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Dr. Randolph Davis and Ivor Gurney

One Last Chance

by Pamela Blevins © 2004

For two brief months in 1925, Ivor Gurney came into the care of a doctor at Stone House, City of London Mental Hospital who offered a flicker of hope that Gurney’s seemingly hopeless condition might improve or even be cured.

Dr. Randolph Davis was an ambitious young Canadian psychologist who set the hierarchy at Stone House on edge with his new ideas and methods, his insubordination and self-confidence. He was, however, the one enlightened individual at the institution who actually made progress with Ivor.

As a Canadian, Davis undoubtedly would have been aware of the revolutionary techniques and practices of Dr. Richard M. Bucke (1837-1902), a pioneer in the study and understanding of mental illness. Bucke’s major reforms humanized the treatment of the mentally ill and set new standards for their care in Canada in the late nineteenth century. He believed that patients regained their health better if they exercised regularly and were exposed to music and conversation. He encouraged doctors to interact with patients, forbade the use of the coercive and cruel techniques so common then and insisted that patients be treated with respect and dignity. Bucke was also convinced that victims of mental illness could be cared for more humanely in the home or in a home-like environment.(1)

Dr. Davis’s methods and philosophy bore a striking resemblance to Dr. Bucke’s. He believed that by establishing a relationship with Ivor, he could help him, perhaps even cure him. He understood Ivor’s needs for exercise, intellectual stimulation and conversation and made certain those needs were met. He knew how important it was for the patient to ‘like the psychologist in order that [he] be cured’. He believed that ‘Gurney might meet the finest psychologist in the world and if he did not like him no results would follow.(2) Davis and Gurney quickly formed an easy rapport.

‘I remember so well the afternoon Gurney and I spent along the river and sitting on the grass in the roadside,’ he recalled. ‘It was the sympathy which he showed for things which I told him concerning my own experiences in different parts of the world which impressed me so profoundly with the fact that he was sane. Insane people invariably never show sympathetic interest in the experiences of others,’ he explained.

‘His sympathy and interest in experiences of which I told in my own life were so real, so thoroughly understanding. It showed his belief in himself as one who understood and that he was conscious of that understanding. Also it showed that his many months spent in the hospital had not dampened his spirits nor caused a permanent state of depression and lack of appreciation of his own worth. It is what a man thinks of himself that counts not so much what others think of him. Once a man loses faith in himself all is lost until he recovers that faith no matter what others may try to do for him,’ Dr. Davis observed. He intended to make sure that Ivor’s faith in himself would not be sucked out of him at Stone House.

Marion Scott, Ivor’s close friend and self-appointed protector, liked Davis’s attitude and his sensible, compassionate approach. She was encouraged by his ability to engage Ivor and had begun to see that his methods were having a positive effect. ‘The reason why I can do for Gurney what others cannot is because Gurney likes me, not because I particularly like him,’ Davis frankly explained to Scott.

For the first time since Gurney was institutionalized in 1922, Marion felt a sense of relief and a lifting of her burden. She had carried the responsibility for overseeing Ivor’s care almost entirely on her own with little help from anyone but her father, Sydney Scott, and Ralph and Adeline Vaughan Williams. Gurney’s family and friends had distanced themselves from any meaningful involvement with him, his brother Ronald by choice and his mother Florence by circumstance. Others, including Gurney’s friends Herbert Howells, Arthur Benjamin and F. W. Harvey and the poet Walter de la Mare, tried to help in some ways but they always remained distant, safely sheltered in the background.(3) Marion welcomed Davis’s interest in Gurney, believed he became ‘a friend who really understood him’ and came to regard him as Ivor’s saviour.

