Whenever I plan a holiday in the UK or in Europe, I always check my collection of H.V. Morton’s travel books to see if he has written about the places I hope to visit.
Introducing Henry Morton
Henry Canova Vollam Morton was born on 26 July 1892 in the last decade of the 19th century. At that time, his father, Joseph Vollam Morton was the sub-editor of the Ashton-under-LyneHerald. Joseph wrote full descriptions in the newspaper of various long walks in and around Ashton, which is at the crossroads of Lancashire, Derbyshire, Cheshire and South Yorkshire. One thing Joseph was most adamant about was the common man’s rights of access to the moors around the industrial towns. He wrote a very passionate editorial about Kinder Scout in July 1894. His son, H.V. Morton, was an avid walker, maybe an inherited gene.
The family lived at Chester Square Ashton-under-Lyne. Henry reminisced about his old home in 1966 after he had left the UK for South Africa.
“I remember the house in Ashton-under-Lyne very vaguely. I remember lying in my cot and watching a tall church steeple turn white on one side during a snowstorm. I also remember marching up and down wearing a brass helmet, a breastplate and carrying a sword. I was out with mother once and saw a red fire engine drawn by two white horses rushing along with a bell ringing and the firemen struggling into their jackets.”
A commemorative blue plaque was erected in Ashton-under-Lyne near to his birthplace in 2004. The actual house has been demolished.
In search of England
As a young man Henry rose from cub reporter on the Birmingham Gazette to eminent national journalist and internationally renowned travel writer, publishing his first book The Heart of London in June 1925 and his last, In Search of the Holy Land just two months before his death in 1979. In his time, he was described as “the world’s greatest living travel writer”.
In 1926 he wrote a series of articles for the Daily Express based on his travels around England in his bull-nosed Morris car. The series was entitled In Search of England and the vignettes were later adapted into the book of the same name. This became a bestseller and the first of his many In Search of… books. Morton wrote up to 50 books and countless articles for newspapers and journals over 54 active years of writing life. His early travel book In the Steps of the Master, published in 1934, sold over half a million copies.
I recently took down my copy of In Search of England and, scanning through the chapter headings, I realised that I had visited practically every place mentioned. I had actually lived in two of the places and our daughter married in another. The appeal of Morton’s travel books is the way in which he describes towns and cities. He gives them a personality, almost as if they are people he has come to know. The reader is drawn into a shared experience with the writer. It is a personal, intimate style, far removed from the scholarly textbook. He does illuminate with historical fact, however. I always re-read his In Search of Italy and In Search of Spain before visits to grapple with their complicated dynasties.
Manchester doesn’t warrant a mention in the index of In Search of England but the city is positively feted in The Call of England: “Manchester plunges into its day like a man who sings in his bath. He (for Manchester is even more masculine than London) attacks each morning with loud gusto; he seems to believe that life is real and earnest.”
Morton on the Valley of the Kings
Arguably his biggest scoop, as a journalist, was when the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered in 1923. He was working for the Daily Express when he scooped the official Times correspondent during the press coverage of the opening of the Tomb by Howard Carter. Morton witnessed the opening of the tomb and sent dispatches to the Daily Express from the tomb-site.
“The romantic secret of the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen [sic] in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor was revealed yesterday when, for the first time in 3,000 years, the inner chamber of the tomb was entered. Every expectation was surpassed. Within the chamber stood an immense sarcophagus of glittering gold, which is almost certain to contain the mummy of the king. Wonderful paintings, including that of a giant cat, covered the walls. A second chamber was crowded with priceless treasures.”H.V. Morton, Daily Express 17 Feb 1923
I discovered another link between H.V. Morton, his birthplace of Ashton-under-Lyne and Tutankhamun. It turns out that Ashton has a connection to the man who, it could be argued, laid the way for the discovery of the tomb.
Francis Llewellyn Griffith FBA, FSA was a famous Egyptologist of the time, although 30 years older than Morton. Born in Brighton in 1862, Griffith married another Egyptologist called Kate Bradbury in 1896, from Morton’s hometown of Ashton-under-Lyne.
In 1901 they were living with Kate’s father, Charles Bradbury, a wealthy cotton manufacturer, at Riversvale Hall in Ashton-under-Lyne. Sadly, Kate died in 1902, pre-deceasing her husband by some 32 years.
Francis Griffith had taught himself ancient Egyptian languages. He worked as a student for the EEF (Egypt Exploration Fund) which had been established in 1882 by Amelia Edwards and Reginald Stuart Poole. Kate Griffith nee Bradbury was a good friend of Amelia Edwards.
Howard Carter who, with Lord Carnarvon, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun was given a letter which first opened the way for his employment. The letter was signed by Francis Llewellyn Griffith, by then an influential figure, being curator at the British Museum and head of the archaeological survey branch of the EEF. It could be said that, in this way, Griffith himself indirectly contributed to the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Without his letter of introduction history might have been very different – the tomb may never have been discovered, H.V. Morton would thus have had no reason to have travelled to Egypt and so might have remained a jobbing journalist in London for the rest of his career!
Griffith inherited his father-in-law’s wealth after Charles Bradbury’s death in 1907. With this money he endowed the study of Egyptology at Oxford University. Griffith died in 1934 and, by the terms of his will, the Griffith Institute at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford was established in 1939, with additional funding from the will of his second wife, Nora.
H.V. Morton died on 17 June 1979 aged 86 at his home Schoenberg, Somerset West, in the Western Cape, South Africa. A Society dedicated to his works was founded in 2003 by a small group of admirers who were keen to gain more recognition of an under-appreciated writer. From small beginnings the membership has grown and is now fully international.
We leave H.V.M. with the words of a member of the H.V. Morton Society: “Morton was a master wordsmith who happened to travel. He was a conjuror pulling rabbits of imagery out of literary top hats using elegant prose and phrases often verging on poetry.”
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