Garrett George

Garrett George

Born in Seacombe on August 13th 1896, Garrett was, like many of the Merseyside-Irish, brought up a Catholic but unusually he was the son of a Catholic mother and Protestant father. His father, Sam, was a member of the Orange Lodge and a sweet shop owner. But his mother, Katherine, nee McAllister, supported the Irish Republicanism. The family business failed when George was very young and they moved to the Park Road area of Liverpool, where George’s father became a docker.

Garrett attended St Vincent’s Roman Catholic School and became a talented amateur writer. In a short story `Apostate’, published in `Left Review’ in 1936, he describes the brutality of the priests.

In 1911 he went to work, barrowing coal on the docks, at a time when the historic strike of transport workers occurred in Liverpool. On the 13th August police viciously attacked strikers with batons, during the course of which the fifteen-year old Garrett received a broken nose and lost several teeth.

He went to work as a merchant seafarer in 1913, stowing away on a tramp steamer and jumping ship in Buenos Aires. Surviving as a beachcomber at first, he became a tramp travelling through South America. In August 1914 he got work as a fireman on a British merchant ship and visited the USA, Canada, Egypt, India and the Canary Islands.

In 1917 the ship on which he was serving, the SS Oswald, was torpedoed by the Germans, but Garrett and most of the crew survived.

He married in 1918, but returned to sea not long after as a stoker because of lack of employment and then landed up in New York.  He joined the Industrial Workers of the World, the `Wobblies’ and was ejected from the USA two years later during the crackdown on foreign `Reds’.  Garrett’s experience as a Wobbly, with the use of song, literature and theatre as weapons in the struggle, would greatly mould his later output.

Amongst others, Garrett took a leading role in the Liverpool branch of the National Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement. The NUWM organised protest action in Liverpool, which culminated in a major demonstration on 12th September 1921, when the area in front of the Walker Art Gallery was spontaneously occupied by several hundred people and speeches given, including by Garrett. The police then stormed in, locking the main doors behind them and systematically began beating demonstrators and gallery workers alike with batons. Some people escaped through side doors, but a total of 161 demonstrators, including Garrett, were arrested.

Garrett was accused by the prosecuting lawyer of receiving gold from a government body, a hint of Moscow gold. Garrett immediately agreed that he was. The barrister, astonished by this unexpected, asked George to be more specific, whereupon he replied: 'The British Government. I'm on the dole."  All defendants received the light sentence of one day, which as it had already been served, meant all walked free.

Garrett was also active in the Seamen’s Vigilance Committee, set up in Liverpool, but in 1922 helped organise and participated in the Hunger March from Liverpool to London. His first published work was a song for the march, which was based on `Hold The Fort’, a British transport workers’ song.  As a song-sheet entitled 'Marching On!' this was sold to raise funds for the march. His song, `Seamen Awake’, written around the same time, is clearly influenced by Joe Hill’s `There Is Power In A Union'.

As a result of his activity Garrett was blacklisted and decided to return to America. His move seems to coincide with his lapsing membership of the British Communist Party. Perhaps this was reinforced by his old syndicalist instincts, as he associated once again with the remaining Wobblies who had not moved to the CPUSA.

He wrote two plays whilst in America, under the alias of George Oswald James, including `Flowers and Candles’, written in 1925. But despite their quality, he did not make a breakthrough.

Returning to Liverpool in May 1926, he was then out of work until 1932, obtaining only nine months’ work. In the five years after that, he only worked for two weeks.

Garrett began writing, some of which appeared between 1935-1937 as grim and realistic short stories in `Left Review’ and `New Writing’. He also wrote critical essays in Adelphi magazine under the name of Matt Low, a pun on the French word matelot meaning sailor.

In the late thirties he had a key role in establishing Merseyside Left theatre (later renamed Unity Theatre) and was a fine actor in many a production.

In 1936 he met Orwell when he was conducting research for `The Road To Wigan Pier’. Orwell was “greatly impressed” by Garrett and wrote about him in his book. But the admiration was not mutual! It is not clear why Orwell thought Garrett still a Communist, although perhaps the period of popular front-ism made it as easy for George to ally himself in debate to the Party as Orwell was rapidly attempting to diminish it?

Garrett’s neglect by later academia as a serious writer of the working class was not an isolated matter. Along with many others deemed `Communist’, his body of work was necessarily limited, due to the need to earn wages with which to keep his family. But it was Orwell’s announcement of him as a Communist, when he did not carry a card that damaged Garrett’s reputation. Only today, is he being considered seriously by some.

During World War Two, George gained employment in the merchant navy and on the Bootle docks.

In 1966, the last year of his life, he spoke at several meetings on support of the seamen’s strike of that year.


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