|Trumpington Local History Group
Jack Overhill (1903-89)
Jack Overhill was a man of many parts. This paper is about five aspects
of this remarkable man: his early life and education, the hardship he
endured, his writing, his philosophy and his love of swimming. It is based
on a presentation given at a Group meeting on 22 November 2012.
|Portrait of Jack Overhill, Ramsey & Muspratt
Studio Archive deposited in the Cambridgeshire
Collection, Cambridge Central Library.
Early Life and Education
Ellington and Eliza Overhill had 13 children, with Jack, the third youngest being born in
Cambridge in 1903. In 1908 the family moved to Gothic Street (between Panton Street and
Trumpington Road). Jack acquired strong radical views from his illiterate father, a shoemaker
by trade, while reading newspapers to him.
In 1913, they moved to the nearby, larger house, 7 Saxon Street, close to the Spread Eagle and
Cross Keys pubs. This noisy working-class neighbourhood was in stark contrast to the elegant
dwellings along the adjacent Brookside.
|Saxon Street, Cambridge.
Jack progressed from Elementary to High Grade School in 1914 but family poverty forced him
to leave just before his 14th birthday to help in his father's trade. He studied commercial
subjects at night school and taught himself French, Spanish, Portuguese and, later, Italian. He
passed Pitman's Shorthand Teacher's Diploma aged 20.
From 1920 to 1927, Jack worked as a clerk for W.P. Hollis, a bookmaker. On leaving Hollis,
he set up his own Bookie's business and created one of the country's first football coupons in
In 1923, he married Histon girl Jessie (Jess) Toates. They lived in 7 Saxon Street until 1927
when Jack bought, and they moved into, 99 Shelford Road, Trumpington. He also bought 7
Saxon Street to keep as an office. He rented a shop on Castle Hill for the shoe repairing
business he now ran and he and Jess, with their children, also named Jack and Jess, born in the
1920s, moved back into Saxon Street.
Trumpington home, 99
Shelford Road, in 2012.
In 1939, Jack purchased a Morris 13.9 horsepower car for £12. Jack began studying for an open
degree in Economics from London University. During the war he took the examination four
times but failed, having sat no fewer than 36 days or half days of exams. In 1946, by then a
grandfather, Jack finally gained his BSc Economics degree, having been allowed to take his one
failed paper on its own.
The Overhills moved back into 99 Shelford Road in November 1945, settling here in
Trumpington. Jack later lectured on Economics at Cambridge Technical College and taught
Shorthand at two Village Colleges. He could be seen often walking his dog along Shelford Road.
His wife Jess died at Christmas 1985 after 62 years of marriage.
To help relieve the hardship of the times, the young Jack and his brothers would catch sparrows
to 'thicken the gravy' and often the main meal of the day would be bread and cheese. Odd jobs
undertaken by the boys included heavy, poorly paid potato harvesting. Jack worked all day
delivering heavy groceries by bicycle on Christmas Eve 1912 for one shilling, half of which his
father insisted should be put into Jack's savings.
Later, Jack's own family experienced austerity during wartime when there was strict rationing of
everything from food and fuel to clothing. Queuing for hours to buy food rations was
commonplace, Christmas dinner a rare luxury. Family income was meagre and Jack often
borrowed money for essentials.
Jack developed painful splits on his hands through working without mechanical aids, but he still
repaired up to 100 pairs of shoes a week. In 1942, his wife began full-time work as an agent for
the Prudential to help make ends meet. Jack's record earnings for a week's shoe-repairing was
£15.18s.6d., of which £12 was clear profit. In 1944, he mortgaged 99 Shelford Road heavily.
On a brighter note, in 1945, Jack, with his son, enjoyed his first holiday since 1913 staying in
Brixham, Devon, with his friend Neil Bell's family.
|Portrait of Jack Overhill,
Ramsey & Muspratt Studio
Archive deposited in the
Cambridge Central Library.
After leaving school, Jack began writing short stories for publication. In 1930, the Cambridge
Evening News paid him one guinea for a short story. He began writing novels, over 30 in all,
but only three were published. These were Romantic Youth in 1933, a story about
undergraduates, typically containing Jack's strong socialistic views, in 1947, The Snob, about a
shoe-maker and in 1953, an historic novel The Miller of Trumpington. This, his most readable
novel, he researched locally, with special reference to Byron's Pool, renamed in the book
Brian's Pool after his fictitious hero.
