P G Wodehouse in emsworth

Born in Guildford 1881, P G Wodehouse was christened Pelham Grenville after a godfather, but he pronouncing his first name as Plum in childhood, it became his familiar name. His father being in colonial service, Plum saw his parents for only  three months between the ages of three and fifteen.

Aged five, he was sent to Elmhurst School in Croydon – and was already writing. Aged 12 he went to Dulwich College, his returning parents setting up home in Dulwich’s Croxted Road. Excelling at cricket, he expected to follow his older brother to Cambridge. His father suffering losses on his pension, however, Plum was instead forced to start work at the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank (now HSBC).

After two years, during which time he freelanced for various outlets, he left to write stories for the expanding popular magazine market. His first book, The Pothunters, having been published in 1902 (by A&C Black), he was offered regular feelance work by The Globe magazine in the Strand.

Living in a Chelsea bedsit he encountered Herbert Westbrook, described by Plum’s biographer Robert McCrum as “an ambitious but lazy schoolmaster with literary aspirations” (Wodehouse – A Life, Penguin 2004). “Westbrook was teaching Latin and Greek at a small private preparatory school in Emsworth, Hampshire, [where, in 1903] he persuaded his new best friend to come and live in the school (in a room above the stables).

“This surprising move from London is explained by Wodehouse’s lifelong love of rural seclusion, and perhaps by the chance to play football and cricket with the boys.  The big house, with its inviting grounds and shady cedars, [was] on the outskirts of the picturesque oyster-fishing town of Emsworth. The school was run by Baldwin (‘Baldie’ or ‘Bud’) King-Hall and his sister Ella. Mr Abney in The Little Nugget is an affectionate portrait of the maverick schoolmaster.

“The life of Emsworth House was highly congenial. In later life, Wodehouse often stayed at Emsworth House, usually on his way to one of his habitual New York liner crossings from the Empress Dock in Southampton. He wrote The Little Nugget (1911) at the school, and dedicated Indiscretions of Archie(1921) to Bud King-Hall.

“The most notable [allusion] appears in Mike (1909), when the eponymous hero is asked about his pre-Wrykyn schooling: ‘A prep school in Hampshire,’ said Mike. ‘King-Hall’s at a place called Emsworth.’

“He [Wodehouse] always described Emsworth as an ideal place to work. In the new year (1904), Wodehouse arranged to rent a house called Threepwood, adjoining Emsworth House and its games fields. This ugly, redbrick, Victorian seaside dwelling became an essential part of his life from 1904 to 1914.

“The house was kept by Lillian ‘Lily’ Barnett, with whom he would made a close, lifelong friendship, and to whom he expressed, with rare candour, the intense happiness he always felt about Emsworth generally. His new prosperity also meant that he could now fulfil his long-held ambition: a trip to the United States of America.

“The decision to visit America was the making of Wodehouse. He became as much at home in New York as in London, forging a transatlantic literary career long before jet-travel made such a proposition commonplace.”

His earliest novels had been school tales: The Pothunters (1902), A Prefect’s Uncle (1903), Tales of St Austin’s (1903), The Gold Bat (1904), William Tell Told Again (1905), Head of Kay’s (1905). Love Among the Chickens (published by George Newnes, 1906) was his first adult novel.


While Wodehouse is today remembered as a peerless comic novelist, in the early 20th century he was also a leading lyricist for musical shows in Londonand New York. Hired as resident wordsmith at the Aldwych theatre in 1906, he met Jerome Kern – with whom he would work in the USA. In his prolific novel output, Mike (1907) featured the first of his great comedic creations Psmith (“the P is silent, as in ptarmigan, psalm and phthisis”).

Revisiting New York in 1909, he returned to England. “He seems to have renewed his lease on Threepwood and to have taken up where he left off,” McCrum reports. “Was he returning to pursue a romance with a lonely widow? In the remote and well-camouflaged world of his emotions, there are strong suggestions of a liaison with a Mrs Lillian Armstrong, whose daughter ‘Bubbles’ corresponded with Wodehouse until his death, and who believed her mother had spurned his proposal of marriage.”

He went back to the States shortly afterwards where higher US fees were, he said, “like suddenly finding a rich uncle from Australia. This, I said to myself, is the place to be.”  Commuting between America and the UK, by January 1912 he was back in Emsworth “while he worked hard at a farcical crime story actually set in Emsworth – published (in 1913) as The Little Nugget,” says McCrum.

“The Emsworth part of his life was changing irretrievably. Herbert Westbrook was about to marry Ella King-Hall. After her marriage, Ella King-Hall became his literary agent for all his British contracts and remained so until her retirement through ill-health in 1935.”

Back in New York, Wodehouse also married. His wife Ethel, born in King’s Lynn in 1885, was a widow with a ten year old daughter, Leonora, whom Wodehouse came to dote on. She was “more companion than daughter,” McCrum notes, until her sad death in 1942. Together with the outbreak of WWI, their union marked the end of his UK residency.

The following year (1914) saw the first appearance of Lord Emsworth in the Blandings Castle story published (in the UK) as Something Fresh. As Wodehouse himself recognised, it was “the best long thing I have done”.

“Emsworth pervades Wodehouse’s work in character, landscape and allusion,” McCrum points out. “Clarence, 9th Earl of Emsworth (‘a mild, dreamy, absent-minded sort of old bird’), a kind of alter ego, was always his favourite among all his characters. Emsworth’s heir, Lord Bosham, takes his name from the historic Saxon village on the coast near Emsworth.

