MICHAEL WILDING remembers stirrings among the dead letters
The first piece of writing for which I got paid was an article in the local weekly paper. I was just 18, marking time between leaving school and going to university. The paper, Berrow’s Worcester Journal, claimed to be the oldest newspaper in the world, dating from the 17th century. My article, “Miserrimus: the story of a cathedral stone”, appeared on 1st April, 1960. To have an article called, to translate the Latin, ‘most wretched man’, and to have it appearing on April Fool’s day may not have been the most auspicious start to a literary career.
That tombstone in Worcester Cathedral with the single word inscription had prompted William Wordsworth to write a sonnet, “A Gravestone Upon The Floor in the Cloisters of Worcester Cathedral”, and it was this literary association that had prompted me to write my article. Having discovered the sonnet in Wordsworth’s collected poems, I went down to the cathedral and there indeed was the tombstone. I researched the unhappy man in some local histories and found he had been a 17th century clergyman, Thomas Morris, who refused to swear the oath of allegiance to William of Orange, the Dutch Protestant brought into England in 1688 to replace the deposed Catholic King James. As a consequence, Morris lost his living as a canon of the Cathedral and vicar of the parish of Claines – the parish in which I had grown up.
Wanting to be a writer I was eagerly looking for signs of any writers or writing associated with the provincial world I lived in. Could there be writers outside of London or Paris or other remote metropolises? Well, Wordsworth had visited my home town, presumably, and written that sonnet, so there might be hope. Maybe other writers had visited. To be a writer you need something to write about. Writing about local literary associations could provide some of the materials I needed.
My English master had given me a two volume book recording all of the documents associated with Shakespeare’s life, every known, surviving record of baptism, marriage and financial transactions. Two documents were listed as having been held in the Worcester Diocesan Records Office but their whereabouts were now unknown, according to the book. Shakespeare had been born in Stratford-upon-Avon which in 1582 was in the diocese of Worcester.
So I went down to the records office, housed in an old church near the cathedral, St Helen’s, and inquired whether the documents still existed. I was shown the card index catalogue, found the two items listed, and ordered them up from the archives. They came, not lost at all. But while I was down there, I came across two much more interesting documents. One was a licence for Wm Shaxpere to marry Annõ Whateley of Temple Grafton. The other issued the following day was a marriage licence bond for Willm Shagspere to marry Anne Hathwey of Stratford-upon-Avon with only one reading of the banns. Scholars still lack agreement on the meaning of the documents. Had Shakespeare been planning to marry Anne Whateley, but was then coerced into marrying Anne Hathaway? Or was Whateley just a misspelling of Hathaway? But could Temple Grafton be a clerical error for Stratford-upon-Avon? No record of the marriage taking place has been found.
My second article for the local paper, raising the various possibilities, duly appeared: “Did Shakespeare Ever Marry?”. A couple of weeks later the director of the Shakespeare Memorial Trust was reported in the same paper as warning,
Disregard any reports you may have read recently concerning William Shakespeare… Shakespeare was a very decent man, and you would have welcomed him, or at least his daughter, into your house
The archives were a fascinating resource for a writer or a historian. I spent many an hour there. There was a machine that used ultra-violet light to make the faded ink on old documents legible, which was the height of technology. But the main difficulty was reading 16th and 17th century handwriting styles, very different from the present day. A distinguished local historian had spent years transcribing the quarter sessions court records for publication, but when he died no one could read his handwriting, and they remained unpublished.
I had been recalling the archives and planning an article about them when I dropped into a Sydney charity shop to find something to read. Now that the University of Sydney library has emptied the stacks of half a million volumes and deposited them off-campus, it is hard to find much to read on the open shelves. Vinnies’ has more to offer. On this occasion I picked up a memoir, Open Secret, by Stella Rimington, the first woman director-general of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, and author of a number of spy novels I had enjoyed. Leafing through the pages I found that from mid-1959 to the end of 1961 she had been an assistant archivist in the Worcester County Record Office – the very years I used to haunt the place.
Ever since writing my column on conspiracies and paranoia for another weekly paper, Nation Review,in the late 1970s I had developed an unhealthy interest in spooks and surveillance. To think that I might have literally brushed shoulders with this female super-spook. Of course this was before she had joined MI5 – or so she wrote. But could you trust the words of the director of a spy agency? I tried in vain to remember if there had been any young lady who had tried to recruit me in the shadows of that old church. Or had I delivered some subversive views even at that age, had I blotted my copy-book as far back as then?
One of her recollections of those days chimes in with mine. She writes:
Some of our most frequent customers were the Mormons and their representatives. They were researching the ancestors of fellow Mormons, by searching for names, usually in the parish records. My understanding was that if the ancestors could be identified their names would be written down and they would be posthumously baptised so that their spirits would pass from wherever they were into the Mormon heaven
I remembered this bizarre behaviour of the Mormons. But by the time of my Nation Review column twenty years later, some of us had developed new theories about what the Mormons were up to. One of the alleged tricks of intelligence agencies, it was revealed in the 1960s, was to search through registers of births and deaths, find someone who had died young, and use their birth date to obtain documents in their name and create a false identity to be used by some spy going undercover. Were the Mormons in fact working for the CIA or FBI to fabricate legends for their undercover spies? Indeed, was the later-to-be director of MI5 doing something similar?
