Monday, 28 December 2009

John Hampson


John Hampson, 1901-1955

"His appearance was striking: he was plainly an unusual man. He had a large undershot jaw, deep lustrous brown eyes and brown hair that came down over his right temple like a lick of paint." 
Walter Allen, 'As I Walked Down New Grub Street'.

Letter from Walter Allen to John Cornish, 1977

Grandson of Mercer Hampson Simpson, manager of the Theatre Royal, Birmingham, John was born into a family that once had money, but by 1907 the family brewery business, co-owned by his father, also called Mercer Hampson Simpson, collapsed and the Simpsons slid into poverty.
After a home education, John began work in a munitions factory when he was thirteen. After a wide variety of low-paid employment and a short stretch in Wormwood Scrubs for book theft, John Hampson found himself the job around which he could apply himself to his vocation as novelist.

"A winding drive half a mile long brought us to Four Ashes. The facade was that of an Elizabethan cottage, which had been added to and enlarged. In front of it was a very small pond on which moorhens were nesting, and it was surrounded by a garden of several acres, with orchard and paddock." 
Walter Allen, 'As I Walked Down New Grub Street.'

In 1925 Hampson was employed by Mr & Mrs Wilson to tutor and nurse their son Ronald who had Down's Syndrome.  As part of the job Hampson lived with the family at Four Ashes, Dorridge. He had enough time to himself in this rural retreat to devote himself to his craft. The result was the publication of Saturday Night at the Greyhound, which sold well for Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press.

Although Hampson's early success had brought him some interesting acquaintances such as E.M. Forster and Graham Greene, he didn't really know anyone in Birmingham, and the joys of his success were left unshared until Walter Allen approached him for a BBC radio programme on Midlands writers. Allen found that Hampson's room at Four Ashes had become a shrine to himself, with photographs and newspaper cartoons of Bloomsbury parties. Hampson would later add to the collection a portrait by John Melville and a bust by Gordon Herickx. Not put off, Walter Allen and John Hampson became friends and would meet every Thursday in Birmingham; Central Lending Library, Boots Library, cafe, pub, then tea at the Burlington Restaurant.
Through Walter Allen, John Hampson's Birmingham became a more interesting place, "I introduced him to my friends, to Auden and MacNeice and Professor Dodds and to Herickx and the Melvilles, and later to Birmingham journalists and to people in the BBC." In return Hampson introduced Allen to E.M. Forster and William Plomer when they were staying at Four Ashes, and he also wrote him a letter of introduction to Graham Greene.
Their Thursdays together continued into 1934 when they were joined regularly by other members of the Edward J. O'Brien-named Birmingham Group in a pub off Martineau St. [The street as well as the pub have long since vanished by redevelopment.] It had been presumed by the American O'Brien that the Birmingham writers must have known each other and form a cohesive scene, but they came together afterwards. And so Hampson and Allen were joined by Leslie Halward and Peter Chamberlain.

The public school educated Chamberlain was perhaps the antithesis of the proletarian writer which it was expected of Birmingham to produce. Allen thought him smug and arrogant, nevertheless their association continued over the years. Halward, on the other hand, was the closest to being a voice of the working man.

In 1936, John Hampson married Therese Giehse, a Jewish-German actress working in a cabaret written with contributions from Auden who had married Thomas Mann's daughter and Therese's friend, Erika Mann. Hampson, homosexual, was persuaded by Auden to help Therese get a British passport (above) to escape from the Nazis. Auden argued, "What are buggers for?" And Hampson agreed. Three years previously Hampson had travelled to Berlin to cover the Reichstag Fire Trial for New English Weekly, and the experience had made him a passionate anti-Nazi.

"[Hampson] was a generous man and as honest as he was generous; and everything he knew he had learned himself. He owed nothing to schools or universities. Some of his weaknesses as a novelist may be due to that, but it also gave him strength."
Walter Allen, 'As I Walked Down New Grub Street'


Saturday Night at the Greyhound (1931)
O Providence (1932)
Strip Jack Naked (1934)
The Family Curse (1936)
The Larches (with L. A. Pavey) (1938)
Care of "The Grand" (1939)
The English at Table (1944)
A Bag of Stones (1952)

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Living in Birmingham

Henry Green

The novelist Henry Green was born Henry Yorke in Tewkesbury, 1905, and died in London, 1973. In 1926 Eton-educated Henry dropped out of Oxford University where he seems to have spent most of his time drinking and not getting on with his tutor C.S. Lewis. It was time to learn the family trade. When Vincent Yorke married Henry's mother Maud, his father was given the Birmingham foundry H. Pontifex & Sons based at Farringdon Works, Tyseley, in Birmingham. 

