Dylan Thomas’ Lancashire Loves: Tripe and Onions and T. Thompson
I recently received an email from a pianist in Illinois, who was researching her family tree, having being told she might be related to Dylan Thomas. Her great-grandparents had come from Carmarthenshire but her grandmother had been born in Liverpool, so she wanted to know if Dylan had any Lancashire connections in his family.
I could think only of two, one an uncle, the other an aunt. The first was Thomas Williams, his mother Florence’s eldest brother, who had been a congregational minister in Oldham and then in Mottram Moor, on the outskirts of Manchester. The second was Florence’s eldest sister, Annie Jones, who paid her rent to a woman born and brought up in Fernhill, but who later eloped to Southport with a Hungarian doctor.
Thinking that this would look like slim pickings to the pianist, I emailed my old butty Dai Cwc, who had a couple of Lancashire connections himself. He had left school in Port Talbot to study physics at Manchester, and later married a woman from Burnley.
“You need to mug up on Tommy Thompson, a Lancashire dialect writer,” he replied.
“What’s this got to do with my American piano player?”
“Sorry, absolutely nothing at all! It just made me realise that I should have told you about Thompson long ago.”
“The name rings a bell.”
“An outstanding community portraitist. Could well have been an influence on Milk Wood.”
“Llareggub’s a long way from Lancashire.”
“You did say in your last blog you wanted more info on the play’s aural pedigree, as you put it so nicely.”
“So Thompson was a broadcaster?”
“And a writer. Best try the history society in Bury.”
And then I remembered why the name was familiar. The poet Paul Potts wrote a wonderful tribute in his book, Dante Calls You Beatrice, in which he describes how Dylan
“loved sweets, bubble and squeak, thrillers, tripe and onions and T. Thompson the Lancashire writer.”
Thomas Thompson was born in 1880 in Bury, an industrial town of mills, coal mines and furnaces, some ten miles north of Manchester, and he lived there all his life. The son of a mill worker and clog maker, he started in the cotton mills as a child, working as a warehouse boy. Then after a series of jobs as an errand runner, he became a printer’s apprentice; he specialised in book-binding and worked in that craft for much of the rest of his life.
Thompson had drifted into writing at an early age, with articles on the countryside for his local newspaper, paragraphs for various gossip columns, and a piece in the Sunday Chronicle. These were noticed by The Guardian, who invited him to write something longer. It turned into a regular column, the Plum Street Memoirs, based largely on the people who lived in and around Wood Street in Bury. He’d been brought up there in a house so small, he said, that it seemed you could poke the fire standing on the front door step. The back door opened onto a cul-de-sac, where
“quite a number of people lived regularly on the edge of extreme poverty… I thought of the patience and the heroism of the poor people who lived in it, and their full-blooded humour…could I tell their tale?”
He could and he did. Thompson’s column ran in The Guardian through the 1920s, culminating in Blind Alley, a novel about Plum Street’s residents, seen through the eyes of a young book-binder. But The Guardian wanted more, so Thompson continued with a column of Lancashire portraits that ran regularly from the 1930s to his death in 1951. He also published sixteen books, mostly collections of short stories, about Lancashire people and their communities. The first of these, Lancashire Mettle, was published in 1933, with a frontispeice by his friend, L. S. Lowry.
And that wasn’t even the half of it. Thompson wrote several plays, and helped write a couple of film scripts: Mario Zampi’s comedy thriller, Spy for a Day, and Carol Reed’s Penny Paradise, starring Betty Driver. He was also a regular contributor of short stories to the Radio Times.
Besides his writing, Thompson was a prolific and versatile broadcaster, making a name for himself on the BBC with numerous programmes on Lancashire dialect, as well as over thirty sketches, stories and plays broadcast between 1937 and 1951, almost all of them about life in Lancashire towns and villages. He continued broadcasting through the 1939-1945 war, writing a weekly series for the forces called Tom, Dick and Harry, as well as a number of individual programmes such as Hospitality to Foreigners, in which he appealed to listeners to invite soldiers and refugees from abroad to share Christmas dinner and spend the day with them.
