A literary corner

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A GROUP of some of Scarborough’s newer houses, occupying a hillside site rising up from Stepney Grove (1930), could be described as the town’s true literary corner. Leading off from Laughton Avenue (1970), there are Walmsley Gardens (1971), Bronte Close (1977), Holtby Grove (1970) and Jameson Crescent (1969).

Though Laughton and Bronte are family names too well known and regarded in Scarborough to require explanations of their local connections, Walmsley, Holtby and Jameson deserve to be better appreciated in the town. None of them were Scarborough-born, but all three went to school in the town. Leo Walmsley (1892-1966) and Storm Jameson (1891-1986) both attended the Municipal school at Westwood and Winifred Holtby (1898-1935) was at Queen Margaret’s, the girls’ boarding school beside the road named after it in 1939.

Leo (he was christened Lionel) Walmsley was born in Shipley in the West Riding. His father was an accomplished but impoverished oil painter, James Ulric Walmsley. Two years later, the family moved to Robin Hood’s Bay where Ulric hoped to make a modest living.

After he showed early promise at Bay Wesleyan school, Leo won a scholarship to the new Municipal secondary school at Scarborough. Storm Jameson, a Whitby girl a year older, later remembered him as “a stubborn, pugnacious little boy joining the train every morning for Scarborough.”

But Leo was too self-willed for his own good. Unlike Storm, he neglected his studies, became a persistent truant and left the High School with minimal qualifications. In his own, understated words, he later recalled his career at the Muni as “not brilliant.”

The truth was that young Leo was fascinated by and obsessed with marine geology and biology to the exclusion of every other subject on the curriculum. As a result, after a brief spell as an unqualified teacher, he became a part-time curator of the marine laboratory at Robin Hood’s Bay run jointly by Leeds and Sheffield universities. If his parents had allowed it, he would have chosen the life of a local fisherman.

When war began in 1914 Leo volunteered for service and was enrolled in the new Royal Flying Corps. On Boxing Day 1915, now a trained navigator-pilot, he sailed to East Africa. During the next two years he survived no fewer than 14 plane crashes and was awarded the Military Cross for his heroism.

Between the two wars Leo married, travelled in Italy and France, but always returned to his beloved Robin Hood’s Bay where he located all his autobiographical novels. Public recognition came late to Leo when in 1935 JA Rank made a film called ‘Turn of the Tide’, based on his novel ‘Three Fevers’, yet it was not until ‘Love in the Sun’ (1939) that he achieved a best seller.

The author of more than 20 novels, most of them fictional biography, and over 200 short stories and newspaper articles, after his death in 1966 Walmsley went out of fashion for a generation. Now, however, he has a society of enthusiastic followers who republish his work as well as one of those familiar blue plaques on the house in ‘Bramblewick’ where he once lived.

Storm Jameson’s time at Scarborough Municipal school was brief but formative and crucial to her subsequent literary career. Only at the Muni could she have received the tuition necessary to win her a North Riding county major scholarship worth £60 a year. Without it she could not have afforded a place at Leeds university from which she graduated in 1912 with a first-class English degree. The Muni gave her an opportunity then denied to all but a very few of her sex and class.

Though Whitby was her first love and the setting of most of her 45 novels, she never returned to live there permanently, only to be haunted by what she called “the most beautiful place in England.”

Financial need compelled her to become a professional, full-time writer. Neither of her two husbands was able to support her adequately and she never made enough money or felt the domestic urge to have a home of her own. For six years she lived in a hotel in Ilkley and her final two-volume autobiography was written in a Cambridge flat.

During her long lifetime, Storm cherished a succession of political causes. In the 1930s she was a passionate enemy of fascism and an outspoken critic of appeasement. In the 1950s fear of nuclear war made her a convert to disarmament and a close friend of Bertrand Russell. She was delighted to learn that both Hitler and Stalin had her name on their death lists.

The award of an honorary doctorate by Leeds university was meagre recognition of such a prolific, skilled writer. She never seemed to please the literary critics. At least Scarborough gave her a Crescent in good company, even before her death, a rare reward.

Winifred Holtby fought all her abbreviated adult life for two main causes – pacifism and equality – and both of them she first acquired as a schoolgirl at Scarborough.

In December 1914 she witnessed and wrote graphically about the German naval bombardment of Scarborough. She saw the shells crashing down on the homes of innocent civilians. She saw women and their children running away in terror down Seamer Road as the girls of Queen Margaret’s took shelter at the Mere side. Four years later, she left her studies at Oxford to become a volunteer in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps behind the Western Front.

For the remainder of her life as a journalist, novelist and lecturer for the League of Nations, she devoted herself unselfishly to the cause of world peace. To Winifred, pacifism and feminism were complementary: as she wrote, “Women do not make war”.

During the last three years of her time at Queen Margaret’s, first at Scarborough then at Pitlochry, where the girls were evacuated, Winifred came under the influence of headmistress Rosalind Fowler, “an enlightened feminist”. It was an influence evident in all her many articles, short stories and six published novels.

Half a century before ‘The Female Eunuch,’ Winifred was campaigning for equal pay, equal employment opportunities, maternity grants and separate taxation for both single and married women. As her headmistress heroine in ‘South Riding’ boldly declared: “I was born a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin”.

The good news is that the BBC has re-discovered ‘South Riding’, acknowledging it as “a forgotten masterpiece” and has recently broadcast a new dramatised version of it on television.