Nowell Johnson, Wife of the Red Dean


Nowell Johnson

On the evening of 6th October I, and other members of Kent’s Library team, had the opportunity to present a small exhibition at the Canterbury Cathedral Open Evening. This year’s theme was ‘The Role of Women Through the Ages in the Life of Canterbury Cathedral’, and as the holders of the Hewlett Johnson Papers, we thought we could provide an insight into the life of his second wife, Nowell Johnson.

Hewlett Johnson was born in 1874, and married his first wife Mary in 1903. She died of cancer, and the couple had no children. He became the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral in 1931, and remained so until 1963. This was a hugely interesting time for the whole world, as his time as Dean coincided with the Second World War and the advent of Communism, and the Soviet Union in particular. He was commonly known as ‘the Red Dean’ for his championing of Communism, and for a time was highly influential. However when the Soviet Union fell out of favour with the rest of the world, Johnson’s influence waned, although his faith in Communism never did.


Dean Hewlett Johnson

He married Nowell Johnson, the daughter of a vicar and 32 years his junior, in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War. This caused something of a scandal, as it was commonly believed that she was his niece. In fact, she was the child of Hewlett’s cousin, but referred to him as ‘Uncle’ in order to avoid explaining their complicated relationship. She had been a frequent visitor to the Deanery long before they became romantically entangled, and as she worked as an artist she painted his portrait and provided illustrations for some of Hewlett’s works.

The couple’s first daughter was born in 1940, and the small family moved to a house in Charing, Kent, but quickly realised this was no safer than Canterbury from German bombing raids. Hewlett sent Nowell and the baby Kezia to Wales, where they remained for the duration of the war, and where the couple’s second daughter Keren was born in 1942. Whilst Nowell was in London and Hewlett still on duty at the Deanery the couple wrote to each other almost every day, and many of their letters are held here at the University of Kent.

Life in Canterbury during the war was perilous. 10,445 bombs were dropped on the city throughout the Second World War, and in 1940 one of these hit the Deanery. Hewlett escaped, but apparently narrowly, and telegraphed his wife immediately to let her know what happened. In her replying letter she writes:

“How awful this news is of your narrow escape & the poor old Deanery. It was awfully good of you to have wired for I saw a notice of it in the Times & should have been very anxious. Today there’s quite a bit in the Mirror. I’m awfully glad the damage in the house isn’t as bad as it might have been, what is left I wonder? Are the kitchens alright. & is Mrs County cooking for you still. I don’t like thinking of you alone in Elsie’s room Darling, is the building safe?”

She adds: “What savage attacks they have made on the Cathedral, its [sic] amazing they haven’t hit it as yet, but one fears much they will go on. Could you not sleep in the crypt now?”


Damage to the Deanery after the bombing

The Deanery did sustain some damage, but ultimately survived. The reality was that hundreds of homes were completely destroyed in the heavy bombing on Canterbury, and in comparison the Deanery got off lightly. However, Nowell’s words were to prove prophetic. In 1942 the Cathedral was finally hit, as a bomb fell directly on the Library:

“Its terribly terribly sad to think of Canterbury now – in June too when it used to be so peaceful & so gay. I’m sure the people are splendid, its wonderful how grand people are in great trouble. I’m very glad you made the B.B.C. after their talk, has more of the Cathedral than the library been damaged? Were all the valuable books got away.”

The rare book cataloguer in me is very pleased to see she lends a proper amount of concern for the contents of the Cathedral library, as well as the praise she heaps on the people of Canterbury for bearing up in the hugely difficult circumstances they found themselves in. Indeed, Nowell was not only concerned for the people in Britain. Another letter from 1940 reads:

“Poor little mites in Canterbury – & Cologne – & cities all over the world. What a ghastly time, what utter utter madness, how long can it go on. Poor Canterbury, what has happened to it, there will be many casualties I fear, I long to hear from you. And the beautiful Cathedral, is it safe? And the Deanery, I still think of it as it used to be”


A drawing from one of Nowell’s China diaries

When the war came to an end the family we reunited in Canterbury. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the family traveled a great deal, particularly around the Soviet Union, Cuba and China, two famously communist countries. They also visit many parts of the UK, Hungary and East Germany. They took large numbers of photographs, now held here at Kent, and Nowell kept travel diaries. Here her artistic flare is clearly visible; the diaries are full of small doodles, and full page drawings, of things she saw during her travels.