“Threepwood, the cottage Wodehouse rented in Record Road, adjoining the Emsworth House grounds, gives its name to Clarence’s vacuous second son, Freddie. Nearby Beach Road, which runs down to the seashore, contributed Wodehouse’s first and archetypal butler, Sebastian Beach.” Damsel in Distress (1919) features Emsworth in disguise in what Richard Usborne in his Wodehouse – at Work to the End (1962; Penguin, 1978) describes as being “to all intents and purposes a Blandings novel”.

Plum’s first musical in collaboration with Guy Bolton, who became his closest friend, and Jerome Kern, Miss Springtime (1916) was forerunner of many others as lyricist for these and other Broadway luminaries such as George and Ira Gershwin. By the 1930s he was wealthy enough to settle in Le Touquet on the north France coast (convenient for trips to London) where, in 1935, he bought the Low Wood mansion adjoining the golf course. The year also saw the last of his musicals, the Gershwins’ Anything Goes.

While trying, stupendously tardily, to escape from Le Touquet in 1940, he was caught and interned by the invading Germans. While an internee he unwisely recorded a serious of light-hearted radio talks about the internees’ experience which the Germans broadcast to Britain and America. Ensuing accusations of treachery so upset him that, at war’s end, he returned to the States and never again visited the UK. Although becoming an American citizen in 1955, he was – his wartime indiscretion long forgiven – knighted in 1975, dying the same year aged 93.

Bob Smyth 2010

P G Wodehouse’s internment years

P G Wodehouse’s WWII years almost wrecked his career and reputation. He and wife Ethel moved to France in the 1930s to escape heavy British (and US) taxes, living in Le Touquet in a mansion conveniently overlooking the golf course. Idiotically remaining there when war was declared in 1939, he was arrested as an “enemy alien” when the Germans invaded in 1940. As an American Ethel was initially left at liberty 

In July he and 700 other expats were imprisoned in the Citadel of Huy in Belgium. Wodehouse was keeping a diary which sketchily indicates the harsh conditions. In September they were moved to Tost, now in Poland but then part of “Greater Germany”. Wodehouse was to remain here for the next ten months, while “the war entered its most desperate phase,” as PG’s biographer Robert McCrum (Wodehouse, 2004) points out.

Towards Christmas he was interviewed by an American reporter Angus Thuermer. The article, published in the New York Times on 27th December “would later give Wodehouse nothing but aggravation” (McCrum). Wodehouse made characteristic light-hearted comments on his plight. He jotted down a similarly humorous account, enjoyed by fellow internees. Ethel, meanwhile, continued living in France.

The USA had made the German authorities aware of their captive’s fame. In May the camp commandant, directed by Berlin foreign office propagandists, asked if he might consider making some broadcasts to the USA – not yet in the war.

“I said ‘I would love to’ or ‘There’s nothing I should like better’ – or some similar phrase,” the author reported subsequently. On 21 June, four months before the normal release age of 60, two Gestapo took him to Berlin where he was installed in the posh Adlon Hotel – where his wife was brought to join him.

A CBS interview prefacing his internment camp dispatches “contained three scripted replies, each of which gave deep offence to a war-ravaged audience,” writes McCrum.  There was, he continues, “a growing perception that he was a collaborator.”

“Wodehouse’s real disgrace began when the first of his pre-recorded ‘talks’ was broadcast from Berlin on 28 June,” he continues. The London Blitz had ended only the previous month, but even non-combatant USA was alarmed. “Impossible you to realise American state of mind,” cabled his Saturday Evening Post editor, fearful for his contributing author’s reputation after thirty years of serialisations.

In the UK, while the Daily Mirror’s columnist “Cassandra” (William Connor) was his  most vocal critic, the Daily Telegraph among others published denunciations from literary colleagues. 

Wodehouse, whose wife had joined him at the Adlon in July, was now provided with accommodation in a village safely outside Berlin. He carried on working here for the next two years while wife Ethel remained in the Adlon.

In autumn 1943 they moved to France, staying in the 5-star Hotel Bristol. This was, unfortunately, the hotel most favoured by the Nazi occupiers and French collaborators. But his German connections allowed the payment of his royalties from various sources.

When Paris was liberated in August 1944, the British Security Services assigned their MI6 officer Malcolm Muggeridge to investigate the circumstances of his broadcasts. Muggeridge, himself a writer, concluded: “It is not that he is other-worldly, or un-worldly, so much that he is a-worldly; a born neutral.”

A more formal investigation conducted by Major Cussen of MI5, a barrister, produced a 15-page report exonerating Wodehouse from collaboration, but commenting that he – and Ethel – had been “unwise”. He observed that Wodehouse was susceptible to flattery – from any source – and Ethel even more so. He doubted “whether either Wodehouse or his wife had any idea of the proper standard of conduct towards [the Germans].”

Released from preventive detention in January 1945, he worried about difficulties delaying publication of his new books Money in the Bank and Spring Fever. He lunched with George Orwell, who duly published his “In Defence of P G Wodehouse.” “If we drive him to retire to the United States and renounce his British citizenship we shall end by being horribly ashamed of ourselves,” he concluded.

In summer 1946 he duly received a US visa , the couple returning to the USA a year later. When he published his partial autobiography Performing Flea: A Self-Portrait in Letters a few years later the UK critics were generally supportive – but the threat of possible prosecution for collaboration if he visited the UK was not lifted.

Aged 80 in 1961, he attracted admiring profiles – and on his 90th birthday even more so. Knighted in the 1975 New Year’s Honours – as Sir Pelham Wodehouse – he died six weeks later, aged 94.


Bob Smyth 2012


The P G Wodehouse Society (UK)

Wodehouse’s Emsworth portrait (1919)



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