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1: THE SHADOW OF THE SACK

Most fans of The Magnet agree that in the last few months of its publication, the continuing adventures of Harry Wharton & Co. had been as grand as ever. The tiniest fly in the ointment was the long-running Lamb series, in which a new art master, the mild-mannered Mr. Lamb, had arrived to teach the Remove. With shades of the famous ‘Courtfield Cracksman’, the plot takes many a twist and turn, beginning with the kidnapping of that most famous of schoolmasters, Mr. Quelch, Christmas at Wharton Lodge, a mystery at Moat House, and the possibility of William George Bunter about to share the same fate as his gimlet-eyed nemesis.

The problem was not in the actual story – which, after all, was full of incident and included an ongoing feud between Vernon-Smith and the new master and the re-appearance of detective Ferrers Locke and his young assistant Jack Drake. The complaint was that it went on too long. Sixteen weeks was the longest serial since Wally Bunter had arrived at Greyfriars back in 1919, and Greyfriars readers, it seemed, did not like the tension to be eked out so long.

Two months was about right – seven or eight issues – and Frank Richards obliged in his next series, sending Wharton & Co. off to the coast and the home of Sir William Bird, Loder’s uncle and himself an Old Boy of Greyfriars, at Eastcliffe Lodge. While Sir William was off performing secret service duties for King and Country, it was left to the amateur actor of Study No.6, William Wilbley, to impersonate him to disguise his absence.

Coverpage of Last Magnet. Click to enlarge

 

 

The Easter holidays over, it was time to return to Greyfrairs, and for Harry Wharton to face "The Shadow of the Sack". This was clearly to be another "Wharton the Rebel" series (as Peter Hanger notes in Collectors’ Digest Annual 1960, "They seemed to come in four-year cycles, so we were due for another in 1940.") in the tradition of the earlier and extremely popular Downfall of Harry Wharton series (Magnets 1285-1296, 1932) and Stacey series (Magnets 1422-1433, 1935). Hamilton had given this first story the title "Harry Wharton Hunting Trouble", changed by someone in the Magnet office unaware that the shadow of the sack had been cast before.

Sadly, with "The Shadow of the Sack" cast over him, that was the last we were to see of Harry Wharton and his famous Co. because although the following week’s story was announced, to be entitled "The Battle of the Beaks", the saga of Greyfriars chronicled in the Magnet ended on the fateful words:

It was a cheery party that went up to Study No.1 in the Remove to tea. That spot of trouble had blown over and all was calm and bright – for the present at least; though, had the chums of the Remove only known it, they were at the beginning of what was to be a rather exciting term.

The Magnet folded without warning. "From this week’s school yarn you will have learned that all is not well with Harry Wharton. He’s fallen foul of Mr. Hacker, the acid-tempered master of the Shell. The happy thought in Hacker’s mind is to pin Wharton down so effectually that Mr. Quelch will be unable to stand by his head boy. But it’s easier said than done, as the Acid Drop finds out to his cost in this great Frank Richards masterpiece, entitled: "The Battle of the Beaks!" You’re in for a real feast of fun and excitement in this super story of Greyfriars."

Sadly, the feast was over, and the editor’s promise that the Magnet "will still play its important part in the country by appearing every week with its high-class stories which have done so much to kill the black-out blues" proved to be untrue. As well as the title announced in issue 1683, three further tales were already in hand: "The Meddler" (1685, originally called "Bandy Bunter" by Hamilton), "What Happened to Hacker" (1686) and "The Hidden Hand" (1687). Charles M. Down, the editor of The Magnet since the departure of Herbert A. Hinton in late 1920, placed these precious manuscripts in a box along with office files and records and took them to Room 203 on the sixth floor of Fleetway House where they were given over to Harold J. Garrish, the head of the Amalgamated Press' juvenile department. When Garrish died in 1956 and his office cleared, the box was not to be found among his effects.

Nor had Frank Richards kept copies of the stories. They were lost to eternity.

* * * * *

"The Gem had petered out at the end of 1939, after a few months of war. Everything else had petered out, excepting the Magnet which looked as if it might repeat its 1914-18 performance, and survive the storm. But the paper shortage in 1940 finished the Magnet. Martin Clifford had already lost his income. Now Frank’s followed it into the Ewigkeit. The A.P. cheque, which had come along so regularly, for so many years, that it seemed to Frank as fixed and immutable as the laws of the Medes and Persians, had suddenly, silently vanished away, as if it had been a Hunter of the Snark suddenly confronting the Boojum. Fairy gold could not have dissolved into space more abruptly and more completely. Just a letter one morning apprised Frank that it was finis." (Richards, p180)

There is the obvious question of why the Magnet folded. Primarily, the problem was the shortage of paper. The German invasion of Scandinavia, where Britain obtained much of its paper cut off all supplies, but this should not have affected the Amalgamated Press so deeply as other companies. They had bought up a large tract of timber land – 3,100 square miles – in the Grand Falls area of Newfoundland as early as 1905 to safeguard their paper supplies against rising prices and in 1910 had set up Imperial Paper Mills in Gravesend to produce paper from the pulp coming from Grand Falls.

