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.