The site of Farringdon Works, 2009.

In January 1927 Henry moved to the city to work there initially as a stores labourer and then later as a pattern maker. During his two years at Farringdon Works, he lived in Stockfield Hall, a large Victorian boarding house located near Acocks Green on the Stockfield Road, seen below in 1941.

Henry Yorke, labourer, was already Henry Green, novelist, having written his first novel, 'Blindness' (1926), while still at Eton. His fellow workers in Birmingham assumed Henry was being punished by his father but Henry Green was observing and absorbing himself in the life of the factory. The result was his second novel, 'Living' (1929).

The site of Stockfield Hall, 2009.

Some footage of Birmingham in the 1920s:

Friday, 18 December 2009


Architect's impression of St Martin's Flats, Emily St, Highgate, 1938

Following the Great War, Birmingham Corporation began to address the issue of its massive population growth and overcrowded and decrepit housing. Returning soldiers had been promised 'Homes fit for heroes,' but, despite the Corporation's efforts, these homes had not been fully realised by the beginning of the next war.

During the inter-war years the city expanded outwards into the large areas which had been purchased by the Corporation. Private sector housing was proving too slow in meeting the needs of the people and these houses were beyond the means of most, and so, municipal housing, deemed too socialistic before WWI, became a reality.

The planned suburban sprawl was designed for skilled workers who could afford the rents, but the majority of back-to-back dwellers couldn't. Slum clearance had been in the minds of the Council for many years but real advance was not made until after the Second World War. However this did not stop a limited series of housing experiments conducted just outside of the inner ring road.

The pictures above and below show the Holme estate which consisted of the first municipal flats built - "in a Dutch style" - by Birmingham Corporation in 1927 on Garrison Lane, Bordesley. Although the first residents complained they were too small, the Mansions, as they were known by the residents, still exist today and are listed.

The second central area experiment didn't happen until about six years later when a row of maisonettes were constructed in Great Brook Street and became Moorcroft Place (below). Then the whole area along neighbouring Barrack Street was cleared to build the Ashcroft Estate which was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1934.

St Martin's flats (below) in Highgate were the first concrete-only flats built in the city. During 1935 there had been much debate in the Council House about a return to flats as a solution to the housing problem of the inner city. It was decided that any further experimentation would have to be done using concrete instead of brick. This was simply due to the shortage of bricklayers. The design of the St Martin's flats reflected the research done by Council committees in the German cities of 1930. They were opened by the Queen in March 1939 and demolished in 1980.


[Three other photographs of St Martin's flats at Emily Street by the great Phyllis Nicklin can be found here, here and here. Much credit is due to Keith Berry for hosting them, along with his own collection of old Birmingham photos.]

After the financial crisis of 1931, the private sector began to catch up with local authorities, and by the outbreak of the Second World War over 50,000 municipal homes had been built and over 200,000 people had been re-housed in the expanded area of Birmingham.

Although living conditions were better, there were new problems. Long-established communities had been broken up and dispersed, new pressures on transport, distance to employment, and then there were those who were left behind. The scale of suburban construction had been enormous but it had left the issue of the worst housing near the city centre (within walking distance of the factories) unresolved, and that was still the case in Autumn 1939.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Leslie Halward

Leslie Halward (1905-1976)

786 Bristol Road

Leslie Halward was raised "over a pork butcher's shop in what was then known as the High Street, Selly Oak, Birmingham." The shop is now what you see above, and never a more non-descript shop could be seen. The picture below shows how it used to be.

Halward was one of the Birmingham Group of writers whose short stories were published by Edward J. O'Brien. In 1936 twenty-three of Halward's stories were collected in To Sea On Sunday.

