How Jack Chadwick Rediscovered Caliban Shrieks

The publication rights to Jack Hilton’s works were long considered lost until their discovery in 2022 by Jack Chadwick. This is the story of how Jack Chadwick rediscovered Hilton...

Jack Chadwick

I first saw Jack Hilton's name on the crumbling, yellowing sleeve of a book left on a table in Salford’s Working Class Movement Library. The cover grabbed my attention: a skeleton, genuflecting in denim jeans, arms reaching up towards a loaf of bread. I read the first few lines and forgot whatever I'd come to the library to do. Minutes melted into hours as I sat reading. The book was Caliban Shrieks – a retelling of Hilton’s tumultuous life, delivered in his Lancashire vernacular, and as devastating to read as it was inspiring.

I began to research Hilton and discovered that his literary career started by chance. He studied at the Workingmen’s Educational Association (now the Worker’s Education Association) and one evening left behind the journal in which he had written his story. His tutor found the journal and, floored by what he read in its pages, mailed it to an editor based in London who then brought Hilton into print. Caliban Shrieks was the first of five books by Hilton that were published. His writing was praised by the likes of Orwell and W.H. Auden. Why hadn’t I heard of this local lad done good?

I imagine that there were immense barriers between Jack and lasting acclaim. He was a working-class man from the North, and the literary world of the 1930s was a million miles away from everything else he knew. At one point Hilton was summoned from Rochdale to London by a publishing house only for them to tell him “the proletarian novel is dead” and refuse him a book deal. And so, by the end of the 1940s, Hilton was back to living by his first trade plastering.

But I felt there was more to the story. Why hadn’t the book been picked up since Hilton’s death? The themes are no less relevant, its prose is no less beautiful. I wanted to know who owned the rights and why nothing had been done with them when the book could be so important. I knew Jack spent his later years in Oldham, so I printed out some ‘did you know this man’ posters, my number on the bottom on little pull off paper tassels, and took myself around the town’s local pubs, my metaphorical deerstalker firmly on.

The story of this novel’s creation is every bit as extraordinary as the man whose life it tells.

It felt impossible that anyone would remember Jack: a quiet bloke, no kids, dead for thirty-nine years. The fact that a regular in the Sportsman approached me, that same first visit, before I’d even finished my pint was staggering. Her memories of Hilton were vague, but she could tell me the name of one of his close friends, Brian. Brian had gone on drinking there for decades, long after Hilton’s last orders in 1983. I looked up Brian’s address. It was just around the corner. The next week I was back in the area again, knocking on Brian’s door. There was no answer, but I popped a note through and a few days later I received an email from Mary, Brian’s widow, who was delighted to hear about someone interested in her “dear old Jack”. We met up in person a few weeks later, the first of many chats over custard tarts.

Using information from Mary I tracked down Jack’s last will in which I learnt that the rights to his books had been left to Mary and Brian. I gave Mary the news along with a print-out of Caliban Shrieks that I’d spent weeks transcribing from the library copy. She was over the moon. Mary then passed the rights over to me, on one condition: that I do my best to get her Jack back in print.

The story of this novel’s creation is every bit as extraordinary as the man whose life it tells. The same is true of its return, it’s long overdue second life, and I am so immensely proud to have played a role in it.