HK Hales: The Real Card?
A paper for the Arnold Bennett Society Conference 2011
I suppose nothing evokes a provincial view more than a high street full of canvas window blinds hanging over shop fronts a generation before supermarkets came to destroy towns. This is a picture of a long-ago commercial Edwardian England. And all those shops have gone now; the blinds drawn forever over windows once stuffed so tightly with goods that you couldn’t get anything out if you’d wanted to. And with ‘the shut shops, the bleached, established names on the sun blinds; the farthings and sovereigns, and dark-clothed children at play called after kings and queens’, written in the nostalgic words of Philip Larkin – we add – ‘Never such innocence again.’
The Lycett family blind’s manufacturing business was founded in Burslem in 1885 by Charles Taylor Lycett who bought a section of the former Enoch Wood’s Fountain Works and rented some rooms at the top of Packhorse Lane from the accountant, Henry Steele, a notable antiquarian and collector of historic ephemera.
Charles Lycett was a keen sportsman; and as cycling was then gaining mass popularity he sold bicycles as a sideline from his shop overlooking St John’s Square. It was in 1893, however, that Charles realised he had a competitor in a forceful 35 year-old moon-faced, businessman named Harold Keates Hales, known locally as HK.
Hales opened his own cycle shop, also in Market Place, just around the corner from the Lycett shop. The two enterprising competitors nevertheless seemed to rub along fairly well, business being business in a provincial industrial town where commercial enterprise, aldermanic and antediluvian hierarchy travelled hand-in-hand. That is until Charles’s son, Frank Lycett, took over the running of his father’s cycle business, extending it in 1905 to selling motorcycles.
Frank Lycett was born in 1886; around the same time that his father launched the blinds company – an advertising business that, as a matter of fact, became Stoke-on-Trent’s premier marketing concern throughout much of the 20th century.
Unlike Hales, young Frank was a trained and proficient engineer who, because of his technical skills, attracted a specialist clientele dedicated to the mechanics of motoring, more so than any of his competitors. But Hales tried to reach further by expanding his business to selling and repairing motorcycles, and contrarily, upright pianos.
It was well-known in the community that Frank’s father, Charles, was the first man in Burslem to own a motor car, a detail that was often snappily disputed by HK Hales who always claimed that his own well-polished sedan was the first motor car to be seen travelling around the roads of the Mother Town.
Irrespective of who was Burslem’s first motorist, there is nevertheless a great deal of Sentinel reportage to confirm that in the first decade of the 20th century it was indeed the young Frank Lycett who was the most often-seen driver about town if only because of his novel and popular chauffeur business which was well patronised.
There is a delightful piece of Lycett memorabilia in an unpublished memoir scribbled by Frank Lycett between 1900 and 1912. This family archive contains a note written in 1908, which intriguingly bears two pencilled names – HK Hales and Zena Dare, a British actress who was soon to achieve national stardom in silent movies.
Zena Dare was touring in Richeleaux play the Dashing Little Duke, being performed at Hanley’s Theatre Royal. It is not known how Zena and Frank Lycett met, but the notes do mention Frank chauffeuring the actress around the Potteries, insinuating probably that it was to the irritation of his rival HK Hales. Perhaps it was because of their comparative ages that attracted Zena Dare to choose Frank as her chaperone – for they were both 21 at the time and HK had reached the age of 40. Whatever it was, it is easy to see that HK was extremely touchy over the actress preferring the younger motorist to be her ferryman rather than a mature and sensible commercial establishment like HK.
HK it seemed was not so much a Card during this period as was the young Frank Lycett whose name was often quoted by the Sentinel’s society reporters as being the young man about town, often at dinners and civic balls.
On another occasion marked in Frank’s 1908 notes, the young man about town refers to chauffeuring Doctor John Russell together with the famous Scottish entertainer, Sir Harry Lauder, to Burslem Golf Club where the legendary music hall star performed the newly-opened club’s tee-off ceremony. And according to the guest list that day there was a marked absence of the name HK Hales from the dinner table.
