J. B. Priestley

John Boynton Priestley, OM (/ˈprstli/; 13 September 1894 – 14 August 1984) was an English novelist, playwright, screenwriter, broadcaster and social commentator.

J. B. Priestley

J. B. Priestley
BornJohn Priestley
(1894-09-13)13 September 1894
Manningham, Bradford, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
Died14 August 1984(1984-08-14) (aged 89)
Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England
Period20th century
SpousePat Tempest (1921-1925, her death)

Jane Wyndham-Lewis (m. 1925; div. 1953)

Jacquetta Hawkes (1953–1984; his death)

His Yorkshire background is reflected in much of his fiction, notably in The Good Companions (1929), which first brought him to wide public notice. Many of his plays are structured around a time slip, and he went on to develop a new theory of time, with different dimensions that link past, present, and future.

In 1940, he broadcast a series of short propaganda radio talks that were credited with strengthening civilian morale during the Battle of Britain. In the following years, his left-wing beliefs brought him into conflict with the government and influenced the birth of the welfare state.

Early years

Priestley was born on 13 September 1894 at 34 Mannheim Road, Manningham, which he described as an "extremely respectable" suburb of Bradford.[1] His father Jonathan Priestley (1868–1924) was a headmaster. His mother Emma (nee Holt) (1865–1896) died when he was just two years old, and his father remarried four years later.[2] Priestley was educated at Belle Vue Grammar School, which he left at sixteen to work as a junior clerk at Helm & Co., a wool firm in the Swan Arcade. During his years at Helm & Co. (1910–1914), he started writing at night and had articles published in local and London newspapers. He was to draw on memories of Bradford in many of the works he wrote after he had moved south, including Bright Day and When We Are Married. As an old man, he deplored the destruction by developers of Victorian buildings in Bradford such as the Swan Arcade, where he had his first job.

Priestley served in the British army during the First World War, volunteering to join the 10th Battalion, the Duke of Wellington's Regiment on 7 September 1914, and being posted to France as a Lance-Corporal on 26 August 1915. He was badly wounded in June 1916, when he was buried alive by a trench mortar. He spent many months in military hospitals and convalescent establishments, and on 26 January 1918 was commissioned as an officer in the Devonshire Regiment and posted back to France late summer 1918. As he describes in his literary reminiscences, Margin Released, he suffered from the effects of poison gas, and then supervised German prisoners of war, before being demobilised in early 1919.

After his military service, Priestley received a university education at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. By the age of 30, he had established a reputation as an essayist and critic. His novel Benighted (1927) was adapted into the James Whale film The Old Dark House (1932); the novel has been published under the film's name in the United States.


Priestley's first major success came with a novel, The Good Companions (1929), which earned him the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and made him a national figure. His next novel, Angel Pavement (1930), further established him as a successful novelist. However, some critics were less than complimentary about his work, and Priestley threatened legal action against Graham Greene for what he took to be a defamatory portrait of him in the novel Stamboul Train (1932).

In 1934 he published the travelogue English Journey, an account of what he saw and heard while travelling through the country in the depths of the Great Depression.[3]

Priestley is today seen as having a prejudice against the Irish,[4][5][6] as is shown in his work, English Journey: "A great many speeches have been made and books written on the subject of what England has done to Ireland... I should be interested to hear a speech and read a book or two on the subject of what Ireland has done to England... if we do have an Irish Republic as our neighbour, and it is found possible to return her exiled citizens, what a grand clearance there will be in all the western ports, from the Clyde to Cardiff, what a fine exit of ignorance and dirt and drunkenness and disease." [7]

He moved into a new genre and became equally well known as a dramatist. Dangerous Corner (1932) was the first of many plays that would enthral West End theatre audiences. His best-known play is An Inspector Calls (1945). His plays are more varied in tone than the novels, several being influenced by J. W. Dunne's theory of time, which plays a part in the plots of Dangerous Corner (1932) and Time and the Conways".