On her visit to Hungary in 1951, she recorded visiting a Worker’s Rest Home, “where workers from all kinds of employment go for a fortnight’s holiday,” where her husband was “given a tremendous reception.” She also talks of visiting an International Rest Home, “a truly magnificent place, like a great first class hotel,” with “great international flags hung by the entrance,” where they were greeted by a delegation from Czechoslovakia, and given flowers by a child.

The following pictures were all drawn during her time in Hungary, and represent the huge variety of subject matter in her diaries.


The family traveled around China on many occasions, and numerous diaries survive documenting their trips. A diary entry from their 1964 trip records how:

“There are attendants everywhere, girls & boys they seem, who do everything for us. They are most competent & so gentle, helping Hewlett to dress etc. One boy is always at his side seeing he does not trip or stumble…Again Mr. Huang Shiang tells us how concerned the Prime Minister is that we should be comfortable, & also that because of this & because he wants us to see all that we wish he is sending a special plane that will make it easy to get about.”

These attentions must have been particularly pleasing to Nowell, as her husband was 90 year old during this trip, which cannot have been easy.


A drawing from one of Nowell’s China diaries

Wherever they went, the Johnsons tasted what life was truly like for people in these countries. As these photos show, they visited regular people, and the variety of people they met must have been fascinating to experience. It’s certainly fascinating to see the photos decades later.


The Johnsons with Chinese peasants and women from Tajikistan








During the Johnson’s time at the Deanery they entertained many important and intriguing visitors. Such guests included Russian diplomats, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the USA during the first part of the Second World War, British Royalty and even Gandhi. Here are a few photos from these occasions:


Hewlett with Gandhi and Mirabehn

Hewlett, Nowell and Russian diplomats

Hewlett, Nowell and Russian diplomats


Hewlett and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1942

People’s reactions to our display at the Cathedral were hugely positive. We had several people looking at the display who remembered the family. A couple went to school with the Johnson’s daughters, some others remembered seeing the Dean walking from his temporary housing in St. Dunstan’s after the bombing of the Deanery to the Cathedral for his work. There was one woman who deliberately sought out our exhibition, who used to visit with Nowell. She remembered all the negativity surrounding the family because of the Dean’s politics, but proudly reassured us her family took no part in this negativity. Nowell attended Age Concern art classes with her after the Dean’s death. The woman told us of a postcard she had from Nowell when she went to a conference in Scandinavia, and how Nowell encouraged her to keep on with the art classes, as they were so beneficial to the community.


Hewlett and Nowell Johnson

Meeting people who remembered the family and who could tell us stories that we never knew about was fascinating. That our small display brought such happy remembrances to the lady who ran the art classes was incredibly rewarding, and preserving this history for other people to enjoy is what this job is all about.


A Tenacious Escapee

Intriguing insights into the lives and escape attempts of World War 2 German prisoners in Canadian camps can be gained from a selection of files, brought together in the 1950s, held here at Kent. They were accumulated by Harry Kendal Burt, better known as Kendal Burt, joint author of ‘The One That Got Away,’ a book detailing the successful escape of Oberleutnant Franz von Werra from a Canadian prison camp. These records were brought together to write a book about another escapee, Egbert Brosig, who failed to return to Germany despite numerous escapes from prison camps. Unfortunately, it seems the book was never published, but the information in these files, including several letters from Brosig himself, makes for fascinating reading.

Excerpt from a 1943 Montreal Gazette article describing Brosig as a leader of a mass escape.

Excerpt from a 1943 Montreal Gazette article describing Brosig as a leader of a mass escape.

