24 September 2007

Lionel Britton — A Brief Biography

(The information below was a small part of my thesis, but new details of Lionel Britton's life continue to be revealed to me, correcting, enhancing, and in other ways transforming my knowledge of the man.)

Scarcely any biographical information about Lionel Britton is readily available, and since the mid-1930s his name has been almost forgotten. Information about Britton’s family background, though, is helpful to gain an impression of the formation of his ideas, particularly the importance of literature and foreign languages to him, and the reasons for his hatred of capitalism, religion, the law and institutions in general. The details of Britton’s life after the publication of his last imaginative work in 1935 are also an indication of why he disappeared from the public eye.

Lionel Erskine Nimmo Britton had far from humble beginnings. At his birth on 4 November 1887 his paternal grandfather, John James Britton, was a solicitor practising in the small Warwickshire market town of Alcester and his father, Richard Waddams Nimmo Britton, had very recently passed his intermediate examinations to be a solicitor and was now practising in the family business — Britton & Son — in the nearby village of Astwood Bank, where he lived with his family. Lionel’s maternal grandfather, Samuel Thomas, was for some time the representative in France of Samuel Thomas & Sons, manufacturers of needles and fish-hooks in Redditch; this business was founded by Samuel’s father — also named Samuel — who lived in a large house in front of his extensive British Needle Mills until his death in 1878. It was one of the largest businesses in the town, with one hundred and twenty-two employees at the time of the 1871 census. By the 1881 census, Henry Thomas, a younger son of Samuel Thomas senior, appears to have taken over the greater part, if not all, of the family business. By this time Samuel Thomas junior had returned to England on a permanent basis, and he too was a needle manufacturer, employing just twelve people.

Lionel’s mother, Irza Vivian Geraldine, was born in 1866 and had met Richard at Kings Coughton, in a former farmhouse near Alcester where Richard lived with his father and the rest of the family; Irza was a fifteen-year-old poetry enthusiast who had initially gone to the house to visit John James Britton, a ‘real live poet’ who had earned a minor reputation locally, and who later published a novel. Irza and Richard married in 1885 and moved to Astwood Bank, where Ivy was born the following year and Lionel the year after. There are very few listings of Britton & Son at Astwood Bank in Kelly’s Directories for that period: early in 1888, the company went into bankruptcy.

Never fully qualified as a solicitor, Richard — who had previously worked as a teaching assistant and was given to writing philosophical musings by no means entirely different from those of his mature son Lionel — probably did not enjoy the legal profession. On his bankruptcy, he initially tried to find work again as a teaching assistant in England, although the family very soon moved to Paris, where Richard had found work as a managing clerk in a legal firm, and where Lionel’s brother Percy was born. France and the French language run throughout the Britton and the Thomas families: Samuel Thomas junior had spent a number of years in France, where at least six of his children, including Lionel’s mother, were born; Samuel’s wife Marie Antoinette was French, and both of Lionel’s parents spoke the language fluently. This strong French connection must to some extent explain Lionel’s fluency in the language, and is no doubt also indicative of the facility with which he later learned so many others: his friend Herbert Marshall claimed that Britton was fluent in over twenty different languages.

However, Richard’s employment in France lasted only a short time, and the Brittons then moved to the Bournemouth area, where Richard again worked unsuccessfully as a solicitor, and where the family income was supplemented by Irza working as a boarding house keeper. A fourth child, Cyril, was born in 1891, and by the end of the following year the couple had significant debts. In 1894, when Lionel was seven, Richard died of tuberculosis. Irza, who already had at least one suitor, remained in the area and married a gunner in the Royal Navy in 1897, although no other details of this marriage appear to have survived, and she was later to change her name back to Britton.

Lionel, Ivy, Percy and Cyril all moved to Redditch to live with their maternal grandparents, where their grandfather was then a traveller in a fishing tackle business. According to Lionel’s own account, he excelled at school and soon learned all that they could teach him. It seems evident that he showed some of the rebelliousness that would later be a notable feature of his character: he already hated religious instruction, and was excused music lessons because he thought them ‘silly’. By 1901 Ivy was still at school at the age of nearly fifteen, but her younger brother Lionel was almost certainly in London by this time. His grandparents had presumably not wanted, or perhaps had not had the means for, him to continue his education. For a brief period he lodged elsewhere in Redditch, later informing the Daily News and Westminster Gazette that his first job was ‘sandpapering fishing rods’. After running away and spending a few days as an office boy in Birmingham, Britton moved to London, and from this point his work life and intellectual life become very similar to that of Arthur Phelps in Hunger and Love.