Although Davis was making progress with Ivor, he was growing increasingly frustrated in his efforts. He was not happy at Stone House, where his methods met with the disapproval and dismissal of inflexible traditionalists. He was outspoken and considered himself ahead of his time in the treatment, understanding and care of the mentally ill. Eager to rise to the top of his profession, he felt he had little future at Stone House but he recognized that Ivor was a potentially valuable asset in advancing his career. He knew that if he proved successful in ‘curing’ Gurney, he could publish his results and make a name for himself. However, he felt that the constraints imposed on him by his superiors stood in his way.(4) Not only were these restrictions wrong in his eyes, he thought they were harmful to his patients. When his superior, Dr. Navarra, put an end to his walks with Ivor, citing concerns about suicide and fears that the unhappy Gurney might escape, Dr. Davis reached his limit. He disagreed entirely with the order but reasoning with the staid hierarchy was an exercise in futility. By May 1925, he and his superiors were increasingly at odds. He left Stone House, creating a void in Gurney’s life.

Marion despaired. Ivor had come to life under Davis’s care. He seemed different, happier, and more alert, and he was writing poetry and music with fervour and commitment.(5) Now he had lost the one person he saw almost daily, who understood his needs and tried to ensure that they were met. Marion was struggling with this overwhelming turn of events during the summer of 1925 when, in August, she received a letter from Davis who had contacted Gurney’s publisher for her address.

‘I have often wondered how he was progressing,’ Dr. Davis wrote. With Gurney’s future at stake, Scott regarded Davis’s reappearance as a sign of hope. She socialized with him and they exchanged letters. A plan to remove Gurney from Stone House and treat him privately began to take shape.

‘Supposing I should offer to take charge of Mr. Gurney entirely for 3 months,’ Davis suggested. He was willing to give up any idea of practising his profession during that period and asked Scott how much she might pay him. Davis claimed that for his treatment to work successfully he must devote all of his time entirely to Gurney. That meant sharing quarters with him as Dr. Bucke advocated.

‘It would certainly be the best way by far. And I feel quite sure that if I succeed in curing Mr. Gurney I will have spent 3 mos. to great advantage,’ he declared. ‘And besides my being constantly with him will ensure every possible protection and every body’s [sic] mind will be at rest.’ To that end he proposed taking rooms at 103 Camberwell Grove in a house owned by a Mrs. Hay. She had a front drawing room with a piano which would be ideal for Ivor. Davis dismissed his own lodgings as unsuitable, describing his landlord as ‘rather a queer chap’ and a ‘high strung erratic individual’ with whom Gurney ‘might not get on’.

He encouraged Scott and Vaughan Williams to inspect the rooms but cautioned them to say nothing to her about Ivor being in a mental hospital. He had bent the truth, telling the landlady that Ivor had been hospitalized with stomach trouble but he did so, he said, to protect Gurney. Mrs. Hay was not averse to taking individuals with a history like Ivor’s. She had done so in the past, but Davis, aware of Gurney’s intelligence and sensitivity, claimed he did not want any slips that might upset Ivor and abort the plan. ‘If she knows she is sure to show by some act or other that she knows, no matter how careful she may be and you may be sure Mr. Gurney will notice immediately that she knows and it will interfere with Mr. Gurney’s recovery and happiness.’

On the surface, this manipulation of the truth might have seemed trivial and understandable given the circumstances, but it indicated that Davis was willing to lie to achieve the higher aim or goal he had in mind. His motives were not as pure as his correspondence suggests. He was in debt and needed to repay an outstanding loan, a fact he failed to tell Scott.

However, his motives were not entirely selfish. He was critical of conditions at Stone House and concerned about their negative effect on Gurney. From his own experience there, he knew ‘perfectly well that Mr. Gurney is not understood and that it is not right to keep him in a place which is only persecution to him. Should I have the least doubt as to whether I could put him squarely on his feet I should never attempt to try to help him for to fail in this would only do me harm. Understanding him, I know I can cure him,’ he asserted in a letter to Scott.

He emphasized repeatedly to Marion that he was fully prepared to take the entire responsibility for Gurney, ‘legally and all times and in all ways’. ‘...should any little complications arise, which I do not think will, as for example Mr. Gurney trying to run away and getting into the hands of the police, I would immediately be responsible.’