Leutnant Egbert Brosig was captured early in the war, and, along with most other people at the time, expected it to be over quickly. In a letter to Burt in October 1956 he observes that initially his escape attempts were made in order to ‘harass the enemy’, which seems to suggest he wanted to feel he was making a contribution to the fight over in Europe, even whilst imprisoned in Canada. However, as the war dragged on and he was still held in Canada, his escapes were often made in an effort to relieve the monotony of day to day life.

The amount of detail that went into planning an attempt is often staggering. Brosig obviously had good English, and in a letter from March 1957 he says he learnt most of it by conversing for hours with Canadian stokers at the camp, and working with the dentist who treated the prisoners. He found this particularly important as he could pick up Canadian slang, which would have assisted him in blending in when out in public. He also attempted to escape as a Russian soldier, and planned escapes as Spanish or Greek. However, as far as language was concerned, he had a plan to fall back on. Should someone question his ‘imperfect English’, he would say he was brought up by a German speaking mother in a neutral country (such as Switzerland), or German speaking area (like Blumenau in Brazil), after his English, Spanish, Greek or Russian father passed away when he was very young. He studied Russian and Spanish whilst in captivity, and even taught himself Japanese, but gave this up in 1944 after developments in the war made him believe it would not be an asset.

His plans for disguising himself, or not as seemed appropriate, go in to a similar amount of detail. In one letter he stresses the importance of not looking like an escapee, or like he had refused to take part in the war, as doing so would definitely draw attention to himself. In his first escape he wore an army uniform. His prison uniform was particularly useful in this, as his trousers were the same shade of blue as the air force wore, and his trousers couldn’t be confiscated, ensuring he always had half of a uniform available. In his second escape attempt he had two halves of a leg cast which he held together with bandages. However, on his third and fourth attempts he relied simply on falsified hospital papers.

A selection of items from this collection

A selection of items from this collection

In a letter from September 1956 he details a plan he made to escape disguised as a girl. He describes how he had the camp tailor make him a dress and matching hat from a purple bath robe he owned, and picked up heels from the shoemaker and a wig from the barber, and planned on using tennis balls to pad out his chest. He even bribed camp guards to get him suitable hosiery and makeup. In the end he never made this attempt, and donated all these items to the camp theatrical group.

Brosig gives anecdotes of events that took place whilst he was on the run. In 1943 he attempted to escape by train, hiding in mailbags, and was accused on recapture of having stolen parcels. He was cleared of this charge in 1944 by the Supreme Court of Ontario, but later received an official notice that the Attorney-General planned to appeal against this decision. In another escape attempt by train, two civilians asked him to take care of a ten year old girl who was journeying to her grandparents. This he did, and even persuaded her to share some of her food with him, ensuring his own rations and limited money would last a little longer.

Some people went to extremes to attempt escape. Brosig describes how he met a man in one camp who had feigned madness for months. He was moved to an asylum, where he planned to escape. In the meantime he kept up the pretence, even enduring solitary confinement and electric shock treatment so he wouldn’t be discovered.

A selection of items from this collection.

A selection of items from this collection.

One interesting insight that can be gained from reading these letters is the relationship between camp guards and their prisoners. As seen above, guards were perfectly willing to be bribed, but they seem to have had positive relationships with the prisoners aside from that. Brosig observes that he never gave details as to how he escaped when he was recaptured in order to avoid incriminating those who helped him, which he believed made him popular among the camp guards. He even recalled a time when a camp leader asked him to attempt an escape again, in order to enforce arguments made to the camp authorities concerning security.

Look out for another post using more from this intriguing collection, coming soon!


A Peek into the Library of David Lloyd George

The bookplate adorning the collection of David Lloyd George

The bookplate adorning the collection of David Lloyd George

David Lloyd George is one of Britain’s most well-known figures of the 20th century. First elected as the Member of Parliament for Carnarvon Boroughs in 1890, he remained active in politics until his death in 1945. During that time he held many important positions, including Secretary of State for War, Chancellor of the Exchequer and, most famously, Prime Minister from 1916, during the latter half of the Great War, until 1922. What is not commonly know is that a section of Lloyd George’s personal library resides here at Kent. It was purchased from his son, Lord Tenby, in 1964, initially as part of the regular stock, and was later moved to Special Collections. His library contains items covering a huge array of subjects, and here we take a peek at some of the most interesting items.