Written with great economy, Halward's stories are often funny, sometimes sentimental, rounded into parable or enigmatically left hanging. All but one are of their time, concerning themselves with the lives of the working class or the new lower-middle class of the 1930s. This was the time when the suburbs were under consruction throughout the nation, and several of the stories are set in the half-built estates on the edge of Birmingham.

from Frost:

'On the outskirts of the town a new estate was being built. Several hundred houses were completed and already inhabited. These were built alternately in twos and fours, rough-cast, washed over in cream or white, with doors and window-frames painted green. The smooth tarmac roads were wide and straight, flanked by grass verges, newly mown. Electric lamp standards with graceful curved necks stood at regular intervals along the edges of the flagged pavements. Everything looked clean and fresh.'

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Dedication

According to a property website, the flats along Duchess Road offer the cheapest way of buying a little bit of Edgbaston. All of the properties on this road are the result of re-development; the Victorian houses have long gone. Without an old photograph of the area, it is hard to imagine the road as it was when Francesca M. Wilson lived there, at number 35.

Francesca M. Wilson

She was teaching at the Edgbaston Church of England School for Girls, but to call her a teacher would reflect only one part of who she was. Through the Society of Friends she spent much of her time helping refugees and the starving at times of war and their aftermath. Luckily for us she was also a writer who documented her experiences.

In 1944 she published 'In the Margins of Chaos', and dedicated it to Bachtin.

'In the Margins of Chaos'

It would be understandable to assume the Bachtin in question was the now famous philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin, but it was actually his elder brother, Nikolai or Nicholas Bachtin, who was rescued from starvation in Paris by Francesca in 1928. Nicholas shared his brother's passion for language, and taught at the University of Birmingham via a bewildering route.

Nicholas Bachtin

For more information about Francesca M. Wilson and Bachtin, I recommend reading Sian Lliwen Roberts' thesis.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Wittgenstein in Birmingham

This morning I set off early to detour through Selly Park, the University, and Harborne. My intention was to find 44 Lordswood Road, an address of note for those interested in the life of the twentieth-century's most influential philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In 1913 Lordswood House was the family home of David Pinsent, close friend of Wittgenstein. On the eve of his self-imposed exile to Norway and just after a holiday there with Pinsent, Wittgenstein stayed with the Pinsent family (descendants of the philosopher David Hume) to say his goodbyes. 

He had visited Lordswood House a year previously, in October 1912, on his and David's return from their first holiday together in Iceland. They arrived in Birmingham 7.00am, and breakfasted at Lordswood where they showed photographs from their trip to the family and acquaintances who were staying. Afterwards the Pinsents and their Austrian guest travelled by bus into the city, alighting at Five Ways to speed up in the rest of the journey by taxi to the Town Hall for a concert. 

During the lunchtime interval, they enjoyed a gathering at Hume Pinsent's law office at 6 Bennett's Hill (above), before returning to the Town Hall. There Wittgenstein stood outside the front, because he found one particular piece by Strauss so distasteful. He eventually left the concert and made his own way back to Harborne.

Paradise Street, Birmingham, with the neo-classical Town Hall at the end on the left, 1905.

 In the evening he discussed his ideas in Logical Symbolism to Hume Pinsent and during the following morning he mastered their player-piano, and had a 'quite interesting' talk with David and his mother, Ellen Frances Parker Pinsent, about education. This is also 'quite interesting' because Ellen Pinsent at that time was a leading figure in Birmingham and within a year her influence would be felt across the country.

In November 1911, Ellen Pinsent became the first woman to be elected to Birmingham City Council, standing in the Edgbaston ward. She stood down from the post two years later when Hume retired, prompting the Pinsents to move to Oxfordshire. During her time on Birmingham Council Ellen Pinsent led the Committee on Special Schools. Amongst her reforms was to appoint an officer to oversee Public Health in these schools. The officer appointed was George Auden, father of poet W.H. Auden.

Previous to her election she had sat on the Royal Commission on Care and Control of the Feebleminded, and had formed the National Association for the Care of the Feebleminded which had worked with the Eugenics Education Society to pressurize candidates for the 1910 Parliament into supporting curbs on the mentally deficient, including compulsory institutionalization, and the prevention of having children. In a private letter to Asquith, the then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, supported the views of the Eugenics lobby. As did Neville Chamberlain who, before becoming Prime Minister was once Lord Mayor of Birmingham (1915-16).

