Canon of York, archivist, first director of the Borthwick Institute

Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York, Heslington YO10 5DD

As a young officer, John Stanley Purvis fought in the First World War. His experiences inspired two well-known war poems: ‘Chance Memory’ and ‘High Wood’, written under a pseudonym. The real identity of the author would remain a mystery until after Purvis’s death. After the war, he continued to teach history at Cranleigh School in Surrey but, having taken holy orders, he moved to Yorkshire in 1938 to pursue an ecclesiastical career. As archivist to the archbishopric and diocese of York, he was instrumental in the establishment of the Borthwick Institute and was its first director.

Canon Purvis, from the Yorkshire Evening Press

Born in Bridlington on 9 May 1890, John Stanley Purvis was the elder son of Major John Bowlt Purvis and Charlotte Annie Purvis. After attending Bridlington Grammar School, he went to St Catherine’s College, Cambridge. He graduated in 1913 and joined the staff of Cranleigh School in Surrey as a history teacher. John’s younger brother, George Bell Purvis, born on 1 September 1892, also attended Bridlington Grammar School where he was Senior Cadet in the Officer Training Corps and won the old boys’ shooting cup in 1909 and 1910. He was the first of the Purvis’s sons to enlist and was commissioned in June 1914, serving with the 5th Battalion of Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own Yorkshire Regiment, nicknamed the Green Howards. George was sent to the Western Front in April 1915. Promoted to the rank of captain in the summer of 1916, he transferred to the 56th Company of the Machine Gun Corps which had joined 19th (Western) Division on 14 February. They were in action during the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in history with around one million men killed or wounded, and were involved in the attack on High Wood which was to inspire one of his brother’s poems.

Action at the Western Front

John also enlisted with the Green Howards and joined his brother at the Front in early 1916, but his first time in active service was to be cut short. He was wounded during the attack on High Wood on 15 September 1916, the very first time he went “over the top”, and was sent home suffering from shell shock, a little understood condition at the time. Having visited Cranleigh to talk about his experience of war, he returned to the Front in March 1917. Tragedy was soon to follow. George took part in the Battle of Messines, about 4 miles south of Ypres, which commenced on 7 June 1917. This was the beginning of the Third Battle of Ypres – Passchendaele – which would continue for the rest of the year. One day into the battle, George was killed in action, aged 24, while reconnoitring for new gun positions, and is buried in Klein-Vierstraat British Cemetery. At the time, John was an acting lieutenant, second in command of a trench mortar battery. Perhaps on compassionate grounds, John was seconded to one of the Bomb and Trench Mortar Schools, which had been set up in France to train officers and men, where he was promoted to lieutenant.

During his first brief time at the Front, John was able to take some remarkable, and unauthorised, photographs at the start of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916. Now in the Green Howards Museum, Richmond, North Yorkshire, the photographs offer a glimpse of the harsh realities of war. John also made a number of sketches including one of the battle in progress at Martinpuich, near High Wood, dated 15 September 1916 – presumably drawn shortly before he was wounded – which is now in the archive collection of Cranleigh School.

Chance memory

However, it was John’s poetry which was to be his lasting legacy of the First World War. The signed original of ‘Chance memory’ is now in the collection of Steyning Museum. It is dated 2 December 1915. Previously it had been assumed that the poem had been written at the Front but, at the time the poem was composed, John was still a teacher at Cranleigh School and a 2nd Lieutenant in the Junior Division of the Officers Training Corps. He would not join the Green Howards until March 1916. ‘Chance memory’ was first published under the pseudonym of Philip Johnson in the Daily News in June 1916. With its lyrical description of a Sussex lane in summer remembered from a ‘filthy rat infested ditch’ half an hour before the assault, the poem became immediately popular. Written under the slightly different pseudonym of Philip Johnstone, ‘High Wood’, composed towards the end of the war, strikes a more controversial note with its evocation of a recent field of battle having become a tourist attraction, a scenario which would soon become reality. On 16 February 1918, it was published in the radical magazine the Nation (merged with the New Statesman in 1931).John never revealed the fact that he was the author of ‘Chance Memory’ and he took the secret to his grave. It was only in 1969, in a letter written by John’s sister, Hilda, to the author Ernest Raymond, that the true identity of Philip Johnson was revealed. There was another startling discovery in 2009 when more poems by Purvis were found in the archive at the Borthwick Institute, handwritten in a notebook. The notebook contains ‘High Wood’, thus confirming the true author, as well as ‘At Humbercamps’ in which the author writes about an imagined conversation with his brother, George.

Return to Cranleigh

John rejoined his regiment in March 1918, but relinquished his commission on account of ill health the day after Armistice Day. He returned to Cranleigh to continue as a teacher of history, becoming a housemaster the following year. In 1928 he wrote and directed the school’s pageant. Between 1932 and 1934, the soon to be famous actor Michael Redgrave was a master at the school during which time he was responsible for five major productions in which he took a leading role. In As You Like It, staged in July 1932, Redgrave played Hymen and Purvis was the Banished Duke. Perhaps struggling to make sense of what he had witnessed in the war, Purvis took holy orders and was ordained deacon in 1932 and priest in 1933. Between 1932 and 1938 he served as assistant chaplain at Cranleigh School as well as curate of the Priory Church of St Mary, Bridlington.