This theme of stealing identities from parish records cropped up again in my researches. Another local figure was Edward Kelly, the associate of Dr Dee (1). I published a book about Dee and Kelly 20 years ago, Raising Spirits, Making Gold and Swapping Lives: the True Adventures of Dr John Dee and Sir Edward Kelly. Since its publication, new material on Kelly had surfaced and I began updating it for a new edition. I was in touch with an American academic, Terry Burns, who with another American scholar, Vincent Bridges, had written a book about Kelly, An Alchemical Enigma. They both argued that the person who made gold at the Emperor Rudolf’s court was not the Edward Kelly born in Worcester, but some other figure who had adopted the identity of the Worcester man from the parish records. Naturally, I prefer to keep Kelly as the product of my own home town.
Terry Burns also drew my attention to a recently discovered document in a German archive. It is a letter from Sir Richard Bingham, Governor of Connaught, authenticating Kelly’s claim to be of noble Irish descent. Kelly had been thrown in gaol by the Emperor Rudolf and the letter may have been an attempt to get him rehabilitated. Bingham was a correspondent of Sir Francis Walsingham, who ran secret service operations for Queen Elizabeth. Kelly may well have been some sort of agent for Walsingham, though naturally it is impossible to find any unambiguous evidence for this. But the name Bingham resonates in this context.
Charlotte Bingham is a prolific contemporary novelist and I recently read her memoir MI5 and Me – a hilarious account of working for an intelligence agency. She got the job because her father, John Bingham, worked for MI6, where he was John le Carré’s boss and encouraged him to begin writing. A recent biography of Bingham, The Man Who Was Smiley, suggests he was a model for le Carré’s Smiley character. Bingham himself wrote crime and spy novels: he was also an Irish peer, the 7th Baron Clanmorris. Presumably he is a descendant of that 16th century Bingham of Ireland, a family familiar with espionage operations over generations – though I have yet to do the genealogical research to prove it.
The aura of espionage seems to permeate archival records. When I was researching The Paraguayan Experiment, my book about William Lane’s New Australia settlement (2), I tracked down a Confidential Memorandum to the British Foreign Office about the settlement by M. de C. Findlay, preserved in the Public Record Office at Kew. I found it suggestive that the British Foreign Office was keeping watch on New Australia. But it was not till 30 years later when reading Andrew Cook’s M. MI5’s First Spymaster that I came across M. de C. Findlay again and my suspicions about his role were confirmed:
I Manfeldt de Cardonnel Findlay, acknowledge to have received from Sir Edward Grey, Baronet, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the sum of twenty-five pounds (£25) for the purposes of His Majesty’s Foreign Secret Service, and I do hereby solemnly declare that the said sum has been disbursed faithfully and according to my best judgement for those purposes …
There were other materials about Lane in the Fisher Library at the University of Sydney. I was allowed into the rare book stacks at one point and by chance happened to notice a shelf of boxes containing the papers of Alf Conlon (3), who ran a mysterious research unit in Sydney’s Victoria Barracks in the Second World War, the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs, along with James McAuley (4) and Harold Stewart (5). A note was stuck onto the side of one of the boxes. “If anyone asks for these, say we do not have them” – though when I mentioned this to Conlon’s nephew he was sceptical that there might have been any secret service implications. “He probably wrote the note himself”, he said.
- Edward Kelly (or Kelley), 1555-1595, alchemist, ‘skryer’ to John Dee in their dialogues with spirits, knighted by the Emperor Rudolf and then gaoled, died while escaping from prison. Mentioned in Butler’s Hudibras. Dr John Dee, 1527-1608, adviser to Elizabeth I, alchemist, astrologer, and mathematician, often suspected of sorcery. See https://brazen-head.org/2020/10/18/john-dee-and-edward-kelly-through-a-glass-darkly/
- William Lane, 1861-1917, British-born Australian journalist who founded the socialist settlements of New Australia and Colonia Cosme in Paraguay in 1893/4
- Colonel Alfred Austin Joseph Conlon, 1908-1961, high-level Australian administrator and influential think-tanker
- James Philip McAuley, 1917-1976, poet, co-instigator (with Harold Stewart) of the 1943-44 Ern Malley literary hoax, and co-founder in 1956 of the Australian magazine, Quadrant
- Harold Frederick Stewart, 1916-1995, poet, Orientalist, and co-instigator of the Ern Malley literary hoax
MICHAEL WILDING is emeritus professor of English and Australian Literature at the University of Sydney. His latest book is Wild About Books: Essays on Books and Writing (Australian Scholarly Publishing, $39.95)