"It is a somewhat curious experience to change over, at a minute’s notice, or less, from an adequate income, to one of nothing at all," wrote ‘Frank Richards’ in his autobiography. "Worse things happen in War time. Financial disaster is, perhaps, one of the milder woes of War. But it is very disconcerting. Frank Richards was ill-prepared for going on the rocks, after fifty years in smooth waters. And he was rising seventy: rather late in life to begin the battle all over again."
"In truth," he wryly added, "it was a knock, and a hard one." (Richards, p180)
It may also seem as curious to the reader to start a history at the end of what most would consider Charles Hamilton’s pièce de résistance, the thirty-two year run of Greyfriars stories in The Magnet. But I have to confess that whilst The Magnet may have been his greatest work, it was written at a time of, as Hamilton put it, "smooth waters". His early years were full of travels, fascinating in themselves, but well recorded in his Autobiography of Frank Richards (1952); from the 1920s he had lived in England, having a bungalow (‘Apple Trees’) built outside Hawkinge, a village set between Folkestone and Dover, in 1921 and, in 1925, moving to ‘Rose Lawn, at Kingsgate-on-Sea where he was to live out the rest of his life.
During those years, Hamilton lived out of the public gaze, writing prolifically – a million and a half words a year, year in, year out – and few ripples disturbed the smooth waters of his career.
The tempest upon the waters was brewing throughout the 1930s whilst Hamilton was writing some of his greatest stories yet the tragedy, when it came, took him by surprise. After all, when you have written steadily and without interruption for fifty years, suddenly discovering that there is no market for your work is a crushing blow.
Few authors would recover from such a calamity. Hamilton, on the other hand, turned a disaster into a whole new career; over the next decade he emerged from the shadows of anonymity – or multiple pseudonymity – and became a public figure, writing best-selling novels and television plays that attracted audiences young and old; he was regularly broadcast by the BBC across the world, recorded a record, created dozens of new schools and filled them with characters he hoped would have the same impact as Harry Wharton & Co., or Tom Merry & Co., or Jimmy Silver & Co.
Hamilton fairly exploded across all media – books, newspapers, radio and television. His prolificy as a writer was one aspect of his life, well explored. His ability to adapt to new times and new media has been examined less closely, but is something that I hope we can look at in these pages.
In fact, there are whole series of stories that many Hamilton fans are unaware of, often extremely scarce and unlikely to be found by even the most ardent admirer of his work. I can’t claim to know about every aspect of Hamilton’s post-war writings, but I do hope to at least piece together as much information as I can on these books and stories.
Much of this information can be drawn from the 20,000+ pages of collecting magazines which have done a great deal to keep Hamilton’s name alive to his fans. Chief amongst them is the Collectors’ Digest (still published today as the quarterly Story Paper Collectors’ Digest) which was launched in 1947 by Herbert Leckenby and was keenly read by Charles Hamilton, who kept his readers informed about his work through his correspondence with the editor. Over the years, Collectors’ Digest published many noteworthy articles about Hamilton’s work – much of it written by two fans who were probably the most compulsive scholars of his work, Roger Jenkins and Eric Fayne; the latter took over the editorship of the magazine when Herbert Leckenby died and maintained, even increased, the already high standard of the ‘Hamiltonia’ section of the magazine. On Fayne’s death, the magazine was (and is) then edited by Mary Cadogan, who has written her own biography of Hamilton in the shape of Frank Richards: The Chap Behind the Chums (1988). The magazine and its yearly Collectors’ Digest Annual was also the launching pad for two bibliographers who for years dominated the research field when it came to story papers and their writers, namely W. O. G. (Bill) Lofts and D. J. (Derek) Adley, who co-authored The World of Frank Richards (1975). In more recent years the magazine has run occasional but superbly insightful articles by Una Hamilton Wright, Charles Hamilton’s niece.
Piecing together tiny fragments of information from hundreds of different sources is not an ideal way of working. The final results usually resemble a patchwork quilt which for a book is something of a disadvantage. On the internet, that isn’t such a problem, since most web-users are used to finding their way around sites built up patchwork style but with each section interlinked. I hope that over time the site will build up into a comprehensive look at Charles Hamilton’s work in the last twenty years of his life, that can be read either as a linear story – although that will certainly be a while coming – or just dipped into, following links, exploring the diversity of Hamilton’s creations.
A Note on Sources
Throughout the text you will find quotes from various sources. Since footnotes are somewhat untidy in an on-line document, I’ve tried to make use of them as little as possible unless it is a note that would otherwise break up the narrative. For the most part sources are cited in the text, the main sources, being:
Richards, Frank, The Autobiography of Frank Richards, London, Charles Skilton, 1952.
Lofts, W.O.G. & D. J. Adley, The World of Frank Richards, London, Howard Baker, 1975.
Cadogan, Mary, Frank Richards: The Chap Behind the Chums, London, Viking, 1988.
These are abbreviated to Richards, Lofts/Adley and Cadogan respectively.
Letters have also been quoted throughout the text, many drawn from The Letters of Frank Richards edited by Eric Fayne (Church Crookham, privately printed, 1974) and from the pages of Collectors’ Digest. For a fuller bibliography of sources and articles about Charles Hamilton and his work, see the Bibliography section.
© 2001, Steve Holland