Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971) is today recognised as a key figure in the development of crime fiction. However, because he wrote under several pen-names, his connection with Sherborne School has not always been apparent. And yet, during his lifetime, Anthony was the author of over thirty novels and short stories (under the pen-names of Francis Iles, Anthony Berkeley and A. Monmouth Platts), a journalist and book reviewer for Punch, the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, and John O’London’s Weekly, and the composer of several songs and waltzes.
In 1930, he was a founding member of the Detection Club. This group included fellow British crime writers, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Hugh Walpole, Baroness Emma Orczy, and G.K. Chesterton (the club’s first president). Later, Nicholas Blake (the pen-name of fellow Old Shirburnian, Cecil Day-Lewis) also became a member.
Two of Anthony’s novels were adapted into films: his 1932 novel Before the Fact, was adapted into the 1941 classic film Suspicion, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine; and his 1937 novel Trial and Error, was turned into the 1941 film Flight From Destiny, directed by Vincent Sherman and starring Geraldine Fitzgerald, Thomas Mitchell, Jeffrey Lyn and James Stephenson. And in 1951, his novel, Malice Aforethought (1931) was exhibited at the Festival of Britain where it was classed as one of 100 outstanding literary works of the century.
It is perhaps curious that today Anthony Berkeley Cox is only remembered at Sherborne School by one of his pen-names. In 1965, the Francis Iles Prize was established at Sherborne School as an essay prize awarded for ‘clear, accurate English’. Prize winners have included author Robert McCrum (1970), journalist Anthony Lane (1979), and actor Hugh Bonneville (1980).
So, who was Anthony Berkeley Cox? He was born on 5 July 1893 at Watford in Hertfordshire, the son of Dr Alfred Edward Cox (born in Derby in 1861, the son of a wine merchant) and Sybil Maud Cox (née Iles). The family lived at Monmouth House and The Platts, two adjoining premises in the High Street at Watford in Hertfordshire. His father was a medical practitioner and his mother ran a school at Monmouth House. Anthony’s mother died on 5 December 1924 at New Lodge Clinic, Windsor, and his father died on 20 August 1936 at Bolberry Vean, Marlborough in Kingsbridge, Devon. Anthony had two siblings, Cynthia Cicely Cox (born in 1897), and Stephen Henry Johnson Cox (1899-1960), who became a schoolmaster.
Anthony and his brother both attended Rose Hill School in Park Road, Banstead, Surrey, a preparatory school run by Headmaster Bertie Percy Browning, MA (late Exhibitioner and Graduate in Honours of Brasenose College, Oxford). The School received boys from the age of seven and was situated on the Banstead Downs, described in the school prospectus as ‘one of the healthiest and most bracing spots in England’. The school boasted a gymnasium, a private laundry, sanatorium, dairy and poultry farm, a well-fitted carpenter’s school, and eighteen acres of private grounds with fields for cricket, rugby football, and hockey, not to mention a golf course.
In September 1907, aged 14, Anthony joined Sherborne School as a Scholar. He boarded at The Green, then run by Housemaster Rev. Henry Dunkin MA (New College, Oxford) who was an Assistant Master at Sherborne School from 1893 to 1921. Dunkin would later feature as ‘Bogus’ in Alec Waugh’s semi-autobiographical novel about his time at Sherborne School, The Loom of Youth (1917). The School admission register records that on arrival, Anthony had already survived measles, scarlet fever and mumps. During his time at Sherborne, Anthony played regularly in rugby football matches for his house. In 1911, he was a member of the School’s Shooting Eight team, a Colour-Sergeant in ‘B’ Company of the Officers’ Training Corps of the Sherborne School Contingent, and won the House Signalling Competition for The Green.
Anthony also enjoyed performing while he was a Sherborne School, singing the part of a tenor in the School’s Oratorio Choir, and appearing as ‘Clarence’ in King Henry the Fourth, Part 2 (Act 4, Scene 4) and ‘Gadshill’ in King Henry the Fourth, Part 1 (Act 2, Scene 4) at the School’s Commemoration Day on 23 June 1910. He progressed through the forms and by his last term (Michaelmas 1911), Anthony was a School Prefect, Head of The Green, and a member of the Sixth form, studying Classics, German and Mathematics.
Leaving Sherborne in December 1911, Anthony went up to University College, Oxford in October 1912. He remained at Oxford until August 1914, although later in life he claimed to have also attended Bonn University during this time. While at Oxford, Anthony played regularly for his College XV. Accounts of his activities at Oxford were recounted back at Sherborne in the School magazine, The Shirburnian:
The Shirburnian, June 1913: ‘A.B. Cox has been playing regularly for his College XV, and now lacking this violent interest has lately been leading a ‘dog’s life’.’
The Shirburnian, March 1914: ‘News is necessarily scarce as several of our number have been endeavouring to outwit the Moderators this term. Butcher, Cox, Wight, and Muspratt (I am not sure about Adye) have all been securing their a’s (?) for Demosthenes, Cicero, &c., and in consequence have deemed it prudent to hide themselves from the outer world all last term, in order to appear to have worked their heads off, as the saying goes. The results of Mods will no doubt be awaited with great anxiety and will perhaps reveal some surprises.’
With the outbreak of war, Anthony joined the Northamptonshire Regiment 7th (S) Bn. and was attached to the Royal Air Force, where his service record cited his knowledge of French and German as particularly useful skills.
Subsequently, Anthony appears to have earned his living solely by his pen, working as a journalist and writing book reviews, not to mention over thirty novels and short stories.
Anthony Berkeley Cox died in London on 9 March 1971, aged 77.
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