Working Class Novelists 1930-1950


a wORking press Research Pamphlet by Howard Slater

This list of working class novelists is not intended to be definitive but is a work in progress resulting from the interest of a member of Working Press. We felt it worthwhile to produce this annotated list both to bring back to light these mainly forgotten writers as well as to perhaps discover others (working class women and members of ethnic minorities are conspicuous by their absence). In some senses this list has been determined by two source books; Ken Walpole’s Dockers and Detectives (1983) and Andy Croft’s Red Letter Days (1990), as well as the arbitary availability of books in the basements of second-hand bookshops. Furthermore, as is the trouble with most research projects, what is found/discovered is dependent upon the choices made by others; eg, in this case, what a publisher chose to print in the first place and re-print later. It is frustrating to scan the list and realise that some of the more legendary books and stories might never be re-printed.

Much of the writing featured in this list (though not all of it) could be said to be in a realist style, following narrative patterns. Today, with a wider variety of forms on offer, many of which are more immediate, it could be that such a list appears quaint and unfashionable. This may be the case, but that is not to belittle the achievements of these mostly self-taught writers who chose to base the contents of their novels upon their immediate experiences: for some a depiction of brutalities that led to prosecution (Hanley), of dropping out and going on the tramp (Phelan), of political commitment (Heslop, Jones, Sommerfield). Working class life had been a subject before, but the 30s marked a time when much of that writing was written by working class people themselves.


James Hanley

Drift (1930)
Boy (1931/90)
Men in Darkness (1931)
Captain Bottell (1933/65)
The Fury’s (1935/1991)
Peter Fury (19??)
Broken Water (1937)
Hollow Sea (1938/65)
The Ocean (1941)
No Directions (1944/90)
Closed Harbour (1952)
Levine (1956)
An End and a Beginning (1958/90)
A Woman in the Sky (1973)
Dream Journey (1976)
A Kingdom (1978)

Born in 1901 in Dublin of Irish parents JH was brought up in Liverpool; worked as a stoker aboard ships from the age of 14 and later on the Lancashire railways; fought in WW1 where he was gassed; eventually became a professional writer. He settled in North Wales in the 1930s where he led”the life of a recluse”. His son Liam Hanley says of his father’s work”For me his strength lay in the fact that he was never cruel with his characters, never distanced, never clever. He gave working men and their wives and children a voice -their voice”. JH died in 1985.

George Garrett

Mainly published stories in the New Left Review, New Writing and Adelphi from 1935-37.

Liverpool 1920-21 – an excerpt from his unpublished autobiography
Ten Years of the Parish
Also Out of Liverpool: stories from sea and land [Merseyside Writers Ctte. 1982]
GG was born in Liverpool in 1896 and also served at sea. He travelled in the USA where he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies). He returned to Liverpool in 1926 where he was politically active, at first in unemployed organisations (ie National Unemployed Workers Movement). Like many working class writers he began writing short stories during unemployment. He became acquainted with George Orwell. GG also helped found the Merseyside Left Theatre and landed in court on one occasion after a near riot at the Walker Art Gallery. After WW2 he worked on the docks and there is little record of subsequent writing activity.

Jack Hilton

Caliban Shrieks
Champion (1938)
English Ways (1939)
Laugh at Polinius
English Ribbon (1950)
Caliban Boswelling

JH worked as a plasterer in Rochdale. Active in the Trade Union Movement and National Unemployed Workers Movement, doing time for his role in a demonstration of the unemployed at Rochdale; was a also a member of the Socialist Labour Party, a Marxist organisation that eventually merged into the Communist Party in 1921 – JH did not follow the majority of the party into the CPGB. Whilst blacklisted from employment he began writing saying”I equipped myself with a new kind of protest method against what was our lot”. From 1935-37 JH went on a scholarship to Ruskin College (Trade Union). His stories were published in Left Review, Adelphi etc. and he was a contributor to the anthology Seven Shifts. JH was to have collaborated with Jack Common on a sequel about women’s work as well as on a project inviting working class writers”to slaughter two establishment authors”.

William Holt

Under a Japanese Parasol
Backwaters (1934)
I was a Prisoner
I Haven’t Unpacked (1939)

WH was born in 1898 the son of a coal hawker. Though a weaver by trade he turned his hand to countless other jobs including language teacher, able seaman, stuntman etc. WH was widely travelled and fought in WW1. He later became a communist councillor in Todmorden and In 1930 he attempted to establish a”League for the Liberation of Proletarian Arts” via The Daily Worker but this was rejected (ie this was before the CPGB adopted the Popular Front tactic). WF served a 9 month jail sentence in 1932 for his part in a demonstration of the unemployed in Todmorden. His first book was self-published and hawked door-to-door and its success led him into journalism eg covering the Spanish Civil War and Northern life etc..

