In November 1934, Dylan travelled from Swansea to London with his artist friend Fred Janes. They were moving into, and sharing, an unfurnished room at 5 Redcliffe Street, which was close to Chelsea. The facilities were basic with just two camp beds, a table, a gas oven, an iron bedstead (used as a wardrobe) and a few chairs. Scattered across the floor were beer bottles, cigarette ends and large pieces of cardboard covered in Dylan’s writing. One of the chairs became Fred’s easel that he used to paint his first portrait of Dylan, which catches a wide-eyed and attractive young man. In an upstairs room lived another Swansea pal, Mervyn Levy, also an artist. Dylan left Redcliffe Street around February 1935.
I live, with Janes, just off the Fulham Road, on the borders of Chelsea, Fulham, South Kensington, and Brompton, in a large room with a bathroom and sort of inferior wash up adjoining. This is the quarter of pseudo-artists, of the beards, the naughty expressions of an entirely outmoded period of artistic importance, and of the most boring Bohemian parties I have ever thought possible…..Another Swansea boy – hark, hark the parish pump – lives in the room above us. He is Mervyn Levy… (Letter to A E Trick, December 1934)
In April 1953 Dylan reminisced about his days in Redcliffe Street on a television programme ‘Home Town – Swansea‘. He began by discussing the portrait that Alfred Janes had painted of him there.
..when I see that dewy blubber-lipped frog-eyed mock-goblin from the Welsh bogs goggling at me out of the past (I think that portrait must have been losing weight; I can hardly recognise it now). Before the internal-combustion engine, before the invention of the wheel, oh what a long time ago, in the Golden Days. Do you remember them Fred? The Golden Days, in London, when we were exiled bohemian boily boys. There were three of us then: you and me and Mervyn Levy, three very young monsters green and brimming from Swansea, stiff with lyrics and ambition and still-lives, all living together in one big, bare barmy beautiful room kept by a Mrs Parsnip, as far as I can remember, in Redcliffe Gardens. Two of us had beards, and I grew one too, sparse and ginger and limp, like a depressed marmalade cat’s…. (From Home Town – Swansea)
In early 1935, Dylan’s childhood friends, Fred Janes and Mervyn Levy moved into 21 Coleherne Road in Chelsea and were joined by two other artists, William Scott and Robin Pierce. Dylan did not have a room of his own, as he was continually coming and going, but, whoever had a free space in his room allowed Dylan to put down his mattress.
Often Dylan would return with a vulnerable individual, perhaps a communist in hiding from the fascists, and they would stay for a while, maybe hours, days or weeks, and then disappear. The rise of the far right was very evident in London during the 1930s and it was a particularly difficult time for Mervyn Levy. His Jewish background and artistic appearance made him a regular target. One evening in particularly, while dressed in an especially bizarre outfit of trousers slashed to the knee and with one half of his face clean shaven and the other bearded, he was surrounded by about thirty or forty of Oswald Mosley’ s ‘Black shirts.’
The Thomas family lived at 13 Hammersmith Terrace from late 1941 to early 1942, in a studio owned by the writer, and later, politician, A.P.Herbert. The poet John Pudney convinced his father in law to allow them to stay in one of his two adjacent houses on the terrace. Caitlin Macnamara was born on Hammersmith Terrace ( we think next door at number 12) on December 8th 1913.
I have to move from Hammersmith Terrace, and am trying to get a house in St Peter’s Square to share with some people who have furniture. You don’t know I suppose, anyone who has any furniture stored in London and who would want to give it a good home? The only things I have are a deckchair with a hole in it, half a dozen books, a few toys, and an old iron. These would not fill even a mouse’s home. (Letter to Ruth Wynn Owen, May 1942)
Dylan and Caitlin moved to 8 Wentworth Studios in Chelsea in autumn 1942; it had been recently vacated by the poet Alun Lewis. This became a base for two years while Dylan was preparing propaganda films for the Ministry of Information. Caitlin used her creative powers to turn the dreary room into a home. She used books as tables and adorned the walls with Dylan’s drawings and other reproductions she could find.
During their stay at Manresa Road Dylan and Caitlin were photographed by leading photographer Bill Brandt. View the image in the MoMA Collection.
