A. L. Rowse historian and poet

A. L. Rowse and Cornwall

A. L. Rowse historian and poet from St Austell, Cornwall was a British historian best known for his poetry about Cornwall and his work on Elizabethan England. He was also a Shakespearean scholar and a biographer. He had reputation for irascibility and arrogance.

Alfred Leslie Rowse was born in Tregonissey near St Austell, Cornwall, the son of Dick Rowse, a china clay miner, and Annie (née Vaston). Like most people in the village his parents were poor and virtually illiterate. At some point his father changed from clay mining to running the general store on Tregonissey Road, around the top of Trevarthian Rd. "A Cornish Childhood" describes the area and the local people.

He apparently had a great anxiety concerning his paternity, and conjectured later in life that he was perhaps the result of his mother's amour with the lively young Tregonissey butcher Fred May. He felt that his parents had little feeling for him, and that his mother was coldness and selfish. He was the youngest of their three children. In the small, two-up, two-down house in which he grew up, there were no luxuries like books.

Feeling shut out from home life he threw himself into school life. His talents were noticed and encouraged in the village school. At the age of eleven he won a scholarship to a secondary school in St. Austell, where dedicated teachers helped to develop his mind. A member of the choir in his local church introduced him to the breathtaking beauty of the Luxulyan valley only a few miles from his home.

From St Austell school, and with the help of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, he was successful in winning one of only two (£60 p.a.) scholarships to Oxford which Cornwall offered.

He obtained a double First in History, and was shortly afterwards elected to All Souls in 1925. He became the first Fellow of All Souls to have a working-class background. Whilst an undergraduate he developed a reputation for both his devotion to speaking precise English and for his open homosexuality.

In 1929, he was awarded his Master of Arts degree, and in 1927 was appointed lecturer at Merton College, where he stayed until 1930. In 1931, he contested the parliamentary seat of Penryn and Falmouth for the Labour Party, but was unsuccessful and became a lecturer at the London School of Economics.

Rowse produced many works on English history, some poetry and an autobiography, “A Cornishman at Oxford”. He was well-known for his flamboyance, his openness about his homosexuality and his obsession about the speaking of precisely correct English. Celebrity followed the publication of his autobiography and he made many lecture tours in the United States of America and elsewhere.

Among many of the honours bestowed on Rowse were a fellowship of the Royal Historical Society, an honorary doctorate of the University of Exeter and the Benson Medal of the Royal Society of Literature. He was made a Companion of Honour in 1996. He died in 3rd. October, 1997 at Trenarren, St. Austell and bequeathed his collection of books, manuscripts, diaries, and correspondence to the University of Exeter.

Books on or by A. L. Rowse