A.P. Roley
Revolt (1933)

This was a pseudonym for Manchester railway worker George Chandler. A communist he was a leading contributor to Storm a magazine of proletcult as well as writing similar stories for the Daily Worker between 1932-34.[The leading figure in Revolt is a composite of Jim Phelan and his accomplice Jack Braddock].

E.A. Hibbert

The Brittlesnaps (1937)
Lowtown (1938)

J.L. Hodson

Harvest in the North (1934)

Frank Tilsley

First Thing First
Little Tin God
I’d Do It Again (1936)
I’d Hate to be Dead
We Live and Learn (1939)
She Was There Too
A Plebians Progress

Frank Tilsley was born in Lancashire. His 1936 book was seen as”an attempt to apply the technique of the talky novel to the English scene”.

Walter Greenwood

Love on the Dole (1933)
Only Mugs Work
His Worship The Mayor (1934)
How the Other Man Lives (1937)

Born in Salford in 1903, WG is perhaps the most widely known author on the list. His 1933 book has always been readily available. Before becoming a full time writer he worked as an office boy, warehouseman etc.


Lewis Jones

Cwmardy (1937/78)
We Live (1938/78)

LJ was born in 1897 in Clydach Vale and spent his early working life as a miner in the South Wales coalfield. He won a scholarship to the Central Labour College between 1923-25 where he joined the CPGB. During the 1926 Lock-Out he received a 3 month jail sentence for his”seditious speeches”. Following his dismissal from the colliery for refusing to work with scab labour, Jones became organiser for the Welsh NUWM before, in 1936, becoming a communist councillor. In the early 30’s his writing was modelled on a proletcult style. He died in 1937.

Gwyn Thomas

The Alone to the Alone
The Dark Philosophers
Sorrow For Thy Sons (1936)
The Thinker and the Thrush (1948)
All Things Betray Thee (1949)
The World Cannot Hear You (1956)

GT was born in 1913 in Cymmer, the youngest of 12 kids in a family whose father was an unemployed miner. He attended University where he was”profoundly unhappy”. By 1942 he was working as a teacher in Barry and became a full-time writer and broadcaster in 1962. Much of his writing expresses injustice with a sardonic almost surreal humour.

Bert Lewis Coombes

These Poor Hands (1939)

BC worked as an ambulance driver in a large colliery. He contributed mainly documentary stories to New Writing in which he was first published as well as Left Review and the CPGBs Daily Worker. His only novel was published by the Labour Bookclub.

Jack Jones

Rhonnda Roundabout (1934)
Bidden to the Feast
Black Parade
Unfinished Journey

JJ was a founder member of the CPGB who ended up supporting the Liberals after passing through Oswald Mosley’s New Party. Even so the Unity Theatre staged a dramatisation of Rhonnda Roundabout.

Rhys Davies

The Withered Root (1927)
Time to Laugh (193?)
Jubilee Blues (1938)
Waiting in the Shade (1960)

RD was born in Clydach Vale the son of a grocer. He left Wales in the 20s to pursue a writing career in London. He travelled abroad and was later befriended by D.H. Lawrence.

Gwyn Jones

Times Like These
The Flame Beneath the Scythe


Walter Brierley

Means Test Man (1935/83)
The Sandwichman (1937/88)
Dalby Green

WB was born in 1900 in the village of Waingroves, Derbyshire the son of an engine-winder. He began working as a miner in Derbyshire and between 1927-31 he partook in a Miner’s Welfare Scholarship on day release from the pit. On returning to full time work he was soon put on short time and then made redundant. He was unemployed between 1931-35 when he began to write. He scraped a living from writing (including radio plays) during the 1930s before eventually becoming a child-welfare officer in 1937, a job in which he remained until his death in 1967.

Walter Allen

Innocence is Drowned (1936)
Living Space (1940)
Blind Man’s Ditch (1939)
All in a Lifetime (1959)

WA was born in Aston, Birmingham in 1911 the son of a silversmith. Graduated from Birmingham University and made a living as a freelance journalist and broadcaster.

