Michael Roberts (writer)

Michael Roberts (6 December 1902 13 December 1948), originally named William Edward Roberts, was an English poet, writer, critic and broadcaster, who made his living as a teacher.


He was born in Bournemouth, named William Edward Roberts. He was the eldest child of Edward George Roberts (b. 7 January 1878, d. 14 March 1954) and Henrietta Mary Sellers (b. 23 March 1880, d. 28 June 1918 following the birth of a son nine days earlier).[1] They had a farm in the New Forest. He was educated at Bournemouth School. From 1920 to 1922 he studied at King's College London, taking a BSc in Chemistry. From 1922 to 1925 he read mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge; it was during this period of his life he acquired the name Michael (after Mikhail Lomonosov). In 1925 or 1926 he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain but was expelled within a year.[2]

From 1925 to 1931 he taught at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle. Afterwards, he moved to London, teaching at Mercers' School from 1931 to 1934. He then returned to the RGS, where he worked until 1941, teaching English, mathematics, physics and chemistry. Having published his first poetry collection in 1930, he began to edit anthologies, of which New Country (1933) was celebrated for the group of poets (including W. H. Auden) that it featured. In 1934, he participated in a high-profile series of radio broadcasts, Whither Britain?, together with major figures such as Winston Churchill and Ernest Bevin.

The next year, he married Janet Adam Smith, critic, anthologist, and fellow mountaineer; they lived in Fern Avenue, Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1939 they went to Penrith in Cumberland when the school was evacuated there. There they briefly shared a house with the poet Kathleen Raine. Together, they had four children: Andrew Roberts, Professor of the History of Africa at the University of London, born 1937; Henrietta Dombey, Professor of Literacy in Primary Education at the University of Brighton, born 1939; Adam Roberts, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, born 1940; and John Roberts, writer on energy issues and Middle East politics, born 1947.

The Faber Book of Modern Verse (1936), which he edited, is the single piece of work for which Roberts is now best remembered.[3] He followed it with poetry and prose writing, and a study of T. E. Hulme.[4] In 1941-5 he worked in London for the BBC European Service, mainly on broadcasting to German-occupied countries.[5] From 1945 to 1948 he was Principal of the College of St Mark and St John in Chelsea, London, where one of his colleagues was the biologist Cyril Bibby. He died of leukaemia in 1948.

Michael and Janet Roberts had built up a large collection of books on mountaineering, which (along with the collection of the Oxford University Mountaineering Club) provided a basis for establishment in December 1992 of the Oxford Mountaineering Library. From 2019 this is based in the Geography collections in the Social Science Library, which is in the Manor Road Building, Oxford OX1 3UQ.

Many of his papers are in the National Library of Scotland, at Edinburgh. They include literary correspondence, and also records of his BBC service in 1941–5.[6]

Poets in New Signatures (1932)

W. H. Auden, Julian Bell, C. Day-Lewis, Richard Eberhart, William Empson, John Lehmann, William Plomer, Stephen Spender, A. S. J. Tessimond

Poets in New Country (1933)

W. H. Auden, Richard Goodman, C. Day-Lewis, John Lehmann, Charles Madge, Michael Roberts, Stephen Spender, A. S. J. Tessimond, Rex Warner

Books by Michael Roberts

  • These Our Matins (poems), Elkin Mathews & Marrot, London, 1930.
  • (ed.) New Signatures: Poems by Several Hands, Hogarth Press, London, 1932.
  • (ed.) New Country: Prose and Poetry by the authors of New Signatures, Hogarth Press, London, 1933.
  • (ed.) Elizabethan Prose, London, Jonathan Cape, 1933.
  • (with E.R. Thomas) Newton and the Origin of Colours: A Study of One of the Earliest Examples of Scientific Method, G. Bell, London, 1934.
  • Critique of Poetry, Jonathan Cape, London, 1934.
  • Poems, Jonathan Cape, London, 1936.
  • (ed.) The Faber Book of Modern Verse, Faber & Faber, London, 1936.
  • The Modern Mind, Faber & Faber, London, 1937.
  • T.E. Hulme, Faber & Faber, London, 1938.
  • Orion Marches (poems), Faber & Faber, London, 1939.
  • The Recovery of the West, Faber & Faber, London, 1941.
  • (ed.) The Faber Book of Comic Verse, Faber & Faber, London, 1942.
  • The Estate of Man, Faber & Faber, London, 1951.
  • Collected Poems, Faber & Faber, London, 1958.


  1. Information provided by Gerald Roberts, nephew of Michael Roberts, 6 March 2014
  2. T.W. Eason, 'Biographical Sketch', in T.W. Eason and R. Hamilton (eds.), A Portrait of Michael Roberts, College of St Mark and St John, Chelsea, London, 1949, pp. 1-4.
  3. Michael Roberts, The Faber Book of Modern Verse, 4th revised edition, Faber and Faber, London, 2003. ISBN 978-0-571-18017-2.
  4. Michael Roberts, T.E. Hulme, Carcanet Press, Manchester, 1982. ISBN 0-85635-411-2.
  5. Andrew Roberts, 'Michael Roberts and the BBC', in Roger Louis (ed.), Irrepressible Adventures with Britannia: Personalities, Politics and Culture in Britain, I.B. Tauris, London, 2013, pp. 73-85.
  6. Inventories of these holdings in the National Library of Scotland may be found at http://www.nls.uk/catalogues/online/cnmi/inventories/acc13145.pdf and http://www.nls.uk/catalogues/online/cnmi/inventories/acc13860.pdf .

Other sources

  • Frederick Grubb (ed.), Michael Roberts: Selected Poems and Prose, Carcanet Press, 1980.
  • Michael H. Whitworth, Physics and the Literary Community, 1905-1939, unpublished Oxford D.Phil. thesis, 1994. Contains checklist of Roberts's contributions to periodicals, includes items not listed in Grubb's bibliography.
  • Samuel Hines, entry on Michael Roberts in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition October 2009.
  • Jason Harding, The Criterion: Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Inter-war Britain, Oxford University Press, 2002. (Chapter 8, pp. 159–174, 'Michael Roberts and Janet Adam Smith: New Signatures'.) ISBN 978-0-19-924717-2.
  • Nicolas Barker, obituary: "Janet Adam Smith: A Woman of Substance in Literature and Mountaineering", The Guardian, London, 14 September 1999.
  • Leonard Miall, "Obituary: Janet Adam Smith", The Independent, London, 13 September 1999.

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