South Woodford resident Debbie Pearson is a tour guide for the City of London and the City of Westminster. During lockdown, she took the opportunity to learn more about the local area, including James Hilton House. Photo by Geoff Wilkinson
On Woodford Road, opposite The Drive, stands an impressive three-storey brick building with two fine entrance porches. This Grade II listed structure is called James Hilton House and is named after a famous local author and screenwriter. His most well-known works are Goodbye Mr Chips, the story of a schoolmaster, and Lost Horizon, which is set in a mysterious Himalayan location called Shangri-la.
James Hilton was born in Lancashire in 1900 and educated in Walthamstow and Cambridge. From an early age, he would write stories and poems, and he edited his school magazine. His family moved to Woodford Green in 1920. James wrote his first novel, Catherine Herself, while he was still at university. For 10 years or so, he worked as a journalist and reviewer and wrote a number of novels.
Lost Horizon, published in 1933, coined the term ‘Shangri-la’ for a utopian paradise and won a literary prize. In the USA, it was published as Pocket Book Number 1, the first mass market paperback book. It sold several million copies and was one of the most popular novels of the 20th century.
The next year, his most famous work appeared. He had written Goodbye Mr Chips in just four days, and this novel made his reputation. The lead character is an elderly schoolmaster, and the fact that his own father was employed in this role is perhaps no coincidence. This book was so popular that James became a best-selling author.
James and his first wife, Alice, moved to the USA, where he acquired a New York literary agent and a job in Hollywood. He would eventually become a vice-president of the Screenwriters Guild and one of Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriters.
Lost Horizon was made into a film in 1937, directed by Frank Capra. There was also a musical version produced in 1973, a TV film, a stage play, a radio play and a Broadway musical.
The first film of Goodbye Mr Chips appeared in 1939, starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson. Robert Donat won an Oscar for his portrayal of Mr Chips. In 1973, Peter O’Toole was also nominated for an Oscar, although that year the award went to John Wayne.
James Hilton himself also won an Academy Award, as a screenwriter, for the 1942 film Mrs Miniver. This sentimental film, set in World War Two, was very successful as propaganda. He shared the Oscar with his three fellow screenwriters.
James Hilton made his fame and fortune in Hollywood, but his two most famous books were written in the local area. Both Lost Horizon and Goodbye Mr Chips were written when he lived at 42 Oak Hill Gardens, Woodford Green. There is an English Heritage blue plaque on the house where he lived.
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