Tuesday, 9 August 2022

Larkin: A childhood in 10 items


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.

Home life

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.

Early writings

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.

Leisure time 

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…

Further info

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'. 

Saturday, 6 August 2022

Daniel O'Connell - and "The Book of the Illustrious"

 “The Book of the Illustrious” by George Henderson, 1845 [L(SLA).326.921 WIL]

This is a wonderful volume which contains the portraits and memoirs of notable figures of the times such as Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli [image 1].  One of the other “illustrious” included in this work is William Wilberforce which explains why there is a copy in the Local Studies slavery collection.

Image 1 - Benjamin Disraeli in "The Book of the Illustrious"

However, there is another figure included in this volume that deserves acknowledgement for his part in the anti-slavery movement and that is Daniel O’Connell [image 2] known at the Liberator. His mobilisation of Catholic Ireland through to the poorest class of tenant farmer helped secure Catholic emancipation in 1829 and allowed him to take a seat in the United Kingdom Parliament to which he was twice elected.

At a time when vast English and American fortunes were being made out of the slave trade, O’Connell became one of the world’s most outspoken campaigners to abolish slavery. He was particularly concerned with the plight of the slave mothers who knew they were producing children for the slave trade.  He was a hero to the escaped slave and black writer and activist, Frederick Douglass, who met O’Connell during a speaking tour in Ireland in 1845. O’Connell never visited the United States as it was a slave-owning country. He also wouldn’t shake hands with anyone who supported slavery, including the US ambassador saying:

I should be sorry to be contaminated by the touch of a man from those states where slavery is continued

He was warned by critics within his own Repeal Association that this could lose financial support from America for Ireland’s cause and indeed it did.

Image 2 - Daniel O'Connell in "The Book of the Illustrious"

O’Connell was a brilliant lawyer and formidable politician. Gladstone called him the greatest popular leader the world had ever seen.  This is the man who conceived peaceful protest – his time in France during the French revolution had given him a dread of mob violence. This belief in non-violence would inspire future leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela -

Not for all the universe contains would I, in the struggle for what I conceive my county’s cause, consent to the effusion of a single blood, except my own

O’Connell was the first politician to recognise the possibility and the power of popular politics where everyone could contribute.  Politicians weren’t paid, but by collecting halfpennies and pennies from thousands of people he not only found a way to finances his movement and his political career, he gave people a stake in that movement.

What’s intriguing about this book is that it appears to be a rare volume and four of the five copies that are listed for sale or in a depositary [on a “Google” search] specifically say that the pages on Daniel O’Connell are missing.

Caoimhe West, Reader Assistant, Unlocking the Treasures Project

Wednesday, 20 July 2022

Boreman's Three Hundred Animals

A Description of above Three Hundred Animals, Viz, Beasts, Birds, Fishes, Serpents, & Insects. With a particular Account of the Manner of Catching Whales in Greenland Extracted from the best Authors, and adapted to the use of all capacities. Illustrated with 100 Elegant Copper Plates by Thomas Boreman. Published by Bell & Bradfute and W. Creech, 1767, [L(WHA)639.281] 

This is definitely another “Unlocked Treasure” housed in the Local Studies collection.  It is unusual to say the least, that a Local Studies library would house a children’s nature book. However, it was added to the Whaling collection at some point since it contains [in the words of Boreman] “a particular Account of the Manner of Catching Whales in Greenland”.

Initially, it appears to be a charming and well-illustrated natural history guide designed for children. In his note to the reader, the publisher and probably the author, Thomas Boreman discusses that many of the books meant to introduce children to the habit of reading “tend rather to cloy than entertain them; I have thought fit to engage their attention with short descriptions of animals, and pictures fairly drawn, which last, experience shews them to be much delighted with.”

Image 1 - Unicorn from Thomas Boreman's publication

It is unusual for its time since it was one of the earliest publications designed to entertain as well as educate children. However, this book is also fascinating for a variety of reasons.  It is interesting that it not only documents real animals, but mythical creatures as well such as a unicorn [image 1] and a manticora (a monster with the body of a lion, the head of a man, porcupine’s quills, and the tail or sting of a scorpion), which is evocative of the medieval period. This is when medieval bestiaries collated descriptions and illustrations of animals, which ranged from the mundane, ordinary to the imaginary, extraordinary creatures.  In most bestiaries the description contained Christian moral lessons. The bestiary was supposed to reflect and remind the reader of the link between God and the natural world, and the superiority of humans to beasts.

Understandably, given the period, some of the illustrations of the real creatures are not entire accurate! Based on the illustrator’s imagination, inaccurate written accounts of the individual animals or the wrong interpretation of those writings.

The volume also contains many foreign creatures such as lion, tiger [image 2], leopard [image 2]and ‘rhinocerot’ [rhinoceros]. This highlights and reflects the continued interest and knowledge of the wider world through the progress of European globalization in the 18th century. Unfortunately, the artist/artists of Boreman’s book are unknown which is a shame although they derived from Buffon and other naturalists. The variety of poses, design and shading used in the illustrations emphasises the care and effort that the artist/artists took and it would be fitting to recognize their “works of art”.

Image 2 - Tiger and Leopard from Boreman's publication

Although the three hundred animals descriptions and illustrations are not entirely accurate, they represent a “snapshot” of an era when there was a quest for knowledge outside of the local and regional level was gaining momentum and paving the way for a more sustained and accurate collection of data on many different subjects such as astronomy, geology, zoology, botany and geography.

Caoimhe West, Reader Assistant, “Unlocking the Treasures” project

Tuesday, 7 June 2022

Hull's smuggling past

Smuggling was a vicious, violent, and bloody trade. During the 18th and 19th centuries it operated on a massive scale. Goods such as tea, coffee, gin, tobacco, wines, salts, soaps and candles, necessities of their day, had heavy import duties imposed. This led to such commodities being too expensive for many. Smuggling was not an activity of the poor; it was financed by the wealthy, and those who participated in this illicit trade considered it harmless against the unjust laws imposed on everyday necessities. 