In 1940, Priestley wrote an essay for Horizon magazine, where he criticised George Bernard Shaw for his support of Stalin: "Shaw presumes that his friend Stalin has everything under control. Well, Stalin may have made special arrangements to see that Shaw comes to no harm, but the rest of us in Western Europe do not feel quite so sure of our fate, especially those of us who do not share Shaw's curious admiration for dictators."[8]

During the Second World War, he was a regular broadcaster on the BBC. The Postscript, broadcast on Sunday night through 1940 and again in 1941, drew peak audiences of 16 million; only Churchill was more popular with listeners. Graham Greene wrote that Priestley "became in the months after Dunkirk a leader second only in importance to Mr. Churchill. And he gave us what our other leaders have always failed to give us – an ideology."[9] But his talks were cancelled.[10] It was thought that this was the effect of complaints from Churchill that they were too left-wing; however, in 2015 Priestley's son said in a talk on the latest book being published about his father's life that it was in fact Churchill's Cabinet that brought about the cancellation by supplying negative reports on the broadcasts to Churchill.[11][12]

Priestley chaired the 1941 Committee, and in 1942 he was a co-founder of the socialist Common Wealth Party. The political content of his broadcasts and his hopes of a new and different Britain after the war influenced the politics of the period and helped the Labour Party gain its landslide victory in the 1945 general election. Priestley himself, however, was distrustful of the state and dogma, though he did stand for the Cambridge University constituency in 1945.

Priestley's name was on Orwell's list, a list of people which George Orwell prepared in March 1949 for the Information Research Department (IRD), a propaganda unit set up at the Foreign Office by the Labour government. Orwell considered or suspected these people to have pro-communist leanings and therefore to be unsuitable to write for the IRD.[13]

He was a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958.

In 1960, Priestley published Literature and Western Man, a 500-page survey of Western literature in all its genres, including Russia and the United States but excluding Asia, from the second half of the 15th century to the present (the last author discussed is Thomas Wolfe).

His interest in the problem of time led him to publish an extended essay in 1964 under the title of Man and Time (Aldus published this as a companion to Carl Jung's Man and His Symbols). In this book he explored in depth various theories and beliefs about time as well as his own research and unique conclusions, including an analysis of the phenomenon of precognitive dreaming, based in part on a broad sampling of experiences gathered from the British public, who responded enthusiastically to a televised appeal he made while being interviewed in 1963 on the BBC programme, Monitor.

The University of Bradford awarded Priestley the title of honorary Doctor of Letters in 1970, and he was awarded the Freedom of the City of Bradford in 1973. His connections with the city were also marked by the naming of the J. B. Priestley Library at the University of Bradford, which he officially opened in 1975,[14] and by the larger-than-life statue of him, commissioned by the Bradford City Council after his death, and which now stands in front of the National Media Museum.[15]

Personal life

Priestley had a deep love for classical music, especially chamber music. This love is reflected in a number of Priestley's works, notably his own favourite novel Bright Day (Heinemann, 1946). His book Trumpets Over the Sea is subtitled "a rambling and egotistical account of the London Symphony Orchestra's engagement at Daytona Beach, Florida, in July–August 1967".[16]

In 1941 he played an important part in organising and supporting a fund-raising campaign on behalf of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which was struggling to establish itself as a self-governing body after the withdrawal of Sir Thomas Beecham. In 1949 the opera The Olympians by Arthur Bliss, to a libretto by Priestley, was premiered.

Priestley snubbed the chance to become a life peer in 1965 and also declined appointment as a Companion of Honour in 1969.[17] But he did become a member of the Order of Merit in 1977. He also served as a British delegate to UNESCO conferences.

Married life

Priestley was married three times. Priestley also had a number of affairs, including a serious relationship with the actress Peggy Ashcroft. Writing in 1972, Priestley described himself as 'lusty' and as one who has 'enjoyed the physical relations with the sexes … without the feelings of guilt which seems to disturb some of my distinguished colleagues'.[18]

In 1921 Priestley married Emily "Pat" Tempest, a music-loving Bradford librarian. Two daughters were born, Barbara (later known as the architect Barbara Wykeham[19]) in 1923 and Sylvia (a designer known as Sylvia Goaman following her marriage to Michael Goaman[20]) in 1924, but in 1925 his wife died of cancer.[21]

In September 1926, Priestley married Jane Wyndham-Lewis (ex-wife of the one-time 'Beachcomber' columnist D. B. Wyndham-Lewis, no relation to the artist Wyndham Lewis); they had two daughters (including music therapist Mary Priestley, conceived while Jane was still married to D. B. Wyndham-Lewis) and one son.[18] During the Second World War, Jane ran several residential nurseries for evacuated mothers and their children, many of whom had come from poor districts.[22]

In 1953, Priestley divorced his second wife then married the archaeologist and writer Jacquetta Hawkes, with whom he collaborated on the play Dragon's Mouth.[23] The couple lived at Alveston, Warwickshire, near Stratford-upon-Avon later in his life.