Dedication inscription to Lloyd George from Churchill in Great Contemporaries

Dedication inscription to Lloyd George from Churchill in Great Contemporaries

It is well known that Lloyd George and Winston Churchill were great friends, and Churchill consulted him often throughout his political career. Many of Lloyd George’s books were gifted him by the authors, and one of the most remarkable items in our collection is a copy of Great Contemporaries by Churchill, complete with a dedication inscription from the future Prime Minister. Alongside this we have a full set of Churchill’s World Crisis, some of which are also signed by the author.

A common theme throughout Lloyd George’s library is that of religion. One of my favourite items in the collection is a brown leather bound bible, with handles built into the cover. There is also a copy of Spurgeon’s Sermons, bound in green leather and stamped with Lloyd George’s name in gold on the cover. These items perfectly illustrate how much bindings can add to the significance or beauty of an item.

Lloyd George binding of Spurgeon's Sermons

Lloyd George binding of Spurgeon’s Sermons

Lloyd George's Bible, complete with leather handles

Lloyd George’s Bible, complete with leather handles










Robespierre's signature on a book of French pamphlets

Robespierre’s signature on a book of French pamphlets

So far my absolute favourite item I that have catalogued from this fantastic collection is a selection of French pamphlets by Maximilien Robespierre, a hugely influential man during the French revolution. This is less for the content of the book than the many interesting features the item has collected over the course of its life. Firstly, it appears to have been signed in two places by Robespierre himself, in 1791 and 1792 respectively. Alongside Lloyd George’s bookplate is the bookplate of Alphonse Peyrat, reading ‘Ex Libris Alpse Peyrat Vivre Libre ov movrir,’ and we also know that the book once bore the bookplate of Arconati Visconti, although this was lost when the book was rebound. We also know from the dedication letters that the item was given to Lloyd George by the daughter of Alphonse Peyrat.

The fragment of leather and it's intriguing caption (in French)

The fragment of leather and it’s intriguing caption (in French)

Most intriguing of all is a very small fragment of leather pasted to a blank page at the end of the book. An accompanying note claims this leather was taken by a Monsieur Baudemont from the table of the dying Robespierre, and is stained by his blood. Whether or not this is true, it is a truly fascinating relic.


Finds like these are what make my job so enjoyable, and also extremely surprising! It’s not every day you find a book stained by the blood of a dying revolutionary, but the day I discovered it was certainly one of the most interesting days I’ve had at Kent!

The Lloyd George collection is still in the process of being catalogued, so who knows what enthralling items lie just around the corner…


KEM Lives On at the British Cartoon Archive


Adolf and His Donkey Benito – original artwork

The British Cartoon Archive holds many unique collections from celebrated cartoonists, and one fascinating example is the KEM archive. Many of you will be familiar with the image of Adolf and his Donkey Benito, but just who was KEM?

KEM was born Kimon Evan Marengo in Egypt, the son of a Greek merchant, and grew up in the Greek community of Alexandria, coming to England to pursue studies at Oxford. His studies were interrupted in 1939 by the onset of the Second World War. By this point he had already been published in many international newspapers, including the New York Times and the Daily Telegraph, and he joined the Ministry of Defence where he worked on propaganda for the Middle East. He also spent sometime working as a war correspondent.


Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill

As a product of a Middle Eastern community, his work is often quite different to that of other cartoonists of the time. He did plenty of traditional war propaganda, cartoons involving Hitler, Mussolini and Churchill, but some of the treasures in the KEM collection come in the form of his Middle Eastern propaganda. These brightly coloured pamphlets are a unique look at propaganda during the Second World War.


…and Hitler in some discomfort



One of my earliest discoveries working with the KEM archive was that of a double sided pin cushion, complete with needles and pins still inserted, of Mussolini and Hitler. Such a small item says a huge amount about attitudes towards the enemy, and whilst it certainly has a comical element, the purpose is a serious one: keeping up morale by making two dangerous men into figures of comedy and ridicule.


