Finding Number (Click this to view full catalogue structure)MS873
TitlePapers of John Sommerfield
Extent3 boxes
Date[c 1930]-1989
DescriptionLiterary and personal papers of the writer and political activist, John Sommerfield (1908-1991). The collection predominantly relates to Sommerfield's literary career, including heavily revised typescripts of what appears to be unpublished work, but there are also a few personal papers and photographs arising from his service in the RAF during World War Two.

Although there are only two items of correspondence in the collection, they are of note, being a personal letter from Dylan [Thomas] (1914-1953) dated January 1941 and a postcard from G[eorge] Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) dated December 1947. Other highlights are notebooks in which Sommerfield records observations and recollections of his time in Spain whilst volunteering with the 'Marty Battalion' [of the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War] and whilst on active service during World War Two.

There are no papers in the archive directly arising from his membership of the Communist Party or involvement in the Mass Observation work of the mid-20th century but the archive is the only known collection of John Sommerfield's own papers and is a key resource for research into his life and work, particularly his short stories, as well as for those more widely interested in the work of 20th century left wing writers.
ArrangementThe cataloguing archivist has arranged the papers in five series broadly following the arrangement in which they were received. A few individual cuttings found loosely inserted in the files of typescripts have been extracted and added to the other cuttings which had been collated prior to donation; two items of correspondence have been filed separately.
/1 Typescripts and autograph manuscripts of literary works by John Sommerfield
/2 Publications featuring items by John Sommerfield
/2 John Sommerfield's notebooks
/3 Cuttings
/4 Correspondence
/5 Photographs
Access ConditionsAccess to all registered researchers
Finding AidsThis is a preliminary description and will be enhanced at a future date. A temporary box list is available as a pdf file. Click on the link in the document field below.
Access StatusOpen
Physical DescriptionThe cuttings are fragile and should be handled one at a time.
Creator NameSommerfield, John, 1908-1991, Writer
Administrative HistoryJack (known as 'John'), Hugo Sommerfield, was born in West London 25 June 1908, the son of a journalist. After leaving University College School, Hamstead, London at the age of 16, he worked his way through several jobs before his first novel,' They Die Young', was published in 1930. He went on to write a guide to stage management, five further novels, a novella, short stories, radio plays, film documentary scripts, reportage, numerous reviews and articles, and reports for the Mass Observation social research organisation for which he also co-authored, 'The Pub and the People' with Tom Harrison (1943). A seemingly natural observer with a strong political commitment, much of Sommerfield's writing reflects his personal experience and beliefs.

Sommerfield was an active member of the Communist Party from the 1930s to the mid-1950s and a member of left-wing writers' groups of the 1930s and 1940s. One of his best known works, 'May Day' (1936), a novel about a communist uprising in London, was published by Lawrence and Wishart in the first year after the merger of Wishart Ltd and Martin Lawrence, the Communist Party's Press. He wrote for a number of other left-wing periodicals, including the then organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 'The Daily Worker' (now 'Morning Star') and in 1948 joined the editorial commission of 'Our Time' alongside Charles Hobday, Arnold Rattenbury, Montague Slater and others.

He went to war twice. In 1936, he volunteered on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, joining the 'Marty Battalion' of the International Brigade. In the Second World War, he served as a flight mechanic with the RAF from July 1940-September 1945, spending over three years stationed overseas in Burma and Sindh province in India (now Pakistan). On his return from the conflict in Spain in which he lost his friend, poet and fellow Communist Party member, (Rupert) John Cornford (1915-1936), he wrote 'Volunteer in Spain' (1937) and dedicated it to Cornford. In turn, he was to draw on his experiences in WW2, notably in a volume of short stories issued under the title, 'The Survivors' (1947) and the unpublished, 'Press on Regardless'.

His interest in language extended to learning Urdu whilst serving in India; a few years earlier, his translation of the autobiography of Austrian writer and critic, Berta Zuckerkandl (nee Szeps) was published by Cassell and Co. (1938).