In London, Britton found work as an errand boy at a grocer’s in Theobald’s Road, although he was dismissed from there for reasons unknown. He next found more errand work with an educational bookseller, the University Book Co. on Southampton Row, which according to Britton was the main catalyst to his intellectual curiosity, where he secretly read all he could in the firm’s time, which was also when he discovered ‘the penny-dump on the book-barrows on Farringdon Road’, ‘a mine of mind for empty pockets’. Britton worked at the shop for about six years, when he voluntarily left to work as a shop assistant for bookseller A. H. Mayhew (on whom Sarner in Hunger and Love is probably based) in Charing Cross Road for nearly two years; Mayhew found him ‘honest and industrious’ and ‘parted with him with regret’.

Britton appears not to have mentioned World War I in newspaper or magazine articles or surviving letters, although the vicious propaganda machine in the novel, where the narrator tells of Phelps being urged by almost everyone around him into joining the war, seems to be comment enough on Britton’s experience of it: in an obituary, Raymond Douglas reveals that Britton was attacked by a patriotic mob for not enlisting, and was imprisoned as a conscientious objector for about eighteen months.

As early as 1917, Britton started to learn Russian and applied for Russian citizenship, although his application was disallowed by the Soviet ambassador. Then in the early 1920s he found a more remunerative post with the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, where he worked for about six years, latterly as Assistant General Secretary. In his letter of reference in 1929, the General Secretary describes Britton as ‘an independent thinker, cautious and meditative, yet courageous in the expression of his opinions’, and who was also ‘a gifted linguist [whose] translation of the lesser European languages has frequently been of value to us’.

For several years before this Britton had been working on his huge novel Hunger and Love, although he had disagreed with publishers because he refused to allow any cuts to be made to the content. It is a measure of his self-confidence and his powers of persuasion that he secured Bertrand Russell’s five-page Introduction to the novel, and that Constant Huntington of Putnam not only did not insist that he make cuts, but also allowed him to write the final amendments to it more or less as he wished.

The influence of the cinema on Britton’s writing is briefly mentioned in a chapter below, as film was of great interest to him: he was chairman of the experimental London Film Guild in the late 1920s, which had its studio in the same building as Foyle’s bookshop on Charing Cross Road. This voluntary organization was largely unsuccessful, only producing a small number of mainly critically unsuccessful shorts; Britton never directed a film, although he was responsible for some montage work. The secretary of the Guild was Herbert Marshall, who later moved to Russia for a number of years as a student of Eisenstein’s.

By the time Britton left his advertising job in favour of writing, his mother Irza was living with him in a flat in Marylebone, in Saville Street, which was later incorporated into Hanson Street. And by the late 1920s Britton had also met Sinead Acheson, a woman in the legal profession who was to be his devoted friend for the rest of his life, and with whom he appears to have lived intermittently during the 1930s and 1940s.

Britton also had a strong interest in the theatre over many years and frequently attended performances; when he was a teenager, he had been a supernumerary at Her Majesty’s Theatre under Sir Herbert Tree, and wrote his first play — ‘Fang; or, the Reluctant Employee’ — during this period. Before Hunger and Love was finally published, Britton had also written at least a first draft of his three published plays, and it is an indication of his strong powers of persuasion that the play would possibly not have been published without the assistance of Bernard Shaw, into whose hands he contrived to thrust a copy; Shaw passed it on to Sir Barry Jackson, which the press reported with great enthusiasm. Brain was published in May 1930, very shortly after its first and only performance, which was by the Masses Stage and Film Guild at the Savoy Theatre. Brain ensured that Britton was already relatively well known when Hunger and Love was published the following February, and after this his short-lived fame began in earnest and he was in great demand for a few brief years. He was asked to give a number of talks, to open theatres, he became the drama critic for The New Clarion, and established Left Theatre with André van Gyseghem (the first director of Nottingham Playhouse) and several others. There were many articles about him in newspapers and magazines, and a great deal of attention was also given to his second play, Spacetime Inn, for example: the blurb on the dust jacket speaks of ‘the play which was read at the House of Commons — the only occasion in the history of any Parliament that such a thing has ever happened’. Britton’s M. P. friend John Smith Clarke had made the occasion possible, but both the blurb and the headlines are slightly misleading: although Britton himself certainly read his play before a group of M. P.s, the session was only held in a House of Commons committee room. Critically, the play was better received than Brain, although it was performed for four nights only at the Arts Theatre in London, and once by the Hostel Players in Hoddesdon the following year. (For this second performance, the play also attracted a great deal of publicity — much of it pictorial — because Bernard Shaw gave one of his old Norfolk jackets to his namesake in the play.)