Priestley died of pneumonia on 14 August 1984.

His ashes were buried in Hubberholme Churchyard, at the head of Wharfedale in Yorkshire.[24] The exact location of his ashes has never been made public and was only known to the three people present. A plaque in the church just states that his ashes are buried 'nearby'. Three photographs exist, showing the ashes being interred, and were taken by Dr. Brian Hoyle Thompson who, along with his wife, were two of the three people present. The brass plate on the box containing the ashes reads J. B. Priestley and can be seen clearly in one of the pictures.


Priestley began placing his papers at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin in 1960, with additions being made throughout his lifetime. The Center has continued to add to the collection through gifts and purchases when possible. The collection currently amounts to roughly 23 boxes, and includes original manuscripts for many of his works and an extensive series of correspondence.[25]



  • Adam in Moonshine (1927)
  • Benighted (1928) (filmed as The Old Dark House)
  • The Good Companions (1929)
  • Angel Pavement (1930)
  • Faraway (1932)
  • Wonder Hero (1933)
  • Albert Goes Through (1934)
  • They Walk in the City (1936)
  • The Doomsday Men (1937)
  • Let the People Sing (1939)
  • Blackout in Gretley (1942)
  • Daylight on Saturday (1943)
  • Three Men in New Suits (1945)
  • Bright Day (1946)
  • Jenny Villiers (1947)
  • Festival at Farbridge (1951)
  • Low Notes on a High Level (1954)
  • The Magicians (1954)
  • Saturn over the Water (1961)
  • The Thirty-First of June (1961)
  • Salt Is Leaving (1961)
  • The Shapes of Sleep (1962)
  • Sir Michael and Sir George (1964)
  • Lost Empires (1965)
  • It's an Old Country (1967)
  • The Image Men Vol. 1: Out of Town (1968)
  • The Image Men Vol. 2: London End (1968)
  • Found, Lost, Found (1976)

Other fiction

  • Farthing Hall (1929) (Novel written in collaboration with Hugh Walpole)
  • The Town Major of Miraucourt (1930) (Short story published in a limited edition of 525 copies)
  • I'll Tell You Everything (1932) (Novel written in collaboration with Gerald Bullett)
  • Albert Goes Through (1933) (Novelette)
  • The Other Place (1952) (Short Stories)
  • Snoggle (1971) (Novel for children)
  • The Carfitt Crisis (1975) (Two novellas and a short story)
Novelizations by Ruth Mitchell (author of the wartime novel The Lost Generation and Priestley's sister-in-law by way of his second marriage):
  • Dangerous Corner (1933), based on the later Broadway draft of the play, with a foreword by Priestley (paperback)
  • Laburnum Grove (1936), based on the play and subsequent screenplay, published as a hardcover tie-in edition to the film

Selected plays

  • The Good Companions (1931)
  • Dangerous Corner (1932)
  • Laburnum Grove (1933)
  • Eden End (1934)
  • Cornelius (1935)
  • People at Sea (1936)
  • Time and the Conways (1937)
  • I Have Been Here Before (1937)
  • Bees on the Boatdeck (1937)
  • When We Are Married (1938)
  • Johnson Over Jordan (1939)
  • The Long Mirror (1940)
  • They Came to a City (1943)
  • An Inspector Calls (1945)
  • The Linden Tree (1947)
  • Summer Day's Dream (1949)
  • Mother's Day (1950)
  • Mr. Kettle and Mrs. Moon (1955)
  • The Thirty-first of June: A Tale of True Love, Enterprise and Progress in the Arthurian and AD-Atomic Ages
    • Novel. December 1961: hardback; ISBN 0-434-60326-0 / ISBN 978-0-434-60326-8 (UK edition); William Heinemann Ltd
    • BBC radio dramatisation; one and a half hours
    • Novel. 1996: paperback; ISBN 0-7493-2281-0 / ISBN 978-0-7493-2281-6 (UK edition); Mandarin
    • 31 June (1978) (TV) Soviet film; aka 31 июня
  • Benighted (2016, adapted from his 1928 novel by Duncan Gates)
  • The Roundabout (1931)


Television work

Literary criticism

  • The English Comic Characters (1925)
  • The English Novel (1927)
  • Literature and Western Man (1960)
  • Charles Dickens and his world (1969)