'These ideas were rooted in the fear that an unimpeded increase in the 'feeble-minded' population would lead to Britain losing its place among the world's leading nations. Eugenic theories must be placed within the context of the British defeat in the Boer War, with its shocking revelations of the general unfitness of the recruits, and in agricultural and industrial depression.'

Paula Bartley, 'Prostitution: Prevention and Reform in England, 1860-1914'

Through her brother, Robert, Ellen met Karl Pearson, British statistician and eugenicist.  When he visited her family home she  absorbed his 'unorthodox views'. She became a member of Pearson's Men's and Women's Club and met her husband Hume Chancellor Pinsent who was also studying law with Robert at Cambridge. They married in 1888 and moved to Birmingham where Hume joined his brother's law firm, Pinsent & Co.

In July 1913, the Mental Deficiency Bill  was passed with only three votes against it. One of those belonged to Josiah Wedgwood IV MP who made an astonishing 150 speeches in 3 days in opposition, only sustained, apparently,  on barley water and chocolate. The effect of this opposition was to bring in the condition of being able to look after oneself to determine fitness. The Mental Deficiency Act 1913 drove the categories of fit and unfit permanently into the structure of society. Birmingham was not unique to have the lunatic asylum, the workhouse and the prison back-to-back in the very real, architectural sense. There are a variety of levels of existence within these complexes, but essentially everyone within, to those outside, is controlled, irrational and silent. 

There is a campaign to save the Archway of Tears, the entrance to the Birmingham Union Workhouse.

Ellen Pinsent was appointed Honorary Commissioner to the newly constituted Board of Control (replacing the 1845 Lunacy Commission), becoming a Permanent Commissioner in 1920 and then a Senior Commissioner in 1931. She was made a Dame of the British Empire for her mental health reform work in 1938, and died in 1949.

It was during his next stay in Birmingham, October 1913, that Wittgenstein dictated the typescript which would become part of his Notes on Logic. The dictation occured at the Berlitz School of Languages, which then occupied 32 Paradise Street (below), across the road from Birmingham Town Hall. The typsescript was made in German between 5.30 and 8.30pm, 7th October, 1913, and sent to Bertrand Russell. 

32 Paradise Street; above, 1951, & below, 2009.

 The next day Wittgenstein saw Pinsent, his 'first and only friend,' for the last time as he said goodbye to him at New Street Station. In 1918 tragedy struck Wittgenstein and the Pinsents as it did for so many friends and  families during the First World War. David who had been deemed unfit for service, was not at the front when he was killed. He had volunteered his services for aviation research at Farnborough, no doubt aided by his first degree in mathematics from Cambridge.
Birmingham Daily Mail, Wednesday May 15, 1918
Death of Mr D.H. Pinsent
Recovery of the Body
The body of Mr. David Hugh (sic) Pinsent, a civilian observer, son of Mr and Mrs Hume Pinsent, of Foxcombe Hill, near Oxford and Birmingham, the second victim of last Wednesday's aeroplane accident in West Surrey, was last night found in the Basingstoke Canal, at Frimley.

Currently Lordswood House is the name of the building listed as 54 Lordswood Road which is a bit confusing. However, being a medical practice, it fits with the history of the original house. In May 1915, two years after the Pinsents moved to Oxford (the same year the Melville brothers moved to Harborne) , it became Worcestershire V.A.D. 62, a Voluntary Aid Detachment hospital during the Great War, and afterwards, the Lordswood Maternity Hospital.

