Back to "After the Magnet" Main Index

2: HAMILTON’S WAR

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Charles Hamilton was living a sedate life at Rose Lawn in Percy Avenue, Kingsgate, on the coast at Thanet, which he had bought in 1926 and which became something of a tourist attraction in the late 1940s when details of Frank Richard’s life began to appear in newspapers. At that time – the mid-1920s – he also had a second home, Clyde Cottage in Hawkinge; he also earlier bought a chalet in Wimereux-sur-Mer, near Boulogne, and later had another property in Menton. These were sold when Hamilton gave up his visits to the continent and in 1931 he had a bungalow called Appletrees built just outside Hawkinge, giving Clyde Cottage to his former housekeeper, Miss Beveridge, on her retirement.

Hamilton and his family were close; especially close were his younger sister Dolly and her family, and he bought a house opposite Rose Lawn for them, Mandeville, keeping Appletrees as a holiday home in the country when he needed to retreat from the cold Easterly winds that swept around the coast and off the sea at the end of Percy Avenue.

In September 1939, Charles Hamilton was sixty-three and had been suffering from poor eyesight for over a decade, although this never interrupted the stories that flowed from his typewriter. Rose Lawn at the time was home to Hamilton, his housekeeper Edith Hood, and Edith’s father who was in very poor health and who died soon after.

The garden, which faced out onto cornfields at the back, was converted into a vegetable garden, but not for long. As the German forces swept across Europe and the Allies were forced to evacuate at Dunkirk, the coastlands were designated as danger areas, and Hamilton, along with Edith, moved to Hampstead Garden Suburb.

In mid-1940, life had changed immensely for Charles Hamilton: no longer writing any of the series that had gained him so many fans and no longer able to live in his own home.

Moreover, he was not so well off. From earning around £3,000 a year, his income fell to £260 – the honorarium he was paid for Billy Bunter’s appearance in The Knock-Out Comic. Frank, the inveterate gambler at Monte Carlo in the years before the Great War, had continued to gamble in new ways – on horses and on the stock-market. Although he owned property, the war made it impossible for him to sell (although he was later to sell Appletrees to Edith Hood’s brother); his investments had been dealt a mighty blow by the war. As Hamilton wrote in his Autobiography:

Frank had never had much care for money: but he had some little property on the south-east coast, where he now lived: and a bundle of investments which had been put away as a nest-egg for old age. Alas! His little property was in what was considered a danger zone: it could not be let or sold for love or money, and it produced nothing but demands for War Damage Insurance. And his investments, once almost gilt-edged, had fallen from their high estate, and great was the fall thereof. As a sample, Amalgamated Press shares, which Frank had bought at anything from twenty to thirty shillings, were quoted in the market at half-a-crown! The war had struck the share market like a hurricane. (Richards, p181)

And things were about to get worse. His next problem after relocating was tax, paid in arrears and now due on the once high salary his writing had earned him. "Frank made the cheering discovery… that the end of income did not by any means imply the end of income-tax." (Richards, p180) Taxes were due in July and sur-tax was charged in January. The sale of his undervalued shares only just covered the tax bill, although some shares he held in Gainsborough Pictures had actually risen in value in 1941 due to the take-over of the company by J. Arthur Rank; Hamilton sold up and received a cheque for £125 which helped keep him going until things improved. One newspaper report had him reduced to smoking dried rose leaves because he could no longer afford tobacco for his pipe, although this may be apocryphal. It is certainly true that Hamilton would tear off strips from old copies of the Magnet or Gem to use to light his pipe and, in 1940, donated hundreds of issues of his old story papers to be recycled as part of the War effort.

* * * * *

Hamilton arrived in Hampstead Garden Suburb "in happy time for the bombing," and was able to pick up a property with relative ease. The house he had wanted, where he had lived with one of his sisters and her husband many years before, was not available, so he chose one nearby. This was fortunate as his original choice was wrecked by a bomb, and the house he found himself in "never had anything worse than a chunk of metal through the roof." (Richards, p182)

Although his life was uncomfortable and his nights completely disrupted by fly-bombs, he was still able to write, even if it was material that would not see publication until after the war was over – and Hamilton was for a while convinced that it would be a short war, especially when Hitler’s own Generals tried to kill him. He kept his Remington busy, and because he was not allowed to write about Greyfriars (due to his signing away the rights to the characters in a deal made with the Amalgamated Press in 1921), he filled his life with new creations: a number of books about a new school called Carcroft and a ‘Jack of all trades’ character named Jack Free, and a comedy novel entitled Hiker’s Luck. He diversified, also producing verse and an incomplete volume of ballads which he called The Barcroft Ballads. Sadly, much of his writing from this period was never to see print, or did so in a sporadic, disconnected way so that few of his later creations had a chance to build up a steady following in the days of paper shortage that followed the eventual end of the war.