Beautiful artwork with a Middle Eastern flavour

Also contained in the archive is a near complete collection of all of KEM’s Christmas cards, and many of the printers blocks used to create them. These Christmas cards would hardly be considered to display traditional seasonal imagery as they are heavily politicised, and those that date from the Second World War also work as propaganda, ridiculing the enemy.


Original artwork for Southern Railways


Snobby the Dachshund’s Adventure at Sea

A large section of the collection is taken up by original artworks, for his Christmas cards, his political cartoons, and even for a couple of posters advertising the Southern Railway. All the cartoon artwork was given an accession number by KEM and carefully recorded in the ‘Rochester Books’ – giving exact dates for when he produced the artwork, rather than the dates that they first appeared in print.

One of my favourite selections of KEM’s work however is his cartoon strips of Snobby the dachshund, who can be seen here rescuing his owner at sea by turning himself into a mast for their raft.

Explore the KEM archive, and many more, on the British Cartoon Archive website.


Plutarch’s Lives

1676 quarto of Plutarch

I had only been working at Kent about a month when I found, by accident, a book to get thoroughly overexcited about. If you study Ancient Greece and Rome, then Plutarch’s ‘Lives’ are a selection of sources you use almost continuously, and there is, happily sitting on a shelf in the pre-1700s collection of Kent’s Special Collections and Archives, a quarto edition from 1676. Considerably more impressive than my own third or fourth hand 1950s Penguin paperback.DSC_0123

As you may know, Plutarch was a Greek historian and biographer, born at the height of Imperial Roman power, who later became a Roman citizen. His ‘Lives’ are his most famous work, and consist of biographies of prominent Greeks and Romans, with one of each being paired together to highlight their shared virtues and vices. Thus, Theseus is paired with Romulus, and Julius Caesar with Alexander the Great. This particular edition also contains various ‘Lives’ by other authors, including those of Homer, Edward the Black Prince, and Plutarch himself.



The book includes a beautiful frontispiece, central to which is a portrait of Plutarch flanked by a Roman and a Greek with an angel positioned over all three. Under this are smaller pictures, two of cities, supposedly Rome and Athens, although their accuracy can certainly be doubted, one of sailing ships and one of a battle scene. Inscribed above the frontispiece in manuscript is the name Samuel Davie.

A section of the book I find particularly fascinating is the dedication “to the Most High and Mighty Princess Elizabeth,” Queen of England. Sir Thomas North, the translator of these lives from French to English, was a captain in the English army during 1588 when the Spanish Armada sailed for Britain. In 1591 he was knighted. The first edition of these Lives was published in 1579, and the dedication appeared then. In this dedication he praises her lavishly, to an excessive level even, saying she ‘can better understand [Plutarch] in Greek, then any man can make it English’ and begs her to accept this dedication, after all ‘who is fitter to revive the dead memory of their Fame, then she that beareth the lively image of their Vertues?”. He holds up the people written about as examples that ordinary men should look upon as inspiration to do everything in their power to serve their queen. I can’t help but think that such flattery probably served him well on his way to a knighthood.

Dedication to Queen Elizabeth

Dedication to Queen Elizabeth

Portraits of all the subjects can be found at the start of each of the ‘Lives’. The most elaborate of the illustrDSC_0115ations to Plutarch’s work is that of Theseus, who opens the book. The surroundings of his portrait are more detailed than the others, involving much plant life and several cherubs, where others consist of geometric shapes. The later ‘Lives,’ not written by Plutarch, also include portraits, these are larger and more detailed.

The book appears to have had several previous owners. Other than Samuel Davie, we find other inscriptions on the front pastedown. The book was once part of the library of Edward Webley of Pembroke College Oxford, a gift from his friend DSC_0127Nicholai Hyett, dated 29th October 1742. Turning the flyleaf reveals yet another name, possibly that of Nicholas Webb. The book was bequeathed to the University of Kent by a Miss Margaret Ley. We have no information about Margaret Ley, so if anyone out there knows who she is, we’d love to find out!

This book is just one of many books in our Pre-1700 collection, so explore more on the University of Kent library website.