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)


  1. Thank you for a very informative and fascinating article about a writer I was not familiar with and about whom I now want to learn a lot more.

  2. Thanks for this informative piece on John Hampson. I'm curious to know if you came across the MS of his 1931 Berlin novel Foreign English which was rejected by the Hogarth Press.