Sydney's Top Matches
About Sydney Thomas Burke
<The Times, September 24, 1945>
<MR. THOMAS BURKE>
<THE EAST END OF LONDON>
Mr. Thomas Burke, who died on Saturday after an operation, was a Londoner of the Londoners, and made his literary reputation by following the sound precept, "Write about what you know best."
Yet the London he bodied forth in his novels and miscellaneous writings was produced out of the alembic of a romantic imagination. At times its sentiment came near the borders of sentimentality and its drama verged on melodrama; but Burke had authentic talent of a high order and he built on a foundation of true and keen observation. His life as a man of letters was made possible only by ability allied to courage, for his early days were passed in the most bitter poverty and he had no influence of any kind to help him on his way.
Born in East London in 1887 of humble parentage, Burke lost both father and mother in his extreme infancy, and until the age of nine was brought up at Poplar by an uncle who was a gardener. He was then sent to an orphanage in the country. There he was irked by the drill and discipline, but he wrote appreciatively of the home in his autobiography, "The Wind and the Rain". At the age of 14 he was thrown on the world and worked first in a boarding-house and then as a City office boy. It was in these days that he met Quong Lee (who figures largely in his East End books) and accumulated his detailed knowledge of East London. For a period he was secretary in a suburban theatre. Having begun writing at 15, occasionally getting his contributions accepted, he at length (in 1906) attracted the notice of a literary agent, who gave him employment which lasted until the outbreak of the 1914-18 war.
Burke's first books were several anthologies which showed considerable native taste in selection. In 1915 he issued "Nights in Town", a series of original vignettes of different London districts. Meanwhile he had been having success with his short stories. Norman Douglas, during his editorial period with the "English Review", used some of Burke's work; and from stories published in that periodical, in "Colour", and in the "New Witness" there was made up a volume brought out in 1916 as "Limehouse Nights", which earned the praise of men like Arnold Bennett and H.G. Wells and made the author's name. One story out of "Limehouse Nights", called "The Chink and the Child", was successfully filmed under the title of "Broken Blossoms", with Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in the chief parts. Burke worked during the 1914-18 war at the American branch of the Ministry of Information.
His books included novels, poems, short stories, and miscellaneous works, among them, "The Sun in Splendour", "The Song Book of Quong Lee of Limehouse", "East of Mansion House", "The Real East End", "English Night-Life", "Travel in England", and books on English inns. In general an amiable and modest man, contemptuous of literary and social "climbing", he held his opinions strongly and sometimes aroused acrimonious controversy by his expression of them. A wider culture would have preserved him from his more uncharitable pronouncements on such subjects as the classical elements in art; on the other hand, it was his laborious self-education that gave him his high sense of the value of certain ordinary things too often taken from granted. His prose was vital and colourful - sometimes a thought too highly coloured - and he had a faculty for extracting romance from unpromising material. The fascination of London found him a fine exponent.
Burke married, in 1918, Winifred Wells, known as the writer under the pseudonym of Clare Cameron.