Tough, demanding, shrewd and cautious, Marion wisely involved her solicitor father in the plan in addition to Vaughan Williams. She and Vaughan Williams inspected the rooms. Although the house was pleasant, the front room cheerful and airy, there were problems. Marion was not keen on the idea of Ivor taking his meals with other lodgers, which was the routine. She was worried about Ivor relating to other members of the household and how they might relate to him. She found it unacceptable that Mrs. Hay planned to use the drawing room at Christmas for a large family party. To do so would displace Gurney.

‘ seems altogether as if there would be very little quiet or dependable comfort for you and Mr. Gurney and that while you would be thrown a great deal with the Hays and their P.G.’s [paying guests] -- who are of a different stamp from you and Ivor Gurney -- there would be few facilities for him to see his own friends,’ she informed Davis.(6) He was not as concerned about the other lodgers as Marion was and told her so. He thought that Mrs. Hay was a ‘critical’ woman who would not rent to unsuitable individuals. The over-anxious Scott had failed to consider an important fact she knew about Ivor: that he related well to all people, not just to artists and intellectuals.

Scott and Vaughan Williams agreed to pay Dr. Davis a £75 fee for three months’ treatment but they were not prepared to give him the entire sum in advance as he insisted. They were willing to pay him £25 a month in advance, no more. Further, Marion was concerned about ‘the exact letter of the English law relating to certified patients’ being removed from a mental hospital and placed with a person who is responsible for him as Davis would be.(7) She wanted to be absolutely certain that Davis could get the consent of the authorities to take charge of Gurney.

From the beginning, Davis knew that Dr. Navarra would object to allowing him to treat Ivor privately but he felt there were ways to overcome this obstacle, even though they were illegal. In his desperation to make the plan work and get paid, he tried to convince Scott and Vaughan Williams that their only option was to remove Ivor secretly from the asylum. They refused to participate in what amounted to a plot to kidnap Gurney from Stone House. Everything must be done legally for the protection of all concerned.

‘The matter is more complicated than it appeared,’ Scott warned Davis.(8) "It is illegal for the person who takes him to do so for gain. This would have the effect that while morally you were not taking Mr. Gurney for gain, technically it would place you in that position in the eye of the law, and would render any contract void because it would not be legal,’ she argued. ‘This difficulty can be avoided if Mr. Gurney were transferred from the Hospital to your single care at the request of the petitioner and under and with the consent of the Board of Control.’(9)

The plan was growing more complex but Davis was determined to make it work his way. On the issue of personal financial gain, Davis told Scott that the £75 ‘will not any more than pay expenses...if there is anything left after 3 mos. of the £75 I will return it to those who give it. You may be sure if I wished to take him for gain I should never think of 75 pounds for 3 months [worth] all my time. It would be nearer 750 pounds.’ He was adamant that he be paid the full amount in advance and gave her until Friday morning, 4 December to decide.

Davis felt offended and was becoming annoyed. ‘Personally I think I have done a great deal in offering to help Mr. Gurney and have done so only because I understand him and feel that he can be helped. Otherwise I should never have considered the matter,’ he told Scott.

Marion believed Davis was capable of helping Ivor and did not want to alienate him. She attempted to calm him, explaining that she could not meet his deadline because ‘the decision does not rest with us but with Mr. Gurney’s brother, and we should have to wait for his consent.’(10) She apologized for her comments about ‘gain’ and assured Davis that she realized £75 would do little more than cover his expenses. ‘Please believe that we are genuinely concerned for your interests as well as those of Mr. Gurney,’ she assured him.(11)

But it was too late. Davis dropped a ‘bomb shell’ on Marion in early December when he abruptly called an end to the plan. On the surface it might seem that he was annoyed with Scott and fed up with her caution and delays, but the truth is, Davis knew he could not make good on his promises. He had made grand plans that he knew he could not implement. He had used the situation with Gurney to get his hands on money he needed to pay a debt. His deceit weighed on his conscience and he finally confessed to Marion.