On the 3rd March 1943 their second child, a daughter called Aeronwy was born at St Mary Abbot’s Hospital in Kensington. It soon became clear that Wentworth Studios was not suitable for a tiny new born. It was a damp and unhealthy environment for a baby and Aeronwy had to sleep with an open umbrella over her pram to prevent rain falling on her from the skylight; this still did not prevent her from catching pneumonia. The challenging situation was made worse by the ‘flying-bombs’ of 1944 that were exceptionally dangerous as they were living in an attic room under a glass roof. Caitlin decided to take the baby to safer surroundings in Wales.
This was the Chelsea home of Caitlin’s sister Nicolette and her artist husband Antony Devas that they rented between 1941 and 1945 while Antony worked as an Air Raid Warden. Caitlin’s brother John Mcnamara and his French wife Henriette also lodged there. Dylan and Caitlin would come and stay regularly throughout the Second World War, and then for a longer period in November and December 1945. The basement kitchen was the hub of the household and was the safest place during bomb raids. Caitlin would sit calmly in a corner reading, while Dylan would curl up in a ball and whimper. His sheer terror unnerved the others as it reinforced the perilous situation they were all in and made the dangers horribly alive. Another lodger, the writer Laurie Lee, remained in his top room as the bombs fell and played his violin, the soothing tones of Mozart comforting the other residents down below. Laurie Lee completed Cider with Rosie over four years while living with the Devases in the Markham Square attic.
New address, for as long as I pay the rent to our vampire, the only one that garlic does not keep off. (From a letter to Oscar Williams, December 1945)
The Thomas family lived in a basement flat at 54 Delancey Street in Camden Town from October 1951 until January 1952 before Dylan and Caitlin set sail to America. The house was owned by Margaret Taylor who ensured that the caravan, (that had previously been in Oxfordshire), was installed in the yard at the back of the house so Dylan could work in a relatively peaceful setting.
For a short while, Dylan and Caitlin were able to develop a routine. Dylan worked in the day, and then together they attended the local pub, the Ravenscourt Arms, in the evenings. Their daughter Aeronwy joined the nearby school and remembers enjoyable walks on Primrose Hill.
Your letter just forwarded from Laugharne to our new London house or horror on bus and night-lorry route and opposite railway bridge and shunting station. No herons here. (From a letter to John Malcolm Brinnin, December 1951)
The first connection Dylan had with the BBC was when he entered a radio poetry competition in 1932 at the age of eighteen. Out of 11,000 entries, only thirty were chosen, one being the ‘The Romantic Isle’ written by a young and up and coming writer, Dylan Thomas. It was broadcast in February 1933; sadly no copy of ‘The Romantic Isle’ is known to survive.
In the years that followed Dylan made one hundred and forty five separate engagements with the BBC including writing scripts, reading poetry and stories, as well as acting. He also became a regular on many panel discussions making him a well-known radio personality. He worked on shows such as Book of Verse, Time for Verse and Living Writers, as well as working on the arts orientated Third Programme, which began broadcasting in September 1946.
Dylan’s BBC output saw him work alongside the likes of Philip Burton, Richard Burton, Aneirin Talfan Davies, John Ormond, John Arlott, Louis MacNeice and John Laurie.
Strand Films Company Ltd had its headquarters at 1 Golden Square in the heart of Soho. Dylan was paid £10 a week for contributing his share of ideas, scripts and voice-overs to films that aimed to raise morale and prepare Britain’s war weary population for a brighter future. He worked for Donald Taylor who was a leading light in Britain’s documentary film movement that had grown over the previous decade and had been further boosted by government propaganda commissions during the war. Strand Film’s were Britain’s leading documentary production company, which, under contract mainly to the Ministry Of Information, put out seventy-five films, ranging from five-minute shorts to substantial features.
Gryphon Films were based in St Martin’s Lane and at 2-6 West Street, WC2. This was another film company Dylan worked for during the Second World War. In 1944 Dylan worked with a group of writers to produce the scripts for No Room at the Inn and The Three Weird Sisters.
Gainsborough Films were based at Lime Grove studios, Shepherd’s Bush. In 1948 they asked Dylan to produce three scriptsRebecca’s Daughters, The Beach of Falesa and Me and My Bike. He was also commissioned to write an adaptation of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Unfortunately, as a result of film import duty being lifted in the same year, the company went into liquidation before any of the films were made. Rebecca’s Daughters was eventually made into a film in 1992, 44 years after the script was written; according to the Guinness Book of Film Facts and Feats this is a record for the longest gap between script and film. Dylan’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short-story The Beach of Falesa was eventually adapted for radio by the BBC as part of their 2014 Dylan Thomas centenary season. A TV opera version of Dylan’s screenplay Me and My Bike was made by the BBC in 1979.
