Tag Archives: social history

“What I Saw in the Slums” … a little known aspect of HV Morton

In 1933 HV Morton’s writing appeared to undergo a sea-change with the publication of a little known volume called “What I Saw in the Slums“. While reviewing this work for the online magazine Albion, I became fascinated by what might have prompted this change of heart. Why would a writer who, up to that time, had made his fame and fortune chiefly by writing uplifting travelogues suddenly take it into his head to turn instead to some of the worst, most deprived areas of urban England and lay bare what he found there at the height of the Great Depression.

The article below is not the review but is a second piece which resulted from my musings about the change of direction HV Morton appeared to have taken. I am most grateful to Peter Devenish and Kenneth Fields for answering my enquiries on the matter as well as to the authors of Morton’s biographies – “The Life of an Enchanted Traveller” by Kenneth Fields and “In Search of HV Morton” by Michael Bartholomew – for helping me weave a few loose threads into a vaguely coherent whole and construct, to my satisfaction, the story of an important period in the life of HV Morton.

Additional information was obtained from “Writing Englishness: 1900-1950” edited by Judy Giles and Tim Middleton.

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The cover of "What I Saw in the Slums"

The cover of “What I Saw in the Slums”

Anyone who has encountered the works of HV Morton, even briefly, will probably think of him as a chronicler of the brighter, more positive aspects of British life between the wars, with his various travelogues of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. If any criticism is to be made of his works it is his tendency to skirt around the harsher realities of life – he liked to keep things light-hearted. Anyone delving further into his background will come to realise that, although his views were kept largely private, Morton’s politics were distinctly conservative and right-wing.

Nothing in life is simple of course and sometimes, just when you think you know all there is to know about someone, they can still surprise you. Morton produced his early travelogues during ten fruitful and, initially, happy years spent working at the Daily Express newspaper, owned by Lord Beaverbrook. When Morton first joined the Daily Express in 1921 Beverly Baxter, who had been responsible for head-hunting Morton, reported he had been warned, with ominous foresight, by Morton’s previous editor at the Evening Standard, that his new recruit “… was gifted, but would give me trouble” [See HVM Society Snippet – No.146].

Slums 1Slum Playground for the “Coming Generation” – one of the photographs by James Jarché

Nearly a decade later, at the start of the 1930’s this prediction began to come true. Considerable personal success for Morton and an increasingly turbulent home-life started to drive a wedge between journalist and paper. Relations began to cool between him and Baxter, by then Editor in Chief, even though ironically it had been Baxter himself who had first encouraged Morton to begin his journeys around Britain, even going so far as to suggest the title In Search of England, thereby playing a large part in establishing the very fame which was now forcing them apart.

At the same time a rival paper, the Daily Herald – left-wing organ of the British Labour Party and Trades Union Movement and almost the polar opposite of Beaverbrook’s highly conservative Daily Express – was trying to improve its image. Owner, Ernest Bevin, and new publishing partners, Odhams Press, were striving to move the publication “up-market”, make it more competitive and put it on a firmer financial footing. One of the means they employed was to recruit star reporters (for lucrative salaries) to the staff, and so it was that HV Morton’s itchy feet led him in this unexpected direction in March 1931.

On a more personal level, according to biographer Kenneth Fields, Morton seemed to feel a need to step out of his comfort-zone and “… could no longer ignore the terrible poverty and unemployment that was evident throughout Britain. Unlike the Express, which he believed had become obsessed with rich celebrities, working at the Herald now gave him the opportunity to write about the life of the working-man“.

The first product of this unlikely pairing was conventional enough; another in Morton’s series of travelogues, eventually published in book form as “In Search of Wales“. What followed next though was a completely radical departure for Morton. “Labour Party Pamphlet VII” grew out of a series of columns he had been commissioned to write for the Herald in 1933 and was published under the title “What I Saw in the Slums“.

To hold a copy of “What I Saw in the Slums” in one’s hand is, quite literally, to hold a piece of history. This pamphlet was never modernised or re-published in the way that better known, later texts such as Priestley’s “English Journey” or Orwell’s “Road to Wigan Pier” were, so its very pages are part of the period about which they were written.

Understandably therefore, particularly since it was published in soft-back, very few copies have survived to the present day, despite the weighty feel of the publication suggesting it was printed on good quality paper. This makes it one of the rarest, and most collectible of all Morton’s works, and it was my “Mortonian Holy Grail” for a number of years before I finally bagged a copy on E-bay, thanks to a heads-up from avid Mortonite, John Baker.

Slum room“This Single Room is the Home of Husband, Wife and Three Children” –
reads the caption to this photograph of some of the
appalling conditions witnessed by Morton and Jarché

When it finally arrived, my copy was so fragile that I had to repair it with archive-quality adhesive tape and then labouriously scan the entire volume onto my computer in order to produce a facsimile reading copy. After all this, at long last I finally managed to read it and it didn’t disappoint – the wait was well worth it!

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My review of “What I Saw in the Slums” for Isabel Taylor’s online magazine Albion was published a few months ago in the ten year anniversary edition, and can be found about half-way down this page. I hope to be able to publish it in full on this blog in a few month’s time.

With best wishes,

Niall Taylor 20 August 2014

(This article was originally circulated on 15 February 2014, as HVM Literary Notes – No.121)

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Filed under Book reviews, HV Morton, Journies