Elizabeth Coxhead

Elizabeth Coxhead is an author, critic and mountaineer from Hinckley.

elizabeth coxhead (1909-1979)
Elizabeth Coxhead (1909-1979)

1909 Elizabeth was born in Hinckley as Eileen Elizabeth Coxhead.

Elizabeth lived in part of the Headmasters private living quarters at the Hinckley Grammar School where her father (Mr G.E.S Coxhead) was the headmaster. Later she would become a pupil at Hinckley Grammar School.

She was one of the first female students from Hinckley Grammar School to get a place at an Oxford college in the early 1930s.

After graduating from Somerville College in Oxford by gaining a first in French, she forged a career as a journalist in London, first on the staff of The Lady and then as a freelance for the Fleet Street offices of The Liverpool Daily Post and The Manchester Guardian.

Elizabeth became a distinguished writer which included biographies and novels with a special interest in late 19th century and early 20th century works with several books on the related topics. Other interests were gardening and mountaineering.

1934 Elizabeth and her younger 20 year old sister Alison stayed at Burnthwaite in Wasdale on a walking holiday in search of their first rock-climb. Elizabeth would get hooked on climbing and would go regularly on weekend meets, but never joined a club. Elizabeth’s rationale for climbing was: `A sport is advanced by the handful of people who do it brilliantly, but it is kept sweet and sane by the great numbers of the mediocre, who do it for fun’.

1951 The classic novel ‘One Green bottle’ was written about British mountain-climbing and centred on a working-class girl, 18 year old Cathy Canning from Birkenhead. The novel would later be condemned for explicitness by Rt Rev Douglas Henry Crick who was the Anglican Bishop of Chester.

1953 Elizabeth wrote ‘The Midlanders’, which was set in Alney, a hosiery manufacturing town and clearly a thinly disguised Hinckley of her youth in the 1920s. The book also included scenes set in the town’s grammar school and its headmaster’s living quarters and other background locations that are identifiable with Hinckley of that period.

1958 The novel ‘A friend in need’ was written, this would be used as the basis for the film ‘A cry from the streets’ depicting orphan children in one of London’s poorest neighbourhoods that starred Max Bygraves in an uncharacteristic serious role.

1961 She published a Literary Portrait of Lady Gregory which would be her most important biographical work.

1962 Elizabeth wrote on J.M. Synge jointly with Lady Gregory in Longman’s 'Writers and their works' series.

1965 Novel ‘Daughters of Erin’ that consisted in biographical studies of Maud Gonne, Countess Markiewicz (Constance Gore Booth), Sarah Purser, Sara Allgood, and Máire O’Neill (Molly Allgood).

Elizabeth was considered as a feminist, she was an avant-garde writer who would speak out against the old conventional ways of thinking, she was also respected for her works depicting relationships between young, unmarried couples.

Film Trailer - A cry from the streets

1979 Elizabeth had recently had a fall which resulted in fracturing a femur, at the age of 70 she realised that she was probably going to end her days as a burden to others. In September Elizabeth took her own life on the train track at Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire, having carefully ordered her papers and affairs shortly before at her home in Chalfont St. Peter in Buckinghamshire.

2009 A Heritage Honour (Blue Plaque) was unveiled in July at Mount Grace High School in a ceremony arranged by Hinckley Civic Society in collaboration with the governors and head to commemorate the life of Elizabeth. The plaque was mounted above the entrance to the section used in the early part of the 20th century as the headmaster’s private living quarters, a doorway that would have been very familiar to Elizabeth as a girl. The unveiling was carried out by Robert Chesshyre, her nephew.

Also at the ceremony words of appreciation which were read out by the organisers that were written by Colin Smythe which read:

I greatly appreciated Elizabeth’s enthusiasm and the support that she gave me when I started to republish Lady Gregory’s works, and was delighted to discover from Lady Gregory’s grandson Richard that she lived within walking distance of my home. I never knew anyone who spoke so fast as she did, yet every word was perfectly enunciated. She was a fascinating conversationalist.

The description of the poet Thomas Laker, in her novel The Thankless Muse (1967), was largely based on what Edith Shackleton Heald had told her about her relationship with W. B. Yeats, when both women had worked at The Lady. It was Elizabeth who had suggested the title Cold Comfort Farm to Stella Gibbons, who was also on its staff.

Her death so soon after we’d republished Daughters of Erin in September 1979 was a tragedy, but not one that could have been prevented, I suspect. She'd viewed three score years and ten as being the appropriate length of life, but when I heard her mention this, I never thought she'd actively ensure it was. When I arranged to deliver copies of the new edition of Daughters to her home, I could not have imagined that I would be writing an appreciation of her life for the local paper a few weeks later.

Elizabeth Coxhead's Novels

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