The most romanticised picture of smuggling is that along the coasts of Britain. The isolation of North Yorkshire coast for example was ideal for smuggling. Nestled along the coast and protected by the moors, its geography ensured places such as Staithes, Runswick and Robin Hoods Bay's thrived as centres of smuggling, largely out of reach from custom officers prying eyes. The isolated moorland trackways were used to transport smuggled goods inland to towns and cities. 

 Further south, Flamborough, and indeed all down the Holderness coast, though less extensive than their North Yorkshire neighbours, smugglers could be found at work. Flamborough was reputed to use its network of caves at North Landing and Thornwick Bay to hide contraband. One of its caves, Robin Lynth's is said to be named after a local smuggler. 

Smuggling wasn't new or limited to coastal communities. In the fourteenth century, for example, wool was smuggled from Hull. To avoid customs, wool was hidden in the beds of the ship’s crew. And although forbidden, ships left Hull partly loaded to avoid duties, with wool secretly taken on-board once out of sight of the authorities. 

The late 18th and early 19th centuries were the heyday of smuggling and its practices and was rife in many harbours and ports. Hull was heavily active in this illicit trade. Largely small and compact in the 18th century, the harbour or 'Haven' saw ships laden with goods from all around the world. It was here ships that the ships were loaded and unload. Before the construction of the New Dock, later Queen's Dock, Hull was the only port in the country not to have a legal quay. This allowed merchants the opportunity to avoid custom duties from using their private staithes which lined the River Hull. 

Hollar's plan of Hull, 1640 showing the Haven in which ships would load and unload on the private staithes that fronted the river

Even with the opening of the New Dock, smuggling continued. Custom Officers were all too aware of who the smugglers were but tracking them down and catching them was different matter. On one occasion custom officers at Hull received a tip off relating to three known tea smugglers, said to be staying at an inn along the River Ouse. However, when they arrived, they found the inn on the opposite side of the river with the smugglers long gone. 

The odds were very much stacked against the customs officers. Inadequate protection along Humber, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries led to many naval vessels being re-diverted to war effort. Vessels that were left to apprehend the smugglers tended to be smaller and less armed than their smuggling counterparts. In some cases, vessels employed in the prevention of smuggling stayed in port due to the lack of gunpowder and shot. Geographically the Humber was perfect for smugglers and smuggling. Creeks and Havens, such as Stoney Creek, Crably Creek and Patrington Haven were ideal and used by the smugglers to drop off contraband. Even Hessle and North Ferriby were engaged in some form of smuggling activities. 

Goods smuggled included salt, spices, tobacco, tea, and spirits such as gin but also included, medicines, playing cards, toys, paper, and even human hair for wigs. Timber was also smuggled. Much of the smuggling was financed by the wealthy elite. The influential Hull merchant, Samuel Standidge, was suspected of being behind the smuggling of German China. When a Swedish vessel was seized for having a quantity of wool that had not had duty paid on it, its master impeached several notable Hull merchants, including Standidge himself. 

Although the authorities were up against it, they did have some success. A wealthy yeoman from Cottingham was prosecuted for receiving smuggled goods. He was even reputed to have used heavy handed tactics to deter later accusations against him. Such was the seriousness of the smuggling; the authorities deployed the military. The 4th Dragoons in Holderness proved a great help to customs officers by seizing large quantities of gin, tea, coffee, and tobacco. However, for each success, dozens would perhaps go undetected. 

The energy of one man was a thorn in the smugglers side. Captain James Gleadow was a tide-surveyor at Hull, whose job it was to seek out contraband. He apprehended the brig Friends carrying human and animal bones from the battlefields of Europe. The vessel was boarded three miles off Spurn Head. Concealed on board was snuff, tobacco, opium, silks, and gin. Gleadow continued to seize vessels, a vast number of these were in the Humber. Despite his success Gleadow had difficulty in obtaining his reward money, and between 1823 and 1825 he received no reward for his captures. Gleadow continued to apprehend smugglers, but soon he too was implicated in smuggling racket, in which we were accused of profiting from smuggled tobacco. 

Witness statement of James Gleadow, Customs Officer, 1841 against John O'Neal for smuggling tobacco [Ref: C CQB/198/194W]

The late 18th century was arguably the zenith of the smuggling trade, and with-it huge profits were made. It was said tobacco bought for £100 on the continent could sell for then ten times the price in Hull. However, the end of the Napoleonic saw in decline in smuggling, including at Hull and along the Humber. The reduction of import duties which had funded the war against Napoleon no longer made smuggling a profitable enterprise. By the 1830s the illegal trade in tea and wines had all but ceased. Smuggling in spirits and tobacco continued, but in far less quantities than previous. 

Compared to places such as Whitby, Staithes and Robin Hoods Bay, nothing remains of Hull’s smuggling past. Much of the old town has changed over the last century or so since the slum clearances and its redevelopment after the Second World War. There are no Smugglers’ Inn, networks, or small tight alleys for smuggled goods to be easily moved out of sight of customs officers. Only towards Sunk Island with places such as Stoney Creek and its isolation can we get a feel and reminder of the areas smuggling past. 

The History Centre has several books on Smuggling in Yorkshire. Available to borrow, include Graham Smith’s Smuggling in Yorkshire 1700-1850 and Jack Dyke’s Smuggling on the Yorkshire Coast [Ref: L.336.26]. All you need is a Hull Libraries card, which you can sign up for at the Hull History Centre. Just bring proof of address!

Neil Chadwick