It’s been a while since the last Proletics post, partly because I’ve been working on plasterer, trade unionist, unsung Rochdale genius and subject of a chapter of my thesis, Jack Hilton. I gave a paper on him at the recent Culture Wars 1900-1950 conference at Sheffield Hallam (where I was lucky enough to be on a panel with Alison Twells and got to hear fascinating stories about her aunt Norah) and then was delighted to discover that Ben Clarke – the first person to mention Hilton to me at a conference on Hoggart back in 2009 – was giving a paper on Hilton’s relationship with George Orwell in London. We had a good old chin-wag about our favourite Rochdalian and agreed to pool our resources to try and get Caliban Shrieks back into print. A big obstacle to helping Hilton reach the audience he so richly deserves is the mystery surrounding the copyright holder: anyone who owns the rights or knows how we can trace whoever does, please get in touch – we’d love to hear from you. What follows is a brief biographical sketch and an account of the weird and wonderful story behind the publication of Hilton’s 1935 masterpiece, Caliban Shrieks.
Hilton was born in Oldham in 1900 and moved to Rochdale as a young child. He had his first job as a barber’s lather boy at the age of nine and at ten he was hospitalised by a bout of rheumatic fever. When the doctor wanted to discharge him, his father – a committed socialist and autodidact – refused to take Jack home because of the dangerously squalid conditions in the slums and so he was admitted to a convalescent home, where he witnessed what he later called the ‘indifference to humanity in the hearts of Liberal Methodists and Tory Churchmen’. Hilton gives a grim insight into the fragility of slum life:
Of eleven children (maybe there were thirteen) seven died before reaching two years. Only four of us became adults […] [My] mind doesn’t recall how many brothers and sisters I had because they died too soon for me to have memories of association. This was normal for slummies.
At twelve, under the half-time system, he worked in a cotton mill before leaving school at fourteen, when he got a job as a guide for the secretary of the local Blind Association. Like many of his peers, he then lied about his age to join the army, in which he served as stable boy to two officers before being sent to Belgium. Into his first fifteen years, Hilton packed a variety of jobs and experiences that took him across class boundaries and this equipped him with the necessary experience for his later critique of the class system. The episode most integral to understanding Hilton’s motives has to do with his union activity. Having become an active member of the plasterers’ union in Rochdale, Hilton was its secretary from 1929-35 and he was also active in the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM). As an organizer and agitator he was arrested several times and served a few stints in jail before being bound over to keep the peace and banned from public speaking in 1932 following a ‘disturbance’ at Rochdale’s Public Assistance Committee, during which he was ‘struck with a sergeant’s stick’ so hard that he ‘could hardly move [his] legs’. This coincided with a fruitful period of attendance at Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) literature classes. Hilton later phrased his reaction to being silenced in typically pithy fashion: ‘Said I: I’ll write’.
The manner in which Caliban Shrieks came to be published is a fascinating story that gives us an insight into the relationship between working-class writers and the literary establishment in the 1930s. Hilton says that he mistakenly handed in a notebook containing private essays rather than his WEA assignment and that he was so embarrassed he didn’t raise it with his tutor for several weeks. That tutor, a Mr Mason, professed to have no recollection of the exercise book but a few months later Hilton received the latest edition of the Adelphi, a left-leaning journal of literature and politics, with a letter from its editor, Richard Rees (a baronet and WEA tutor and Treasurer who was shortly to volunteer as an ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War), thanking him for his contribution and asking him to submit another piece. Hilton writes: ‘It was dead easy to decide what to send for I had only the stuff I was recording – the dozen penny exercise books on the mass-working lad’s experiences’. Rees replied suggesting publication in book form. Through this convoluted process, almost by accident and without ever being intended as a single, cohesive piece, Caliban Shrieks came to be published in March 1935.
The fluke of Hilton’s first publication sets him apart from other working-class voices of the twentieth century: unlike Walter Greenwood and many other writers of the period he hadn’t modified his work in response to repeated rejections or had it heavily edited by publishers with a keen eye on the market for ‘gritty’ books; he wasn’t ‘declassed’ by a grammar school or university education; nor was he driven by a writerly vocation from an early age (like Alan Sillitoe, for example). Hilton is remarkable in that his first publications were the experimental and private essays of a working-class man with no real literary training or ambition and he became increasingly aware, and proud, of the unique status of the book, describing it in his unpublished autobiography as ‘probably the only undiluted proletarian book of the twentieth century’ and going on to say that it ‘is unique in the sense that no other book is less of the English literary convention and because of this I’m fond of the ugly duckling that is a ‘literary’ curiosity’.
Jack and Mary Hilton, who is pushing the handcart they used to carry their belongings when they tramped around the country. Jack wrote English Ways and English Ribbon whilst they travelled around with itinerant labourers and tramps.
The success of Caliban Shrieks – it was favourably reviewed by Orwell and Auden – led to a Cassell Scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, and the publication of a few novels and a travelogue, English Ways, in 1940. This can be read as Hilton’s working-class response to The Road to Wigan Pier (which Hilton dismissed as ‘piffle’ and ‘a waste of time and money’) and his final published work, English Ribbon (1950) was a post-war follow-up. Hilton’s is a unique and brilliant working-class voice that has been overlooked by criticism and gives us a rare insight into working-class perspectives of the economic crises of the inter-war years. If you can help us to get his important work back into print, please do get in touch.