On May 14th 1946 there was a grand poetry recital at Wigmore Hall with many of the modern poets of the time reading their favourite poems. In attendance, in the front row, were Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and her two daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. The Society of Authors organised the event and the secretary was Denis Kilham Roberts, a poet Dylan had known since his early days in London. As a result, Dylan played a small part in arranging the royal occasion and was co-opted onto a committee to choose the programme and performers, who included the poets John Masefield, Edith Sitwell, Walter de la Mare, T.S Eliot, Louis MacNeice, and the actors Edith Evans and John Gielgud.
On the night Dylan read, D H Lawrence’s ‘Snake’, his own ‘Fern Hill ‘and William Blake’s, ‘Tyger! Tyger! Burning Bright.’
I suppose Mr Kilham Roberts wants to know what poems of my own I’ll be reading at the recital on May 14th, as the other poems I’m to read, ‘Snake’ by Lawrence, & ‘Tyger Tyger’ by Blake, have, I think already been settled by the committee whose last meeting I couldn’t attend. I want to read, of my own, one poem only, ‘Fern Hill’ which takes three minutes to read. (From a letter to Mary Field of the Society of Authors, April 1946)
In June 1936, aged just 22, Dylan joined Salvador Dali, Roland Penrose and other surrealist artists of the time at the International Surrealist Exhibition staged in The New Burlington Galleries in Piccadilly. Whilst Salvador Dali almost suffocated in a diving suit, Dylan could be seen circulating through the crowds, crawling on all fours bearing a teacup filled with string asking the guests if they wanted it “weak or strong?”; many have noted that Dylan may have been inspired by Meret Oppenheim’s famous object, ‘Fur Breakfast’. David Gascoyne reported having seen Dylan tying a mouse to one of the exhibits.
There was much controversy surrounding the event and the Daily Mail said that it was responsible for ‘decadence and unhealthiness of mind and body, the unleashing of low and abnormal instincts, a total lack of reason and balance and a distasteful revelation of subconscious thoughts and desires.”
On June 26th there was also a poetry reading held as part of the exhibition; Dylan took part along with Paul Eluard, Samuel Beckett, George Reavey and David Gascoyne.
By the way: after reading my long letter indignantly denying certain of your critical charges, you’ll be amused to know that I’m reading some poems to the Surrealist Exhibition on the 26th of the month – (though I haven’t discovered why I am). (From a letter to Richard Church, June 1936)
Dylan first stayed at 53 Battersea Rise in February 1934 with his then girlfriend Pamela Hansford Johnson and her mother. Pamela was two years older than Dylan and wrote to him when his poem, ‘That Sanity Be Kept’ appeared in the Sunday Referee (3rd Sept 1933). In Pamela’s memoirs she described Dylan arriving ‘wearing a mackintosh, and its pockets were crammed with papers and poems, as well as a quarter bottle of brandy’. There were many letters sent and more trips to London that year and Pamela was puzzled by the way Dylan would pretend, when in company, to be much more drunk than he was. Pamela became a novelist and in 1950 married C.P (later Lord) Snow, the scientist and novelist.
From 1945 onwards, the Thomas family were regular visitors to Carlyle Square, the home of Caitlin’s sister Nicolette Devas. Laurie Lee continued to live with the Devas family and Aeronwy Thomas remembers him as, “warm and friendly to everyone”. One time, Aeron fell down the stairs on to her head. He rushed to help her and held her forehead as she vomited green bile, and dabbed her brow with a kitchen cloth from the sink. He waited until the initial shock had passed, his arm around her shoulders in perfect sympathy.
On New Year’s Eve 1946, Dylan took Caitlin to the Chelsea Arts Ball; a fancy dress event. Dylan went as a Chinaman and Caitlin as a flouncy Spanish lady. Friends from the BBC accompanied them.
On New Year’s Eve we went, with lots of other people, mostly BBC, to the Chelsea Arts Ball at the Albert Hall. Never been to it before. 5000 people there, all in fancy dress. A tremendously bright affair. I went as a Chinaman, Caitlin as a grand Spanish Lady. It really was very exciting: wonderful to look at: all the boxes round the great hall packed with pierrots, ballerinas, costermongers, Elizabethans, pirates, courtesans, tigers, Dutch Dolls, empresses, clowns, & the huge floor rainbowed with dancers. Valentine Dyall and Michael Ayrton – do you ever hear him on the Brains Trust? – were two of our company. (Letter to his parents, January 1947)
On January 13th 1953 Dylan recited Edith Sitwell’s ‘The Shadow of Cain’ as part of the the London Symphony Orchestra Winter Promenade Concert Series. He was accompanied by the Morley College Choir and the event was broadcast by the BBC.
