PEOPLE in Ilkley are being asked to search old diaries and memoirs to shed new light on lectures given in the town by the poet T S Eliot.

Dr Tom Steele, Senior Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow wants to find out more about the students who attended Eliot's classes in 1916 and about their views on the sessions.

The series of evening class lectures is described by Dr Steele as a "very significant cultural event" marking "a key moment in his thinking, which underlay his critical judgements for many years."

He said: "I already have the names of the Ilkley organising committee but I’m keen to find out if any of your readers might be descended from any of those who took part and may have been told about the lectures or, even better, have had diaries or memoirs passed down to them."

The poet's connection with Ilkley is described in the following article by Dr Steele.

T S Eliot in Ilkley, 1916

By Tom Steele

A little over a century ago, Ilkley hosted a series of evening class lectures given by the poet T S Eliot, on the subject of Modern French Culture under the auspices of Oxford University Extension Committee. Eliot was then well known only to a small coterie in London and his first major poetry collection Prufrock and other observations was yet to be published. Despite an offer of a post teaching Philosophy at the University of Harvard, Eliot was determined to stay in England where he had come a few years earlier as a postgraduate student. He was short of money but reluctant to beg off his moderately wealthy family from whom he received a small bursary and had only recently married an English woman, Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Things were not working out well on either front. Vivienne was vivacious but temperamental and was used to living in a certain style in London. They couldn’t live off his poetry which was ‘difficult’ and would not attract a large readership and so he was looking for a subsidiary income as a university extension lecturer. Both Oxford and Cambridge Universities were now offering lectures ‘extra-murally’ as an attempt to get in touch with a working class audience, denied the usual access and were recruiting lecturers prepared to travel around the country. A local committee in each town would make the arrangements for the course which would be held in an available hall. In Ilkley, the local committee was given as the 'Scientific and Literary Society', though I have not managed to find any trace of it.

Eliot would travel to Yorkshire every week from October 3 to December 12 1916 to teach his course on Tuesday afternoons. His lectures were significant in that they were the first time he had attempted to formulate the conservative philosophical and political ideas that were to remain with him until the last and so mark a signally important moment in his career. He claimed that he very much enjoyed the classes and was most impressed by the work put in by his students of whom there were between thirty and fifty. Vivienne however wrote that 'Tom' had met a number of the wealthy friends of her own parents when he went for his first class in Ilkley and was not so impressed by them. They were, she said, "very very rich manufacturing people – so provincial that my American friends tell me they are very like Americans!" and Tom felt the same way about them. Despite his feeling for the students in his class, (largely composed of teachers and white collar workers, probably) this may have been true. A few years later in his most famous long poem The Wasteland he wrote of one of the characters unflatteringly as being "One of the low on whom assurance sits/As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire".

So, reacting against his liberal Unitarian upbringing in New England, Eliot was adopting a belief in Original Sin and the need for clear hard-edged distinctions. These led, paradoxically, to a radical kind of difficult imagistic poetry but extremely reactionary 'Catholic' beliefs. He later modified these somewhat to calling himself a classicist in poetry, a monarchist in politics and an Anglo-Catholic in religion. Much of this change in belief was gained through his close reading of the debates going on in London’s leading cultural journal The New Age between the philosopher T E Hulme and its brilliant editor, A R Orage. Curiously, Orage was a Yorkshireman from Dacre near Pately Bridge and a few years earlier in his career in 1903 he had founded what many regarded as a dangerously avant-garde society in Leeds called the Leeds Arts Club. Here Orage had attempted to dynamite Leeds with Nietzscheanism, then newly translated, and European modernist art. When Orage left for London the club was overseen by Michael Sadler the new Vice Chancellor of Leeds University and the Curator of Leeds Art Gallery, Frank Rutter who encouraged a vibrant post-impressionist atmosphere, possibly the most significant outside London.

Whether Eliot assumed Ilkley was going to be as open to darkly subversive thought as Leeds is not known but he certainly prepared his lectures assiduously and set his students a rigorous selection of demanding books to read. Early in the course Dora Mussey, the class secretary, wrote a judicious commentary on his progress: “Mr Eliot has only given us two lectures so far. His manner is not good. His delivery is very monotonous. His voice would not be strong enough for a large hall. But he is inexperienced & even the second lecture showed improvement. He lectures from a ms., but he rarely looks at it. His matter is excellent, & he uses it in a very interesting way. He gives the impression of a wide and thorough knowledge of his subject (Contemporary France). He is very fair-minded. He is friendly & easy in the class. There is nothing of the popular lecturer about him. But at the same time I find people who know nothing of our present subject follow him with interest. He has no Americanisms or accent … Mr Eliot’s French is delightful." It was probably a recommendation!

Dora Mussey was probably from Ilkley but her address is given simply as 'Westfield'. I’m trying to find out more about her and those who also attended Eliot’s classes and what they made of them. Gazette readers may be related to them and may have inherited notebooks, diaries and memoirs which could be very important. If you can help fill in this fascinating corner of Ilkley’s modern history, I’d be really grateful if you could contact me at

Dr Tom Steele is the author of Alfred Orage and the Leeds Arts Club.