There is a later reference to a touring duty in Scotland in 1912 when Frank, driving his Humber 12 horsepower saloon, drove the same Doctor John Russell who, as Bennett enthusiasts and researchers will know, was a close family friend and confidante of the Bennett’s as well as featuring in Arnold Bennett’s novels as Doctor Stirling. The Lycett interesting papers reports their arrival at Windermere on the first day – and by the fifth day they’d reached Aberdeen and the village of Insch, which was Russell’s place of birth, and where they lodged before travelling to attend the opening of a medical faculty at Aberdeen University.
I have given this preamble of this Burslem trading family as a backdrop to the Edwardian town of The Card. This is to show how typically parochial commercial competition was at the time. So, now let’s turn to the doings of HK Hales – the man who claims to have inspired the Bennett character Denry Machin, The Card.
Harold Keates Hales was born in Manchester in 1868, a son of a lower middle-class retail family that moved to Burslem to run a draper’s shop in St John’s Square where they found a competitor in John Longson, the maternal grandfather of Arnold Bennett, whose shop was just across the road.
Arnold Bennett and Hales, less than one year separating their births, both went to the Burslem Endowed School at the Wedgwood Institute and later at Longport Hall, at the same time – although it is apparent that HK remembers Bennett infinitely more acutely than Bennett did Hales.
In his ‘Autobiography of ‘The Card’’, Hales recalls: – ‘we were not close friends and there was on the surface little in common between us.’ This typically brusque statement may be further evaluated in the 2000 words of the chapter on their schooldays when Hales tried to formulate a reference to some anecdote connecting him the relationship in their time together. Indeed Hales recalls – enviously perhaps – that Bennett was much friendlier with Frank Beardmore than he was with him even though the three had shared a few kick-about football matches on the Grange Fields during which matches Hales meaninglessly tells his readers that he had more talent for the beautiful game than Bennett. Interestingly though, while Hales undoubtedly played football with Bennett, the creator of the Five Towns novels never referred to Hales in his own recollections of playing football on the Grange.
At the age of 21 Bennett left for London. At the age of 21 Hales was already a commercial traveller for the Burslem earthenware manufactory of Gibson’s in Moorland Road. It was in the first couple of years of the 20th century that HK became interested in the boom in bicycles – part time and casual at first before he widened his sights and opened his Market Place shop.
This enterprise is covered tediously in his first volume of memoirs entitled ‘Harold’s Adventures’, published in 1926. His other written works were published in a flurry of self-interested energy – in 1936, for instance, he produced ‘Chariots Of The Air’ in which he tells of his adventures in flying; and then in spread of self-indulgence ‘The Road To Westminster, and My Impressions Of Parliament’; and of course ‘The Autobiography Of ‘The Card’. There was a later attempt at a novel – a work of arid fiction called ‘Keeling and Son’ published in 1938.
TAOTC is not fully dedicated to detailing why he was convinced Bennett had used him as a model for Denry Machin, but the objective is never far away from other themes. Other details of his life remain formless in comparison with the intent of proving the claim of the title. That Hales was an undoubted entrepreneur in business. He was a man willing to chance his arm in most things he turned his hand to, and as such his enterprise should not be doubted. But it is the claim to have inspired the eponymous Bennett character and therefore the name The Card that requires analysis.
His lack of modesty in recounting TAOTC does not let him down. Even the most unbiased reader cannot fail to see the narrative as a shameless catalogue of self-promotion, although it is no more than an average life. This is the life of a middle class conservative adherent. He is a fully paid-up member of the middle class old school whose self-made successes really do fall beneath the achievements of the great fictional character so inspiringly invented by Bennett to became a provincial mayor, a saviour of a football club, mentor to the aristocracy, and the proprietor of the Bursley Thrift Club.
