2004 marks the 50th Anniversary of the death of Midlands’ writer Francis Brett Young, one of England's greatest regional novelists. His series of novels set in Birmingham (his North Bromwich), the industrial Black Country and its green borderlands portray a vibrant picture of life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More than this, they are also good stories with an appeal for today’s readers.
Born at The Laurels, Hales Owen on June 29th 1884, Francis was the eldest son of Dr. Thomas Brett Young (who was later to become Medical Officer of Health for the Borough) from Rowberrow, Somerset and his first wife, Annie Elizabeth Jackson from Somerby, Leicestershire. The Laurels was demolished for the building of Hales Owen’s Magistrates’ Court, where a plaque records Brett Young’s residence.
There is a further plaque in Hales Owen Parish Church marking the fact that Francis was baptised there on August 24th 1884. At the age of seven, Francis was sent to Iona Cottage High School, a small private establishment on the Lichfield Road, Sutton Coldfield. The school is now the Presbytery of Sutton’s Roman Catholic Church, and bears a blue plaque indicating that Brett Young was once a pupil there. In 1895 Francis progressed to Epsom College in Surrey, where he showed early signs of literary promise by editing the Epsomian school magazine and winning the Rosebery Prize for English Literature.
In 1901, he entered Birmingham University as a medical student, having won a Sands Cox Scholarship. Francis's experiences at school and university were closely paralleled by those of Edwin Ingleby, the chemist's son from Halesby (his fictional name for Hales Owen), in The Young Physician. Other episodes from his early years are retold in Wistanslow (an unfinished novel, published posthumously in 1956), based on a great country house that is a tantalising mixture of Hagley Hall and Himley Hall. In January 1907, after qualifying as a doctor, Francis sailed from Liverpool to the Far East (visiting Korea, China and Japan) as ship’s surgeon aboard the S.S. Kintuck of Alfred Holt’s Blue Funnel Line.
In 1908, at Rowberrow, the church of his forebears, Francis married Jessie Hankinson from Alvechurch whom he had met when she was a student at Rhoda Anstey’s Physical Training College, at the Leasowes, Hales Owen (now the Hales Owen Golf Club). Jessie became a soloist of some repute and appeared in Henry Wood's Promenade Concerts. After their marriage Francis and Jessie settled in Brixham, Devon, where he worked as a G.P., using the town as the setting for Deep Sea.
At the outbreak of World War One Brett Young volunteered his services as a doctor and in 1916 was posted to German East Africa with the rank of Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Serving under General Smuts, he was in charge of a field ambulance unit and recorded his exploits in Marching on Tanga. The war also inspired the writing of two collections of poetry - Five Degrees South and Poems 1916-1918. The rigours of the East African campaign severely affected his health and after the war he decided to abandon his medical career, settle in a warmer climate and devote his time to writing. Consequently in 1919 he and Jessie moved to Capri, where he began a series of novels with a Midlands setting.
Although his first novel, Undergrowth, written in collaboration with his brother Eric, had been published in 1913, Francis did not achieve popular success until he was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1927 for Portrait of Clare. Financial success and an improvement in health enabled the Brett Youngs to return to England. First they lived at Esthwaite Lodge (now the Hawkshead Youth Hostel) in the Lake District and then in 1932 they moved to Craycombe House, Fladbury, Worcestershire, also having a home at Talland Bay in Cornwall. During this period Francis was at the height of his fame and his annually produced novels were eagerly awaited. Most of these were set in the Midlands and linked by the construction of the Elan Valley dams and pipeline of Birmingham’s Welsh Water scheme. "The Midlands novels," wrote Francis in his Preface to The Black Diamond, "were to be strung along that pipe-line as beads are threaded on a string." Two novels, They Seek a Country (1937) and The City of Gold (1939) were historical stories with a South African background.
Quinton, which Brett Young names Tilton, (suggesting his support for the Roman derivation of the name as a place where soldiers once tilted at the quintain) appears in number of in his novels. Clare Lydiat (Portrait of Clare), Jonathan Dakers (My Brother Jonathan), Jim Redlake (Jim Redlake), Miles Ombersley (This Little World), Bella Small (White Ladies) and Owen Lucton (Mr Lucton’s Freedom) all visit Tilton and comment upon its altitude, climate and links with North Bromwich. This is not surprising, as Quinton would have been familiar to Brett Young who would regularly have passed through the village on his way into Birmingham and noted the buildings which he describes – the church, toll house, shops and cottages.
The main appearance of Tilton is in Mr & Mrs Pennington, published in 1931. Susan and Dick Pennington make their home in Tilton at Chatsworth, a bungalow in Ada Road, reflecting the new housing that expanded Quinton at the time. Chatsworth and Ada Road were actually both based on real developments with which Brett Young was familiar in Salisbury, Rhodesia and the key events of the novel were drawn from a trial in which he was a witness in Italy, though relocated to Tilton via research into the Birmingham court system. Much of the Tilton of Mr & Mrs Pennington remains clearly identifiable and is fascinating for those who know the suburb.
