Book Review: "Ellen Morgan" by Walter Tyrer
What's It About?
Life in an isolated fishing community is all ten year-old Ellen Morgan has ever known, but immanent starvation means the islanders to abandon their homes in search of a better life.
Deliberately left behind on a Liverpool dock while her brothers sail off to Australia, Ellen befriends an elderly watchman who takes her to his squalid tenement slum on Scotland Road. A drunkard who can't hold down a job, Ellen brings out Captain Amos's good side and he truly does his best for this solemn-faced child who toils to turn their shabby rooms into a home and who befriends Billy, a neighbour's lad who is a tough-nut with a heart of gold.
However, the authorities disapprove and Ellen is forced to live in an orphanage. The regime is harsh, and following the death of the one friend she made there Ellen escapes and returns to Captain Amos, but again the authorities intervene.
Ellen is now adopted by a wealthy man whose only child, Derek, is thrilled with his new playmate. They're both sent to different private boarding schools, but as Ellen's final academic year dawns her adoptive parent dies and his glamorous but cold wife, glad to be free of both an unwanted husband and this "common" girl, cuts off funding.
Ellen's dream of becoming a doctor lies in tatters. She desperately needs a job while she waits for another year until she's old enough to start nursing training.
The novel then goes on to reveal how Ellen achieves her dream of becoming a nurse, and how she again meets Derek and Billy. Both wish to marry her - but how can she choose between either of them and her beloved career?
Choose she does, but there is yet another life-changing tragedy awaiting the heroine of this gentle, affectionate novel.
About the Author
Walter Tyrer was born in Liverpool, England, in 1900. Following his father's death, the family struggled to make ends meet. Aged 16, Walter joined the Royal Navy as a Midshipman and served throughout during World War I.
After the war was over he began writing boys adventure stories, possibly having had his first novel published when he was aged only 21, and he enjoyed some success penning short stories for magazines.
Tyrer served as an ARP warden during World War II. By this time, he was working in Fleet Street and had moved his wife and two children to Kingston Upon Thames.
Tyrer went on to publish many novels which were popular in their day but which have now largely fallen from public notice. He also wrote approximately 37 novels for the Sexton Blake detective series of novels, comic strips and plays.
Tyrer passed away in 1978.
What's to Like?
I first read this book when aged around 10, the same age as Ellen at the novel's opening, and I fell in love with her story. As a child I re-read it countless times but, as I grew into my teens I naturally moved on to a wider spectrum of reading.
By chance, I recently stumbled over a charmingly dilapidated copy and couldn't resist revisiting this old favourite. The paper cover is hanging on by a worn-thin strand, and it is badly torn and dogeared. The old imperial price tag of three shillings and six pence - "3/6" - is still boldly displayed on the back.The red cloth of the hardback cover has been rubbed grey along the edges. Its pages have turned a creamy-grey. This book has clearly been read and re-read countless times; it is a book which has been loved.
The Charm of the Old
Inside, written in pencil, a Vera Crook has left her signature and the date, 1942.
Would I enjoy this novel as much as I had as a child, or would its story now seem merely sentimental? There was only one way to find out, and so I happily paid my contemporary £5.50 and carried home my serendipitous find.
Well, it was a lovely read. Yes, it's very old fashioned and gently romantic, but the prose is well crafted and the plot moves along at a comfortable stroll. The poverty and personal struggles experienced by the main character are described without gruesome detail - there is nothing sordid or graphic here.
This is, as the paper cover explains, a "quiet novel". Yet there are strong character portrayals throughout, with believable scenarios.
Ellen herself shines as an ordinary girl struggling to survive against overwhelming odds. In her own placid way she is determined to build herself a fulfilling and good life despite the many obstacles she faces along the way. She becomes a young woman with ambitions in a period when the working class, and girls especially, had few options available to them.
Scotland Road, Liverpool
The slum tenements of Liverpool's historically poor Scotland Road, as described in Walter Tyrer's novel, were demolished decades ago when this section of the A59 road was developed.
Singer and TV personality Cilla Black grew up in a three-storey building at 380 Scotland Road. Other famous people with links to this road include singer Holly Johnson and actor Tom Baker.
The road was originally a turnpike road for stagecoaches travelling from Lancashire and Liverpool towards Scotland, hence its name. The potato famine in Ireland resulted in a huge influx of Irish Catholics who settled in the area. The women became known locally as "shawlies" due to their habit of wearing a shawl pulled over their heads and shoulders to keep warm.
The area has completely changed since Tyrer's day, and the Scotland Road he describes in his novel is remembered only in history.
What's Not to Like?
Ellen Morgan was published in 1939, and some of the social attitudes and moral view points reflect this era now seem terribly dated. This is not the fault of the author, of course, but a reflection of how cultural values have altered since he wrote this story.
However, this world still has its pampered Dereks and its rough diamond Billys, and there are plenty of Ellen Morgans quietly working to improve their lot in life while remaining true to their own principles.
The biographical and bibliographical information in this article came from:
To view images of old Scotland Road, refer to:
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© 2018 Adele Cosgrove-Bray