About H.E. Bates

(1905 - 1974)

Born May 16th 1905 in the boot and shoe making town of Rushden in Northamptonshire.

His parents, Lizzie and Albert, name him Herbert Ernest, but no one seems to know why and everyone calls him Bert.

He is a petite, blonde, blue eyed boy who is adored by his many aunts and grandparents; an affection he will remember all his life.

Sister Edna is born

1910: His father is a staunch Methodist. The children have to go to church three times on Sundays, which Bert hates!

(Baby Edna with Bert and their mother, Lizzie)

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He spends every weekend and holiday with his maternal grandparents, George and Pricilla Lucas, in Higham Ferrers, helping them on their small-holding. He learns about the countryside, listens to his grandfather's stories and is blissfully happy.

George is also a fireman. One night a factory fire threatens a row of thatched cottages where George grew up. He carries a baby girl to safety from the very same cottage he'd been born in. When that baby grows up she will marry Bert.

(George is 4th from the left)

George Lucas Fire Brigade

1914: The family move one street away to No. 15 Grove Road.

Several Battalions of the Royal Welch Fusiliers are garrisoned in the town and are billeted with families.

(Soldiers from the Royal Welch Fusiliers with H.E. (cross legged), H.E.'s parents, Albert and Lizzie, his grandparents, George and Priscilla, Lizzie's sister, Flo, and H.E. with his sister, Edna)

Welch soldiers with the family around 1916

1916: Brother Stanley is born.

Wins a free place at Kettering Grammar School, but hates it and is so shy he feels sick, doesn't do well and is caned by the Headmaster for helping another boy in an exam.

He dreams of becoming a footballer, or an athlete, or a painter, until a new English teacher arrives, Edmund Kirby, who inspires him to become a writer.

(Edmund Kirby drawn by John Ward)

Edmund Kirby by John Ward

1919: Starts writing poetry, falls in love with a girl called Con, writes even more poetry and is caught kissing her so often in the 1st Class Waiting Room of Kettering Station that he will suggest later that a plaque be put there saying 'H.E. Bates Loved Here'. In 2017 just such a plaque was hung on the wall outside the 1st Class Waiting Room on platform 3.

Blue Plaque H.E. Bates Loved Here

1921: The romance with Con is over. He passes the Oxford and Cambridge Certificate, but not with a scholarship, and has to leave school. He is 16.

1922: Works as a reporter on a local paper but hates it and after 8 weeks, sensing he’s about to be sacked, resigns!

Takes long ‘midnight walks’ across the fields, sees a candle burning in a window and has an idea for a story about two sisters.

1922-1924: Works as a clerk in a warehouse, finds he can get all his work done in an hour and spends the rest of the day writing in secret. He writes a novel, throws it away, writes two more versions of it and is sacked when the owner of the warehouse finds out.

He sends the novel, The Two Sisters, to 10 publishers and waits, signs on at the dole queue, plays a lot of football and cricket, writes a column in a local paper under the name ‘Boy Blue’ (because of his pale, blue eyes), goes to dances, has a motorbike, has a go at driving a car and is fined for speeding!

1925, February: Is invited to a friend’s birthday party where he meets a girl called Marjorie Cox (known as Madge). She is the baby his grandfather rescued from the fire-threatened cottage.

Madge lives two streets away. She left school at 14 and is working in a boot and shoe factory. Their friends have set them up to meet; she is 15, he is 19.

They fall in love, spend the summer cycling, walking, picnicking and watching fox cubs play.

(Madge drawn by John Ward, from The Vanished World)

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For a while he writes to Madge as 'Irene' and signs himself 'Richard', and some friends will write to him as Richard all his life.

(Letter to Madge: 'Irene from Richard' 1928)

Irene, to stand as a memory

1925: December: A letter arrives (addressed to Miss Bates) from Cape Ltd, who want to publish his novel.

He goes to London to meet the editor, Edward Garnett, who has made this dream come true. H.E. thinks he looks like a 'very crumpled bear' and will admire him and depend on his advice all his life.

1926: The Two Sisters is published. The novel receives good reviews and several of his short stories appear in newspapers and journals.

(Edward Garnett photographed by Yvonne Gregory)

Edward Garnett by Yvonne Gregory NPG

But he is also an angry young man. Furious at the government’s response to the National Strike and social injustice he writes a seering (and very short) play about poverty, The Last Bread, published by The Labour Publishing Company.

And another play called Loyalty about people who make a fuss about meeting royalty, which airs for four nights on the radio.

He becomes known as 'H.E.'

(H.E. photographed by Howard Coster)

HE Bates NPG use this one

1926: Garnett finds him work in a bookshop in London, but he hates the noise of the city, can’t think or write and is late to work so often he writes a children’s story, The Seekers, for the owner by way of an apology.

Goes to the Rhine with the German bookseller Charles Lahr and a party of Lahr’s friends including the artist William Roberts, who draws a portrait of him (now in Tate Britain), but he misses Madge, writes to her every day, sends her gifts as often as he can and comes home early.

