Thomas Armstrong (1899-1978)

I wonder if anyone remembers Thomas Armstrong now? He wrote a number of best-sellers, none of which are in print now. The members of my reading group would say this is for good reason!

He is one of the few writers we have read that almost everyone found unreadable. What was it about his books that used to appeal? Until we set one up, Armstrong didn’t even have a Wikipedia entry – and I think in the modern era this truly is a mark of obscurity.

His most famous novel is The Crowthers of Bankdam (1940), a family saga set in the Yorkshire wool trade. It was made into a film, The Master of Bankdam, in 1947.

Here’s a plot summary written by Sue:

This is a family saga set in the Ram valley,in West Yorkshire,spanning 3 generations of the Crowther family  against the backdrop of vicissitudes in the cloth trade and important national events.

The patriarch, Simeon Crowther, works his way up to establish the family business, which prospers while others, older and more established, decline. His two sons, Zebediah & Joshua, very different in character & temperament, are  rivals in the business. They marry very differently: Joshua’s wife is Annie, a former mill girl. Zebediah marries Clara, devious and ambitious for superior social status over the more established local families. The untimely death of his brother (the latter in an accident caused by his brother’s  negligence) and his father’s fatal heart attack, enable Zebediah to take control of the business. However his son, Lancelot, is not interested in the family business unlike his nephew Simeon.

The book is divided into 3 time periods (1854-1867; 1883-1894; 1908-1921) which  enables the different generations to play their parts in the future of the family firm. Eventually the quarrels, intrigues  & rivalries are resolved, and Simeon, a chip off the old block (his grandfather), is able to fulfil his ambition and  take complete control of the family firm.

I have also have a kind of not-review of one his later novels, A Ring Has No End (1958). I am grateful to Sylvia for going to the effort of writing it, so here it is:

Review of A Ring Has No End by Sylvia D:

I don’t usually give up on a book but after wading through three chapters, I decided A Ring has no end (1958) was unreadable as far as I was concerned.  The narrative follows the fortunes over the course of 100 years of the aristocratic, extremely wealthy Kaivanov family which had vast estates in the Russian Caucasus.  (Armstrong served in the Navy during the First World War and was in Russia at the time of the Revolution).  The Kaivanovs are cruel, rapacious and increasingly debauched whilst the head of the family ruled as God.   They finally lost everything during the 1917 Russian Revolution.

I have read that Armstrong was considered a good historian but I liked neither the violent content of the novel, nor his pompous style.  The opening sentence is enough to put one off straightaway,

‘A land of rape, lust, and feud to the death; . . . a land where many men wear on the right thumb a cruelly-spiked ring, and of tribes who calculate the compensatory value of wounds by grains of barley and wheat alternatively laid in length and breadth to the extent of the injury, reckoning two-thirds of the number of grains to be a fair settlement in cows’ –(p 3).

And a few pages later,

‘They were blessed with three firm-limbed children.  Olga, the eldest, was born when myriads of clear-cut stars carpeted the deep-blue heavens and a gentle zephyr sang its lullaby through the trees.  A night of good omen, one might say, if one considered such trifles.  Certainly Masha did, at least until an owl screeched and a yellow flame illuminating an ikon, a time-cracked painting of a haloed Saint went out . . . (p 9).

And so on for 410 pages.

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12 thoughts on “Thomas Armstrong (1899-1978)

  1. That is disappointing. I “got into” Armstrong almost 40 years ago when Leeds Central Library had all of his novels available for loan. When I subsequently did my history degree I found him historically accurate and informing and when dealing with his particular strengths, the Industrial Revolution era, he produced some of his better works. The Crowther series could be termed a “Yorkshire Forsyte Saga” and to this inbred Yorkshireman stands comparison. I would agree that “A Ring Has No End” is not one of his better pieces but to condemn it out of hand after a few early “turgid” passages possibly puts others off looking at the wider body of his work. I would seek out Adam Brunskill and Dover Harbour to show what he can do away from the Crowther genre. Mind you what do I know; I’ve never managed to complete War & Peace and the 1948 TV version of the Crowthers inflicted Nicholas Parsons on an unsuspecting world for which act they should rightly be reviled!

    • Everyone did agree that his historical knowledge was impressive, and the contemporary reviews frequently comment that he is perhaps a better historian than a novelist. So maybe he is best read with that expectation? I’ve got a review of Dover Harbour to put up next ….

  2. ‘The Crowthers of Bankdam’ was Armstrong’s first published novel, and compares favourably with modern family sagas. Despite passages of purple prose, it gives a clear picture of the way the wool industry operated in its heyday; and is even better on small-town social climbing, with some sharp social comedy. Its length is justified by the length of the period covered, and there is a strong narrative push, particularly in the final third. But the three later Crowther novels are over-long for the story each has to tell, and they repeat – under other names – many of his early characterisations. Oddly, he never followed up the aftermath of Edwin Crowther’s personal catastrophe at the end of ‘Bankdam’, although the character’s back story figures in ‘A Ring Has No End’.

      • I disagree with a lot of these comments. I am just finishing re-reading The Crowthers of Bankdam and found it as enjoyable as ever. I am looking forward of then re-reading Pilling Always Pay which I think contains one of the funniest descriptions of a maids misfortune. I just wish i had copies of all his other books. I visit many second hand and charity shops always in the hope that I might turn up a treasure, but alas I am not often lucky

      • I don’t know if you also read my review of Thomas Armstrong’s Dover Harbour (https://reading19001950.wordpress.com/2014/12/12/dover-harbour-by-thomas-armstrong-1942/). I got more out of the book than others did out of theirs – the spying adventures in France and the spirited young lovers – but I did also think that the book wore its research heavily. I have seen secondhand copies of his books around by the way, so it’s worth persisting. I have been doing some research about Armstrong and will soon be writing it up for a sister blog (http://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/blog/) about popular 20th century reading in Sheffield. Thomas Armstrong was fondly remembered by several of our interviewees.

  3. Might I suggest ‘Sue Crowther’s Marriage’ by Thomas Armstrong (I know, not a very inspiring title), it is a book full of great characters (most of them of the Crowther, Pilling & Murgatroyd lines) set in the 1950s, largely on the Yorkshire coast and it is a book I have gone back to several times. It can be bought online, Amazon have it. At the heart of the story is a battle ship that was on its way to the breakers yard and got stuck inside a ‘bracelet’ of rocks in the bay of a fishing village. I have often wondered if the rocks he used for the story were the ones known as Adam and Eve near Filey. Would love to know if anyone else has read this and what they thought.

  4. I read ‘ King Cotton’ as a child many years ago and remembered the experience so well I bought a copy recently and read it again. An excellent book. On the strength of that I looked for more and found ‘Pilling Always Pays’,’ The Crowthers of Bankdam’, and ‘Dover Harbour’. I enjoyed all of them. I am now looking for further books from this author.

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