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Mary Valentine Ackland

The poet and Communist, Mary Ackland (pictured left), was born in London in 1906 to a wealthy family. She was briefly married at the age of 19 to Richard Turpin but this was annulled. She recognised herself as a lesbian in an age when it was difficult to do so. But she did find happiness with another poet, Sylvia Townsend Warner, who became her life companion.

The two women jointly published a book of poems `Whether A Dove or Seagull’ in 1933/4.

After Ackland wrote to the Communist Party in 1935, offering her services to distribute Party literature in Dorset, her intercepted letter initiated an investigation into the two women that did not cease until 1955. In the first two years, MI5, or local Special Branch on their behalf, gathered a wealth of detail about the women's domestic arrangements from intercepted correspondence, police reports, newspaper cuttings and their writings. Typical of this is a report from October 1935: “Miss Ackland ... spends a considerable time shooting rabbits, for which she uses a rifle, and when at home she more often than not wears male clothing in preference to female attire. Miss Warner appears normal in habits.”

Ackland mainly worked as a journalist and regularly contributed articles to the Daily Worker and the Daily Chronicle. She also wrote for magazines such as the Left Review, the New Statesman, and Time and Tide.

At the outset of the Spanish Civil War, Ackland and Warner went to Barcelona, where they worked for a British medical unit. In 1937, they were members of the British delegation to the Second Congress of the International Association of Writers for the Defence of Culture, held in Spain.

In 1941 Townsend-Warner was considered as a lecturer to the troops but MI5 blocked this. In the same year, a telegram from Ackland to one Elizabeth White was sent for detailed analysis but it was eventually  deemed "harmless".

During the Second World War, Ackland worked as a civil defence clerk. She wrote about her relationship with Warner in 1949 in `For Sylvia, An Honest Account’. This was only published posthumously for the first time thirty six years later; a second volume of poems, “The Nature of the Moment”, also appeared posthumously in 1973.

Mary Ackland had already died in 1969, having lived with Sylvia Warner until her death in 1968. 

Their ashes were buried together under a single stone in Dorset.                                                  PIc right: Sylvia Townsend Warner