The bite had come in April 1940 when existing publishers were limited to supplies of 60% of their previous year’s output and steadily reduced that figure until by December 1941 it was at 37˝%. The immediate effect on the Amalgamated Press was to devastate their low-selling lines; since these were prepared six weeks in advance, it was mid-May before the titles affected disappeared. The killing blow, it is said, was the sinking of a Anglo-Newfoundland Co. steamer out in the Western Approaches of the Atlantic, bringing paper to England to feed the hungry presses.[see note 1]

The week-ending May 18th was a Night of the Long Knives at the Amalgamated Press: a week earlier had seen the demise of Puck after 1867 issues, but the toll for the following week included Boys’ Cinema, Golden Comic, Jester, Larks, The Schoolgirl, The Thriller, Tiger Tim’s Weekly and The Magnet; the week ending May 25th saw the closure of Detective Weekly and Triumph and in the first week of June came the final issues of many long-running A.P. monthly titles, Boys’ Friend Library, Champion Library, Girls’ Friend Library, Schoolboys’ Own Library and Schoolgirls’ Own Library. In a matter of a month, 15 story papers and comics, some of which had lasted almost 40 years, were consigned to history.

Shadow of the Sack Title Page Image

One of the painful truths about The Magnet was that it had been suffering from declining sales for some years. It’s companion, The Gem has switched to reprints in July 1931 to save on costs, and it was only in April 1939 that a last desperate attempt was made to boost sales by returning to original stories by the original Martin Clifford. Not even this could prevent the Gem from folding, it’s last issue – number 1663 – was dated 30 December 1939. In its last year, sales had slumped to 15,800 a week, a fraction of its weekly sales in earlier years.

Nor was this a problem solely for The Gem with its years-old reprints. Sales for The Magnet were dropping steadily throughout the 1930s at a time when many fans believe Hamilton was writing better than ever – perhaps a reflection on the fact that he was able to concentrate on one major full-length school series; there were plenty of other stories streaming from Hamilton’s Remington – the Ken King yarns in Modern Boy, stories of Cedar Creek and Packsaddle, of Rookwood… but these were shorter tales than the 25-30,000- worders he had produced for The Gem, and the change of pace and length certainly seemed to invigorate Hamilton’s writing and freshen up the tales of Greyfriars when he came to write them. It can’t be a coincidence that from the moment The Gem switched to reprint in July 1931, Hamilton’s editor on The Magnet never had to use another substitute writer again.

Hamilton agreed with his fans, recording in his autobiography: "Many of his readers have told him that his best Magnets were written in the nineteen-thirties, and Frank has no doubt of it himself. He had never written more actively, and never written so well."

Yet despite all the efforts of the company to boost sales, they declined. Young readers who were fed on nursery comics like Puck and Tiger Tim’s in their early youth were growing up to read the more vigorous Thomson papers which had five or six stories per issue and a rotating cast of different characters who would each have a run of perhaps thirteen weeks before disappearing for a few months whilst another series of stories was written. The Thomson model for story papers had been assimilated by the Amalgamated Press in the shape of The Champion which was launched in 1922, and it had quickly become their best-selling boys’ title, outselling even the Magnet at its best. From selling over 200,000 copies a week, the Magnet had slumped to an average sale of 41,660 a week in the last six months of its life. By comparison, the Champion was selling 150,000 at the same time. Simple economics dictated which paper was likely to fold.

Things were considered to be so poor that the paper was on a dead-line: if sales did not improve by July, the paper would have been absorbed by another, more successful title, and a plan was conceived to give the paper a boost – or at the very least try to instil a greater sense of loyalty into the readers that remained.

In the Magnet #1682 the editorial column "Come Into the Office, Boys and Girls" included a note that "An important announcement that will appeal to every one of you will be made shortly."

The following week, in the very last published issue, the editor had to admit:

"In my last week’s chat to you fellows I mentioned that an important announcement was to be made in this issue of The Magnet. For several weeks I have been working at top pressure on a scheme that would have appealed to every boy and girl. In fact, all preparations have been made, and the machinery was to be set in motion this week. Unfortunately, however, the acute paper shortage has forced me to postpone the scheme until some future date. To put you wise now as to what it actually was would only tend to spoil the pleasant surprise that is in store for you – and you would not like me to do this, would you? Rest assured it will not suffer in any way for the keeping."

The important announcement was to have been the setting up of a Billy Bunter Club with membership certificates and a club badge in the likeness of the Fat Owl. According to Lofts & Adley, "Chief officers were to have been appointed in every major town and city, and the object was to have created a worldwide brotherhood. Officers and members would be expected to enrol new readers – which was the object of the entire exercise, thought up by a sales manager at Fleetway House." (Lofts/Adley, p136)

Artist C. H. Chapman had already prepared a number of sketches which were to be used as advertisements for the Club, which was to have been promoted through the pages of Knockout where Frank Minnitt was then drawing the comic strip adventures of Billy Bunter. Although he had not drawn the comic strip in Knockout for some time, Chapman had also drawn some new strips for the Billy Bunter Club, but these were never used.

