Finding Number (Click this to view full catalogue structure)MS69
TitlePapers relating to Noël Coward
Extent1 box (comprising 61 items)
Date[20th century]
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DescriptionThe collection consists of publicity material as well as personal material of Noël Coward, compiled by his godson Christopher Lister. Publicity material includes three signed photographs, one showing him in uniform for 'In Which We Serve'; a set of formal studio photographs of Noël Coward, along with other actors, by Constance Stuart, Flinn, and a collection of presscuttings.

There are various letters and notes from Noël Coward to his godson as well as to Christopher's father, Herbert Lister, otherwise known as 'Nanny'. These include several Christmas cards, including a card dated 17 December 1972 [possibly one of the last Christmas cards Noël Coward sent]. Personal photographs include several of Coward in South Africa relaxing on a beach with friends, and a photograph of Coward at the races in 1939.
ArrangementThese papers have been arranged into two sub-fonds, reflecting the split between public and personal papers.
Access ConditionsAccess to all registered readers
Finding AidsA catalogue of this collection is available on the online archive catalogue. Click on the Finding Number to display the summary contents list of the catalogue and to view the full catalogue, or view the catalogue as a PDF file by clicking in the document field below. A paper copy of this catalogue is also available for consultation in the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections Department.
Access StatusOpen
Creator NameLister, Christopher
Administrative HistoryChristopher Lister was the son of Herbert Lister. He was also Noel Coward's godson; his father, Herbert 'Bert' Lister, was Coward's valet and dresser, as well as a stage-manager at the Drury Lane Theatre. Herbert Lister was a loyal employee of Coward, given the nickname of 'Nanny' by Coward, as, he recounts: '[Coward] called me "Nanny" because when we were on tour in Torquay and he was ill he shouted at me for coming to him with my hair all messed up" (clad only in a towel). ' "A nice fright for me to open my eyes and see that!" The next day I hired a nurse's outfit and took him his breakfast wearing it."' 'Nanny' was known for his sense of humour and lack of subservience. He travelled to South Africa with Noel in 1944, going ahead with heavier baggage. Coward delayed their journey to Pretoria when Herbert became ill with tonsillitis and was unable to travel. Later, Bert is painted as a 'jealous' friend of Coward; he resisted the casting of Graham Payn in 'Sigh No More' which resulted in arguments with Coward.

Noël Pierce Coward was born on 16 December 1899, the second of three sons of Arthur Sabin Coward, clerk, and Violet Agnes, daughter of Henry Gordon Veitch, captain and surveyor in the Royal Navy. He made his first professional stage appearance in 1911 in The Goldfish, in which he played the part of Prince Mussel. This led to an audition for The Great Name later that year, given to Charles Hawtrey. He then appeared in Hawtrey's production of 'Where the Rainbow Ends' at the Savoy during the winter of 1911-1912, along with Esme Wynne, who became his friend and co-writer. Two of their short plays, Woman and Whisky, and Ida Collaborates, were produced in 1917. Engaged by Italia Conti, Coward appeared in Gerhardt Hauptmann's 'Hannele' at the Liverpool Repertory Theatre in 1913 where he met Gertrude Lawrence, and also appeared in 'War in the Air', before playing the part of Slightly in 'Peter Pan' for two years. He continued to perform during the First World War in 'The Happy Family' at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1916 and on tour with Amy Brandon Thomas' company in 'Charley's Aunt'. In 1917 he appeared in 'The Saving Grace' produced by Charles Hawtrey.

Coward met the artist Philip Streatfield in 1913, and became his protege, accompanying him on a painting holiday to Cornwall in the summer of 1914 and meeting his friends including Mrs Astley Cooper and her social circle. Streatfield died in 1917, but Coward became an unofficial mascot to Streatfield's regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, and was a frequent guest at the Astley Cooper's estate, Hambleton Hall, Rutland. Coward was conscripted to the Artists Rifles in 1918 but was assessed as unfit for active service, having previously suffered from tuberculosis. Possibly in response to being called up, he also developed severe headaches and spent time being treated at the First London General Hospital in Camberwell in a ward containing victims of shellshock.