His Carcroft stories had begun appearing in Winter Pie, a Christmas offering from Hutchinson’s in 1944 who had launched this quarterly series in 1943, and Hamilton also diversified into producing crossword puzzles for the same title, but despite his reduced output, was growing more famous by the year.

In March 1940, Horizon had published a lengthy essay by George Orwell entitled "Boy’s Weeklies" in which he laid a number of charges at the door of the authors of various papers, and especially at the team of writers he imagined were writing The Magnet and The Gem. The editor of Horizon, Cyril Connolly was surprised some weeks later when he received a lengthy response from Frank Richards answering each of Orwell’s allegations and which was printed in the May issue of the magazine.

Horizon was only selling around 6,000 copies, whereas the Evening Standard, which published a lengthy interview with Hamilton in October 1943, sold substantially more and led to hundreds of letters from former readers of Frank Richards, Martin Clifford and Owen Conquest, having made it plain in the article that these were all one and the same author. Hamilton always tried to answer each and every letter he received, and sometimes this must have been an astonishing feat, especially when, as Mary Cadogan points out, in one Christmas alone he received over five hundred letters.

Further articles and interviews appeared and, perhaps more importantly, a growing and vocal fandom for his work was gathering itself together, at first around a free newsletter published by a Canadian-based story paper fan by the name of William H. (Bill) Gander. The first issue of Gander’s Story Paper Collector appeared in January 1941, and soon found a steady readership, mainly in the U.K. It was Gander’s unfortunate illness in 1945, threatening the publication of further issues, that prompted Herbert Leckenby, a Yorkshireman working at the local army base, to co-found Collectors’ Digest, the first issue appearing in November 1946. As fortune would have it, Gander continued to publish the S.P.C. (as it was widely known to readers) until 1966. It also proved fortuitous to Charles Hamilton, who found himself at the centre of a whirlwind of fannish activity. Travel, especially in the early days of Collectors’ Digest, was still difficult, with transport patchy and regular power cuts disrupting services. The post, and the growing number of fan-produced magazines, was the way fans communicated, publishing wants lists, sales lists and, more importantly, finding a similarly-minded audience to share their passions with; for Hamilton it was a useful way to promote his latest creations and let his hard-core of fans in on the news… and just as Collectors’ Digest was launched, Hamilton had plenty of news to share with its 200 subscribers, some as far away as Brazil and Australia.

When fans began to hold regular Old Boys’ Book Club meetings in London in March 1947, Hamilton was invited to become the Honourary President of the club and, "like Barkis," was willing. "I regard it as a very great honour, and if all the members are satisfied with the selection, so be it!" (Letter to Mrs. R. Whiter, undated [1947])

Shadow of the Sack Title Page Image

However, to take a step backwards, another book written by Hamilton during the war was an Autobiography, and a very different book to the version eventually published by Charles Skilton a decade later. Originally completed in 1943 or 1944, it "was bandied about here and there" for over two years before eventually finding a publisher "willing to spare the paper for it" in 1946.

That early version of his Autobiography would have been a far more interesting book to read than the version that eventually appeared. In the published version, Hamilton wrote:

This is the Autobiography of Frank Richards: ipso facto that of Martin Clifford, Owen Conquest, and Charles Hamilton. But "how use doth breed a habit in a man." Charles became so used to the name of Frank Richards, that it grew to seem to him like his own. Since he has used that name, he has thought himself more as Frank than as Charles. (Richards, p18)

And:

My readers will observe that these memoirs are written chiefly in the third person. Frank, like Stendahl, dislikes the "je’s" and the "moi’s." He dislikes a page spotted about with aggressive personal pronouns. Indeed he would rather adopt the amazing method of Sully, and write autobiographically in the second person, than spill obtrusive I’s. He is still rather a diffident chap. (Richards, p18)

