danish kings in our Chartwell Manuscripts collection, CHWL/D 166.
- Sir Andrew Graham Gilchrist’s doodles, undated, GILC 30.
Poetry is another form of life writing people turn to when looking to record different moments in their lives.
Included at the end of a letter in the papers of Peter and Phyllis Wilmott is a poem penned by one of their friends, Winifred Pluckrose.
At the start of the Second World War, Winifred worked for National Provincial Bank in the City of London. She however swapped her abacus for an axe when she began working as a Lumber Jill for the Women’s Timber Corps in Somerset.
Throughout her time as a forestry war worker, she regularly wrote to Phyllis to share her experiences of wartime life. On 7 October 1944, Winifred was proud to share her joy at having a ‘socialist poem published in the Timber Corps magazine!’. The poem documents, in highly emotional terms, Winifred’s questioning of why the country is at war.
Youth’s Aim – 1944
And what are we fighting for? Do they know
this tired work – worn youth, aged
to maintain a life that should be
in adolescent joys?
Find out more about:
- Winifred’s poems in Churchill Archives Centre.
- Other poems and amusing doodles, penned by Winifred and published in Mavis Williams’ Lumber Jill: Her Story of Four Years in the Women’s Timber Corps 1942-45.
- Winifred’s experiences in this oral history interview reflecting on her time as a Lumber Jill.
- Women’s war writing, by reading: Plain, G. (2009). Women writers and the war. In M. MacKay (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of World War II (Cambridge Companions to Literature, pp. 165-178). Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Acton, Carol. “Diverting the Gaze: The Unseen Text in Women’s War Writing.” College Literature 31, no. 2 (2004): 53-79.
Explore other poetry in our collection:
- Lady Charles Spencer-Churchill, 1827, CHWL/MSB 200.
- Lord Fisher of Kilverstone, 1855-1911, FISR 9/22.
- Lord Esher, 1893-1897, ESHR 22/9-11.
- Sir Geoffrey Jackson, 1940-1988, JAKN 4/4.
- Lord Hailsham, 1970-1974, HLSM 4/1/5/5.
- Sir Andrew Gilchrist, whose literary executor, J Rayner, published Gilchrist’s poems posthumously, 1994, GILC 7.
Like their paper equivalents, blogs are a digital form of life writing, which we also archive here at Churchill in our College archives. Although not open until 2040, we’ve preserved a series of blogs reflecting on students’ time at Churchill, collected as part of our ‘First Impressions’ series (CCRF/151). The bloggers shared their amusing first impressions of:
– Cambridge: “Rattling, drafty windows. “Unique”, banging plumbing in the bath; scalding hot and freezing cold faucets not seen since childhood. A window in the shower that will not shut. Struggling with temperatures and wet unbecoming a Southerner; day and night horizontal rain of the kind that surely inhibits progress on foot, let alone on a bike. It suddenly becomes clear. With that draft, no wonder they built those bomber bases here.”
– Porters: “Certainly not of suitcases, but rather suppliers of hearty teasing dished out mercilessly on a daily basis, along with large doses of first aid and sage advice. A haven for late night visits for tea and chat. Don’t forget the biscuits, please.”
– Being forever young…: “Pubs, pints, Pimms, punts- all important vocabulary to express the latter half of the Cambridge motto: “play hard”. Summer nights populated with short dresses. Bared, blue colored midriffs in seemingly Arctic temperatures; strapless, sleeveless, high heeled, clacking frozen streets.”
Alongside this series, we also archive the blog of our Master Dame Athene Donald. Writing back in August 2010, Donald wrote:
“I aim to use this site to post thoughts on work at the outer reaches of physics where it meets biology, and the challenges of working at that interface; some of my ideas and experiences as a senior woman physicist plus my reactions to discussions around this topic, and general initiatives in this area; and reactions to science policy, funding etc. So it will be a miscellaneous collection.”
Future researchers could use Donald’s blog to answer a range of questions – how do scientists navigate the tricky terrain of public engagement – and in Donald’s case – at the same time as being the Master of a Cambridge college? What comments are left on Donald’s blogs and what can they tell us about the ways in which readers interact with content shared through this platform? How are other academics using blogs and how do these sit alongside other forms of public engagement changing in this digital age?
Find out more about:
- Dame Athene Donald’s blog.
- The history of blogs as a form of life writing in Elizabeth Adami’s ‘Blogs: Life Writing on the Net’, in A. Righetti (ed.) The Protean Forms of Life Writing: Auto/Biography in English, 1680-2000, (2008). Napoli, Liguori, 251-270. Read an open access version here.
If we’ve whetted your appetite, then do get in touch to explore our collections.
Looking for useful introductions for working with life writing? Here’s some of our favourites:
- – Dobson, Miriam, and Benjamin Ziemann, eds. Reading primary sources: the interpretation of texts from nineteenth and twentieth century history. Routledge, 2020.
- – Barber, Sarah, and Corinna Peniston-Bird, eds. History beyond the text: a student’s guide to approaching alternative sources. Routledge, 2013.
- – Summerfield, Penny. Histories of the self: Personal narratives and historical practice. Routledge, 2018.
- – Saunders, Valerie, “Life Writing”. In Victorian Literature, (accessed 4 Aug. 2021).
By Cherish Watton, Archives Assistant.