What happened to the manuscript of ‘Under Milk Wood’

Stephen Sedley

A decade after Dylan Thomas’s death, a lawsuit was brought by Caitlin Thomas on behalf of his estate to recover the manuscript of Under Milk Wood from Douglas Cleverdon. It was Cleverdon who had produced the play for BBC radio and had now put the manuscript on the market. The claim failed: the judge, Mr Justice Plowman, accepted Cleverdon’s case that Thomas had made him a gift of the manuscript.

The story as it emerged at trial was this. The play had been commissioned in the middle of the war, but by 1946, when Cleverdon took over responsibility for it, very little of it had been written. After much cajoling Thomas delivered a completed text on Thursday 15 October 1953, four days before he was due to fly to the US to give readings of the play – the trip on which he died. Cleverdon had his secretary, Elizabeth Fox, type it on to a set of stencil skins. On the Saturday she returned the original to Thomas – 'and,' the judge said laconically, 'he lost it.' The result was that on the Monday Thomas found himself at Victoria air terminal, about to leave for a reading tour of the US without a copy of the text.

But he had phoned Cleverdon at home at the weekend in panic, having realised that the manuscript had been mislaid. On the Monday Cleverdon got Fox to run off three copies from the stencils and took them in a taxi to the terminal. Thomas told him that he had saved his life. Cleverdon, however, was still concerned at the loss of the original. '[Thomas] said if I could find it I could keep it. He told me the names of half a dozen pubs, and said if he had not left it there he might have left it in a taxi.'

'Mr Cleverdon,' the judge drily noted, 'got possession of this manuscript from the Soho public house in which it had been left by Dylan Thomas. That, in my judgment, is sufficient delivery to perfect a gift in Mr Cleverdon’s favour.'

Finding the manuscript, however, was not entirely straightforward. Cleverdon had to go on a pub crawl. In an account he published privately a few years later, he described how he finally found it in the Swiss Tavern in Old Compton Street:

I asked the barmaid whether anyone had found a script by Dylan Thomas (who was a fairly regular habitué). She looked under the counter, said ‘Here it is,’ and gave me the manuscript in its rather tattered folder.

What would the chances would be today of the manuscript being neither purloined nor binned?