Under the chapter ‘I meet my Maker’, Hales leads us into a meeting with Bennett in London in 1923. And it is at this crucial headland that the assertion is made to Bennett that the compelling character, Denry Machin – The Card – was indeed a documented portrait of HK Hales.
During a painfully embarrassing conversation, for this is the impression the passage unflinchingly conveys, Hales demands that Bennett should ‘cough-up his royalties for [HK] being the inspiration for Denry Machin’. Bennett, it seems, actually appears thrown, assuring HK that most of his characters are in fact composites. But Hales insists – and Bennett, somewhat cornered, chummily and diplomatically agrees.
It is worth noting Dudley Barker’s observations in his biography of Bennett published in 1966 – ‘Writer By Trade: A Portrait of Arnold Bennett.’ Here Barker notes that HK began openly referring to himself as The Card soon after this meeting had taken place.
Barker writes of Hales insistence that Bennett had conceded that the characterisation was based upon him:
‘Bennett good-naturedly agreed this was so’, he agrees. ‘But it was so only in the most superficial sense. The true original of Denry Machin was the audacious, ambitious original side of Bennett himself; and some of the episodes, such as that of the newspaper war in the Five Towns, were based on events in which he or his family [the Bennett family] had been involved when he still lived in Burslem.’
Within two years of The Card’s publication Bennett had written and published its sequel – The Regent. And it is in citation of this that Barker points accusingly at Hales’s impertinence, which, he claims, was by now notorious. Referring to the portrayal of Denry in The Regent, Barker says, ‘the pretence that Hales was the original of the character vanishes altogether. The Card becomes ever more a comic sketch of part of Bennett’s own nature…’
Bennett himself remained silent on the matter, except when pressed, and then he was non-committal. Let us look at the evidence, as HK Hales would have us see it.
TAOTC goes to great length, though with sketchy detail, in describing what it was like to be a first among equals and a prophet among doubters. HK writes that he was in reality the pioneer of the dropped crossbar bicycle thereby opening up England’s highways to women.
‘When the first diamond frame bicycle appeared my immediate question to myself was: how can we make this machine simple and dignified enough for women to ride it? I stressed this to various manufacturers, who were not all of them convinced that women would ever mount so daring a contrivance. Soon, however, the “drop-frame” appeared – and from that moment the boom in cycles was assured, as every young woman in England saw themselves as the swift winged steeds of romance.’
He recalls that he bought his first motorcar in 1897 – a Benz 2 horsepower saloon and, by 1908, he had become a Benz dealer in the district.
It should be remembered that although Frank Lycett was a popular automobile trader, the prime business of his company was the manufacture of window blinds. This appears to have been picked up by Hales who, according to a Sentinel report, is heard to caustically refer to Frank Lycett as the ‘window blind maker who drives a nice car.’ Frank, though, let’s not forget was the expert motor mechanic, but not so in HK’s eyes. And in TAOTC he claims that it was he, HK, who was the ‘accredited motor expert in the whole of North Staffordshire.’
In one example of his mechanical skill expressed in the book, he tells of being called to Newcastle under Lyme to fix a broken down Daimler car belonging to a Russian nobleman (possibly the Grand Duke Michael Romanov who was living at Keele Hall during this period). The vehicle’s chauffeur, he says, was perplexed by the breakdown, and Hales admits that the technology of this ‘illustrious German motorcar manufacturer’ were also new to him. But self-opinion and unabashed poise prevail – ‘Hales, the people had said, could put things right, and Hales had to do it. I was the acknowledged expert in our area on cars and to fail would mean immediate dethronement.’
HK of course did ‘put thing right’ with a quick rub of the points with a piece of emery cloth, and much to the joy of the Russian nobleman who offered remuneration – to which Hales affectedly declined.
TAOTC tells us that he was claimant to a number of firsts – he was the first man to report on a motorised hill-climb for a newspaper making him one of the first motoring correspondents. He was the first man to drive a car up the sheer hill to Mow Cop; the first man to ‘give expert evidence’ to a court in a legal case of speeding – none of which is publicly recorded and therefore cannot be challenged.
