Ronald Duncan and Benjamin Britten 

Ronald Duncan meets Benjamin Britten

Duncan and Britten met in 1936: but when – and where? Was it in London, or was it in Cornwall? There are three different stories – and one of them has macabre overtones. 

In his first autobiography, Duncan wrote that “Britten and I met at the Mainly Musicians Club in a basement behind Oxford Circus”, and started work immediately on what became the Pacifist March, published in 1937 for the Peace Pledge Union: both men were pacifists.

But in Working with Britten, a late publication, Duncan tells a different story. They met at Britten’s flat (apartment) in the Finchley Road, which he shared with his mother Edith and his sisters Beth and Barbara. Only after that did they meet regularly at the Mainly Musicians club in Argyll Street.

Then there is a third story, the one accepted by both Britten’s biographers. Now the two men meet on holiday together near Newquay in Cornwall, where Britten is staying at a bungalow owned by Ethel Nettleship, a cousin of Ida Nettleship, who was the first wife of Augustus John, the painter. Duncan then writes:

A few days later Ben’s stay at Crantock was seriously marred. One of John’s son’s was drowned off the coast. This tragedy affected Ben deeply and lastingly.

The son who drowned was Henry John. Yet Britten cannot have met him.


Henry John: his death in Cornwall

Britten’s rented bungalow was at Crantock, across the River Gannel from Newquay. Staying in Crantock in the summer of 1936 was Henry John, Augustus’s son by his first wife Ida (she died after giving birth to him in 1907). It is not clear whether Britten and John were staying at the same bungalow, but it is possible. In any case, John disappeared in late June before Britten arrived in early July.

Henry was a divided personality, torn between his wish to become a Catholic priest, his own powerful sexuality, and his liking for the unstable Olivia Plunket Greene. Olivia had been visited by the Virgin Mary, who enjoined chastity. In June that year she sent Henry a six-page letter explaining why she could not have sexual intercourse with him. He went down to Crantock, she did not.

On 22 June he cycled to “a desolate stretch of the cliffs” and was last seen walking with his aunt’s dog. His body was washed up at Perranporth on 5 July. 

Although Duncan writes that Britten was deeply upset by this event, neither of the Britten biographies – those by Paul Kildea and Humphrey Carpenter – mentions this supposedly long-lasting distress, nor indeed Henry John at all.


Britten in Cornwall

Britten, it is evident, had an extremely pleasant time. “At the beginning of July he escaped to Cornwall, renting a chalet at Crantock from a Miss Edith Nettleship”, Carpenter writes. He spent the first two weeks alone, completing Our Hunting Fathers. On 13 July he wrote in his diary about the “Utter bliss” of being able to bath naked on the rocky shore. There is only one ominous note in this entry about the sea in Cornwall:

[P]leasant – if cold, & cold because one mustn’t go in deeper than one’s penis because of currents & what not (there have been umpteen tragedies round here).

It does not seem that Henry John’s death had made any particular impact. What really upset Britten at this time was the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, on 17-18 July. 

The composer Lennox Berkeley then made a highly enjoyable visit, leaving on 30 July. (Carpenter 84) 

Duncan must have arrived after this.


Duncan in Cornwall


(BB with Briony, Rose Marie and RD, in Clovelly) 


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Texts by Ronald Duncan © Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation


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