Henry Vollam Morton was born on 26th July 1892 at Ashton-Under-Lyne in Lancashire. Shortly after his birth, his father took up a position as Editor-in Chief of the Pearson's Group of newspapers, based in Birmingham. Here, Henry attended King Edward's School from 1906 to 1908 but he also began to teach himself from the many rare volumes in his father's private library. This led to a fascination with Egyptology, a subject that was to have a profound effect on his future writing career.
At the age of 17 he joined the staff at the Birmingham Gazette and Express where he learnt the rudiments of newspaper production. The group went bankrupt and Henry's father resigned. In 1912 Henry was made assistant editor but he decided the following year to resign and head for Fleet Street.
He eventually became sub-editor on the Daily Mail but in 1914 he enlisted and was commissioned in the Warwickshire Yeomanry. He fell ill shortly after and whilst convalescing at Colchester filled his time studying the Roman history of the town and this inspired a life-long interest in archaeology and ancient history, an interest that would be a feature of many of his future books.
After the war he returned to Fleet Street and in 1921 at age 29 he moved to the Daily Express. He became one of 'Lord Beaverbrook's young men'. In 1923 a major event occurred which was to be a major turning point in his life. With his specialised knowledge on Egypt, he was sent to cover the opening of Tutankhamun's lost tomb by Lord Caernarvon and Howard Carter. His brilliant descriptive reports were circulated to more than a hundred newspapers worldwide and making him a household name.
On his return to London, he was asked to write a series of vignettes about all aspects of life in the city. The pressure of the newspaper deadlines took its toll, however the quality of his writing did not suffer and he produced superb word pictures of London that has never been surpassed. His exploration of the city, by both day and night, quickly became one of the most popular columns in the newspaper.
He was approached by famous travel writer and chairman of Methuens the publishers, E.V.Lucas, who wished to publish his work in book form. The Heart of London appeared in 1925 and it immediately became a best seller. Four other volumes followed in quick succession. This included A London Year which vividly describes the social events of the city in the Twenties, ranging from opera at Covent Garden to an Air Force Pageant at Hendon.
While on a newspaper assignment in Jerusalem in 1923 he fell seriously ill and at his lowest ebb he became intensely home sick. He vowed that if he recovered he would return home and begin a tour through the country he loved but had shamefully neglected. Thankfully, he recovered and true to his word he returned home to tour and write what was to become a masterpiece of English travel, In Search of England. His journey began from London. Driving a bull-nosed Morris he set off westward with no set itinerary. His intention was: “to see what lies of the beaten track. I will, as the mood takes me, go into famous towns and unknown hamlets. I will shake up the dust of kings and abbots.”
The appeal of H.V.Morton's book lies in his talent for highly descriptive narrative together with a fast moving pace. His lively imagination allows the reader to be transported, light-heartedly, into a wide variety of situations which seem to unveil the very soul of England. One minute he is chatting to characters who have memories of Victorian England and then next he would be unfolding a tragedy that occurred in Saxon times.
His journey took place at a transitional period of English history and of this Morton was very much aware. A new age of technology was beginning, yet remnants of a way of life which had been unchanged for centuries still remained. At Bucklebury in Berkshire he met William Lailey, England's last wooden bowl-turner, and at St. Cross, near Winchester, tramps still relied on the wayfarer's dole for survival. Packmen still wandered over the moors of Cornwall, girls still wore clogs in northern towns, and flint-chipping was still a flourishing industry in Norfolk.
His book, which captured so vividly the mood of England, was an instant best-seller. It has now sold over a million copies in England alone and after 60 years was still in print. His early success spurred him on to undertake further journeys throughout Britain. In 1928 he made a second tour in which he devoted more time to the North where he found” shepherds and their lambs within sounds of the cotton looms”. This volume, entitled The Call of England, was followed the same year by The Land of the Vikings, which explores the Counties of East Anglia.
In 1929 he made his first journey across the Scottish border to the land of his ancestors. In Search of Scotland, which records this tour, again met instant success, and was appropriately dedicated to his mother. Thomas Johnston, who was Under-Secretary for Scotland at the time said “It is the most fascinating piece of descriptive writing on Scotland since Samuel Johnson.” This volume together with its companion, In Scotland Again, is regarded by many people to be his finest work. During the course of this journey, he visited Compton Mackenzie at his home on the Isle of Barra and the famous Scot was later to comment in his autobiography on the modesty of Morton.