The diffident Hamilton of 1950 had been less hesitant in years earlier. In letters to fans he was rather more forthcoming, especially on the subject of his former publishers, the Amalgamated Press. "He had a large number of chips on his shoulder," say Bill Lofts and Derek Adley, "and a number of blunt axes to grind, and he dealt faithfully with them according to his somewhat then vitriolic frame of mind." (Lofts/Adley, p142)

Shadow of the Sack Title Page Image

In the firing line especially was the subject of substitute writers – a subject he never held back on. He was convinced that the Gem in particular had been destroyed by the use of substitutes. "I am quite vague about the number of Magnets which were interpolated by the toads," he wrote in 1945. "They used to irritate me too much for me to keep them or even look at them." (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 9 Aug 1945)

You tell me that you hated the poor stuff that supplanted my writing sometimes in the papers: but you did not hate it quite so savagely as Frank Richards and Martin Clifford did! It is still a very sore point with me: it was the use of my pen-names by other writers that led, more than anything else, to the final severance of my connection with the publishers. I have little doubt that the Magnet and Gem will reappear after the war is over: but they will run on reprints – or else on ‘dud’ numbers written by the A.P. hacks. Although it was, naturally, a heavy blow to me to part with the happy crowd of schoolboys who had been my daily companions for so long, it is a relief to have done with that kind of thing…

[The Rio Kid] came as a very agreeable change from my usual writing, and – better than anything else – the A.P. were kind enough to let me keep him to myself, and their wretched "substitute writers", as they called them, were never allowed to mangle him. (Letter to Eric Fayne, 18 Jan 1945)

I don’t remember if I have mentioned to you that I was the original "Hilda Richards" of the School Friend, author of "Bessie Bunter & Co." The paper was taken out of my hands after a short time – one of my sorest recollections. It really does not seem right to me to get an author to set a thing going, and then pass it on to others, who had not intelligence enough to begin it. (Letter to Eric Fayne, 21 Jun 1945)

These particular frustrations, and his frustrations with editors such as John Nix Pentelow and Hedly O’Mant were likely given full reign in the war-time Autobiography. So much so that he had difficulty finding a publisher:

About the Autobiography, a good many difficulties have cropped up, partly owing to Frank being too frank, if I may express it: and so it is still in the state of Amfortas in Parsifal: neither alive nor dead. Frank Richards does not feel disposed to blot a single line of it: having taken Hotspur’s advice to heart to ‘tell the truth and shame the devil’. (quoted in Lofts/Adley, p142)

Hamilton doubtlessly blamed the Amalgamated Press for his wartime state of relative poverty, although at the time his only income was their honorarium for the use of Bunter in the Knockout, which they were not bound to pay him. Circumstances had meant that even his investments were no longer "gilt edged" and the tax burden was possibly still preying on his mind. Indeed, Hamilton is said to have sent his sur-tax bill to the A.P. with a suggestion that they pay it, to be told in no uncertain terms that they would not.

His disgust with the A.P. was compounded by the fact that they would not allow him to write Greyfriars stories anywhere else, and that was what the public – especially his newly discovered fan base – really wanted from him.

For whatever reason – paper shortage or fear of libel – the book was turned down at the time, and he did not find another publisher until 1946. Eventually it was published in 1952, but only after ‘Frank Richards’ had made some substantial changes to the book:

It is possible that my Autobiography may be published next year. The paper shortage, which has been such a spot of bother to authors and publishers alike, is practically over now, and everything is very much easier. But the autobiography requires some revision before publication, and I don’t get a lot of leisure time these days. (Letter to James Iraldi, 12 Aug 1950)

The revisions were completed a week before Christmas in 1950, but the book had to wait another fourteen months before it saw print. When it did appear the book was received as a fascinating failure: Hamilton completely ignored his early life and began the book with the words "Frank Richards, at seventeen, was at a loose end." This was, after all, the Autobiography of Frank Richards, not Charles Hamilton; and Frank Richards did not come into existence until Hamilton began writing for publication. As he once explained:

My personal affairs in childhood would hardly interest anyone: but even if I thought they would, I should not think of obtruding them on the public. I think that it is in the very worst of taste for a man to parade his personal affairs in public. His work, his travels, his adventures if any, his views of life, any spots of experience that may be of use to others, yes. But not his Aunt Jane and his Uncle George, or what he thought of his head-master, or what his head-master thought of him – apart from the pain of recalling recollections of dear ones long dead. I began the Auto at seventeen because my writing began at that date: and the book is the life of a writer. So there you are! (Letter to Donald Webster, 7 Mar 1952)

Charles was telling Frank’s story: he therefore used a third-person narrative, and Frank Richards stepped fully formed into the world; this was probably the most common complaint of reviewers who, noting that Frank Richards had spent over sixty years writing about children for children yet seemed to be without a childhood of his own. Anyone hoping to learn more about Hamilton’s early work would also be disappointed, as "we will pass lightly over the nineties and the first years of the present century… the briefest sketch will suffice." (Richards, p19) Within twenty or so pages Frank is 30 and beginning work on the St. Jim’s stories.

