Tag Archives: Authors

87. Elegant and Convenient Sets: J.B. Priestley’s Shirt and the Apartments at Albany

This week’s Object has been requested by several colleagues: it’s J.B. Priestley’s shirt!  The shirt, which is clean, is folded and wrapped in cellophane (or something similar) marked with the details of the laundry: The Mayfair Laundry, Strafford Road, London W3.

J.B. Priestley's laundered shirt (archive ref. PRI 23/5).

J.B. Priestley’s laundered shirt (archive ref. PRI 23/5).

“Realia” (objects, things, belongings of the creators of archives) can help shed light on aspects of their life or works and give an added dimension to those archives.  Witness Priestley’s pipes, Jacquetta’s arrowhead or her OBE.

Such objects are also often instantly appealing in a way that documentary evidence may not be.  Certainly we have found that the shirt is one of the most popular Objects in Special Collections, the one that many people remember from their visits, perhaps because it is so unexpected (unlike say letters, photographs or other standard archive materials).

Letterhead based on an engraving of Albany from 1800, detail from 1981 letter to the Priestleys acknowledging their departure (archive ref. 16/3).

Letterhead based on an engraving of Albany from 1800, detail from 1981 letter to the Priestleys acknowledging their departure (archive ref. 16/3).

 The shirt is also a reminder of Priestley’s long connection with London, in particular with the fascinating Albany.  This block of apartments (“Sets”), built in the 1770s, is an oasis in the centre of Piccadilly, and has been home to many writers, artists, politicians and other well-known people: Byron, Gladstone, Bruce Chatwin, Georgette Heyer and many more.   It is also rich in literary connections, to Dickens, to The Importance of Being Earnest, and as the home of gentleman thief Raffles.

Albany, Piccadilly, London from HerryLawford's flickrstream (licence CC BY 2.0).

Albany nowadays, from the same direction as the 1800 engraving, above, from HerryLawford’s flickrstream (licence CC BY 2.0).

By the Second World War, Priestley and his wife Jane had made their home on the Isle of Wight.  But Priestley needed a London base for his broadcasting and theatre work. This had been no. 3 The Grove, Highgate (in another literary link, once Coleridge’s house), but a land mine had made this uninhabitable.  Tired of the disruption of moving around hotels and flats in London, Priestley rented flat B4 in Albany in 1943.   Later he also took the flat across the landing, B3.

Detail from the Deed of Covenant for the seven year lease taken out by Priestley in 1943 (archive ref. PRI 16/3)

Detail from the Deed of Covenant for the seven year lease taken out by Priestley in 1943 (archive ref. PRI 16/3)

After the war the Priestleys returned to the countryside, to the Isle of Wight, first to Billingham Manor, then to Brook Hill, where JBP made his home with Jacquetta after their respective divorces.  He and Jacquetta finally moved to Shakespeare country, Kissing Tree House in Warwickshire.  However, the Albany flats continued to be important to the Priestleys for many years, for instance as a venue for committees and campaigns such as the Albany Trust and CND.  Pressure of taxes and expenses meant B4 was given up in 1972 and eventually B3 in 1981.

I imagine the shirt’s laundry wrapping must be connected with JBP’s residence at Albany: the address is about seven miles away which doesn’t seem very convenient, but I expect that the firm collected laundry to do for the residents (this is borne out by a letter of 1975 from the management to residents which alludes to a laundry service).  With archives, there are always more questions …

Sources: this chapter from the Survey of London offers a detailed guide to Albany, its architecture, history and extraordinary list of residents.  Many writers and journalists have written about Albany, see the Wikipedia article  for some links.  The biographies by Vincent Brome and Judith Cook are vital in understanding dating and other details of JBP’s homes.  Legal material, letters, lists of furniture and other material concerning the Priestleys and Albany are in the Priestley Archive, in section 16/3 in particular.

12. It was 1913: J.B. Priestley’s “scribbling books”

Detail from The Modern Juggernaut

First paragraph of “The Modern Juggernaut”

In his 1962 memoir, Margin Released, J.B. Priestley looked back to his teens in Bradford, when he worked as a junior clerk with Helm and Company in the Swan Arcade (now sadly demolished).  In his spare time, he was “a lad bent on writing”, “scribbling and scribbling away” in what Priestley calls his scribbling books, notebooks he made at work in the copying press when no-one was looking.  Some of his works were typed up for him, by a “soft-hearted” girl who had her own typing agency near his office.

Round the Hearth logo, from Bradford Pioneer 1913In 1913 he began to find his way into print.  For most of the year he wrote a cultural column, “Round the Hearth”, for Labour weekly newspaper The Bradford Pioneer.  This work was unpaid.  But later that year an imaginary interview, “Secrets of the Ragtime King”, was accepted by a weekly magazine, London Opinion: payment, one guinea.  A version of the piece shown above, “The Modern Juggernaut”, appeared in The Labour Leader.

Priestley did not hoard paperwork, but somehow a box file containing scribbling books and typescripts survived to inspire him when writing Margin Released.  Two scribbling books and the typescripts are now in the J.B. Priestley Archive, along with issues of The Bradford Pioneer.

Priestley's scribbling books and typescripts

This image shows how fragile the surviving volumes are.  The hand-writing is “dark with closely-pencilled lines” and often smudged.   Transcripts of some of these early works, with critical commentary by John F. Bennett, appear in recent issues of the J.B. Priestley Society Journal.

In the memoir, Priestley was scathing about his early writing.  “Even as teenage efforts they seem to me to have hardly any merit”, he wrote of three short stories.  I think he was rather hard on himself.  The young Priestley was a beginner, experimenting with forms and styles, and was persistent enough to finish works and get them published.  It is exciting to see him finding the topics that were to interest him later: the value of the arts, popular culture, especially the music-hall, the impact of mechanisation and the mass media on people’s lives.