Philip Hobsbaum (1932-2005): a ‘servant’ to the ‘makars’….

Rosemary & Philip Hobsbaum. Gerry Cambridge

Rosemary & Philip Hobsbaum. Courtesy of Gerry Cambridge

29 June 2017 is the 85th anniversary of the birth of the critic, educator and poet Philip Hobsbaum. To mark the occasion, we are publishing a detailed catalogue of the Group Papers (MS Hobsbaum C)

His entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography suggests that

Hobsbaum was perhaps most notable… as a ‘servant’ to the ‘makars’….  The impact of his workshops in London, Belfast, Glasgow, and elsewhere was acknowledged by the Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, who commented that Hobsbaum ‘emanated energy, generosity, belief in community, [and] trust in the parochial, the inept, the unprinted’…

This series of papers, within the Hobsbaum Collection, brings together Hobsbaum’s files for all three groups and contains work from writers including Martin Bell, Alasdair Gray, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, James Kelman, and Peter Redgrove.

Philip Hobsbaum, Dennis to his parents, was born in Whitechapel, London, on June 29 1932.  His parents were both orthodox Jews and according to Alan Brownjohn when anti-Semitism was on the rise in the late 1930s, the family moved north, finally settling in Bradford.

Hobsbaum won a scholarship to Cambridge in 1952 and studied under F R Leavis at Downing College.  As editor of the undergraduate magazine Delta, he published poems by fellow students including Ted Hughes and Peter Redgrove.  Furthermore Hobsbaum was a prominent member of a group of undergraduates who would informally gather at regular meetings and critique each other’s work.

In the ‘Foreword’ to A Group Anthology, Edward Lucie-Smith commented:

When he left Cambridge and came to London, he decided to try to do something on the same lines.  One idea which he brought with him from Cambridge was that of circulating copies of the work to be discussed.  He decided, once he had got a small nucleus of writers together, to keep a mailing list and to send out a cyclostyled sheet of poems weekly to everyone on it.  The poems (or occasionally a short story or an extract from a novel) would be read aloud by the author in person, when the meeting took place.


Group Anthology


Hobsbaum ‘proclaimed to be interested not in what someone had written previously but in what they might write later….’ And noted that the use of the ‘cyclostyled sheets led to [a] much closer and more analytical discussion… conducted on ‘a basis of frankness…’ [which in turn] provides a direct encouragement to write.’

Criticism is, surely, not a matter of pronouncement but of discussion.

Members were not expected to come to every meeting… and as Norman Dugdale put it, ‘The Group had no manifesto, no corporate identity, no programme, beyond providing a forum in which writers […] could produce their wares and have them discussed’


ms hobsbaum c-2-39 01

Annotated Belfast Group members list (MS Hobsbaum C/2/39)


We are in the process of cataloguing the Hobsbaum collection as a whole, and through the help of Ben Davison and Jasna Zwimpfer, who are both currently studying towards an MSc in Information Management and Preservation at the University of Glasgow, we have created a detailed item level catalogue of the Group Papers.



MS Hobsbaum C/1 comprises Hobsbaum’s papers from the London Group.  The papers contain bundles of original and copied typescript poems that had been submitted, retyped, and then distributed to the group, prior to their weekly meeting.  Some material has been annotated by Hobsbaum and others.

MS Hobsbaum C/2 contains papers relating to the Belfast Group, ‘an ad-hoc association of writers loosely connected with Queen’s University’ founded by Philip Hobsbaum when he took up the post of Lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast in 1963.  The papers are mostly bundles of copied typescript poems, plays, or prose, submitted to the Group and used in readings.

MS Hobsbaum C/3 holds the papers relating to the Glasgow Group, a literary reading group that was active between 1972 and 1975, having been founded by Philip while he was lecturing at the University of Glasgow.  Again the papers are mostly bundles of copied typescript poems, plays, and prose, submitted to the Group and used in readings.  Some material is annotated by Hobsbaum and others.

MS Hobsbaum C brings together the papers of the London, Belfast and Glasgow Groups for the first time, presenting the most comprehensive collection of Group papers anywhere.  In addition to documenting the actual sessions and the content of the work under discussion, there are also items fundamental to Philip Hobsbaum’s role as facilitator, which demonstrate how the Groups functioned.

For example, in the London Group papers what makes this collection distinctive is the fact that MS Hobsbaum C/1 also contains a selection of worksheets that have been annotated by Hobsbaum ‘chosen and read by…’.  This illustrates the second part of the Group’s sessions as described by Philip in his essay ‘The Group: An Experiment in Criticism’,

In the Group nobody pronounced from on high.  We did not go in for gurus.  After the interval half-way through each evening everyone read out, in turn, some text they had brought along with them, not necessarily their own work.  Often it was a new poem they had seen somewhere or an old one they had rediscovered, or an unfamiliar piece they felt moved to bring to our attention.

With regards to the Belfast Group papers what distinguishes MS Hobsbaum C/2, beyond containing additional work not held elsewhere, are the manuscript and original typescript items within the collection, which again illuminate the process.  Such items were forwarded to Hobsbaum before being re-typed and distributed.

The idea was that each person would contribute a number of poems, or a short story, or part of a novel, or part of a play.  These were duplicated and circulated before the meeting at which the item in question was to feature.

A number have annotations, such as ‘50 copies’, and one includes a pro-forma for the ‘Typing Centre’ suggesting that Hobsbaum had the work done for him by the University’s typing pool.  In addition this part of the collection contains small notes and letters addressed to Philip from the authors; and there is submitted work that was not typed up and distributed, suggesting that Hobsbaum also played an editorial role within the Group.  His role of facilitator is further evidenced in contemporary lists of names and addresses of group members, which having been annotated over time document the shifting membership of the group.

Finally, no other institution is known to hold a collection of the Glasgow Group papers, making this one unique.  Demonstrating process within the Glasgow papers is the pro-forma invitation in triplicate, and completed questionnaires from a survey undertaken by Hobsbaum in 1975 into the future of the group.

ms hobsbaum c-3-15

Caricatures drawn by Philip during a Glasgow Group meeting (MS Hobsbaum C/3/15)

Patrick Reilly observed that ‘wherever Philip went, literature flourished… To be the sponsor of three great movements of poetry – in London, Belfast, and Glasgow… is no small achievement.  To be praised by giants like Heaney and Gray is an accolade given to few.’


Cataloguing of the Hobsbaum papers is ongoing. Please enquire in advance regarding access by emailing


William Baker, ‘Hobsbaum, Philip Dennis (1932–2005)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Jan 2009; online edn, May 2009 [, accessed 2 June 2017]

Alan Brownjohn The Guardian Obituary ‘Philip Hobsbaum: Poet and professor with a passion for new writing’, 7 July 2005

Brian Croxall & Rebecca Sutton Koeser  ‘What Do We Mean When We Say “Belfast Group”?

Philip Hobsbaum ‘The Group: An Experiment in Criticism’, The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol 17, 1987, pp82-83

Philip Hobsbaum ‘Seamus Heaney and the Belfast Group’ The 26th International Symposium of Arts: The National Academy of Arts, The Republic of Korea, 1997, p9

A Group Anthology, ed. Edward Lucie-Smith and Philip Hobsbaum (Oxford University Press, 1963)

Patrick Reilly The Herald Philip Hobsbaum’s obituary, 2005



Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

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1 reply


  1. Explore Your Archive 2017 – University of Glasgow Library

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