Sommerfield had a son, Peter, with his first wife, Stella. He later married the illustrator, Molly Moss, examples of whose work can be seen in 'Trouble in Porter Street' (1939). Having lived in London for most of his life, he moved to Oxfordshire where he died 13 August 1991.

Selected works:

1930 'They Die Young', London: Heinemann, (published in America under the title, 'The Death of Christopher');
1936 'May Day'. London: Lawrence and Wishart;
1952 'The Adversaries', London: Heinemann;
1956 'The Inheritance', London: Heinemann;
1960 'North West Five', London: Heinemann;
1977 'The Imprinted: recollections of then, now and later on', London Magazine

1939 'Trouble in Porter Street'. London: Fore Publications, 1939;
1954 'Trouble in Porter Street' (Revised edition). London: Lawrence and Wishart

Book of short stories:
1947 'The Survivors'. [London]: John Lehmann

1937 'Volunteer in Spain'. London: Lawrence and Wishart

1934 'Behind the Scenes'. London: Nelson and Sons;
1934 'The Pub and the People: a Worktown study' (Mass Observation);
1938 Berta Zuckerkandl-Szeps, 'My Life and History translated by John Sommerfield'. London: Cassell and Co;
1949 'A Boy, a Girl and a Bike', collaborative work with Ted Willis (play for television)

Sources: the records; Andrew Whitehead, 'John Sommerfield's Box.', 'The Literary London Journal', Volume 11, Number 1 (Spring 2014): 54-58, available online at (accessed October 2014); 'John Sommerfield and Mass-Observation' by Nick Hubble Brunel University, available online at (accessed 14 November 2014); Wikipedia at (accessed 14 November 2014); website of 'London Books' available at (accessed 14 November 2014); website of Lawrence and Wishart at (accessed 14 November 2014).
Custodial HistoryIn summer 2013, John Sommerfield's son, Peter, passed the papers to Andrew Whitehead who compiled a list of the collection and wrote an article, entitled 'John Sommerfield's Box', which was published in 'The Literary London Journal', Spring 2014; the archive was then passed to Professor Dick Ellis, University of Birmingham. The collection is also understood to have been accessed by a researcher at some point prior to donation. Andrew Whitehead's listing of the archive is available online at Website of Andrew Whitehead (, accessed October 2014; the arrangement of the papers as listed by Andrew Whitehead differs slightly to their arrangement on receipt by Cadbury Research Library.
AcquisitionPresented by Peter Sommerfield per Professor Dick Ellis, 9 September 2014.
CopiesPhotographs of selected items from the archive, including the full text of John Sommerfield's radio play, 'More Room for Us' and the notebook he begun writing in 1936, are available online at Website of Andrew Whitehead (; and, accessed October 2014.
Related MaterialCadbury Research Library: Special Collections holds a number of other 20th century literary collections including the Randall Swingler Collection (GB 0150 MS835), papers of Charles Hobday (GB 0150 MS206), Arnold Rattenbury (GB 0150 MS556), Fred Beake (GB 0150 MS226), Philip Callow (GB 0150 MS840), David Lodge (GB 0150 DL) and the David Tipton Collection (GB 0150 TIP); there is also an extensive collection of Left Book Club publications from the 1930s and 1940s with the rare books (listed on the University of Birmingham library catalogue, shelfmark prefix: Cadbury Research Library Left Book Club).
Associated MaterialsThe Mass Observation archive is held by Sussex University Library Special Collections (GB 0181 MO). The Papers of the Communist Party of Great Britain are held in the Labour History Archive and Study Centre, University of Central Lancashire (GB 0394 CPGB).
Publication NoteAndrew Whitehead, ‘John Sommerfield’s Box.’ The Literary London Journal, Volume 11, Number 1 (Spring 2014): 54–58. Online at