1908 was a key year in the life of HK Hales. Not only had be become a piano and motorcycle dealer, and local agent for Benz motor cars, but it was the year he converted an old pottery warehouse in Waterloo Road into a money-spinning roller skating rink. And while all this was going on the Sentinel tells of his adventures flying high over the Potteries in a hot-air balloon. Hales had certainly taken part in ballooning in Hanley Park as early as 1904, which was reported in the Sentinel. But this was a common pastime anyway in the first decade of the 20th century; for a penny you could fly around the field so long as you were anchored to the ground.
The Sentinel covered the story of a noted balloonist, Captain Spenser, who had brought his inflatable to a Hanley park fete. HK was in the crowd and determined to get a close look at the fabulous contraption. Much to his unsurprised glee Spenser invited HK to go up in the balloon with him as a passenger. And thus, ‘I believe I am entitled to claim that I was the first paying passenger by airship in Great Britain who went any distance and travelled to 1000 feet,’ he tells the readers of TAOTC.
It seemed he had fingers in many pies. For instance he bought and sold land on what was formerly occupied by the Hippodrome Theatre – Bennett’s the Blood Tub – thereafter making a profit in 1910 by selling the land to the council’s agent so that the New Town Hall annex [Queens Hall] could be built there. The same year, 1910, he recalls buying an aeroplane – and that the aircraft crashed making it the first such commercial aircraft calamity in history – of course, as any aeronaut since the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903 would have testified, this could not have been true.
There are a number of public references as to Hales’ gimmicks during this Edwardian decade – some true – some anecdotal. It is said, for instance, that he was elected to the council shortly after Federation; although I have not been able to find any record of this, nor have I found any record of HK having been a councillor for the former Burslem Town Council. This of course fails to accord with Denry Machin’s political career, for Bennett not only made Denry a councillor but had him elected as Bursley’s mayor and beating the formidable Councillor Duncalf in the bargain.
It is worth returning to chapter two of TAOTC entitled – ‘Schooldays with Arnold Bennett.’ Here HK supposes that ‘Nocker’ wasn’t very happy at school, although he gives little rationalization for this submission other than to suggest that AB’s mental reserve compared unfavourably in balance with his own self-appraised cerebral dexterity. In TAOTC, HK actually compares their individual brain power with HK deciding that his was more powerful than Bennett’s – the brain of the author, as Hales rationalises, was ‘somewhat that of a philosophical revolutionary while my own was practical and energetic.’ By the time the reader gets to the bottom of page two in this chapter HK has unambiguously written that Bennett, as a scholar, was a less-achiever than he, and he takes great pleasure in the fact that on one occasion he had a higher score than Arnold Bennett in an essay competition for which he was awarded a prize.
Here’s a put-down quote:
‘Bennett did not shine in the schoolroom. Even in English composition I do not recall that he excelled to any noticeable degree. His gifts were not such that a schoolmaster would notice.’
It is with such embedded overbearing ego that HK asserts an advantage over Bennett – and not just Bennett but the rest of his class as well – it is nothing less than a piece of braggadocio from a man, who at the time of the publication of TAOTC four years after Bennett’s death, had become a successful businessman and former parliamentarian.
His earlier claims that he was involved in public entertainment are not to be disputed. In relating his foresight of the popularity of roller-skating in 1908, he moved to persuade some Burslem businessmen to buy the derelict pottery in Waterloo Road against their wavering discretion. This roller skating enterprise ran – as he states – ‘for a little over a year’ ending somewhere at the close of 1909 or the beginning of 1910 when he was portentously advising his fellow directors that they should now convert the rink into a cinema – ‘they laughed at the suggestion,’ he scorns. But once again Hales assures his readers, ‘I was in advance of my times’.