He moved to the Daily Herald in 1931 as a special correspondent but he also continued his exploration of Britain by visiting both Ireland and Wales. David Lloyd George, when reviewing In Search of Wales commented. “The best travel book on Wales I have ever read”. This work was further acknowledged when H.V.Morton was crowned as a bard at Wrexham in August 1933.
His travels throughout Britain during the terrible times of the Depression in the early Thirties brought him into frequent contact with the plight of the unemployed. He wrote a series of articles highlighting his experiences with the aim of touching the country's conscience. These proved so popular that they were published in 1933 as a phamphlet entitled: What I Saw in the Slums.
By this time he was regarded as not only an authority on the history, people and places of Britain, but also, due to his many assignments abroad, about the Middle East. This brought an offer from publishers, Rich and Cowan that he found irresistible. For an unheard-of advance of 10,000 pounds, together with royalties of 33% on all sales above 150,000, he was asked to write a book on the Holy Land. This resulted in the best-selling book of 1935, In the Steps of the Master in which he followed the journeys of Christ through Palestine, Syria and Transjordan.
Two years later he completed a companion volume, In the Steps of St. Paul, in which he followed the route of the greatest missionary journey ever made. After completing his third book on the Middle East, Through Lands of the Bible, in which he travelled from the Euphrates to the Nile, he returned once more to his homeland. However, he sensed that the mood of the country was changing, for the terrible threat of war was once more looming over Europe. In May 1939 he set off “ to enjoy what I think maybe a last glimpse of pre-war England.
His nostalgic journey began in Kent where he visited Wolfe's home at Westerham. He then continued to Hever Castle and Knowle. Passing into Sussex he explored Battle and Lewes, and then he sauntered through the lanes of Gilbert White's Selbourne. Finally he moved on to Fotheringhay, where Mary, Queen of Scots was executed, before ending his tour at Peterborough and returning home to await the outbreak of war.
Five months later, after war had been declared, he set off once again on the second part of his tour. But this was a different Britain: The British Expeditionary Force was facing winter in France, the Royal Oak had been torpedoed in Scapa Flow and Germany had bombed the Firth of Forth. He discovered that the BBC had moved to a secret rural hideaway, factories were in full production making shells for Wellington Bombers, and he saw the first Nazi prisoners-of-war. His reflections on this epic period of history were recorded in I Saw Two Englands.
“I want you to leave England for three weeks, but I regret to say that I can't tell you where you are going or what you will see when you get there”, was the intriguing request made by Minister Brendan Bracken to H.V.Morton and fellow writer, Howard Spring, in August 1941. The two men accepted the invitation and found themselves witnessing the historic meeting between Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt, aboard the battleship Prince of Wales off the Newfoundland coast. The important “Atlantic Charter” resulted from this famous rendezvous and the whole episode was recorded by Morton in his book, Atlantic Meeting.
After the war, H.V.Morton and his wife Mary were invited to visited South Africa by Field Marshall Smuts. During their journey around the country, which later appeared as In Search of South Africa, they discovered the splendour of the Cape. Here they brought a farm and 'half a mountain” within view of Table Bay, which became their new home.
All H.V.Morton's subsequent books were written from this new base, although he spent most of his time in Europe. In 1951 he completed a volume on London, a city of which his knowledge was unsurpassed, before turning his pen to Spain and then finally to Italy which became his second home. He wrote five books about the country, and was awarded the coveted Cavaliere Order of Merit for a Traveller in Rome. His last book, A Traveller in Southern Italy, was published in 1969 when he was aged 77.
He died on the 18th June 1979, at the age of 86, and his ashes were scattered on the patch of England which he created in South Africa. He was a quiet, humble man of outstanding talent, whose spirit lives on in his marvellous legacy of travel writings. His greatest memorial is the slim volume which still delights each new generation as they discover the special magic of H.V. Morton's England.
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of the magazine "This England" and its staff and especially Kenneth Fields for his article published in the Winter 1991 Edition of that wonderful magazine. Many thanks.