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'Tramp novelist' dies in Haywards Heath Asylum

Updated: Oct 2, 2020

Birmingham Daily Gazette - Wednesday 10 December 1930


'Tramp-Novelist' Mr. Bart Kennedy, the well known author, has died in a mental hospital at Hayward's Heath. Sussex. He had been lying seriously ill there for a considerable time. Mr. Kennedy, who was 69 years old was the author of 20 novels, the first of which was " Darab's Wine Cup," published in 1897, and the last " Golden Green," published in 1921. He was known as the tramp-novelist, because many of his novels dealt with tramp life. Mr. Kennedy, who was born at Leeds, had had an adventurous career.

He went to work at the age of six in a Manchester cotton mill, and later, after being a member of the famous Halle Choir, ran away to sea and sailed before the mast. He fought with Red Indians In America, prospected for gold in the Klondyke, and wandered in Europe and America with travelling theatrical and operatic companies. Since the death of his wife about two years ago, Mr. Kennedy had gradually failed in health, and during the summer he was removed to the Hayward's Heath Mental Hospital.

Leeds Mercury - Saturday 13 December 1930


A Son of Leeds Who Had His Years of Triumph

By W.L.A.

One of my faithful readers, Mr William Horsefield of Beck Road, Leeds, once you need to write about “dear old Bart”. Leeds ought to be proud of such an author he says. He is a little disappointed that kindlier tributes have not been paid to one who before the war had a vast number of readers.

Dear old Bart, yes, that is how many of us thought of him. What a life he lived. What hardships he knew, what triumphs he tasted, and what a good companion he was in his happy go lucky days! He signed his name Bart Kennedy, but everyone knew him called him Bart. He was a great Bohemian. He had fought for his life in the wild places. He had come up from the depths and he loved to talk about it. There was nobody like him. Nobody like Bart Kennedy.

That cheerful friend Bart, who had fought in wild places. Our old friend Bart. Good old Bart. The fighter from the depths and the wild places

NOW perhaps if you are old enough to have read newspapers before the War his style will come back to you, for he wrote the queer, simple style I have just reproduced. It was a style that had force. It had emphasis. The style of a strong, simple man.

Bart often left out the verb. He would repeat a telling phrase. He got his effects. The style of a strong, simple man.

Ah, well, it was an easy style to parody, but in Bart’s hands it could be really effective. If he was telling of life in the depths of poverty in the half-darkness of a slum, or in the wild places of America, he gave us stirring and sometimes almost lyrical chapters of autobiography. He could capture on paper the spirit of a place. He once wrote an article on “Old York” that was the most picturesque and memorable I ever read about the minster city.

BART was born in Leeds, but the first thing he remembered was living with his mother in the half-darkness of a slum in Manchester. When he was eight he was a half-timer in a cotton factory. He was paid eighteen-pence a week and had to get up at quarter-past five every morning. Then at two in the afternoon he went to school for two hours and a half. When he was a little over ten he was working full time.

“Thus I got very little schooling” he said, “and I am not sorry, because I feel that I have gained immensely by not having my mind crammed with the false notions of things and life that are ladled out by the stupid university professors.”

When he was seventeen he left home to face the world. He walked out of the house one morning and did not return for fifteen years. “Poverty drove me from home,” he said, “ but I can’t say I felt very down-hearted about it. It is fine thing to face life. I was glad as I tramped along the road from Manchester to Liverpool. All sorts of fancies were in my head. I seemed to be walking on air. It was so fine to feel free and to be going out into the Unknown.”

THAT was Bart’s philosophy: it is a fine thing to face life. He would say that it was being afraid of a punch or a knock or a reverse that was the ruin of most men.

He became an able seaman and landed in Philadelphia with nothing in his pocket and a black eye. Then he tackled labouring work, but he thought afterwards this was a mistake. “Avoid labouring work like the plague,” he would say. There’s nothing in it. Remember that it is a fine, dignified thing—for other people to do.”

He worked on land, went to sea again, became a tramp, and did all manner of things. It was his experience that men who work with their hands are treated much better in England than in America.

AT one time he lived with Indians in the Northern part of Vancouver Island. There was nothing to do but smoke and eat and be lazy and healthy and contented. He told me that this was about the happiest time of his life. The only drawback was the missionaries.

He returned to civilisation and. became a chorus singer in an opera company, but he was not successful. “My nature,” he said, “was of too downright and candid calibre to be suitable for the art of acting. I was not plastic enough.”

He was in San Francisco, out of work. He could have returned to labouring, but that was now against his principles. He drifted to New York, and then there came upon him when he was arguing with a journalist about Socialism the sudden notion that he could have written his side of the argument much better than he spoke it. He tried his hand with the pen, and the fascination of writing got into his blood.

IT was eighteen months before he had anything printed. The wonder is he succeeded at all. For though he had seen a great deal of life he was in no sense an educated man. He bought grammars and books on style, but found them useless for his purpose. At last he sold them, and studied English in his own way by listening to educated people talk and mentally printing the words as they were, uttered. The extraordinary thing is that he did in this way get what is necessary to a writer, among other resources, an idea of the way living language looks in print. He was able to visualise what he called the sense of print-effect.

So he wrote adventure stories and all sorts of articles with a kind of peasant simplicity of word and phrase. He had little success in New York. Then he made for London, and there got a footing as a journalist. After while he began to write novels. He was encouraged by Alfred Harmsworth, afterwards Lord Northcliffe, and hammered out a style which won the praise of those famous critics, Andrew Lang and A. B. Walkley. The style of a strong, simple man. A style of hard-hitting words. And sometimes of soft, melodious words.

WHEN I began to meet him on reporting occasions in Yorkshire he was working for one of the London papers. Those were his triumphant years. If he was with the news-hunters of big quarry he became by natural right the chief among us.

He was always conspicuous by his force and build, much more so than another companion of those days who had also come up from poverty and had hard fight, a likeable Cockney of the name of Edgar Wallace.

Bart was a big, fearless man. Though usually happy-go-lucky, he never feared to hit a man in the jaw. He was not tall, but had the effect of tallness because he carried himself like a regimental sergeant-major. He had a big body, a big head, big voice, and big heart. He had the wide mouth of the man who loves talking a great deal. When work was done he would tell us his adventures, and his voice would boom, the short-sighted blue-grey eyes would twinkle through his eyeglasses, his huge eyebrows would knit bushily, and he would declare his true-till-death championship of the poor and oppressed.

THE truth is Bart talked an awful lot of nonsense. He was always attacking the stupidity of the university professors and the schoolmasters he knew nothing about. He would pour contempt on what he called the superior airs and cheap philosophy of middle-class theorists. To his mind there were only two classes in any country that were worth considering - the working class and the aristocrats. Nobody minded Bart’s extreme opinions. He was very loyal to the poor and oppressed, a jolly Bohemian, and a man.

I don’t think he ever saved any money, even when his books were selling well. Unhappily he quarrelled with Lord Northcliffe, and he grew older became disappointed and harassed. I am afraid he fell upon hard times, and now he has died in a mental home at the age of 71.

IT is many years since I read his autobiographical books, A Man Adrift ” and “A Sailor Tramp,” but I am sure they deserve to be reprinted from time to time, for they gave in their original style a powerful picture of rough men living up to Bart’s philosophy: “It’s a fine thing to face life. It’s fine to feel you are free and to be going out into the Unknown.”


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