Boundary wall of Lordswood House

Although I didn't find the Pinsents' home, the search had led me to ask for bearings at Harborne Swimming Pool, situated to the left. An attendant told me that, in all his years, the pool had never had a street number. Stranger was the Blue Plaque on the building's facade. I hadn't been expecting one for Wittgenstein, merely an occasional visitor to the area. No, it wasn't for him nor any of the Pinsents. It was for someone who lived in the house next door, number 42 Lordswood Road:






Apparently Auden's mother whould disapprove of his walking to buy cigarettes in his dressing gown. His father was School Medical Officer for the city, with an interest in classics. Auden's conflict with his mother at Lordswood, found him relaxing with his friends at 6 Sir Harry's Road, Edgbaston, the home of E.R. Dodds, Professor of Greek, the man who appointed Louis MacNeice (1930) and George Thomson (1937) to the classics department of the University. George Thomson became head and appointed Nicholas Bachtin (1938) [Nikolai Baktin , elder brother of Mikhail]. 

Thomson lived firstly at 32 Goodby Road, Moseley, and then from 1940, at 84 Oakfield Road, Selly Oak. Robert Melville remembers Thomson's Oakfield Road home as a place where artists and musicians from Birmingham University would meet. I recommend Tessa Sidey's book Surrealism in Birmingham 1935-1954. George Thomson (1903-1987) and Nicholas Bachtin (1896-1950) were friends of Wittgenstein's from Cambridge.

Bachtin and Wittgenstein would spend evenings reading Dostoyesky and Pushkin in Russian, but it was an evening reading through the Tractatus with  Bachtin, in 1942, which prompted Wittgenstein to seek publication of the Philosophical Investigations for a second time. Bachtin had several addresses in Birmingham; 27 Wheeley's Road, then moving to the next road along, 37 George Road (above) , then the next, 36 Frederick Road, and finally , 12 Cambridge Cresent where he died suddenly of a heart attack, aged 54. He left behind 5 boxes of notes for an extensive work on rethinking the nature of language. There is no grave for Nikolai Bakhtin in Birmingham. He was privately cremated and no flowers were requested. His widow, Constance Mary Alix Bachtin, stayed in Cambridge Cresent until she too died, in 1959, after enduring severe multiple sclerosis for many years.

'One of the strangest men I have known and one of those best worth knowing'
E.R. Dodds, 'Missing Persons'

It was the end of a short but interesting life. Born in Orel, Russia, 1896 elder brother to Mikhail Bakhtin; 1912, attends university in Odessa; 1916, joins the Tsar's army on impulse for adventure and to look good in the uniform of a lancer; sought refuge in the Crimea after the Revolution; by chance, he meets his old C.O. who persuades him to join the White Guards during the Civil War; flees and becomes a sailor, gets drunk and joins the French Foreign Legion until he is badly injured three and a half years later. He then lives in poverty in Paris while writing for The Link and Numbers, is rescued by friends and admirers of his work, attends the Sorbonne, then Phd. at Cambridge, teaches in Southampton, and joins George Thomson's classics faculty at Birmingham University in 1938. He goes on to be the Linguistics department.  

 Roy and Fania Pascal also moved from Cambridge to Edgbaston (17 Rotten Park Road, above) when Birmingham University appointed Roy who, like Thomson, had been a member of Maurice Dobb's communist circle at Cambridge, to the Chair of German in 1939. In Cambridge Fania had taught Wittgenstein Russian, and she would see him often when Wittgenstein visited the Bachtins in Birmingham.

 'What I do know and what in itself would call for attention to the friendship is that Wittgenstein indeed loved Bachtin, was unusually happy and gay in his presence, and never dropped him as he easily did others. His was the rare case of Wittgenstein taking a person as he found him. All this in spite of the fact that they were poles apart in outlook and character. Bachtin was given to extremes of passion and an uncontrolled exuberance of feeling and expression. He always seemed on the verge of erupting, like a volcano. He suffered from many irrational fears and obsessions, loved expansiveness, was a great gourmet. Unlike Wittgenstein, Bachtin, though childless, could take delight in children, even in cats. They did however share a kind of childlike innocence, and lacked everything commonplace.' 

Fania Pascal, 'Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections,' edited by Rush Rhees

According to David J. Davis's contribution to "Great Men of Harborne," Auden's family home at 42 Lordswood Road was demolished in 1979, although his remaining family had moved nearby to 13 Court Oak Road after Wystan's departure to America in 1939.  Next door, Lordswood House was demolished several years beforehand. The Lordswood Maternity Hospital had closed in 1968, leaving the building to fall victim to vandals.

Lordswood House, 1970

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