Thompson was also responsible for seven of the nine episodes of Burbleton, an imaginary northern community created by BBC staff in 1937 – the Radio Time seven published a map and some vital statistics. His series, Under the Barber’s Pole, broadcast on the Home Service between 1947 and 1952, comprised dialect stories set in the fictional Lancashire village of Owlerbarrow, with Wilfred Pickles in the lead role. It was so successful that Allen and Unwin published a collection of the stories in 1949.
By now, Dai Cwc was muttering in his emails about whether the similarity between the titles Under the Barber’s Pole and Under Milk Wood was significant or not. What part, he wondered, did the fictional communities of Owlerbarrow, Burbleton and Plum Street play in stimulating Dylan’s thinking about his own fictional communities, such as Montrose Street and Llareggub?
And how did Thompson’s writing influence the novels of his fellow Lancastrians, Louis Golding (Magnolia Street) and Walter Greenwood (Love on the Dole), both published in 1932? Not to mention Tony Warren’s dialect-enriched soap, Coronation Street, first televised in 1960. Whatever Thompson’s influence, there’s little doubt that he set a high standard of authenticity; he was, said Greenwood, the “most Lancashire of Lancashire writers.”
Had Dylan and Thompson ever met? It’s certainly possible. Thompson was often in London, both for his film work and broadcasting, as well as his trade union duties. His favourite pubs and hotel were in and around Fleet Street. Thompson’s fondness for London is clearly expressed in his autobiography; his chapter on his visits to the city concludes: “It is a great satisfaction to find so many friends so firmly entrenched there.”
These friends included Wilfred and Mabel Pickles, and Gracie Fields, whom he visited at her home in St John’s Wood. His 1938 collection of stories, Lancashire Fun, is dedicated to Fields; he later broadcast three programmes about her. As actors, entertainers and producers came and went, whether in London or Manchester, Thompson’s friendships grew: Wendy Hiller, Joan Littlewood, Violet Carson, Betty Driver and Tommy Handley, to name but a castful, as well as one of the BBC’s most innovative producers, Olive Shapley.
It’s doubtful that Dylan and Thompson would have met in Lancashire, though Dylan had been there in 1938, staying with the BBC’s Geoffrey Bridson. He had also stayed with the historian A. J. P. Taylor, who had a house on the moors outside Manchester. Taylor mentions Thompson in his monumental volume, English History 1914-1945. A few years later, he recalled that “For many years the stories of T. Thompson were the things I first read in the Manchester Guardian. He has had no successor.”
The Guardian journalists also held him in the highest regard, and its reviews of his books were, perhaps not unexpectedly, full of praise both for his humanism and his humour, as one put it. Of Lancashire Lure, which came out in 1947, the paper’s reviewer felt “it is temperate to say that what Kipling was to India and what O. Henry was to New York that Thompson is to Lancashire.” Other newspapers were of a similar opinion:
“Instinct with the grit, the humour and the sentiment of Lancashire folk. Mr Thompson is a master of the snapshot. He has an economy of incident and speech which leaves the lines of his sketches bold and distinct.” Times Literary Supplement.
“Mr Thompson has enormous sense of character…Blind Alley has the vitality of a holiday at Blackpool; but it has tenderness too.” The Observer.
“Here is authentic Lancashire, presented in a series of masterly glimpses.” Evening Standard.
“Not bad,” said Dai, “for someone who worked in the mills as a child.”
“Not bad,” I replied,”for someone brought up in the slums of a Victorian industrial town.”
Not bad, I thought, for someone whose education “was so small that I remember little about it.” It was, he said, a poor do. More than fifty years on, the University of Manchester made a better do of it, awarding him an honorary Masters degree for his scholarly contribution to dialect literature.
Thompson died a few months later in February 1951. He was buried in Elton All Saints churchyard in Bury. Wilfred Pickles later described him as “the writer who captured life with all the accuracy and none of the flatness of a photograph, the brilliant and modest man of letters who was as unaffected as he was sincere.” Thompson’s obituary in the Guardian reminded readers that he was blessed with an inspiration that was “nearer to genius than to talent.”
“I wonder if Under the Barber’s Pole reminded Dylan of Ocky Owen’s barber shop in Llansteffan?”
“Enough already, Dai.”
“One thing’s for sure,” he emailed back. “It’s a shame that Tommy Thompson hasn’t got his own Wiki page.”
“He has now. His granddaughter and I have just done it.”
© DNT 2018. Images © Jean Hornby.