There were many caricatures of Britton in the newspapers and magazines of the day because he was quite an unusual figure for the time. Shaw had called him a ‘wild young man’ and Arnold Bennett had thought that he looked as though he had just come from the French Riviera: he had a shock of wiry hair which stood up almost perpendicular to his head and which he rather amateurishly cut himself, and he always wore an open-neck shirt, usually with light trousers or shorts and plimsolls; he was teetotal and did not smoke.

Britton had been anticipating a visit to Russia for some years, and as the initial excitement of his success eased off considerably, he went there in July 1935 at the expense of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers. Five years previously, the working-class writer Harold Heslop had stayed there for the same amount of time as Britton: three months. The two writers’ impressions of the country have many similarities — Heslop was shocked by the poverty he saw, by his guide’s ignorance of Russian culture, and bewildered by the consternation which his desire to see Zamyatin caused; after attending a show trial, he called himself ‘a stranger in a world beyond my own belief’. Britton’s frequent letters to Acheson express his disgust with the country. He was also alarmed by the poverty, exasperated by the queues and what he saw as the ignorance of the Russian people, as well as the fact that they would not answer his probing questions or allow him to explore his surroundings unescorted; above all, perhaps, he thought that his belief in co-operation as opposed to competition was not being practised in Russia: he believed that food and other shortages were caused by the government channelling money into the defence budget. What he saw forced him to see the United Kingdom as more socialist than Russia; he still thought that Russian communism would eventually succeed in its goals, but thought that the gradualism of the British Labour Party was better suited to the country’s progress than the Communist Party of Great Britain. He returned by boat in October; Irza had become used to having more space, and most of Britton’s belongings had been moved to Acheson’s house.

Britton had awoken from his utopian dream to find a nightmare both in Russia and, more personally, at home. Putnam, having made only a modest profit from Hunger and Love, (less than £100 after 10,000 sales and an expensive promotion campaign) and losses with Brain and Spacetime Inn, had already refused to give more than a perfunctory promotion to Animal Ideas. Britton had delayed his visit to Russia because the play was due to be published in the United Kingdom, but it proved to be a disaster: it was never performed (except by Britton himself at various readings), sales were very low, and it was largely ignored critically. In a revealing fourteen-page letter to Herbert Marshall, he called his experience ‘the snuff-out’: he was facing ruin as a writer and had little money left.

Britton escaped from London to take part in a socialist project at ‘Netherwood’ in Hastings, which was perhaps chosen because of its connection with the working-class writer Robert Tressell. In the second half of the 1930s, Netherwood was a large run-down property which had been bought by the actor and playwright E. C. Vernon Symonds to convert into a left-wing guest house that was intended as a haven for socialist meetings and trade union conferences among other things. Britton received free board and lodging there in return for manual work — mainly gardening and reconstructing the swimming pool — and was eking out the remainder of his advance for the Russian edition of Hunger and Love, although he hated almost everything about Netherwood.

During his stay in Hastings Britton was writing the play ‘Du Barry’, although it was never published and never performed. He later wrote several more plays and a novel, philosophical works, and dramatized several novels, such as The Pickwick Papers, Barchester Towers, Gwyn Jones’s Times Like These and three works by J. Jefferson Farjeon. But apart from a performance of ‘Mr Pickwick’ at Rugby and two translations of rather obscure Russian writers in the 1940s, Britton’s career in the theatre and in print was at an end.

Consequently, although he remained a committed writer, Britton was by economic necessity forced to find other means of survival, which led to an itinerant lifestyle. He taught from time to time, gave play readings throughout the country, and synchronized English dialogue to Russian films. And there was also another source of income: Acheson had bought a second-hand boat — known as ‘Spacetime Inn’, or simply ‘Spacetime’ — which she kept on the Thames and followed Irza’s suggestion to rent it out, with Britton collecting the proceeds from customers. He lived on the boat, in boathouses, or simply by the riverside, from about 1937 to 1944, although not continuously. And towards the end of the 1940s he was living with his mother again, now at Park House, a leasehold property at 66 Tufnell Park Road. In a draft application for a grant from the Civil List fund in 1951, he gave his income as ‘Between £70 and £80 per annum’.