Jack's work was once likened by a prospective publisher to that of Thomas Hardy's. The
constant rejection of his novels for lack of popularity or paper shortage, although reducing Jack
to tears of frustration on one occasion, only made him more determined to succeed, continuing
to write his self-imposed target of 1000 words a day. He was encouraged throughout by Neil
Bell, a popular professional novelist, who called Jack 'my mental twin' in view of their shared
political views, ideology and philosophy. In November 2012, a rare copy of the Miller of
Trumpington was for sale on the Internet for £150. What would its author make of that?
Jack had ten articles published in East Anglian Magazine in the 1970s. Others appeared in the
Cambridge Evening News.
There were two long-term, time-consuming undertakings : The Cash Chronicles, about a family
close to the Overhills and Jack's diary which he kept in great detail every day of his adult life.
He gave both these valuable archives to the Cambridgeshire Collection. Jack declared "When I
write I'm full of vim. I punch and punch and punch at the typewriter"!
After the war, Jack's deep resonant voice was one of the first working-class voices to be heard
on the radio. He made 54 broadcasts for the BBC, mainly readings from his own works. His
60-minute, unscripted talk entitled A Regular Snob (shoemaker) became famous when it won
acclaim in the national press.
A teetotaller and non-smoker, Jack Overhill believed in a 'personal God' and contended that
Christ may not have lived. He was sceptical of the clergy and thought the Bible could be
interpreted to suit whoever read it. An avid reader, he preferred works by authors whose
Socialist beliefs he shared. Despite this, Jack remained independent of ideological and political
organizations. As a Conscientious Objector in wartime, he was spared imprisonment at tribunals
for refusing military service, due to his age and his trade being a reserved occupation.
Peter Searby's 2010 book Cambridge at War, containing Jack Overhill's diary from 1939 to
1945, reveals the man's complex personality and his innermost thoughts and fears during that
difficult and dangerous time. As a pacifist, Jack believed war only served the interests of the
few and was stimulated by arms manufacturers. He said he preferred Democracy to Fascism
but not at the price of millions of innocent lives. The closest Jack came to compromising his
belief in pacifism was volunteering for fire-watching duties, Cambridge being under the threat of
frequent air-raid warnings and bombings. Highly critical of the establishment, he dismissed as
propaganda Winston Churchill's early wartime speech rallying the nation, calling him "a nasty
piece of work". He referred to the King as "a comedian" after his radio speech to the country
that followed a comedy programme.
|Cover illustration for
Cambridge at War: the
Police Station, St Andrew's
Street, Cambridge, with
wartime defences, 1939.
Cambridge Central Library.
Perhaps less controversially and probably due to their activities with girls near his home, Jack
declared "Yanks" to be "round-shouldered, flat-footed, slouching lot of men, most of them
gum-chewers"! He forecast disaster for Britain, her cause being hopeless should Hitler rally the
countries of Europe. Not an embittered man, however, Jack relished debating matters with
friends and acquaintances, including academics. He was delighted when Labour won the
election after the war.
A very kind-hearted man by nature, Jack let 99 Shelford Road during the war to a hard-up
young woman for only two guineas a week. He helped a blind masseur study for his exams. He
befriended an Italian Prisoner of War, also helping him with exams and once bought bread rolls
for some hungry German POWs parked by their guards outside a baker's shop.
Jack was a dedicated swimmer, becoming the most celebrated river-swimmer in Cambridge.
Having entered the water aged one he first swam when he was three and by the age of four was
a clever diver. Paramount Sound News could not persuade the shy young Jack to talk when
they filmed his prowess. He was later one of the self-styled New Town Water Rats who almost
lived at the swimming place on Sheep's Green in the summer.
He swam all year, rarely missing a day and won the first of many trophies when 19, by then a
lean six-footer . In winter, Jack would often break through the ice to take a dip, such was his
enthusiasm. Jack founded the successful Granta Swimming Club in 1934. In his unpublished
book, Swimming for Fun, written at the suggestion of his friend Neil Bell, he embodied all his
experiences with swimming.
|Swimming in the River
Cam, Sheep's Green,
Cambridge Central Library.
Following a broadcast in 1967, the Radio Times reported that those who had heard Jack were
moved by his determination and fortitude. Listeners wrote to the BBC about his disarming
frankness and lack of bitterness which characterized his recollections. Cambridge News
journalist, Deryck Harvey, in his profile of Jack, called him "one of the most dynamic and
beguiling personalities in Cambridge" being "writer, scholar, philosopher and friend".
Let Jack Overhill himself have the last word: he said, "Don't forget that first and last in life -
and it takes precedence over everything - writing, reading, sex and the rest of it - I'm a
swimmer right to the marrow in my bones".