Coward's success grew during the 1920s, and by the early 1930s, the critical and popular success of his increasingly mature work ensured his position as one of the most important dramatists of the period. His plays of this period included the classic 'Private Lives' (1930) in which he starred with Gertrude Lawrence, which established him as one of the world's highest-earning authors. Other successes were 'Design for Living' produced in New York in 1933 but not in London until 1939, the patriotic 'Cavalcade (1931), the cycle of playlets 'Tonight at 8.30' (1936) and 'Present Laughter (1939). Coward also recorded some of his best-known songs between 1929 and 1936. However, his health was affected by his self-imposed workload, the pressures of public fame and his private life, and he had another psychological breakdown in 1926 and had to take an extended holiday to recover. He was in a relationship during the 1920s with John (Jack) C. Wilson, who had also become his manager, and had a series of brief affairs during the 1930s.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Coward persuaded Churchill's government to give him official war work. His biographer, Philip Hoare, has suggested that this might have been an attempt to atone for having evaded service in the First World War. Coward worked briefly at the Paris office of the bureau of propaganda, and then carried out information gathering and other undefined work for the British secret service in America, attempting to foster support for the war. However, questions were asked in parliament about his suitability as a representative of Britain, and a proposed trip to South America was cancelled. Coward turned his attention to entertaining British troops both at home and abroad, undertaking a number of tours in Europe, Africa, Asia and America. He wrote and recorded a number of popular songs with a war theme, including 'London Pride' and 'Don't Lets Be Beastly to the Germans'. He produced, with David Lean, a series of films relating to the war: 'In Which We Serve' (1942), 'This Happy Breed' (1943), 'Brief Encounter' (1945), and the film of his 1941 play 'Blithe Spirit', and undertook a tour of this play, along with 'This Happy Breed' and 'Present Laughter' for a nationwide tour in 1942-43 to try to boost public morale.

After the war, Coward's growing sense of dissatisfaction with England, exacerbated by the election of the Labour government in 1945 and subsequent tax rises, led him to spend the majority of the rest of his life abroad. After the death of his mother in 1954, he settled in Ocho Rios, Jamaica in the late 1940s, where he built the houses Blue Harbour and Firefly, [some sources give the location of Coward's homes in Jamaica as Oracabessa rather than Ocho Rios] and where he spent his time writing and painting in the company of Graham Payn, the South African born actor with whom he spent the rest of his life. His post-war musicals including 'Pacific 1860' (1946), 'Ace of Clubs' (1950), 'After the Ball' (1953), 'Sail Away' (1959-1961), and plays 'Relative Values' (1951) and 'Quadrille' (1952) were moderately well received, but did not match the success of his earlier works. However, Coward's continuing ability to re-invent himself saw him resume a sporadic film career in cameo parts in 'Around the World in Eighty Days' (1955), 'Our Man in Havana' (1960), and 'The Italian Job' (1968).

In his later life, Coward spent even more time in Jamaica or in his other home in Switzerland, attacking kitchen sink drama in a series of lectures in the 'Sunday Times' in 1961, and writing short stories and a series of autobiographical works. In the mid 1960s his works enjoyed a small scale revival, with successful productions of some of his 1920s and 1930s plays and new revues celebrating his music. In 1969 there was a series of celebrations for his seventieth birthday, culminating in the offer of a knighthood, which he accepted. Coward died of heart failure on 26 March 1973 at Firefly in Jamaica, where he was buried. A memorial stone in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey was unveiled in 1984.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography accessed July 2009; Philip Hoare, Noël Coward: a biography 1995
Custodial HistoryThis collection was formed by Noel Coward's godson, Christopher Lister, and by his father Herbert [Nanny] Lister (door keeper at the Drury Lane Theatre, the Lyric Theatre and elsewhere). It was sold at auction by Phillips
AcquisitionPurchased at auction, 30 March 2001
Archival NotePapers arranged and described by Beth Cutts, December 2016, in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description (ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; and in-house cataloguing guidelines.
Related MaterialArchive collections relating to Noël Coward, and held at the Cadbury Research Library, include:

Noël Coward Collection: papers, 1911-2000. Finding Number: COW;
Papers relating to Noël Coward: papers, [20th century]. Finding Number: MS69;
Material relating to Lila Field's 'The Goldfish': papers, 1911. Finding Number: MS158;
Correspondence sent to Claude Ray relating to Noël Coward: papers, [mid-20th century]. Finding Number: MS188;
Papers of Gladys Calthrop: correspondence, 1927-1979. Finding Number: MS201;
Noël Coward Theatre Programmes: programmes, 1913-1991. Finding Number: MS491;
Gladys Calthrop costume drawings: framed drawings, 1934. Finding Number: MS492;
Noël Coward Posters: posters, 1968-1986. Finding Number: MS497;
Noël Coward and Ivor Novello Cuttings: newspaper and magazine cuttings, 1943-1996. Finding Number: MS498;
Patricia Hollender Collection: correspondence, 1951-1978. Finding Number: MS500;
Play scripts relating to Noël Coward: scripts, [c 1911-c 1950]. Finding Number: MS501;
Images of Noël Coward: images, [1920s-1970s]. Finding Number: MS502;
Noël Coward's 'Present Laughter', typescript for radio adaptation: script, [1956]. Finding Number: MS788;
Photographs of Noël Coward and friends, [1920s-1930s]. Finding Number: MS987.