University of Sussex Special Collections and Mass Observation Archive Blog

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People in Special Collections: John Kipling



Last Wednesday, at very short notice, I helped Fiona deliver a selection of documents to Batemans, in preparation for a royal visit. Part of the previous day had been spent reading through these documents, and selecting three letters for Fiona to discuss with HRH The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall. Through this selection, I got to know the writer – his thoughts, feelings and fears – and was prompted to make this post, the first in a series of themed entries, person focused.

Royal Visit to Batemans

John Kipling was the youngest child, and the only son, of Rudyard Kipling. And Batemans, a beautiful Jacobean house, which still retains a feeling of ‘home’, was the destination for his letters. John’s correspondence forms part of the Kipling Papers that are held at The Keep, and these unique documents chart his experiences as an army officer during the First World War. I have recently finished reading ‘My Boy Jack’ by Tonie and Valmai Holt. The book offers a good overview of John’s early life, which was spent moving between Rottingdean, America (a tragic visit where John’s older sister Josephine dies), South Africa, Batemans, Engelberg, and then back to Rottingdean, where John attends St Aubyns prep school. Rudyard was keen for John to pursue a career in the military, and this vision informed his choice of Wellington College as the next stage in John’s education.

The Holts describe John as having grown into a confident and conversational young man, but also note that academic and school achievements were not forthcoming. In spite of this, and John’s poor eyesight which led to him failing military health checks, Rudyard used his army contacts to secure a place for John as an officer in the Irish Guards. John’s 1915 letters begin on paper that is headed with this regiment’s emblem, and are of an optimistic and cheerful tone, focusing on the good weather and exercises. With his move to France, and arrival at the front, there is a change in content. This shift is subtle however, and the reader gets a sense that John was wary of upsetting his parents, by revealing too much. Certain requests and recollections hint at the truth of his life, especially as ‘The Big Push’ (for John, The Battle of Loos) approaches.

Small things like frequent requests for items from home, and his recollections of weary faces at a court-martial, are hints at the hardships he faced. It is his letter dated September 19th, which indicates his true feelings; beginning light in tone, as ever, John suddenly begins to reflect on the luxuries of home, and what he will do if he returns. He urges his parents to understand how lucky they are to have so many comforts – hot water even. This letter is particularly poignant, as it also includes a request for a new identity tag. Only six days later, he writes his final letter, stating “you have no idea what enormous issues depend on these next few days,”  and on the 28th September, he is reported as missing.

Rudyard Kipling Desk

The authors of ‘My Boy Jack’ argue that John’s disappearance, and presumed death, was to have a profound impact on the remainder of his parents’ lives. His body never being found, they devote time and emotion to searching for their lost son. The complexities of Rudyard’s and John’s relationship is revealed in this short series of letters. His affectionate tone – frequently addressing his letters to ‘old things’ – his recollections of home, and his father’s involvement in him being there, illustrate the challenges faced by so many families during this period. The emotions that I felt when reading demonstrate the power of archive material, and the importance of personal stories when reflecting on what seem to be immeasurably complex historical events.

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