Leslie Halward

To Tea on Sundays (1936)
Let Me Tell You (1938)
Money’s Alright (1938)
Gus and Ida (1939)

LH was born in Sally Oak, Birmingham in 1906, the son of a butcher and started work at the age of 15, working variously as designer, tool-maker, labourer and plaster. He also contributed to New Writing, Fact, Left Review and the London Mercury.

John Hampson

Saturday Night at the Greyhound (1931/86)
JH was born in Handsworth in 1901. His parents were once rich. Hampson worked at a variety of jobs including munitions factory worker, chef, waiter and book thief.

G.F Green

Land Without Heroes (1948/63)

GFG was born in North Derbyshire in 1914 and during the 30s he wrote for magazines such as New Writing, Life & Letters, London Mercury and Best Short Stories.

F.C. Boden

Pit Head Poems (1927)
Miner (1932)
Flo (1933)

FCB was a miner at Williamsthorpe Colliery until he was put on short time in 1926. He moved to Exeter where he taught for the Workers Education Association.


Jack Common

Freedom of the Streets (1938)
Seven Shifts – editor (1938)
Kiddars Luck (1951/91)
The Ampersand (1954)
Articles for Adelphi and New Britain
collected as Revolt Against an Age of Plenty (1981)

JC was born in Newcastle in 1903 the son of a railway man. He had various jobs throughout his life including clerk, caretaker, labourer and various stints unemployed. During the 30s he worked on the magazine Adelphi and had many short articles published. It was during this time that he became friendly with George Orwell.

Dan Billany

The Cage (1949)
The Trap (1950/86)

DB was born in Hull in 1913 and began work as an apprentice electrician. As an alternative to the dole he went to night school eventually getting to university and becoming a teacher at a Hull school. He joined the army in 1940 as a Lieutenant and was captured in Africa in 1942. It was in a POW camp that he wrote his two novels, The Cage, in collaboration with David Dowie. He died in 1945 trying to put an end to the activities of an informer. He is buried near Fermo, Italy.

Harold Heslop

Gate of a Strange Field (1929)
Journey Beyond (1930)
Goaf (1934)
Last Cage Down (1935/78)
From Tyne to Tone (unpublished)

HH was a miner in South Shields and a militant in the Durham Miners Association from whom he won a scholarship to the Central Labour College from 1924-26.A former member of the Independent Labour Party he attended the 2nd Revolutionary Writers Congress in Charkov (USSR). His first 2 books were criticised by the CPGB and the authorities in the USSR and Last Cage Down was written as a direct expression of the CPGBs”Class against Class” policy. Ironically for Heslop, this too met with a jaded reaction, as CPGB policy had changed by the time of its publication to Popular Front tactics. Heslop’s earlier books were rehabilitated.

J.C. Grant

Back-to-Backs (1930)

JCG was a civil servant in Alnwick, Northumberland and this was the only novel he wrote. As such it attracted a lot of attention and he was pilloried by the Left for his grim depiction of a mining village.


Simon Blumenfield

Jew Boy (1935/86)
Phineas Khan (1937/88)
Doctor of the Lost (1938)
They Won’t Let You Live (1939)

SB worked in the rag trade and as market trader in London’s Whitechapel district. He became a member of the editorial board of the Left Review and did much to promote the Workers Theatre Movement as well as founding The Rebel Players. From here he began to work professionally in a number of editorial jobs.

Willy Goldman

East End My Cradle (1940)
The Light in the Dust (1944)
A Tent of Blue (1946)

WG was born in Stepney in 1910, left school at the age of 14 and worked in the dock, engineering and clothing industries with periods of unemployment. Wrote in New Writing.

Ashley Smith

Children with Fire (1934)
The Brimming Lake (1937)
A City Stirs (1939)
You Forget So Quickly (1946) (review of book in Spectator) (scroll down)
Greece: Moments of Grace (1948)
The East Enders (1961)

Ashley Smith was born in London 23 May 1908, UK of Jewish forebears.
Married Norah Smith (nee Mitchell). He wrote London novels.

John Sommerfield

They Die Young (1930)
May Day (1936/84)
Volunteer In Spain (193?)
Trouble in Porter Street (1938)
The Survivors (1947)
The Inheritance (1952)
Adverseries (1956)
North West 5 (1960)
The Imprinted (1978)

JS was born in London off the Portobello Road in 1908. He left school at 16 and worked on ships and as an occasional stage-hand in London Theatres. He had stints unemployed and fought in Spain from where he published the first combatants account. He joined the CPGB in the late 20s and his writing appeared in the Left Review, New Writing and as a columnist in the Daily Worker.


Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Calends of Cairo (1931)
Stained Radiance (1930)
13th Disciple (1931)
Sunset Song (1932)
Cloud Howe (1933)
Real name: Leslie Mitchell. Born in 1901 in Aberdeenshire. Worked as a journalist before joining army and later turned to archeological research. Took up writing fiction in late 1920s and called himself a”revolutionary writer”. The last 3 novels form the much acclaimed trilogy: A Scots Quair. LM died in 1934 at Welwyn Garden City.

Joe Corrie

In Time of Strife (1930)
Black Earth (1939)

JC worked as a miner in West Fife. He began writing when he was made unemployed after WW1. His work was published in the Glasgow paper Forward and his one-act plays were produced by the Fife Miners Players. JC tried to make a living from writing after 1926.

George Blake

Shipbuilders (1935)

A novel GB later repudiated as unworthy of its epic subject.

James Barke

The World His Pillow (1933)
Wild Macraes (1934)
Major Operation (1936)
Land of the Leal (1939/87)

JB was born in 1905 a farm-workers son at Kincardine-on-Forth. He moved to Glasgow after WW1 and became a gate keeper at a shipyard. Became a member of the CPGB in the late 1930s. The success of his first novel encouraged him to take up writing professionally.

Fenner Brockway

Purple Plague (1935)

“Volatile leader of the 1930s ILP”


Jim Phelan

Museum (1937)
Green Volcano (1938)
Ten a Penny People (1938)
Lifer (1938)
In the Can (1939)
Jail Journey (1940)
Tramp at Anchor
The Name’s Phelan (1948/93)
Turf Fire Tales (1948)
Bog Blossoms (1948)
Underworld (1953)

JP was born in 1895 and spent much of his early life around Dublin though he later settled in Liverpool. By his own account he was an engineering apprentice, ships fireman, travelling actor, gun runner, circus hand and tramp travelling as far afield as Texas and Toulon. He witnessed the 1913 transport strike in Dublin and later had connections with the IRA. In 1923 he was sentenced to death for his part in an armed robbery, though he was reprieved and spent 15 years in the prison system. On release he appears to have made a living as novelist, scriptwriter and broadcaster though he continued the wandering life with wife Kathleen. He died in 1966.

Patrick McGill

Children of the Dead End
The Autobiography of a Navvy (1914)
The Rat Pit (1915/83)

PM was born in 1890 on a farm in Glenties, Donegal and left school aged 10. He worked locally and was hired out at Strabane fair aged 12. At 15 he was a potato picker in Scotland, at 18 a plate-layer on the railways. Later a tramp and navvy he worked on waterways projects and by the time he was 21 he was employed as a journalist in London.

Liam O’Flaherty

The Famine
The Wildrerness
The Assassin
Mr Gilhooley (1926)

Frank O’Connor

Guests of the Nation (1931)
Saint and Mary Kate (1932)
Dutch Interior (1940)
An Only Child

FOC was born in Cork in 1903 and was later active in the Irish Republican movement. He was imprisoned in Gormanstan. By the 30s and 40s he was part of the Irish literary revival and became director of the Abbey Theatre. He left Ireland in the 50s as a result of government censorship of his work. He settled in the USA and died in 1966.


Ralph Bates

Sierra (1933)
Lean Men (1934)
The Olive Field (1936)
The Miraculous Horde (1939)

RB was born in 1899 in a northern town and apprenticed to a factory at 16. He settled in Spain in 1923 and worked at first in a fish cannery. Later he became active in the Dockers Union and was involved in the Spanish Revolution of 1932 and the 1937 Civil War. He was editor of Volunteer for Liberty, the paper of the 1st International Brigade.

Charles Ashleigh

Rambling Kid (1930)

CA worked in the USA where he was active in the Industrial Workers of the World. He returned to Britain in the early 20s where he began to write for the Daily Worker. His book is an autobiography.

Lionel Britten

Hunger and Love (1931)

Alec Brown

The Lovely Girl

Harry Carlisle

Darkness at Noon
This novel was concerned with life in a pre-war mining village.

Herbert Hodges

Its Draughty In Front

Mark Benney (real name Henry Ernest Degras)

What Rough Beast
Low Company (1936)
MB wrote crime/underworld novels from the 1930s onwards.

Further information on any of the above authors would be appreciated.

WORking Press

This is the text only version of the wORking Press Research Pamphlet WORKING CLASS NOVELISTS 1930-1950 by HOWARD SLATER if you copy and distribute it any form please acknowledge the original source and refer people to our website: (note: url no longer valid)