II. Early Years


Gerald Heard's birthplace.

Courtesy Stawell Heard, Jr.

by Jay Michael Barrie

Henry FitzGerald Heard was born in London on October 6, 1889, the youngest of three boys. His family home, however, was in Ireland, where the Heards have been landed gentry since the sixteenth century, bearing the formal ancestral name "Heard of Kinsale, County Cork." According to Heard Family lore, in 1579 John Heard of Wiltshire came to Ireland with Walter Raleigh and decided to settle there. Gerald's father, Henry James Heard (1856-1931), a direct descendant of the sixteenth-century John Heard, graduated from Gonville and Caius College at the University of Cambridge, founded in 1348. He became a Deacon in the Church of England in 1883 and a Priest in 1886. At the time of Gerald’s birth, he was the Curate at Christ Church South Hackney in East London. He served at Shortlands, Kent, from 1890-1892 before becoming Rector of St. Michael’s Church at Bath in 1894, and residing in the Rectory there until 1915.

The young Gerald's early years were divided between Bath and his paternal grandmother’s home at Ballintubber, Carrigtwohill, County Cork, as Gerald's side of the family had moved from Kinsale to Ballintubber in the eighteenth century. His boyhood years were unhappy, as his father, who often raged at the boy, subjected him to beatings. His older brothers teased him. Gerald's mother, Maud Jervis Heard, the daughter of Alexander Bannatyne of County Limerick, died when he was a child, and afterward the Rev. Heard remarried. Although his stepmother was fond of him (as he was of her), his excessive need for love made him emotionally vulnerable and overly responsive to the slightest show of kindness. This heightened sensitivity coupled with his uncommonly precocious mind made him an irresistible target of the sadistic teasing for which the English public-school boy is notorious. Gerald finally learned to fend off the boys' attacks by keeping them absorbed in outlandish, outrageously unbelievable stories that he made up as he went along and which he recounted with such conviction that in the end he became a kind of bard who, so long as his tales could hold the attention and interest of his schoolmates, was left unmolested.

Having finished public school at Sherborne School in Dorset, his university years, 1908-1913, were spent at Gonville and Caius College at the University of Cambridge, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, father, and eldest brother. There, in 1911, he took a second class in the History Tripos, the final undergraduate examination that confers a Bachelor of Arts degree with honors. He remained there in residence on a scholarship doing postgraduate work studying theology as a candidate in preparation for Holy Orders and a career as an Anglican clergyman, but subsequently he never pursued ordination.


Lord Robson, 1900.

(Elliott and Fry)

After leaving Cambridge in June 1913, Heard became literary secretary to Lord William Snowden Robson of Jesmond (1852-1918), an attorney general in the government of Mr. Asquith, who was then retired writing his memoirs. He worked with Lord Robson for two years, having been rejected by the military on physical grounds, as he suffered from a back injury when dropped as a child. (Alas, his immediate older brother, Captain Robert Bannatyne Heard, born in 1888, was not so fortunate, having been mortally wounded in Alexandria, Egypt during the British war effort on May 4, 1915.)

From his youth on, it had been Heard’s intention to follow in the footsteps of his paternal grandfather Rev. John Bickford Heard (author of a number of religious books), his father, and his eldest brother Alexander St. John Heard, and take Holy Orders in the Church of England. However, such a probing mind as his, consumed with curiosity and with such a vast spread of interests, had been on a collision course with doubt as to many of the doctrines of Christianity from the time he was in his teens. This happened even as a youth of eight, when he saw one of the first X-ray photographs in a shop window, which was treated by the public as a fraud. This was Heard’s first brush with skepticism. The same reaction occurred with the Wright Brother’s historic 1907 flight, again initially dismissed by a doubting public. The crash came at last in 1916. The result was a nervous breakdown.

After a long illness, Heard recovered to find that the young man who had wanted to be a priest-missionary had become a scientific materialist with a strong sense of social responsibility and an equally strong conviction that the world could be tidied up, that justice could and must prevail, and that it was his duty to dedicate his life and efforts to a frontal attack on the obstacles to these ends. The next few years, then, found him active in such things as agricultural cooperatives, progressive education, prison visiting, and social reform.


Sir Horace Plunkett, 1924

Courtesy The Plunkett Foundation.

By December 12, 1919, Heard became associated with Sir Horace Plunkett (1854-1932), founder of the Irish agricultural cooperative movement, and worked with him as a highly trusted confidential secretary for about ten years, living first in Kilteragh, his Dublin home, and from 1923 on, living in Plunkett’s Crest House close to Weybridge near London. During the time in Ireland he came to know well many of the notables of the time. George Bernard Shaw and his wife Charlotte, W. B. Yeats, Lord Fingall, George Russell, Colonel E. M. House, and Lady Gregory were some of those with whom Heard made friends when they were Plunkett’s houseguests. "In Gerald Heard," Plunkett once wrote, "I have a secretary who, however ill I feel, can amuse the most brilliant and most varied guests."[1]

According to a February 1, 1923 article in "The Irish Independent," Heard was the lone resident in Kilteragh when the residence was set on fire the previous Tuesday night, barely escaping with his life. Heard penned 1924's Narcissus while at Crest House, which Sir Horace praised as "a brilliant book," while at the same time lamenting Gerald’s lost secretarial skills during the time he spent producing the book. Heard traveled with Plunkett to Capetown, South Africa in January 1925 when Sir Horace decided to winter there. Back in London he convinced the skeptical but obliging Plunkett to accompany him on a visit to the Laboratory for Psychical Research in September 1926. By 1927 Heard had scaled down his hours for Plunkett, now that his own career was on the rise. In due course, by about 1929, Heard had substantially left his work with Plunkett. However, they remained close friends until Plunkett’s death in 1932.

Turning up at the door of the Plunkett Foundation’s London offices one morning before departing for the States in 1937, Heard said he, "…had something which might be of interest to you." He then produced the complete set of Plunkett's diaries, maintained until a week or so of Plunkett’s death. A measure of Plunkett’s confidence and reliance in Heard was shown when Heard was named executor of his will—a task that took eighteen years to discharge.


[1] Horace Plunkett: An Anglo-American Irishman by Margaret Digby. Used by kind permission of the Plunkett Foundation, as are quotations from Sir Horace Plunkett’s unpublished Diaries.