Antonia Kelly World War 2 poet

Found - an album of poems among books and ephemera from the St. Clair Erskine family - sons of Lord Rosslyn (1869-1939) whose Calcot Park and Hunger Hill visitors book we covered recently. These were written by Antonia Mary Kelly (1920? - 1965) of Irish descent and the daughter of Admiral Sir John Donald Kelly. She married David Simon St. Clair-Erskine in 1948 and divorced him in 1958. They had one son. There is  a small amount information about her online, mostly garnered from gossip columns and peerage sites. In 1938 at the age of 18 she launched a warship (destroyer) called 'The Kelly' and she seems, on the evidence of these poems, to have worked at the Foreign Office during World War 2. There is a photo of her (below) on her wedding day in The Sketch 1948; she wore hyacinths in her hair, the best man was the Hon W.K. Davison and the priest was Father J. Bevan (indicating a Roman Catholic service) at the Brompton Oratory.

Her poems written between 1933 and 1947 are mostly highly competent, some are passionate love poems. Many are amusing or satirical and some quite worldly for a young woman of the time - at 16 she wrote these 'Lines Written during a Meagre & Modernist Dinner Party' :

Oh, You may have the chromium,
Glass tables and steel chairs,
Drink cocktails & eat things off sticks
…I like the taste of old Claret
Rolling round my tongue,
I like to know when my dinner's served
By the note of a brazen gong..

The following poem has echoes of the war in the Balkans and concerns rivalry between the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Secret Intelligence Service (S.I.S) now known as M.I.6. Any more info on the life of this poet or a photo are welcome.

Ballade of an Unexpected Collaboration
Ref JIC. 1172/43

Hush!  Be it whispered in the inner ear-
A barque is nearing the Illyrian shore,
(But backwards so her course shall not be clear)
With darkling hull & deadened, muffled oar.
Softly the breeze plays o'er the Aegean sea:
Forgetting dog fights they have had of yore,
Quoting long excerpts from the code-book's lore,
T'is S.I.S. plays ball with S.O.E.

Cloaked well, & daggered, see they quit the barque;
Inspect the beach – ha! they have found a spoor!
It is a barefoot, an intriguer's mark :
Some double agent passed this way before!
While one is warming up the T.N.T.
The other's wireless reports (C.4)
"We have arrived. No time just now for more,
For S.I.S. plays ball with S.O.E."

Lo, how the flames from Bucharest are bright!
Hark to the transmitter upon the shore!
The bridge across the Danube went last night;
The Iron Gates themselves are no more;
The Partizans are fighting gallantly -
Although t'is sad that their red blood should pour,
We might have known there'd be a Balkan war
If S.I.S. played ball with S.O.E.


Prince, need we have your Balkan intrigue now,
Just when the entente works so splendidly?
Superfluous your artifice, I vow
When S.I.S plays ball with S.O.E.

4 thoughts on “Antonia Kelly World War 2 poet

  1. Anonymous

    Northrop Frye mentions David St. Clair Erskine in his letters to Helen Kemp (late 3os) "The other night in the lodge our only sprig of nobility, the Honourable David St. Clair Erskine (one of our tame homosexuals as well) came in from the Dramatic Society's performance of Macbeth…tanked up.." Apparently he then talked to a Rhodes scholar without being introduced!

  2. Edwin Moore

    Lovely ballade and I do like the pic of her.

    'I keep my countenance,
    I remain self-possessed
    Except when a street piano, mechanical and tired
    Reiterates some worn-out common song 80
    With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
    Recalling things that other people have desired.'

  3. admin Post author

    Many thanks Edwin – I guess for that moment Antonia was the "hyacinth girl" – actually rather a short life and a short marriage but…
    "You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
    "They called me the hyacinth girl."
    ––Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden
    Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
    Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
    Living nor dead, and I knew nothing
    Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
    Oed' und leer das Meer. (Eliot / Waste Land)

  4. Candida Cook

    Her father was Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Donald Kelly GCB, GCVO (1871–1936.) The destroyer HMS Kelly was named after him. Her mother was Mary Kelly from Sydney, sister of the composer and rower Frederick Septimus Kelly.


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