Rear Page of Last Magnet. Click to enlarge

 

 

"Billy Bunter was certainly not selling at his best during the last five or six years of his run," editor C. M. Down later recalled. "When newsprint became scarce it was decided that many of the boys’ papers and comics would have to go. They carried the least advertisements and therefore were receiving less revenue. The Champion type of papers did have a much larger circulation and obviously made far more money. That is why they were kept on, and Billy Bunter had to go." (Lofts/Adley, p134)

A last-ditch notion to continue the Magnet tales was dropped: "The four unpublished Magnet stories were planned to be used later in a humorous magazine, said C. M. Down. But what he meant he never made clear. If it was a new project it never got further than the drawing board. But according to one Director of the Amalgamated Press it was probably intended to be The Knockout, in which case the Magnet stories would perforce have had to have been drastically cut." (Lofts/Adley, p137)

For whatever reason, the stories did not appear in The Knockout which had been handed over to its wartime editor Percy A. Clarke in 1940. With the closure of so many papers, some editors were immediately given six months paid leave, their services not required even in a workplace depleted by editors and sub-editors receiving their call-up. The Amalgamated Press settled down to see out the war.

* * * * *

Billy Bunter in fact had two finales. The loss of Frank Richards’ manuscripts for the issues immediately following "The Shadow of the Sack" means that the plot of the newly rebellious Harry Wharton series will never be fully known. However, the partly complete manuscript for the next story, post-"The Hidden Hand", was found at Rose Lawn after Hamilton’s death and passed on to Una Hamilton Wright, Charles Hamilton’s niece and executor, and eventually appeared in Yarooh! A Feast of Frank Richards, edited by Giles Brandreth (1976). Hamilton had been informed of the closure of the Magnet in early May, shortly after the publication of "The Spy of the Gestapo!" in issue 1681; two issues were already in production, and Hamilton was already writing issue 1688. The story was entitled "Exit Bunter", and Harry was still under the eye of the beaks, especially that of the acidic Hacker who has received a prank phonecall which Harry is convinced is the work of Stephen Price of the Fifth who is "making use of the suspicious old goat to pay off your rotten grudges."

"I licked out in your study for it, last time. Now I want to know if you’ve been at it again. Hacker had an insulting phone call from somebody, and he’s put it down to me… as usual! Where have you been?"
Price breathed hard.
"I know nothing about it – if you’ve been playing tricks on Hacker!" he said, "Now let me pass."
"You haven’t answered my question."
"You cheeky young cad."
"Cut that out! Where have you been?"

"Exit Bunter" was intended for Magnet 1688. Although it is mere speculation, it is possible to fill in the gaps between the two stories from the titles alone: "Battle of the Beaks" would seem to invoke an antipathy between Quelch (who is sympathetic to Harry’s problems in "Shadow of the Sack") and Hacker. One imagines that "The Meddler" (Hamilton’s original title for 1685) is Hacker, well-known for interfering in form matters that don’t concern him; the editor changed the title to "Bandy Bunter", perhaps implicating Bunter as the meddler in question (Charles Hamilton once revealed that in the story Bunter feigned a bad leg to aid him in some escapade, but that is all that is concretely known about the plot). "What Happened to Hacker?" asks the next issue… what indeed? It would be pure guesswork, but it almost certainly has something to do with "The Hidden Hand" of the following issue. Possibly that of Price, leading to the insulting phone call and the confrontation with Wharton above. The very title implies that perhaps Bunter also falls under the suspicious eye of the Acid Drop and has the shadow of the sack upon him once Hacker learns the reason Wharton was in Quelch’s study (and thus under suspicion of making the insulting phone call) – to kick out the Fat Owl.

The answer to Wharton’s question to Price was not forthcoming. Charles Hamilton learned that The Magnet was done, and this was not to be only Bunter’s exit, but the exit of the entire cast of Greyfriars School. As British troops withdrew from Norway, and the Germans invaded Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, to the citizens of the UK, the world seemed to be contracting, and the enemy closing in. Certainly for Charles Hamilton, suddenly out of work after fifty years as a writer, the future looked very unclear.

 

Notes

1 The 7,244-ton Geraldine Mary, owned by Anglo-Newfoundland SS Co. was torpedoed and sunk in 1940; two other ships, the Esmond (4,976 tons) and Rothermere (5,365 tons) were both torpedoed in 1941. The Esmond was sunk on May 9, 1941, by U-110 which was quickly disabled by escort ships Aubretia and Bulldog; a boarding party from the Bulldog was able to save important codebooks, logs and charts relating to the German ENIGMA code. The steamer Rothermere was sunk on May 24th during the Battle of Denmark Strait (best known for the involvement of the German battleship Bismark) by U-98. Back to text

© 2001, Steve Holland

Last revised: 23 May 2001



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