W. H. Auden and Solihull

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York on 21st February 1907 and was the youngest of the three sons of parents Dr George Augustus Auden (1872-1957) and his wife, Constance Rosalie (née Bicknell) (1869-1941), who was a trained missionary nurse, although she did not practise. Dr Auden apparently named his son for St Wystan, having being fascinated by the Parish Church of St Wystan whilst living in Repton, Derbyshire.

Dr Auden was in general practice in York but developed a special interest in children’s medicine and in mental illness.

The family moved to Solihull in 1908 so that Dr Auden could take up a post in Birmingham as school medical officer. His appointment was approved by Birmingham’s Education Committee in June 1908 and, apart from his war service, he held the post until his retirement in 1937.

Lode Lane and Homer Road

The Auden family moved to Apsley, 24 Lode Lane, Solihull in 1908 and Mrs Auden apparently took the family to morning and evening services at St Alphege every Sunday.

According to Humphrey Carpenter in W. H. Auden: A Biography, the Auden family moved to no. 13 Homer Road, Solihull in 1913.

Electoral registers seem to confirm the move from Lode Lane to Homer Road sometime during 1913 as the electoral register for 1914 (printed in 1913) gives both addresses in succession as the qualification for Dr Auden’s entitlement to vote. Unfortunately, it only lists the road names but not the house numbers and we haven’t been able to find evidence of the house number/name of where they lived in Homer Road.

Maps show only a few houses in the road in 1914, when the area was surveyed by Ordnance Survey.

extract from Warwickshire sheet 19.12, surveyed in 1914
(credit: CC-BY-NC-SA National Library of Scotland)
see the full map on the NLS site

Confusingly, despite electoral registers suggesting the change of address in 1913, when Dr Auden joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) on the outbreak of the First World War in September 1914, the address recorded in his officer’s correspondence file at The National Archives (ref.: WO 374/2788) is Apsley House, Lode Lane, Solihull.

A view of Homer Road in the early 20th century (ref.: JC 249a)

The house in Homer Road was rented and, when Wystan went to prep school (St Edmund’s School, Hindhead, Surrey) as a boarder in autumn 1915, aged eight, Mrs Auden gave up the lease of the house in Homer Road. She then stayed with relatives etc. during term-time, renting furnished rooms in various parts of the country for the boys’ school holidays.

When Dr Auden returned from the war in 1919, the family didn’t move back to Solihull but went to live in Harborne instead.

Solihull Gas Works

As a child, W. H. Auden had mild bronchial trouble and, at the time, the coal tar fumes from the gas works were believed to be good for those with bronchitis. He was frequently taken on walks to Solihull gas works in Elmdon Heath, which was apparently the first place that seemed to him “numinous” (mysterious and supernatural, arousing a feeling of wonder and awe).

In June 1924, whilst still a teenager, he wrote a poem By the Gasworks, Solihull which was a tribute to nature’s ability to make the most of what humans have spoiled, rather than being a childhood memory. He also mentioned the gas works in a couple of later poems:

“We lived at Solihull, a village then;
Those at the gasworks were my favourite men.”

Letter to Lord Byron by W. H. Auden (1936)

Prologue at 60, which he wrote in 1967 when he was 60, includes the verse:

Added its names to my numinous map
Of the Solihull gas-works, gazed at in awe
By a bronchial boy, the Blue-John Mine,
The Festiniog railway, the Rhayader dams,
Cross Fell, Keld and Cauldron Snout.

Prologue at 60 by W H Auden

Gazed at in Awe was the title of a history of Solihull Gas Works written by Alan J Sadler and published in 1995 (available to borrow from Solihull Libraries).

A marriage of convenience

Having entered into a marriage of convenience with Erika Mann in 1935, W H Auden was a witness to a sham marriage in Solihull in 1936. He encouraged his friend, John Hampson Simpson, a gay writer from Dorridge, to marry a German-Jewish actress at Solihull Register Office in order to give her a British passport. There’s more information about this in a separate article on our blog.

Post-1930s

Dr Auden retired as schools’ medical officer in 1937 but he continued to live in Birmingham and lectured in public health at the University of Birmingham. He became Professor of Public Health there in 1941, the same year as his wife died. He returned to Repton after living in the Lake District and died in Repton in 1957.

Wystan’s eldest brother, (George) Bernard Auden (1900-1978), became a farmer in Cirencester and the middle child, John Bicknell Auden (1903-1991), to whom Wystan was closer emotionally and intellectually, was a distinguished geologist and explorer who lived in London and India.

W. H. Auden moved to the United States in January 1939 and became an American citizen in 1946, although retaining his British nationality. From 1948, he spent summers in Europe and, in 1972, moved his winter home to Oxford. He died of heart failure in Vienna in 1973, the day before he planned to return to Oxford.

If you have any further information about the Auden family in Solihull, please let us know.

Tracey
Library Specialist: Heritage & Local Studies

email: heritage@solihull.gov.uk

© Solihull Council, 2022.
You are welcome to link to this article, but if you wish to reproduce more than a short extract, please email: heritage@solihull.gov.uk

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