‘I have always felt that there is room at the top and my ambition will not let me rest until I get there. One cannot hold his mouth open and expect munna to drop into it,’ he wrote. He knew he had to make his own success by any route open to him but on this occasion he went off the track. He admitted to being ‘humiliated’ at having to explain his financial situation but he liked Scott and felt she deserved the truth. He told her he had borrowed £75 from an acquaintance, even giving her his name and address, and that he needed to repay the money by January in order to maintain his credit and obtain further loans. He was also waiting for money to come to him from the sale of property in Canada. If he got the £75 in advance, he claimed, he would have paid his debt and then borrowed £200 to see him through his commitment with Gurney by which time the money from Canada was expected to arrive.

‘I did not want to state my financial position -- none of us ever do,’ he admitted. ‘I felt that your proposition was reasonable but dare not say so owing to the financial position in which I was placed, knowing that I could not very well go through with it had I agreed so to do. But I had to explain eventually and it is best because since your plans were reasonable and you were justified in getting a reasonable explanation as to why I could not accept them.’

After he secured a position at the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London as a non-resident honorary clinical assistant, he wrote again to Marion still expressing his concerns for Ivor and reaffirming his willingness to find a way to help him.(12)

When Marion told Davis that she planned to have a Harley Street psychiatrist see Ivor, he responded frankly. ‘Seeing a patient but once is never sufficient for a doctor to understand a [psychological] case no matter who the specialist is and the specialist in this case will be of necessity influenced entirely by what the superintendent at Dartford says,’ he cautioned. He told her simply to ‘satisfy your own minds by all means’. He offered a new option: transfer Gurney to Bethlem.

‘I am just as interested in Gurney’s ultimate return to a solid foundation as anyone can be. If I had my own home I should have opened it long ago,’ he wrote. ‘So I’ll tell you what I will do and you can suit yourself. I am at the above hospital and will be for some time...I might as well look after Gurney as anyone else. Fees at this hospital [are] 3-3-0 per wk. You might get it for less. Now, see the physician supt., tell him you heard I was at the hospital and of my influence on Gurney,’ he advised. ‘Ask him if you send Gurney, will he permit Dr. Davis to attend him and especially for me to take Gurney out for one or two hrs. each day for a stroll. This last is very necessary. They do let patients out on parole.’

Davis’s inclination to alter the truth emerged again. ‘But you must on no account let the supt. think that I have suggested this to you. It will not be imposing on me in the least and it will be a pleasure for me. I will not, in fact could not, charge a penny for my services. I cannot do more. If you do not feel inclined to do this it is not necessary to answer, ’ Davis concluded.

After four months of trying to find ways to get Ivor into private treatment with Davis, Marion had had enough of him and his scheming. She gave up. She had failed to find a way to give Ivor a chance to return to society in such a way that he would have companionship, be protected, cared for and free ‘just to write his music and poetry and be quietly happy’.(13 All hope for such an outcome vanished. Marion knew then that Ivor would never be released from Stone House. His future now lay in the hands of doctors who could do nothing for him.


1. Richard Maurice Bucke was born in England in 1837 but was taken to Canada a year later. He studied medicine at McGill University and began his medical practice in Ontario in 1864. In 1876, he was appointed superintendent of the Provincial Asylum for the Insane at Hamilton, Ontario and in 1877 became superintendent of London Ontario Hospital. He was a founder of Western University (London, Ontario) where he was also professor of mental and nervous diseases. He served as president of the Psychological Section of the British Medical Association and as president of the American Medico-Psychological Association. Bucke is best remembered today for his work on cosmic consciousness (the belief that certain individuals are gifted with the power of transcendent realization or illumination, which ‘constitutes a definite advance in man’s relation with the Infinite’) and his deep friendship with Walt Whitman. Bucke wrote a biography of Whitman and was his literary executor.

