Text supplied by Roland Wales.
In March 1917 R C Sherriff sent a letter home to his mother, enclosing a copy of a photo of the officers of the 9th East Surrey Battalion. He identified the two men standing next to him: on his left, Reynolds of the Sun Fire office (the office where he had worked in London before joining up); and on his right, David Hatten, who was, like him, an old boy of Kingston Grammar School.
David Leslie Hatten, and his twin brother Archibald Frederick Hatten, were born in Maldon, Essex, in August 1876 – making them some twenty years older than Sherriff. The Hattens lived in Kingston on Thames, and left Kingston Grammar School in 1893, scooping up most of the prizes as they went. David went into the insurance business, giving his employment as ‘actuarial clerk’ when he enlisted in the Artists Rifles on 27 November 1915 (just five days after Sherriff). He was commissioned into the East Surrey Regiment in July 1916 and stayed with them at least until February 1919 (a six month posting to the UK in 1918 permitting him to escape the Battalion’s destruction in the March 1918 Kaiserschlacht).*
Sherriff encountered Hatten quite soon after he joined the 9th East Surreys at the end of September 1916. In his unpublished memoir, Memories of Active Service, he wrote about the time when the two (along with other officers) escorted a group of soldiers to a new duty in the 254th Tunnelling Regiment (see here for an account):
‘Hatten walked beside me for a time: Hatten of ‘A’ Company. He was an oldish man, not unlike Percy High [an officer who had come to the Battalion with Sherriff, and who became a great friend] – a lover of his pipe – quiet and unassuming – “the wise old Hatten”, they sometimes called him.’
We can infer from the Battalion photograph, too, that Sherriff and Hatten were good friends. Beyond the placement of the senior officers (and company commanders) in the front row, there seems to have been no attempt made to organise the other officers in the picture: Sherriff’s colleagues from ‘C’ Company, for example – Douglass, Kiver and Toplis – are shown in the rear two rows. The fact that Sherriff was standing between Hatten and Reynolds suggests that, at the very least, they were good friends.
After the war Hatten and Sherriff crossed paths on several occasions, since they both moved in the Am-Dram circles of south-west London. Hatten, for example, produced Sherriff’s second play (The Woods of Meadowside) in 1922, leading to an exchange of congratulatory correspondence between the two. David and Archie became leading lights in the Genesta Amateur Dramatic Club, for which both Sherriff and his mother acted on occasions. Genesta also produced, in 1926, Sherriff’s sixth play, Mr Birdie’s Finger, with a third Hatten brother, Harry, in the role of Mr Birdie.
It is entirely possible that Hatten – the pipe-smoking, ‘wise’, older man – was at least in part the model for the character of Osborne in Journey’s End (although Percy High of ‘D’ Company, and Sherriff’s ‘C’ company colleague, Archibald Douglass – known as ‘Father’ – may also have claim to the title). So one wonders whether he saw any resemblance when Sherriff showed him a draft of Journey’s End. In fact, Hatten was one of only two men to see that draft, as Sherriff wrote in his autobiography, No Leading Lady:
‘There were two men who seemed to me most likely to be interested and constructive. One was a journalist on a local paper who had written glowing reviews of my earlier plays and given me great encouragement; the other was an old army friend who had been with me in France and was now on the committee of the leading dramatic club in the neighbourhood. If there was anything in the play at all, then these were the two men most likely to see it, and give me valuable advice. I sent a copy to both of them but drew a double blank…”It’s interesting to you and me,” [said the old army friend], “because we both went through it and know all about it. But it wouldn’t appeal to the members of our club because most of them weren’t in the war, and in any case the war’s all over and done with, and everybody wants to forget about it.’
Happily, Sherriff ignored the discouraging comments and the play was eventually produced to huge acclaim and success.
Sherriff remained friendly with Hatten and an exchange of letters between the two after a chance meeting in Kingston on VJ day shows that they remained in touch. So much so that in 1948, when Sherriff wrote his play Miss Mabel (after a gap of some 14 years since his previous play), he offered it to Hatten for Genesta to produce. But Hatten was not impressed: ‘Frankly,’ he wrote in reply, ‘I don’t think a playwright of your reputation and achievement would be well advised to put the play forward in its present form’. Sherriff replied that if Genesta did not want to pursue it that was fine with him: ‘I really meant it as what I hope to be a generous gesture towards an old Club with which I had had some pleasant times.’
Just four months after Hatten’s rejection Miss Mabel opened to very favourable reviews in Brighton, and following a provincial tour, reached the West End in November 1948, playing until April 1949. Afterwards it toured to great success around the country, and in Paris. By the end of 1950 it had earned more in royalties for Sherriff than all his previous plays combined (excepting Journey’s End, of course).
*I am grateful to Michael Lucas, author of The Journey’s End Battalion, for the information on Hatten’s military record.
Roland Wales is the author of the new RC Sherriff biography From Journey’s End to the Dam Busters: The Life of R.C. Sherriff, Playwright of the Trenches (2016, Pen & Sword). He has set up a blog featuring Sherriff’s letters home from the trenches on the date they were written, one hundred years ago, see www.rolandwales.com.
RC Sherriff’s papers are held at Surrey History Centre, find out more about the author of ‘Journey’s End‘ and his life and career http://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/themes/people/writers/sherriff/
Within the RC Sherriff papers there is a menu for a 1919 East Surrey Regiment Reunion Dinner, signed by some of Sherriff’s fellow officers, including David Hatten.
RC Sherriff lost several friends during the First World War who, like him, had enlisted shortly after leaving school. A blog on the Exploring Surrey’s Past website includes information from the archive.