In 1938 John left Cranleigh for Yorkshire, becoming rector of All Saints, Goodmanham, near Market Weighton and, in 1941, vicar of Old Malton. Between 1945 and 1947 he was warden of the York Diocesan Conference House at Foston Hall. In 1947 he became vicar of St Sampson with Holy Trinity, King’s Court in the city of York, a position he held until 1966. In 1956 he was made canon and prebendary of Strensall in York Minster.

Borthwick Institute

From 1939 John also held the position of archivist to the archbishopric and diocese of York and had begun sorting and rearranging the vast diocesan archive with the aim of making it accessible to the public for the first time. When, in the mid-1940s, a campaign developed to found a university in York, the diocesan archives became central to the plans of the newly formed Academic Development Committee, later the York Academic Trust, of which John was a member and director of its annual archive summer schools.

In 1949 a plan to rehouse the diocesan archive in a new Minster Library fell through and an alternative scheme was proposed by committee member Oliver Sheldon to use the archive as the foundation of a new institute of historical research. It was hoped that such an institute would not only provide a permanent home for the records but also attract scholars to York, raising the city’s academic profile and laying the foundations for a university. Between late July and early September 1949, Sheldon worked quickly, developing a scheme in which the diocesan archive would be loaned to York Civic Trust and housed at St Anthony’s Hall, a then empty medieval guildhall on Peasholme Green. By 1950, a Pilgrim Trust grant had been secured and the Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust agreed to fund the initial running costs. John Purvis also alerted Sheldon to a bequest left by fellow Bridlington man William Borthwick which was to give the institute its name and financial endowment.

Sheldon’s scheme was successful. The Archbishop of York agreed to the deposit of the diocesan archive and the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research opened in 1953. Purvis was its first director, a position he held until 1963 when the institute became part of the new University of York and Purvis was succeeded by Norah Gurney. As director, Purvis undertook lecture tours in America to publicise the work of the institute and established a publications’ programme through the institute’s own St Anthony’s Press, today known as the Borthwick Papers. He also designed the Borthwick’s logo, based on the boss of St Anthony’s pig on the ceiling of St Anthony’s Hall.

Scholarly works and articles

A noted scholar, John Purvis was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Historical Society and a member of York Georgian Society, Yorkshire Philosophical Society and the Yorkshire Archaeological Society of which he was president from 1955. He was also president of the York branch of the Historical Association from 1958. During his lifetime he produced a large number of scholarly works and articles on history and archives. In 1923 he published The Dissolution of Bridlington Priory followed, in 1926, by an edited collection of Bridlington charters, court rolls and papers.

In the 1930s his published works included studies of monastic chancery proceedings relevant to Yorkshire, the priory of St John the Evangelist at Healaugh, and 16th-century woodcarvings; in the 1940s his work included studies of Goodmanham Church, Old Malton Priory and Sheriff Hutton parish records. His later work reflected his connection to the Borthwick Institute. In 1951 he published a history of St Anthony’s Hall and, in 1952, a guide to the provenance and history of the York diocesan registry. As director, he published a guide to ecclesiastical and educational records and a handlist of the Borthwick’s collections.

He also worked extensively on the York Mystery Plays, the medieval civic plays revived in the 1951 York Festival of the Arts. Purvis wrote the first modern script for the revival which was published in The York Cycle of Mystery Plays, A Shorter Version of the Ancient Cycle in the same year and expanded in his The York Cycle of Mystery Plays in 1957. In 1958, Purvis was awarded an OBE for his services to historical scholarship in Yorkshire. John Stanley Purvis died on 20 December 1968 at the age of 78 and is buried at the Priory Church of St Mary, Bridlington.


Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York, Heslington, York
The Borthwick holds the main archive of the records of John Stanley Purvis. Further papers are held by York Explore and Leeds University Library.

Cranleigh School, Horseshoe Lane, Cranleigh, Surrey
Cranleigh School archives contain many documents relating to Purvis’s teaching career. Copies of the school magazine, the Cranleighan, can be viewed on the school’s website. Formed in 1939, the Purvis Society was established ‘to preserve that quality of thought and interest that Mr Purvis had fostered during his long stay at Cranleigh’.
The Cranleigh School Memorial is a website which commemorates Old Cranleighans and Cranleigh masters who lost their lives serving their country.

The Green Howards Museum, Trinity Church Square, Richmond, North Yorkshire
Large collection of diaries, letters, notebooks, drawings, paintings and photographs relating to Purvis’s military career in the First World War.

The Museum, Church Street, Steyning, West Sussex
Steyning Museum was presented with the original manuscript for ‘Chance Memory’ dated 2 December 1915. In 2000, a stone carved with the poem was unveiled in Mouse Lane, Steyning, the lane which Purvis refers to in the first line.

© Richard Wilcock