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A Stoker with Punch

To some who have knowledge of his work, George Garrett is regarded as one of the most significant working class writers of his generation. Yet, since his work was published in the late 1930’s, and following his death in 1966, he has almost disappeared from view. The George Garrett Archive Project, launched with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund by Liverpool’s Writing on the Wall Festival, aims to celebrate and preserve his legacy, bring his life and work to a new generation of readers, and inspire a new generation of writers.

The George Garrett Archive Project.

George Garrett, Merchant Seaman, writer, playwright and founder member of Liverpool’s Unity Theatre, was a radical activist who travelled the world and wrote a series of short stories, stage plays and documentary reports about poverty and struggle in the 1920’s and 30’s. He occupies a unique and significant position as the central point of a compass that links Liverpool's literary, cultural, and maritime history.

Seagoing was central to George Garrett’s life. Here he learned everything about comradeship, whether as galley boy or as a member of the ‘down below’ crew amid the fearsome toil of the stokers. The sea gave him a taste of the cosmopolitan, encouraged him to jump ship in the great ports of Latin American or New York, just as it enabled him to return home, and never left him through all his bouts of unemployment in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
George Garrett lived a life that few of us these days could imagine. Born to a protestant and a staunchly catholic mother, his early life was characterised by uncertainty and poverty; born out of these circumstances was a burning hatred of injustice, and a desire to escape.

Upheaval came early. Shortly after his birth in 1896, in Seacombe on the opposite bank of the Mersey, the family were forced to move across to Liverpool after his father lost his confectioners business to drink. They built a new life in the slum areas around Park Road on the Dingle, living within sight of the docks and the river, which were to shape both the man and writer until the end of his days.

He developed an early distaste for religion in all forms, but not before his mother had won the argument for George to be educated at St Vincent’s Catholic Primary School on St James’s Street.The tyrant priests and Christian Brothers who ran the school left their mark on many of their young charges, but maybe none more so than George. His son John relates how his father once intervened in defence of a classmate being beaten, by smashing a slate over the head of the offending priest.

In his short story, Apostate, George bears bitter witness to the memory of this by telling the tale of a young boy wearing hand me downs, or ‘Dees clothes’, donated for the children of the poor, who rebels in class, kicks the priest with his clogs, and, to the delight of his classmates, escapes over the school wall and away across the canal.
George’s ‘christening’ into radical politics and protest came in 1911 on his fifteenth birthday, when he attended a mass demonstration on Lime Street outside Liverpool’s St George’s Hall. A series of strikes by seamen, dockers and transport workers had erupted into a city-wide general strike. The Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, likened it to revolution, sent in police reinforcements and ordered gun boats into the River Mersey. On what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, the police used a minor incident to charge the mass ranks of up to 100,000 demonstrators, and the young George Garrett, a bystander, suffered a broken nose and the loss of a few teeth when he was smashed in the face by a police baton.
In incidents such as this from his own life, we find many of the themes George returned to throughout his time as an activist, advocate and writer; the injustices of petty authority; poverty and its effect upon the working class; the powerlessness of the poor and the defenceless, and, though sometimes violent, the need for both collective and individual action to strike back and win some sort of victory. This is often accompanied by a fair slice of humour, and a knowing wink towards the reader.

He was always an avid reader but living in a port city furnished him with a world view. In his fragmented biography, ‘Ten years On the Parish’, he recounts how the seamen coming off the ships filled him ‘with wonder as they filed down gangways holding up parrots, or monkeys, or canaries, or any souvenirs that showed a trace of a far-off country’. He ‘secretly yearned to be one of them’ and was ‘eager to go to any part of the world’.

His desire to escape finally came to fruition one Saturday afternoon when, aged seventeen,after falling out with his father and spending time sleeping in stables, he stowed aboard a tramp steamer bound for Argentina. After being discovered too far from shore to return, he was given a dressing down by the Captain, a meal by the crew, and was set to work as a stoker, heaving coal into the furnaces to keep the ship’s engines turning.

Secretly he cried with the pain of the intense labour, but stuck it out until they docked in Buenos Aires, where he jumped ship and went ashore in search of work and adventure. Prior to 1914 the world was a much more open place; George didn’t even need a passport to set himself up with work and lodgings. But he hadn’t travelled three thousand miles just to hump ‘back-breaking’ sacks on some distant dock, and so didn’t think twice when three other young lads from Britain invited him along to go on the tramp and see what the country had to offer.

Long before Jack Kerouac turned it into a way of life for the Beat Generation, George was on the road, enjoying living off the land and taking whatever work came his way. These experiences left an indelible mark upon him and shine through in his writing. They show him to be a modern man, cosmopolitan in his views and his outlook, and sympathetic to the struggles of workers across the world.

In 1914 the world changed, and with the outbreak of the First World War George returned home and signed on officially as a Merchant Seaman. He sailed on the convoys among the warships and U-boats, was taken prisoner and forced to sign a declaration not to take up arms against the Germans, when his first ship, The SS Potaro, was captured by the German destroyer, Kronprinz Wilhelm. He escaped and went back to sea, only to be taken prisoner a second time when his ship, The Oswald, was also torpedoed.

These experiences fed through into his writing. Letter Unsigned tells of a seaman struggling to write a letter home against the inevitability of his ship sinking amidst a violent storm. But this, and other stories, came later. For now the most profound influence he encountered during the war was on reaching America, most specifically New York.
George was impressed by the conditions on the American ships, which were much better than those endured by British merchant seamen under the British Flag. But it was New York itself that enticed him. The young stoker, with his political and cultural ambitions, and the City’s bohemian mix of radicals, writers and syndicalist union activism, were a match made in heaven. It was here that George met and joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), more commonly known as The Wobblies.

The Wobblies, with their belief in ‘One Big Union’, also organised the great travellers, hoboes and unskilled who did not fit into craft based unions. By combining radical protest and cultural production – theatre, art, propaganda, prose, poetry and song, they earned themselves the accolade of most literate radical movement in history.

In 1918, with the war over, George returned to Liverpool and married Grace Hughes. But with endemic unemployment the only thing on offer, he immediately returned, with Grace’s blessing, to The States, no doubt with work on his mind, but also to immerse himself in the radical movements  of one of the world’s great cities.