2. All of Dr. Davis’s quotes are taken from letters he wrote to Marion Scott between 8 August 1925 and 16 January 1926 which are in the Gurney Archive.

3. During the war and later, Marion Scott tried to involve Herbert Howells in dilemmas, crises, and decisions about Gurney’s mental problems and his care, but Howells was too fragile emotionally to be as supportive and helpful as she wished. He would not visit Ivor unless he was with Marion. According to his daughter Ursula, these visits depressed him. Arthur Benjamin claimed he stopped visiting Gurney after Ivor once failed to recognize him.

4. Given the nature of Gurney’s illness, a chemical imbalance with genetic factors, Davis would not have been able to ‘cure’ Ivor but he might have made his life more comfortable, provided him with intellectual stimulation, a nutritional diet and exercise that would perhaps have enabled Gurney to enjoy fewer severe episodes of his illness. Gurney needed drugs to control his illness but it wasn’t until 1952 that the first anti-psychotic drugs were introduce and not until the 1960s that Lithium was made available to treat Gurney’s manic-depressive illness or bipolar disorder. In Gurney’s day, doctors began experimenting with insulin to induce shock and coma to ‘treat’ schizophrenia. In 1936, the year before Gurney died, the first frontal lobotomy was performed. It wasn’t until 1997 that researchers identified genetic links to bipolar illness, suggesting that the disorder is inherited. Gurney’s mother Florence exhibited behaviour and symptoms associated with the illness in her periods of highs alternating with bouts of depression. Gurney’s sister Winifred suffered from depression as did his brother Ronald. A cure for bipolar disorders has yet to be discovered and the exact causes of the illness are not fully known.

5. At the time Dr. Davis began working with Gurney in March 1925, Ivor was experiencing a seasonal manic cycle of his illness and was producing masses of poetry and music. Victims of bipolar illness tend to experience their highs and lows seasonally. In Gurney’s case it was usually in the late winter/early spring but in 1925, he sustained the high for a longer period of time.

6. Scott to Davis, 1 December 1925, Gurney Archive.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Scott to Davis, 3 December 1925, Gurney Archive. It wasn’t until after Gurney’s death that Marion Scott was able to gain control of his affairs. She knew that neither Ronald nor Florence Gurney was capable of protecting Ivor’s interests but she had other concerns. She feared that Ronald might destroy Ivor’s manuscripts. She worried that the Gurneys would likely spend any royalty monies on themselves and not invest it in preserving and publishing Ivor music and poetry. She used the outstanding debt Ivor owed her for expenditures she had made on his behalf as her leverage to gain legal control of the estate. Both Ronald and Florence gave their consent and on 12 February 1938 Marion was granted Letters of Administration for Ivor’s estate.

11. Ibid.

12. At the time Scott knew Davis, he was writing a two-volume book, Emotions and Sanity and Emotions and Insanity. I have not been able to determine if he published this work. Bethlem Royal Hospital, where he worked, was the first asylum for the insane in England. In 1377 ‘distracted’ patients were reportedly being cared for in a hospital at St. Mary Bethlehem Priory. By the 17th century, the hospital had become a perverse tourist attraction with the public being allow to watch the inmates as a form of cheap entertainment. This cruel practice continued until the early 19th century. Bethlem became best known by its nickname ‘Bedlam’. The word eventually came into common usage to describe chaos and confusion. Ironically, the paths of Ivor Gurney and Randolph Davis crossed again in an abstract way when Gurney was honoured at the Imperial War Museum’s war poets’ exhibition, Anthem for Doomed Youth in 2002 The central building of Bethlem Royal Hospital is now home to the Imperial War Museum. The other buildings of the complex were demolished in 1936.

12. Ronald Gurney to Scott, 14 September 1922, Gurney Archive.


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