The oldest item in my collection…

Is issue 11 of the Halfpenny Marvel, published on the 17th of Janurary 1894. Containing only the one story (later issues would also have articles and instalments of serial stories) called A Golden Ghost, or Tracked by A Phantom.

It is the third (of thousands!) published story of Sexton Blake. And is regarded, even by fans, as a “farrago of nonsense”. Written by the detective’s creator, Harry Blyth (using his real name here as opposed to Hal Meredith, as he did on occasion) the story is indeed rather messy, revolving around a gem stolen from a Malayan tribe called the Zeefri, which is hidden inside an iron cube. A rich financier (who funded the expedition to steal the gem) being blackmailed because he once used money intended to be given to a girl when she grew up to bail himself out. The girl in question being in love with the nephew of the adventurer who stole the gem. Told you it was confusing… such a complex plot might make for an exciting story in the hands of a good writer, but unfortunatley mr Blyth was far from that. This is a lot better than the first Sexton Blake story, mind.

That’s the underlying plot, as for the story itself, well it lurches from scene to scene with little regard for logic or sense. The colonel who captured the gem is lured into a trap by the “Golden ghost” of the title, which remains completley unexplained. He later escapes and turns up just in time to thwart the plans of the villains, casually explaining that the building in which he was being held prisoner collapsed for no reason. In another lengthy page-filling sequence (also providing several forced ‘action scenes’) the colonel’s nephew, Wallace Roy, travels to Malaya and is captured and then escapes from numerous bloodthirsty tribes and wild animals. eventually falling captive to pirates, but choosing an opportune moment to spring overboard and swim to a British man-o’-war. To fill up more space a bizarre sequence concerns the gem going missing, and the reason being Wallace was sleepwalking to the Captain’s cabin and hiding it in a secret drawer he had been shown during the night.

Despite all this page-filling, the story ends very abruptly. With everything straightened out and Wallace marrying his sweetheart, the colonel is sent a present of a wicker basket during the wedding. He opens it and is attacked by a boa constrictor. Saved in the nick of time by Sexton Blake, he then decides that the Zeefri, who have been desperate to kill him through most of the story, will never attack him again. Just like that. If you ask me the story was most likely written right up to the deadline and there was very little time for such fancy procedures as editing. But there you go!

Being Sexton Blake’s early days, the characters of Tinker, Pedro and the irrepressible landlady Mrs. Bardell are all absent. Instead Wallace Roy aids the detective in the case at some instances (as was the way in most early tales… meaning it always had to be a some strong young man commissioning the ‘tec). In others Blake merely talks to himself. Sexton Blake’s partner, Jules Gervaise, who was a feature of a few early tales and even had a couple of solo adventures (also written by Blyth) is notably absent, and not even mentioned. Presumably he is on a case of his own in France at the time.

The Halfpenny Marvel issue 11

Early issues used both orange and black ink, however this was later switched to single colours. Dark red for a time, and then dark blue for many years.

Halfpenny Marvel 11 - 01

The first page, with the large illustration used on Harmsworth/AP papers of this type. Almost being a secondary cover… which is handy as often papers where bound into volumes without covers, see my Union Jack Index blog for more of that! You can see the back of the cover here, with the ink showing through… even in 1894 publishing a 16-page storypaper for a halfpenny meant very cheap & cheerful printing quality, which also explains why so few have survived. Luckily this sturdy volume has preserved the books well. My UJ’s from the same year have not been so lucky, and are crumbling.

Halfpenny Marvel 11 - 02

Fancy illustrated lettering to open new chapters… this also vanished along with the two-colour covers. Presumably further cost-cutting… once the Halfpenny Marvel had become a sucess Harmsworth set about pumping out more storypapers, such as the Union Jack, Pluck and Illustrated Chips. And the money had to come from somewhere!

Halfpenny Marvel 11 - 03

The snake in the basket which is the Zeefri’s final attack on the Colonel. They decide to stop after this attack fails… why? well there was no pages left for a start…

Halfpenny Marvel 11 - 04

This is what Sexon Blake looked like in the 1890’s. This illustration was used in several stories, including “The Missing Millionaire”, the first story in issue 6 of the Marvel, and “Sexton Blake: Detective” in issue 2 of the Union Jack

Halfpenny Marvel 11 bcover

The back cover, showing all the previous issues and four cover illustrations. The two men in the hot air baloon basket (issue 7) was the second Sexton Blake story, and above can be seen the title of the first– The Missing Millionaire. I did once order issue 5 off Ebay, but the guy said i hadn’t paid when i had, and ignored my emails. So issue 11 remains the oldest item in the collection so far!

Other notes

New Accquisition: a volume of 1904 Union Jacks. No Sexton Blake stories amongst them, though. I’m going back to Lincoln for year 3 of university tomorrow, though. So they’ll arrive after i’m gone. But here’s the pictures from the ebay auction.

1904 Union Jacks 1

1904 Union Jacks 2

There’s plenty of secondhand/antique bookshops in Lincoln (the more suited to my needs, the higher you have to climb, though), so my collection will be expanded whilst i’m there, which will give me plenty more to write about!

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