Social and political works

  • English Journey (1934)
  • Out of the people (1941)
  • The Secret Dream: an essay on Britain, America and Russia (1946)
  • The Arts under Socialism (1947)
  • The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency (1969)
  • The Edwardians (1970)
  • Victoria's Heyday (1972)
  • The English (1973)
  • A Visit to New Zealand (1974)

Autobiography and essays

  • Essays of To-day and Yesterday (1926)
  • Apes and Angels (1928)
  • The Balconinny (1931)
  • Midnight on the Desert (1937)
  • Rain Upon Godshill: A Further Chapter of Autobiography (1939)
  • Postscripts (1940)
  • Delight (1949)
  • Journey Down a Rainbow (co-authored with Jacquetta Hawkes, 1955)
  • Margin Released (1962)
  • Man and Time (1964)
  • The Moments and Other Pieces (1966)
  • Over the Long High Wall (1972)
  • Instead of the Trees (1977)


  1. Cook, Judith (1997). "Beginnings and Childhood". Priestley. London: Bloomsbury. p. 5. ISBN 0-7475-3508-6.
  2. Lincoln Konkle, J. B. Priestley, in British Playwrights, 1880–1956: A Research and Production Sourcebook, by William W. Demastes, Katherine E. Kelly; Greenwood Press, 1996
  3. Marr, Andrew (2008). A History of Modern Britain. Macmillan. p. xxii. ISBN 978-0-330-43983-1.
  4. "Irish butt of English racism for more than eight centuries".
  5. Roger Fagge (15 December 2011). The Vision of J.B. Priestley. A&C Black. pp. 29–. ISBN 978-1-4411-0480-9.
  6. Colin Holmes (16 October 2015). John Bull's Island: Immigration and British Society, 1871-1971. Routledge. pp. 149–. ISBN 978-1-317-38273-7.
  7. J. B. Priestley, English Journey (London: William Heinemann, 1934), pp. 248-9
  8. J. B. Priestley, "The War – And After", in Horizon, January 1940. Reprinted in Andrew Sinclair, War Decade: An Anthology of the 1940s, Hamish Hamilton, 1989. ISBN 0241125677 (p. 19).
  9. Cited in Addison, Paul (2011). The Road To 1945: British Politics and the Second World War. Random House. ISBN 9781446424216.
  10. Page, Robert M. (2007). Revisiting the Welfare State. Introducing Social Policy. McGraw-Hill Education (UK). p. 10. ISBN 9780335234981.
  11. "?". Archived from the original on 15 September 2008.
  12. "Priestley war letters published". BBC News website. 6 October 2008. Retrieved 10 June 2008.
  13. Ezard, John (21 June 2003). "Blair's babe Did love turn Orwell into a government stooge?". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 December 2008.
  14. J. B. Priestley Archive. University of Bradford. Retrieved 16 February 2016.
  15. A "sentimental journey"? Priestley's Lost City. bbc.co.uk (26 September 2008). Retrieved 2 May 2012.
  16. Fagge, Roger (2011). The Vision of J.B. Priestley. Bloomsbury Publishing. Note 9 to Chapter 6. ISBN 9781441163790.
  17. "Individuals, now deceased, who refused honours between 1951 and 1999" (PDF) (Press release). Cabinet Office. 25 January 2012. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 April 2012. Retrieved 27 January 2012.
  18. Priestley, John Boynton (1894–1984), writer | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/31565. Retrieved 16 June 2018.
  19. "Barbara Wykeham". Retrieved 15 August 2018.
  20. "Sylvia Goaman". Retrieved 15 August 2018.
  21. JB Priestley (estate). Unitedagents.co.uk. Retrieved 2 May 2012.
  22. Women’s Group on Public Welfare. The Neglected Child and His Family. Oxford University Press: London, 1948, p. x.
  23. "Biography". J. B. Priestley website. Archived from the original on 2 July 2007. Retrieved 28 July 2007.
  24. "Hubberholme Church". www.yorkshire-dales.com. Retrieved 6 July 2019.
  25. "J. B. Priestley: An Inventory of His Collection at the Harry Ransom Center". norman.hrc.utexas.edu. Retrieved 3 November 2017.


Political offices
Preceded by
New post
Chairman of the Common Wealth Party
Succeeded by
Richard Acland
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