About the Diarist


About the Diarist

Anthony was the youngest of the five children of John and Miriam Ryle. His father was a doctor, who had qualified just before the First World War. He served in the Army during the war, becoming an expert in chest wounds, and later worked in London. In 1940 he was Professor of Physic (i.e Medicine) at Cambridge University, where the family lived. Their holidays were often spent at a farmhouse in Sussex, called Glatting, near Petworth.


Early in 1940 John Ryle left Cambridge and began to work for the wartime Emergency Medical Service, Miriam was involved in charity work. Anthony’s sisters Nora and Margaret were a child-carer and student respectively (Margaret also doing a variety of war-related temporary jobs). His brothers John and Martin were a doctor in the navy and a radar scientist. Martin later specialised in radio astronomy, like his wartime colleague Bernard Lovell.

Anthony was twelve when he began the diary. He had just started at Gresham’s School, at Holt in north Norfolk, a liberal-minded boarding school for boys. In the summer of 1940 the school evacuated to Newquay in Cornwall, further from the war and the possibility of a German landing, and also further from the British bomber aerodromes in East Anglia. It was, however, close to the RAF Coastal Command station at Saint Eval, and German air raids were not uncommon even there.

For most of the time the diary covers, Glatting was effectively ‘home’ for Anthony. When his father left Cambridge in 1940, Glatting became the family’s base. In 1943, John Ryle was appointed Professor of Social Medicine at Oxford, and a flat was rented there, but still a great deal of time, especially during the holidays, was spent at Glatting. It was there, in the nearby villages of Sutton and Bignor, and in the town of Petworth, that Anthony knew a local community and joined in their social life and work.

The country setting also fed his increasing interest in nature. Comments on weather, scenery and wildlife become increasingly frequent as his interest develops, and he became a keen wildlife photographer.

School was nevertheless the main arena of his growing up. It was at school that he formed new relationships, and joined in most of the activities which prepare young people for the adult world. There were first steps towards a career in science and medicine, and the requirement to make his own judgements about the rules and habits of the society he lived in, which is the basis for independence of thought. The vicissitudes of school friendships developed his awareness of his difference from others. He also began to get to know girls of his own age, from Benenden School, another school evacuated from further east, and through other inter-school activities.

Politics and social conditions were of great importance to the Ryle family. Anthony’s father, John, was a strong advocate of what was known then as ‘social medicine’, that is the study of the social conditions in which illnesses arise, and the prevention of ill-health by improving people’s living and working conditions. He also supported the idea of a national health service, funded by the government, and was a friend of William Beveridge whose famous report on future social policy led to the foundation after the war of the NHS. Anthony sometimes mentions his father’s campaigning on this issue in the diary. A selection of John’s writings on this subject and others can be seen here

John and Miriam were also active anti-Fascists in the nineteen-thirties. Anthony was absorbing his parents’ interest in politics and many of their political ideas, even before his diary began, during their time at Cambridge, where the University provided a lively political environment. But it was at school, again, that he began to feel the need for a clear political outlook, since he was already a non-conformist and many things about school life and the attitudes it attempted to inculcate annoyed him. The criticisms in his diary of many aspects of school discipline and of single-sex institutions in general broaden out into a concern with change in society as a whole. He twice had articles on democracy at school accepted by the student magazine Phoenix. One is written in draft in the diary, the other can be read here.

For many people, the upheaval of war led to a questioning and re-alignment of political and social ideas. In part this was officially encouraged by political education movements in the forces, newspapers for the forces, and debating societies and soldiers’ ‘parliaments’. Something similar for schools was provided by the Council for Education in World Citizenship, a body set up by the British branch of the League of Nations Union, to support the work of the League of Nations (the pre-war precursor of the United Nations). The CEWC organised schools conferences for young people interested in politics and current affairs, and brought together students from different types of school and different parts of the country, with high-profile speakers such as the writer J.B. Priestley and William Beveridge. Anthony attended a number of these conferences, at first alone, then with others from his school, and met there several young people (of both sexes, significantly!) who became important friends.

There are not many diaries of young people available from this period. Obviously the most famous is the diary of Anne Frank, but there can be little comparison between the circumstances in which that was written in the occupied Netherlands and wartime England. There are however two other British diaries of teenagers which have been published. They are looked at alongside Anthony’s diary here.