Biographies: life writing at Churchill Archives Centre

24th November 2021 in Archives Centre, Our Collections

Biographers can often be the first people to look at an archival collection in detail. Stephen Roskill, Archives Scholar of Churchill Archives fame, was one of the first people to submerge himself in the collections of Maurice Hankey (1877-1963), 1st Baron Hankey.

After a career in the navy, Hankey moved into Whitehall, working as the Naval Assistant Secretary to the committee of the Imperial Defence before becoming the Secretary of the War Cabinet. Hankey was also the first ever Cabinet Secretary.

Correspondence surviving in Roskill’s archive showcase what was involved in writing a biography when family members, in this case, Maurice’s wife, Adeline, and their children Robin and Ursula were still alive.

Roskill, Adeline and Robin were frequently in correspondence about the 3-part biography. Roskill invited Adeline to read over chapters and, in some cases, to provide photos.

As well as official papers charting his career, Adeline also sent across private letters exchanged with her husband, which Roskill read and extracted the most ‘serviceable’ parts for his biography.

Writing a biography while family members were still alive was occasionally tricky for Roskill. His correspondence with Adeline records her concern over Roskill’s publication of her husband’s criticisms of certain work colleagues, and Roskill’s attempts to alleviate her worries.

Roskill sent Adeline a letter on 20th July 1970 re-emphasising the conditions on which he decided to write the biography: namely that he would have access to all papers, would retain sole editorial rights, and not collude with the family on censorship. For a brief period, Roskill shifted his efforts from working on Hankey’s biography to his history of Naval Policy between the wars.

The seriousness of the letter sparked Robin to respond 5 days later, apologising on his mother’s behalf about the number of comments she made on Roskill’s manuscript; ‘she had not realised at all the seriousness of what she had done to the manuscript’.

Reading Roskill and the Hankeys’ collections together at Churchill Archives reveals the emotional labour which goes into writing a life and the competing agendas which a biographer has to manage.

Adeline Hankey'

Photograph of Adeline Hankey at her writing desk, c. 1910s-20s. Source: AHKY 3/1/4,Churchill Archives Centre.

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Other biographical material in our collections:

If we’ve whetted your appetite, then do get in touch to explore our collections.

Want to catch up with earlier posts in our series? Check out our blog on autobiographies.

Looking for useful introductions for working with life writing? Here’s some of our favourites:

By Cherish Watton, Archives Assistant.

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