Press clippings:You can read Tommy Thompson’s first Plum Street column at the link below, as well as a selection of other columns and reviews. It also has his obituary.
If you have any difficulty using the link, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org I’ll send you the clippings as PDFs.
Photographs of Tommy Thompson:
My thanks to Jean Hornby, granddaughter of Thomas Thompson, without whom I would have made little progress. And to Roy Turner of the Bury Local History Society, Madeline Keyser at the Lilly Library (D.G. Bridson archive) and staff at the BBC Written Archives Centre, Reading, and the National Library of Wales.
- Fernhill landlady etc: see Thomas (2003) chapter 5.
- Paul Potts on Thompson: see Potts (1961) p183.
- Book-binding: aged 18, Thompson won the Skinners’ Company silver medal for book-binding.
- Spy for a Day: Thompson does not appear in the credits but he describes the work he did in Lancashire for Me.
- Wartime work: Tom, Dick and Harry ran weekly from October 1941 to January 1942. Hospitality to Foreigners was broadcast on December 22 1940, following the BBC six o’clock news (information from Jean Hornby). For details of Thompson’s other wartime programmes, see https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/search/0/20?adv=1&order=asc&q=%22T+Thompson%22&yf=1940&yt=1947#search
- Burbleton: the BBC seems to have taken the name from A. P. Herbert’s spoofs of legal cases, published in Punch magazine and then collected for publication by Methuen from 1927 onwards. Dylan and Caitlin lived next door to Herbert for a short period in 1942. You can read all about the BBC’s community of Burbleton here: http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/page/5e01d8e3eaa442509c128446396b5f5a?page=13
- Montrose Street: in Dylan’s 1946 broadcast, The Londoner.
- Owlerbarrow: there is an Owlerbarrow Road in Bury, and an Owlerbarrow Farm, and there used to be an Owlerbarrow Hall estate, but there is no village of Owlerbarrow.
- Greenwood on Thompson: see Greenwood (1951) p109.
- Programmes on Gracie Fields: Hello Gracie (3.12.1945). More Gracie (7.3.1946) and Welcome Gracie (17.7.1947), all on the North of England Home Service (information from Jean Hornby).
- A.J.P. Taylor on Thompson: see Taylor (1976) p6. If you can’t get hold of Thompson’s autobiography, Lancashire for Me, you’ll find some information about him in Rose (2001), as well as in Pickles (1951).
- Review of Lancashire Lure: the Guardian, September 26 1947.
- Education a poor do: see Thompson’s autobiography, Lancashire for Me.
- Thompson’s MA: July 7 1950.
- Thompson’s obituary in the Guardian:February 16 1951.
- Ocky Owen: see the interview with him in Thomas (2003).
- D.G.Bridson (1971) Prospero and Ariel, Gollancz
- W.Greenwood (1951) Lancashire, Robert Hale
- F.Halliday (1939) Burbleton Rushbearing, Radio Times July 14
- P.Potts (1961) Dante Called You Beatrice, Eyre and Spottiswoode
- W.Pickles (1951) Sometime Never, Odhams
- J.Rose (2001) The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, YUP
- G. Stowell (1938) Broadcasting the Borough of Burbleton, Radio Times February 11
- A.J. P. Taylor (1976) Introductionto The Bedside Guardian, vol 25, ed. W.L.Webb, Collins
- D.N. Thomas (2003) Dylan Remembered 1914-34, vol 1. Seren
- D.N. Thomas (2004) Dylan Remembered 1935-53, vol 2. Seren
- T.Thompson (1933) Lancashire Mettle. (1934) Blind Alley, novel. (1935) Song o’ Sixpence,novel. (1935) Lancashire Brew.(1937) Lancashire Lustre. (1937) Cuckoo Narrow, novel. (1937) Stick-in-the Mud, one act comedy. (1938) Lancashire Fun. (1940) Lancashire Lather. (1940)Lancashire for Me – Little Autobiography. (1943) Lancashire Rampant. (1945)Lancashire Pride. (1947) Crompton Way, novel. (1947) Lancashire Lure.(1949) Under the Barber’s Pole. (1950) Lancashire Laughter. (1951) The Lancashire Omnibus. (all published by Allen and Unwin)
Featured image © Kake and licensed for reuse under this creative commons license.