His dad was from Bermondsey and he finished his career as a policeman with a nine-year stint in Wandsworth. But Harry Daley, whose autobiography was published posthumously, was anything but an ordinary bobbie. He was a true pioneer – the first openly gay officer in the force. Here historian STEPHEN BOURNE tells the story of the daring copper who had an affair with E M Forster and enforced the law while breaking it.
Hardly any autobiographies have been written by ordinary police officers, ‘Bobbies on the Beat’, who served before 1950.
An exception is Sergeant Harry Daley’s This Small Cloud, published posthumously in 1986.
Humorous, endearing and self-deprecatory, Harry Daley acknowledged himself as a champion of the underdog and the oppressed.
His ruthless self-improvement led to his book, a rare record of working-class experience.
In it, Daley (1901-1971) is refreshingly indiscreet about his homosexuality and life as a London ‘bobby on the beat’.
Regrettably he doesn’t discuss the love affair he had with the celebrated novelist E M Forster (1879-1970), famous for writing A Passage to India and many other classics.
In fact, because Harry fell out with Forster, he avoids mentioning the friends he made in London’s literary and artistic world of the famous Bloomsbury Group in the 1930s.
Daley was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk in 1901 into a close-knit, working-class family.
His father, a Bermondsey lad, was the skipper of a fishing smack who was lost at sea in the Lowestoft shipping disaster of 1911.
Daley’s older brother served in the First World War but was killed in action just a few days before the war ended.
When the family moved to Dorking in 1916, Daley worked as a grocery delivery boy but craved the bright lights of London.
He spent his weekends in the metropolis, exploring theatres, cinemas, art galleries, and concert halls.
He was 24 when he decided to join the Met and make London his permanent home.
In his autobiography, Daley describes himself at this time as ‘sexually both innocent and deplorable; honourable if not exactly honest; trusting; truthful; romantic and sentimental to the point of sloppiness.’
At work, Daley was open about his sexuality but, on the whole, he was left alone, partly because he was friendly and ‘fitted in’.
Other officers enjoyed his company.
In 1925, on his Hammersmith beat, Daley encountered the acclaimed playwright J R Ackerley who was also homosexual.
One morning, when he went out to fetch a milk bottle from his doorstep, he met young Daley on his beat.
The two men enjoyed a long-lasting intimate friendship.
When Ackerley became a talks producer at the BBC, he arranged for Daley to give a series of talks about his life as a policeman and the work of Lowestoft fishermen.
It was in the summer of 1926 that Ackerley introduced Daley to Forster and they became lovers.
It turned out to be a troubled relationship.
Ackerley and Forster introduced the young policeman to members of the Bloomsbury Group and, in 1931, wearing his uniform, he was painted by the artist Duncan Grant.
But Daley was too indiscreet for the closeted Forster and the Bloomsbury Group.
Forster was so alarmed by Daley’s lack of discretion, and his friendships with rough lads from the criminal underworld, that the couple broke up in 1932.
By the time the Second World War broke out, Daley had been promoted to Sergeant and was based in Westminster.
His home was the Beak Street section house.
As the Blitz intensified, Daley found himself at the centre of it: “When all available firemen and ambulances were engaged on the big disasters,” he recalls, “we managed without help as best we could – one bomb, one copper.”
He writes movingly about the young policemen he befriended at the section house who were given permission to leave and join the armed services: “The first away were killed almost as soon as they could be trained…An atmosphere of horror now developed, with our friends gaily saying goodbye and news of their death following almost automatically.”
In 1941, Daley moved to Wandsworth.
He recalls: “Wandsworth was full of lively, good-looking people who thought nothing of telling policemen to go and get stuffed. It was a marvellous place and I couldn’t see myself making many arrests here.”
But the horrors of the Blitz were never far away. Daley describes how a landmine killed 27 women and children in a Wandsworth surface shelter.
He found himself at the scene, holding a handbag, which was heavy with congealed blood.
Daley discovered that it contained a sailor’s address and a note which said, “If anything happens to me let my son know.”
Daley remained in Wandsworth for nine years.
He retired from the Met in 1950 and joined the merchant navy as a master-at-arms.
He died in 1971; his ashes were scattered on Box Hill.
In the days when gay officers had to conceal their sexuality, Daley was an exception, happily engaged in unlawful acts while upholding the law.
A fitting testament to Daley’s popularity with the public came from a traveller he encountered in Wandsworth.
During an altercation with two policemen, he told them that all coppers were bastards.
He added, as an afterthought, “Except Sergeant Daley.”
Met Superintendent Daniel Ivey, chairman of the Met’s internal LGBT+ Staff Support Network, said: “Harry was clearly a trailblazer making the Met a place where anyone can fit in.
“Despite the challenges he must have faced, he was clearly a brilliant officer and very much respected by his colleagues and even the people he arrested.
“As one of our own Sergeants in today’s modern Met said about him, whether he knew it or not he laid a foundation stone for the rest of his LGBT+ colleagues who serve today. From one gay Skipper to another I salute you Harry. Thank you.”
This Small Cloud by Harry Daley is out of print but Stephen Bourne has included a chapter about him in Fighting Proud – The Untold Story of the Gay Men Who Served in Two World Wars (2017) available from Bloomsbury Academic.
Main Pic: Harry Daley by Bloomsbury set painter Duncan Grant, partner of Vanessa Bell
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