In 1954 Britton suffered multiple injuries in a car accident from which he was very fortunate to survive; however, he received an undisclosed sum in compensation, with which he hoped to publish his work and ‘be independent of publishers’ readers’. Britton was developing an obsession: he had amplified Bernard Shaw’s (possibly unfinished) play Why She Would Not, and for the rest of his life was concerned with the Society of Authors’s refusal to allow the simultaneous publication of both Shaw’s fragment and Britton’s ending. He kept scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings about the society along with its financial details, and biographical details of the committee members. And he was directly or indirectly supported by several prominent writers in opposition to the society’s exclusivity, including Bertrand Russell, who remarked of the society’s attitude to Britton’s writing: ‘If the principle became established that nothing should be published unless it aroused admiration in a number of elderly big-wigs, the result would be a disastrous censorship.’ These were encouraging words, although they can only have fed the obsession: in 1964, Britton sent a two-hundred-and-eighty-five-paragraph dossier to the Director of Public Prosecutions alleging fraudulent activities on the part of the Society of Authors. Nothing was ever proved.

Also in 1964, Britton formed a company — The Park Group Limited — with two Canadians using a bank in the Bahamas with the intention of publishing and producing his plays for stage and screen, of which the first was to be ‘the Shaw play’. However, nothing appears to have come to fruition from the Park Group, probably because Britton was insisting that ‘the Shaw play’ be published first, whereas the other directors (who were responsible for all of the company’s not inconsiderable expenses pending a refund from the ‘profits’) were worried about a possible court injunction. Three years later Britton established his own company — Promethean Publishers Ltd — which appears never to have published anything either.

Britton spent his last years as a virtual recluse in Margate. In 1969 he wrote a letter to Bertrand Russell from his new home, in which he states that he has had a nervous breakdown, and has lost his house in Tufnell Park along with all of his money; the reasons for this are not mentioned. But Britton was still trying to sue the Society of Authors as late as June 1970, six months before his death at the local hospital following a heart attack. There were few obituaries, and even those commented on his obscurity.

Herbert Marshall, who was by that time Professor and Director of Soviet and East European Studies (Performing Arts) at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, had all of Britton’s literary effects transported to the university, where they remain today.


Snatch51 said...

Lionel Britton claimed to be a distant cousin of the Earls of Mar and Kellie.
The fact that his middle name was Erskine is no doubt a marker of that descent. His grandmother Catherine Erskine Britton, (nee Smith), the mother of Richard Britton, Lionel's father, was in turn the daughter of Elizabeth Smith, nee Nimmo; apparently born on 10th April 1796 at Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland.

Elizabeth's parents were Thomas Nimmo, a druggist or apothecary, and Elizabeth Harding.
The eight known children of this couple were as follows:-
Jean Nimmo b. Jul 12th 1784
Alexander McLachlan Nimmo b. Mar 7th 1786, described as a daughter!
Abigail McRae Nimmo b. Apr 24th 1787
Margaret Nimmo b. Aug 28th 1788
Catharine Erskine Nimmo b. 16th Feb 1791
Robert Nimmo b. Jun 27th 1793
Elizabeth Nimmo b. 10th Apr 1796
Thomas Nimmo b. Aug 1st (5th?) 1799.

Abigail married a farmer near Greenock, Robert Nicholson. Their son, Robert, married his first cousin Elizabeth Mary Smith, a daughter of Elizabeth Smith, (nee Nimmo), herself. Elizabeth Mary died tragically young, and was on her deathbed at the census of 1861.
Intriguingly, her husband at that time was Richard Chalmers, so the match with Robert Nicholson doesn't look as if it was successful.

It is not clear who were the parents of Thomas Nimmo. Given the tradition about the descent, it is plausible that they were James Nimmo, a 'wright' of Leith, and, Heriot (or Harriet) Anderson. Her father was a brewer, Daniel Anderson, and her mother was a Margaret Nicolson.

James Nimmo could have been one of the surviving sons of James Nimmo, (1686-1770), who married Mary Erskine in 1720. If so, this was the link which takes our ancestry back to Robert the Bruce.
Other obvious links to James and Mary are lacking, but in those times Scottish people were traversing the globe: India, Canada, America; and of course England, where the Registration did not start until 1837. We have these older records thanks to Scotland's People.
James Nimmo, the merchant and Bailie of Edinburgh who married Mary Erskine the daughter of Lord Cardross, is said to have died a bankrupt. It is for that reason that it seems believable that his son could have had to pursue manual work for a living.
There is much speculation here of course, and I would be grateful to hear from anyone descended from any of these people, or who could otherwise shed any light on the story.

Tirzah said...

Well written article.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting all of this information about Britton on your blog. He first came to my attention in 2003, when fumbling around in the dark trying to get some background on other obscure writers such as Jack Common.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Thanks for the kind words, defrosted. Sorry to be so late in replying, but I only noticed your comment very recently. Care to tell me about your research?