Do you really think it best for me to be on stage this time? One of the many advantages of being off-stage with a mike last time was that the separate conductor of ours had time to slow & speed us up when necessary. But of course I don’t mind, & will willingly speak on the stage if thought best. I hardly think I can do without the loudspeaker system in the Albert Hall, as quite a lot of the words have got to come through terrifically loud noise. But of course we’ll try, see, & hear. Incidentally, I haven’t heard yet from the orchestra’s secretary about my fee, although in reply to him, I wrote quite a long & reasoned demand (though not for a specific sum). (Letter to Humphrey Searle, December 1952)
More information on Dylan’s connections to the Royal Albert Hall can be found on this blog. In 2014 Sir Peter Blake included Dylan’s portrait in a mural that commemorates some of the many performers who have graced the stage at the Royal Albert Hall.
Dylan was introduced to this pub in 1933 and continued to visit when he lived and worked in London. The Fitzroy Tavern gave Fitzrovia, the artistic district of London its name. Fitzrovia links parts of Bloomsbury, Marylebone and North Soho. During Dylan’s time, the Fitzroy was run by a Russian man called Kleinfeld who apparently had a coarse appearance and gross manners, but this concealed a kind heart as he was known to do charitable things such as collect money for disadvantaged East End children so they could go on seaside outings. It was a noisy and crowded pub and attracted many ‘characters’ including Prince Monolulu, alias Peter McKay, the horse racing tipster, who often wore full Kenyan national costume.
Augustus John introduced Caitlin Mcnamara and Dylan at the Wheatsheaf in April 1936. They married a year later. Caitlin told her daughter Aeronwy that she and Dylan got on instantly; with Dylan proposing on his knees after an hour’s acquaintance. It’s rumoured that within hours of that meeting they were ‘chalking up a bill’ in Augustus’s name at the hotel he was staying at.
It is said that George Orwell first led the migration from the noisy garish Fitzroy in 1934 just up the road to The Wheatsheaf, a smaller, quieter pub. It had a long, narrow bar panelled in dark wood and, being a Scotch House sold delicious scotch ale, decorated with the tartans of the clans.
Another of Dylan’s favourite pubs. At the time, the Marquis of Granby had a slightly rougher atmosphere to its neighbouring pubs the Fitzroy Tavern and the Wheatsheaf. This may well have been due to a strange borough boundary. While the Fitzroy and Wheatsheaf were in Holborn, the Marquis was in Marylebone and therefore shut thirty minutes later. There was a trek across the street as the other pubs closed their doors.
This is the pub where Dylan accidently left his original manuscript of Under Milk Wood just before his last tour to the States in 1953. Douglas Cleverdon, the radio producer, delivered duplicate copies of Under Milk Wood to Dylan at the air terminal. Dylan asked Cleverdon to look for the original manuscript while he was away in America and he found it behind the bar of the Helvetia. After Dylan’s death, Cleverdon claimed that the script was his because Dylan had told him that if he found it he could keep it. Caitlin disputed this story and laid claim to the manuscript taking Cleverdon to court in 1966. She lost the case and at least £13,000. Douglas Cleverdon went on to sell the manuscript to the Times Book Co. Ltd; which in turn sold it on again. The Helvetia is now Bar Soho.
This was one of Dylan’s London haunts. There has been a pub at this location since 1538 and the entrance is situated in a narrow alleyway. It is reported that pub ‘regulars’ have included many literary figures including Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, P.G Wodehouse and Samuel Johnson. A friend, and biographer, of Dylan’s, Constantine Fitzgibbon, tells a story about hoodwinking visitors to the Cheshire Cheese. Constantine would pretend to be a lecturer from Harvard and Dylan a professor of English literature from the University of Wales. They invented an Elizabethan poet called Tom Blackamore, the greatest master of the sonnet from England and a man whose influence on Shakespeare had been largely ignored!
Dylan would meet with his BBC colleagues at a number of pubs close to broadcasting house including: the Stag’s Head on New Cavendish Street, Crown and Sceptre on Foley Street and The George, (known as the gluepot) on Great Portland Street.