During the Second World War Francis worked on the book which he regarded as his life’s achievement. This was The Island, an ambitious verse history of the British Isles from their geological formation to the Battle of Britain, published in 1944. The strain of composing this epic, coupled with his war work, caused a breakdown in his health and he was obliged to sell Craycombe and move again in search of a warmer climate. In 1945, he and Jessie sailed for South Africa and eventually settled at Montagu in the Lesser Karoo. Here, he intended to write another Mercian novel (the unfinished Wistanslow), the third part of his South African trilogy and his autobiography. Unfortunately increasing ill health forced him to abandon writing and neither his intended autobiography nor the third South African novel were ever written.
In 1950 he was awarded the honorary degree of D. Litt by his old University of Birmingham and was sufficiently well to travel to England to attend the ceremony. Thereafter, his health continued to decline and he died in South Africa on March 28th 1954. Cremation at Maitland followed a funeral service in St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town and his ashes were brought back to England and interred in the north transept of Worcester Cathedral.
Francis Brett Young wrote thirty novels, four collections of short stories, three works of non-fiction, three volumes of poetry, three plays (in collaboration) and two musical works - making a total of forty-five published works in all, with a further selection of additional short stories, poems and articles included in magazines, newspapers and anthologies. More than thirty of his books were also published in U.S.A.; serialisations followed in the British, American and Australian press and translations appeared in Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish. Many of his novels have been presented on radio, Sea Horses, Portrait of Clare, My Brother Jonathan and A Man About the House have been filmed and The House Under the Water and My Brother Jonathan have been serialised on BBC television.
Francis Brett Young's manuscripts and letters are in the keeping of the University of Birmingham, where his portrait, painted by Cathleen Mann in 1922, hangs in the Barnes Library of the Medical School. The Francis Brett Young Society, founded in 1979, currently draws its membership from four continents. Michael Hall’s biography, Francis Brett Young, was published by Seren Press in 1997 and is currently available at £7.95. Details of the Francis Brett Young Society may be obtained from the website: www.fbysociety.co.uk
© QLHS – Michael Hall 2004
|UNDERGROWTH (with Eric Brett Young)||Martin Secker||1913|
|DEEP SEA||Martin Secker||1914|
|THE DARK TOWER||Martin Secker||1914|
|THE IRON AGE||Martin Secker||1916|
|THE CRESCENT MOON||Martin Secker||1918|
|THE YOUNG PHYSICIAN||Collins||1919|
|THE TRAGIC BRIDE||Martin Secker||1920|
|THE BLACK DIAMOND||Collins||1921|
|THE RED KNIGHT||Collins||1921|
|PORTRAIT OF CLARE||Heinemann||1927|
|THE KEY OF LIFE||Heinemann||1928|
|MY BROTHER JONATHAN||Heinemann||1928|
|MR & MRS PENNINGTON||Heinemann||1931|
|THE HOUSE UNDER THE WATER||Heinemann||1932|
|THIS LITTLE WORLD||Heinemann||1934|
|THEY SEEK A COUNTRY||Heinemann||1937|
|PORTRAIT OF A VILLAGE||Heinemann||1937|
|DR BRADLEY REMEMBERS||Heinemann||1938|
|THE CITY OF GOLD||Heinemann||1939|
|MR LUCTON'S FREEDOM||Heinemann||1940|
|A MAN ABOUT THE HOUSE||Heinemann||1942|
|BLOOD ORANGES||White Owl||1932|
|THE CAGE BIRD||Heinemann||1933|
|THE CHRISTMAS BOX||Heinemann||1938|
|ROBERT BRIDGES (with Eric Brett Young)||Martin Secker||1914|
|MARCHING ON TANGA||Collins||1917|
|IN SOUTH AFRICA||Heinemann||1952|
|FIVE DEGREES SOUTH||Martin Secker||1917|
|CAPTAIN SWING (with Edward Stirling)||Collins||1919|
|THE FURNACE (with William Armstrong)||Heinemann||1928|
|CREPE DE CHINE; THE STORY OF THE PLAY (with Edward Stirling)||Mills & Boon||1921|
|SONGS OF ROBERT BRIDGES||Breitkopf & Hartel||1912|
|SONGS FOR VOICE AND PIANOFORTE||Weeks & Co.||1913|
The Francis Brett Young Society has organised a short story competition (First Prize £300 and substantial runner-up prizes) and a series of events throughout the region.
Royal Worcester porcelain has produced 250 limited edition miniature plates, featuring Hales Owen, Worcester and Chaddesley Corbett, designed by Society member Alan Pritchard. Plates come in a presentation box with a certificate of authenticity and are priced at £20.
Further details from www.fbysociety.co.uk
Throughout March there will be an exhibition in Hales Owen Library.
In addition to the above members of the Society will be presenting talks, lectures and readings at more than 30 venues throughout the year. Further details available from Society members.
Details of later events will be included in the next Oracle.
Click here to go back to the Oracle page.