H.E. by William Roberts Tate Britain

1929: Day’s End, his first collection of stories, is published and he’s invited to a literary party at Windsor Castle where he stays overnight, but is habitually forgetful and leaves his mackintosh behind (which became a bit of a habit!).

1930: Goes to Brittany and Paris with Madge, comes home, sells several manuscripts to an American collector and is finally able to put down a mortgage on a house and make plans to marry Madge.

1931: They marry in Rushden on the 31st July...

H E and Madge wedding day 1

...and move to 'The Granary', a converted granary barn in Little Chart, Kent.

"My Cottage that was a Barn."

The Granary mums photo she took to school

1932: Ann is born

1933: Judith is born

1937: Richard is born.

He’s working hard, writing stories and articles, reviewing books and trying to make ends meet. He makes a garden out of the farmyard...

H.E. with Ann as a baby

...and has a summer house built, where he can write.

(This photograph was taken several years later by James Jarche. H.E. is in his summer house with all the children: Judith is pushing Jonathan in a wheelbarrow, then Ann and Richard.)

H.E. in his summer house with the children

1938: The editor of Atlantic Monthly wants him to edit the American edition of his novel, Spella Ho. He sails to New York on The Aquitania, goes to a baseball match, gets drunk, makes life long friends, eats a lot of ice cream, comes home and starts writing Gee! in his letters.

1939: Jonathan is born

RMS Lusitania

1939: When war is declared he’ s working as an editor at The Spectator writing his Country Life column. He joins the Home Guard in Little Chart.

Country Life Mug

1941: The Ministry of Information commission him into the RAF to write stories , the first commission of its kind. They give him the pseudonym 'Flying Officer X'. He’s posted to RAF Oakington to observe bomber crews in action.

H.E. in RAF cap 358KB

1942, February: His cover is blown and he’s posted to RAF Tangmere to observe night fighters.

1944: His best selling wartime novel, Fair Stood the Wind for France is published.

1944: Posted to France to report on the V1 (‘Doodlebug’) launch sites,

1945: and to India and Burma to write news stories for America.

H E in RAF uniform walking via Lydia

1945, November: He is demobbed and the family are re-united.

H E and Madge and all children Ritas 1947 album jpg

1945: His play The Day of Glory is performed in Salisbury to launch the newly formed Arts Council of Great Britain.

The Day of Glory H E Batess invite Collection of Judith Bates via V wicks

1946: Wants to start a scheme to put art into schools and asks Sir Kenneth Clarke if he will lend him paintings from the National Gallery’s store. When Clarke can’t help he buys 25 old-master water colours and donates them to his old school, adding more to the collection in later years. It becomes known as KGS Painting Collection.

('Derelict Cottage' by John Piper in The KGS Painting Collection.)


1947-1950: Writes three wartime novels: The Purple Plain, The Jacaranda Tree and The Scarlet Sword.

(The Purple Plain was made into a film starring Gregory Peck. Photo: Peck and H.E.)

Film tv radio img 1

1945: Has an operation and is free from abdominal pain for the first time in over 10 years.

Makes the first of many trips to France and Switzerland, with Madge driving,

spends time with his children…

…and goes fishing.

Table mat pic fishing

1952: Writes his semi-biographical novel, Love for Lydia.

1953-1954: Sails to New York, and then to Tahiti with Madge. Spends 3 months in the Bahamas as a guest of the Bahamian Government to finish a history of the islands begun by Hilary St George Saunders.

1957: The first of his 10 grandchildren is born.

H E and one of the grandchildren Emma

1957: Is in Venice with David Lean to see Summertime being filmed.

(Norman Spencer, the producer, Lydia Brazzi, H.E., and David Lean)

H E in Venice with Summertime 2011 12 17 16 22 41 copy

1958: Writes his first novel set in Kent: The Darling Buds of May.

1958: The Daffodil Sky, his 25th collection of short stories is published.

Darling Buds of May First Edition

1962-1964: Collaborates with Carol Barker on a series of children’s books about a little refugee donkey, Achilles the Donkey.

Achilles and Diana drawing

1965: Celebrates his 60th birthday at The Granary with family and friends.

H.E. cutting his cake, smiling

1966: Recovers from a second heart attack and spends a month in Madeira with Madge.

1967: Begins a regular gardening column in Living Magazine

1969: Publishes the first volume of his autobiography, The Vanished World.

From My Garden-H.E. and Madge

1970: Goes to Cairo and on to Baalbek in the Lebanon with Madge.

H.E. and Madge on camels

1971: Writes the first of two full length books on gardening: A Love of Flowers.

A LOVE OF FLOWERS book cover

1973: Continues writing and travelling, working in his garden...

Granary border taken by Dad

…spending time with Madge, his family, friends…

H E and Madge C1960 Madeira or Switzerland

...and his grandchildren.

H.E. and Emma with Tilly

1974: Is awarded a CBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honour’s List.

Dies on the 29th January after a short illness. Obituaries appear in several of the national newspapers including The Times, Financial Times and The Telegraph.

Family life - At home with H.E. Bates

Watch some wonderful footage from home movies of H.E. and his family at home in his beautiful garden in Kent in the early 1960s.