Over the past 6 months, we’ve been quietly working away behind the scenes to support researchers who are exploring aspects of poet Philip Larkin’s life in readiness for his centenary this month. Many of the enquiries we’ve received have focused on his work as a poet, his interest in jazz, and his relationships.
|Early self-portrait showing Larkin painting, 1940 [U DLV/2/1/14]|
But there is one area that has often been overlooked, Larkin’s childhood. Given that the 9th of August 2022 marks 100 years since his birth, we thought we’d take the opportunity and use this blog to explore his formative years. So please enjoy this brief history of Larkin’s childhood in 8 items…
This photograph shows Larkin’s mother and father, Eva and Sidney Larkin, sat reading in the garden.
|Photograph showing Sidney and Eva Larkin reading in the garden [U DLN/4/1]|
Larkin was born at home on 9 August 1922. At this time, home was 2 Poultney Road, Coventry, where he lived with his father Sidney, his mother Eva and his sister Kitty. The family moved from Poultney Road to Penvorn, 1 Manor Road, Coventry, when Larkin was five years old. Kitty lived with the family until 1936, when she moved to Birmingham to study art, before relocating to Leicester to study to be a teacher. Once qualified, she moved to Loughborough where she worked at the college, met her husband and started a family.
In this letter to his childhood friend James ‘Jim’ Sutton, Larkin relates his experience of a typical conversation in the Larkin family home.
|Letter from Larkin to James Sutton, 1940 [U DP174/2/9]|
In his letters, Larkin often complained about family life, noting that the atmosphere is oppressive and stifling. Kitty was ten years older than Larkin, and so the siblings didn’t share much in common. Eva was a loving housewife and mother, but experienced depression and deferred to her husband in all major matters. Sidney was a well-read man, a quiet though dominant presence in family life. Whilst Larkin describes the household dynamic in less than favourable terms, it should be noted that his mother doted on her son, sending him care packages and letters once he left the family home for university. Also, his father was very supportive of his son’s interests, taking out a subscription to Down Beat magazine and purchasing a drum kit to encourage Larkin’s interest in jazz music. Indeed, Larkin’s own words and actions in later life showed that, though they frustrated him, he cared deeply for his family.
This photograph, taken by his father Sidney, shows Larkin as a young boy, with his sister Kitty and his mother Eva, whilst at the beach on holiday.
|Photograph of Kitty, Philip and Eva on the beach whilst on holiday, c.1932 [U DLN/4/3]|
Most of the Larkin family’s holidays were spent at places around the UK, including Sidmouth and South Gower, Wales, usually by the coast or in the countryside. Twice, in 1936 and 1937, Larkin was taken to Germany on holiday by his father, who was an admirer of the administrative policies of the Nazi regime. In letters to friends, Larkin notes that he did not enjoy his time in Germany, except for one instance when he describes seeing a group of jazz musicians. Perhaps these early experiences informed his later preferences of holidaying at home rather than abroad.
Larkin attended King Henry VIII Preparatory School, Coventry, from Sep 1930 to 1932, at which time he moved up to the senior school.
|School report at age 13 years and 4 months, Dec 1935 [U DPL2/3/63/11]|
His senior school reports show that he was quiet child, never late nor absent, and that his conduct was good. In his first year, he finished second in his class and excelled in English, a pattern he repeated in his final year at school. Whilst at school, he grew roughly a foot, so that by 1939 he already stood at just under 6 feet tall. He appears to have been uninterested in playing sports, and despite being part of the rugby second team, was regularly graded only ‘fair’ in physical training.
By the time he was at school, Larkin had already developed a passion for writing.
|Untitled poem, 16 Jul 1940 [U DPL2/1/4/8]|
The collections at Hull contain a number of examples of juvenilia, including this untitled poem. It is written on the back of a piece of prose titled ‘Whitmanesque for a Holiday’, both of which were written by Larkin during a family holiday in South Gower, Wales.
|Short piece of prose written by Larkin, presented as part of a larger piece of work but in fact just a single sheet, c.1930 [U DPL2/1/2/1]|
His early writing already bears the marks of the poet whose work was characterised by realism and description rooted in personal experience and feeling. You can see in this piece of prose, titled ‘From a Family Album’, that the young Larkin has used his own family life as inspiration in his writing.
A surviving childhood diary helps us understand what daily life was like for the young Larkin.
|Extract from Larkin’s teenage diary, 31 Dec 1936-6 Jan 1937 [U DPL2/1/2/7]|
This extract from the diary describes his experience of the Christmas 1936 holiday period. It shows a childhood experience like many others, in which daily occurrences included going to friends’ houses, playing games and sports, and dreading the coming return to school.
|Extracts from a letter written by Larkin to James Sutton, 4 Aug 1939 [U DP174/2/5]|
A fascinating series of letters sent by Larkin to his childhood friend Jim Sutton reveal young Larkin’s interests. The childhood friends shared a passion for jazz music and cinema and regularly discussed their thoughts upon hearing new records or seeing the latest film. Larkin had a particular love for the music of Louis Armstrong and Count Basie, and his love of jazz music more generally would last a lifetime.
|Larkin taking a photograph of his sister Kitty in the garden at the family home, c.1930 [U DLN/4/2]|
This photograph, taken by his father, shows Larkin as a young boy photographing his sister Kitty. His first camera, seen here, was given to Larkin by his father who taught him how to use it and encouraged his son’s interest.
In Larkin’s letters to Jim Sutton a few years later, he mentions having purchased a new camera with his own money, indicating that he was now invested in the pursuit. Larkin would go on to become a highly competent amateur photographer.
Surviving archives documenting the early years of Larkin’s life can help us to understand the poet’s formative years, his early opinions and experiences. This foundational understanding is vital if we want to build up a more complete picture of Larkin as a writer, the source of his creativity, and the inspiration behind his words. Knowing a bit more about his childhood can help us reassess traditional readings of poems such as This be the verse…
To mark the Larkin100 anniversary, we have produced a new source guide detailing Philip Larkin related collections held at Hull History Centre. Print copies are available for free onsite or you can download a PDF copy.
Read our August ArchivesHub feature 'Larkin with Archives'.