‘We opened in April,’ he recalls – (this was actually April 1911). He continues – ‘The place had seating accommodation for 1000.’ If this was the case then it was a bigger and better cinema than the only other one in Burslem of note, and that was a substantial establishment nearby called The Palladium, which seated 350 customers. Another smaller cinema – the Moorlands Picture House – opened in 1913: and these were the only two of note.
What cinema historians have established is that Barbers Palace in Tunstall was certainly Stoke-on-Trent’s first acknowledged cinema opened by the celebrated George Herbert Barber in 1909 with seating for 400. There was also the even more notable Newcastle Cinema (later the Plaza and the Roxy), which opened in 1910 with a seating capacity of 550, and this, according to the Sentinel, claimed to be the biggest cinema in the district at the time.
As it happens HK didn’t stay more than a year with his new cinema partners before financially backing and taking a musical play on a northern England tour with its authors and actors. According to him, the show played to huge success and to full houses. It is worth noting that this was in 1914, the year the Coliseum Theatre opened as a neighbour to Hales’ former Picture Palace – before it became a cinema in the 1920s. There is no doubt that the Coliseum Theatre was part-owned by HK in company with a Trent Vale syndicate; although he didn’t seem to have had much to do with its operation. And in any case, within some weeks of its launch he had bizarrely signed-on as a petty officer in the Royal Navy Reserves at the outbreak of the Great War at the ripe age of 46.
The rest of HK’s life is of little consequence to this examination of whether or not Hales was the Card. But his stint as an MP is worth mentioning. Hales was 63 when he was elected as a Conservative as a result of the sudden rejection of Labour under Ramsay Macdonald who, in 1931, formed a coalition with Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives as the National Party. Stoke-on-Trent, like many other industrial centres, turned against Labour because of Macdonald’s perceived betrayal. The Conservatives took two Stoke-on-Trent seats for just one term; an Independent won the third. It was the Hanley constituency that elected HK, a seat that even his own party didn’t expect him to take. And much of his campaign was paid for out of his own pocket.
It seems his most ‘Card-ish’ contribution to a parliamentary debate – not visually described by Hansard – was during his short speech on the herring industry when he produced a dead fish to illustrate his obscure points – an attempt, one suspects, of ‘playing The Card!’ It was after he left the House of Commons that he sponsored the oversized Hales Blue Ribband Trophy, commissioned by him and made at Pidduck’s jewellers in Hanley. It was a prize for the winner of the fastest Atlantic crossing by a ship – itself a controversial award that was possibly intended to reflect more on him than the few winners that held it.
He did, following WWI, travel extensively promoting British industry to developing colonial nations, notably India and Africa, once he had become the owner of a shipping business. And then, in semi-retirement, he drowned in 1942 in a boating accident on the Thames at the age of 74. It was wartime and although the press covered his passing, the incident seemed not to warrant much biographical exposure. There is a modest memorial to him in the Hales’ family grave in Burslem cemetery.
The question of why Hales wanted to be accepted as the inspiration for Arnold Bennett’s The Card is, I think, self-evident – association and connection principally; and perhaps a residue of schoolboy competitiveness. Blend all this together and you may conclude that this was a provincial businessman who worried too much that his home community had not altogether recognised his contribution to his district.
The question of why Bennett allowed Hales to believe he was the inspiration for the character is the easier question to answer. AB recognised HK as being one of the typical provincial self-opinionated leaders, the kind of man that the author was so clever and accurate in exposing. In other words he quite possibly – more than likely – found humour in humouring HK Hales.
I believe the author of ‘The Autobiography of ‘The Card’’ succeeded only in creating a lightweight maybe-man – while the creator of The Card was the author of a memorable real-man.
The Card pub 1911
Harold’s Adventures – 1926
The Road to Westminster and My Impressions of Parliament – pub 1936
The Autobiography of ‘The Card’ – pub 1936
The Staffordshire Sentinel
Lycett Private documents – by kind permission of Michael Lycett
One Hundred Years off Whoa – by Peter Corbishley pub 2007
(A centenary history of Burslem Golf Club)