And in the interim years between drafts, Hamilton’s attitudes had mellowed – after all, in the early 1940s he was dropped by the Amalgamated Press and left to fend for himself without the characters who had made his name or his living. By the late 1940s, he was not only writing about Bunter again, but selling stories to the Amalgamated Press, who were running short, original yarns in Comet, or paying him for the use of the character in comic strips in two papers (Comet and Knockout) – over £500 a year for no work other than cash the cheques. Now, "so far as Frank remembers, all the men at the Amalgamated Press were good fellows." (Richards, p42)

More frustrating still was to learn in the pages of the Autobiography itself that there were areas about which Frank would be "discreetly silent".

It [the Autobiography] was first written, in London, in the War time, when Frank had nothing particular else to write, and a kind friend suggested that he should write his memoirs… Frank was at the nadir of his fortunes, living in the Rawdon-Crawleys on an income of nothing a year: experiencing for the first time the "downs" of life after a long and happy experience of the "ups." He doesn’t recall 1944-45 with much pleasure. Possibly that was why it did not occur to him to leave the black spots out of his narrative. But reading the typescript over, after a lapse of years, he has quite different ideas. The first edition of his memoirs is still in existence, but it will never be published. The present edition is ever so much more pleasant to write and to read. It is wiser and kinder to forget all about "battles long ago." So this chapter, which was originally one of the longest in the book, is going to be one of the shortest. (Richards, p85)

Hamilton weighted the biography of Frank Richards on the side of pleasant, happy memories. Any hint of bad behaviour on the part of his characters was disguised by reverting to initials or nicknames and we can only guess at what was removed.

Thus most of the frustration with reviews was aimed at what Hamilton admitted to leaving out. What remains is a fascinating portrait of the middle-years of Hamilton from his thirties to his sixties, the earlier years filled with travel and no little amount of gambling at the tables of Monte Carlo, the later years with consolidating his position as one of the best – certainly one of the most fondly recalled – writers of the century. Hamilton’s style was unmistakably his own, and whilst it would have been most interesting to have his honest opinion on some of the greater trials and tribulations he faced in his (then) sixty years as a boys’ writer and of some of his editors and contemporaries, he was at least not dishonest with his readers, admitting that he had made cuts and giving his reasons for doing so.

* * * * *

Revising the Autobiography was still some years ahead for Hamilton. Eventually, the war drew to a close, and Hamilton, approaching seventy years of age, was faced with the task of making a living for himself once again. He did so with resolution, writing "Sometimes it gives me a little shock even now to realise that Tom Merry and Billy Bunter and the rest are gone for ever. But one has to bite on the bullet: and it is not much use crying over spilt milk." (Letter to Eric Fayne, 21 Jun 1945). His Carcroft yarns were appearing in Hutchinson’s quarterly Pie magazine, articles were regularly appearing in magazines, including a biographical sketch Hamilton had written for the Saturday Book entitled "Some Thoughts of a Boys’ Writer" (1945), and the BBC Home Service broadcast his first radio play, Plus ca Change.

An even more important step forward had been made in bridging the rift between Hamilton and the Amalgamated Press which would eventually lead to the renaissance of Greyfriars: he regained control over the names that he was best known by. Three months after V.E. Day, he revealed, "some time ago the Amalgamated Press agreed to give me an undertaking, in writing, that my pen-names should never again be used by their hacks, either Martin Clifford or Frank Richards, Owen Conquest or Hilda Richards." (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 9 Aug 1945)

The reclaiming of the Frank Richards byline in particular was an important victory for Hamilton, because spiritually he thought of himself as Frank Richards. With the war over and spirits high throughout the country, Frank Richards – the real Frank Richards, was about to make a come-back.

© 2001, Steve Holland

Last revised: 20 April 2001



Back to "After the Magnet" Main Index