Dylan often went to the Gargoyle Club on Dean Street. It was originally founded in 1925 with a dual role as a meeting place and a nightclub for avant-garde artists and was owned by David Tennant. It was famous for it’s Matisse glass murals. Gargoyle’s saw a whole succession of Dylans as he and his friend Donald Taylor would decide between themselves the role they were going to play before going for a drink. One of Dylan’s favourite characters to play was a Welsh gentlemen, dressed in hairy tweeds and carrying a knobbed walking stick, and posh accent. Once in a while, he favoured the more ‘popular’ image of Dylan, a drunken Welsh poet with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, a dirty raincoat and polo sweater. The Gargoyle Club is now Dean Street Town House.
I will stay in the Gargoyle until 7.45 & then taxi back. Unless, unless, Cat, you can come up to the Gargoyle for a drink before that. I’d love you to, not because of the horrid, low-ceilinged, devil-enveloping Gargoyle Club its beastly self, but because you and I have not been together – even for a moment, apart from the badly-acted Chekov – for what seems months and months (from a letter to Caitlin, October 1943)
Dylan’s membership of The Savage Club commenced in March 1949 and was sponsored by artist John Davenport; Welsh operatic tenor Parry Jones; and the writer Norman Cameron. A story told by Dylan’s friend Harry Locke describes how one evening, while they were at the Savage Club, Prince Philip came along. Dylan leaning against the bar, next to him, elbow to elbow, said to Harry, “Who’s that? I know his face.”
Dear Brother Savage John DavenportIt is the time-honoured custom of the Club to which we both have the honour to belong, to address one another fraternally thus. If this were not so, the appellation I should, in all honesty, be compelled to attach to your name would be one singularly lacking in camaraderie. Your cherished illusion is, I must suppose, that your fellow members remain in a state of ignorance as to the real purpose for which you joined the Club. May I point out to you that one member, at least, is under no illusion as to that purpose, which is to purloin from the Smoking Room the only copies of The Stage and The New Yorker?
(From a letter to John Davenport, December 1950)
Other places Dylan frequented in the Fitzrovia area include: The Highlander in Dean Street (Now the Nellie Dean), the Salisbury on St Martin’s Lane, the York Minster on Dean Street, (renamed ‘The French House’ in 1983), the Duke of York’s Pub on Rathbone Street, the Mandrake Club on Dean Street, the National Liberal Club on Whitehall Place, Café Royal back bar on Regent’s Street, The Swiss Tavern, 53 Old Compton Street (now Compton’s of Soho.) and Bertorelli’s restaurant on Charlotte Street.
Dylan and Caitlin visited the Pheasantry club while they were staying nearby at Markham Square during the Second World War. It gave a false illusion of safety as with all the merry making, chatter, food, music and dancing, danger could be ignored. Caitlin would dance with freedom. It is now a Pizza Express.
When Dylan’s daughter Aeronwy was born in 1943, Nicolette (Caitlin’s sister) went in search of Dylan in the local Chelsea pubs. She found him in the Anglesey, which was just a few streets away from his flat on Manresa Road. Nicolette was in charge of ‘fetching’ Dylan but instead was persuaded to join him for celebratory drinks. She admitted to being reluctant to leave as Dylan was in one of his brilliant talking moods!
Other places Dylan frequented in the Chelsea area include: the Antelope Hotel on Sloane Square, the Crossed Keys on Lawrence Street, the Red House on Elystan Street, Ravenscourt Arms on King Street and the Black Lion on South Black Lion Lane.
The National Portrait Gallery is home to a number of portraits of Dylan by renowned artists Augustus John, Mervyn Levy, Rupert Shephard and Michael Ayrton. Other items include photos of Dylan by John Gay, Jane Bown and Bill Brandt, and a collection of photographs of the Thomas family taken by Rollie McKenna.
The British Library holds many first and later editions of Dylan’s poetry and prose, sound recordings of his readings, as well as letters, notebooks and magazines in which his first poems were published.
On the 1st March 1982, a plaque to Dylan Thomas was unveiled in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey. The floor panel made of Penrhyn green slate was engraved by the Welsh artist and sculptor, Jonah Jones. The panel reads:
27 October 1914 – 9 November 1953
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Buried in Laugharne
You can read an account by John Malcolm Brinnin of the unveiling here.
Wreath-laying at Poet’s Corner
Every year, on a Saturday close to the anniversary of Dylan’s passing on November 9th 1953, a wreath-laying ceremony takes place in Poet’s Corner. The ceremony is arranged by Dylan’s family and the Dylan Thomas Society.