Quick! What was the biggest news story of the 1910’s? Well, World War 1, obviously. In fact, many “potted histories of Britain” mention nothing else from that decade, except maybe the second biggest story of the decade, the Titanic.
But what else was going on during that decade, of major concern to the people living through it? Strikes! The time before the First World War saw a large amount of industrial unrest, as the living standards for the rich rapidly improved, but most of the poor may as well have been living in the 1810’s, for all the good scientific progress was doing them. The trade unions were growing ever stronger, though – and in that golden age of publishing, getting propaganda printed was cheap. Nobody had yet tried out the new ideas of Karl Marx, either.
All this led to a number of large strikes in Britain’s industrial heartlands. These would often spill over from one factory to a whole town, and in 1912 the situation in Liverpool got so serious that the navy sailed up the Mersey and threatened to shell the town!
The Amalgamated Press, then basically the only power in British comics worth talking about (for working class readers, anyway. Chums and The Boys’ Own were big names in more respectable homes), always sought to reflect the world of it’s readers, and so numerous stories about strikes appeared. The very first story in the penny re-launch of Union Jack was about a miner’s strike, and the Boys’ Friend and Dreadnought had their own tales of industrial action. Many of these stories followed a simple pattern – the strike was either the fault of an unreasonably extreme union leader (who would be caught in the act of trying to fire a coal mine, derail a train etc), or else the main character would the unknown eldest son of the previous owner of the company, and thus the real boss.
Of course, the reality was usually much different – the managers of those days often had no interest in the safety and well-being of their employees, and it was hardly surprising the unions walked out. There was never any “nicer” manager waiting in the wings to swoop in and put things right, either.
Horace Phillips, writing in The Boy’s Journal, obviously thought there was a need for a more realistic strike story, one which would actually reflect what the union members up and down the country felt. And this resulted in It’s Hard To Get On! The first instalment of which appeared in issue 17, cover dated January 10th, 1914. Yep, exactly one hundred years ago!
Given the cover, too!
Before I get on with reviewing the story, I may as well talk a little about The Boy’s Journal itself. It appears to have been an Amalgamated Press attempt at creating a 1d “upmarket” story paper aimed at readers of Chums and Boys’ Own. Unlike most/all of the other AP weeklies, it could also be bought as 6d monthly editions, which came on better paper and included a coloured plate and contents page.
Contents page of one of the monthly editions
My collection of “BJ” amounts to one volume of a few random weekly issues from 1913-14 (along with similarly random issues of Dreadnought from the same period). These are in terrible condition, but do have their covers. I also have a bound volume of the first 35-odd “weekly” issues, though most of this volume is actually the monthly issues, only the latter part is bound weekly issues (this time without covers, or trimmed edges, so they’re in poor condition). I also have one loose issue from late 1914, the early part of World War 1 and full of hysterical anti-German ravings. But there’ll be more on that when the time comes.
The volume with the bound monthly issues doesn’t include thier covers either (it may have been a coloured cover, or possibly a black and white one. It may also have been a very simply-designed cover with a load of adverts on it – that wasn’t unknown at the time, and people were expected to throw the cover away if they were binding the contents). It does, however, include the coloured plates, though they’re not “full colour”, as such, but black, white, red and blue, with fine ‘screentone’ used to blend them. The subject matter is the usual images of dashing heroes in peril, as befitted the time of empire.
The tallest guy looks pretty disintrested in his impending spear-filled doom.
The serial stories (some of them ‘ran over’ the end of the volumes, as was standard practice for AP, rather than all being complete inside a volume, as seen in the Boys’ Own, Chums, Boys of Our Empire etc). generally followed the pattern of at least one adventure, at least one ‘serious’ (ish) boarding school story, and then a comedy story (usually also set in a school) and another one. It’s Hard To Get On! being the “other one” at the time it ran.
There was also a number of complete stories, some arranged into series featuring the same character(s). In early 1914 these included Dick ‘O Hara, a wireless operator who got into adventures, and Three Chums on the Spree, a series of slapstick comedy stories with “black head” illustrations.
The BJ also included articles, of greater or lesser length. Running at the same time as It’s Hard To Get On! was a series called Boy Slaves of Britain, which addressed the then-widespread issue of child labour, and poor safety standards in factories. Like a lot of serial stories, they got shorter as they went on – but I’ll reproduce the first one here (I had to take photos of the pages, so the tops and bottoms may be a bit hard to read).
As the target audience of The Boy’s Journal was more middle class (though no doubt plenty of readers of the Marvel, Union Jack etc picked it up too), these articles often ended with appeals to public school boys to “consider their less-fortunate comrades”. Later it encouraged them to raise the issue of child labour with their teachers and fathers, adding a mock “wanted” advert for “an MP who will stand up for Britain’s boy slaves”.
Oh, also, the inner page of the weekly edition started to use a unique, and more-modern looking, masthead as it went into volume 2.
But (finally!) on to the story itself! It’s first appearance was in an advert on the back cover of the preceding issue, which reproduced one of the illustrations (also used in the title block) and listed the main characters. Up until a modernisation, circa 1917, The Boys’ Friend would often list the main characters of a story as part of serial re-caps. I suppose it was a device taken from adverts for plays, only where those would list the actors playing the parts, the story paper equivalents would give a little information on the characters.
The tale opens with Hetty Hansard trying to persuade her brother, George, to stop drinking before he goes on duty as train driver. George has been encouraged to “act manly” and drink by Arthur Melrose, son of the director of the Stonemoor division of the Central British Railway Company. Geoffrey Norman (who was adopted by the family) comes home and angrily confronts George, before taking a flask from him so he can’t drink and drive. After George and Arthur leave, Joe Hansard, George’s blind father, shows up. He is very trusting, and doesn’t know his son drinks (he doesn’t mind “a harmless smoke”, though. How times change! …though actually The Boys’ Friend ran constant anti-smoking articles for at least the first 20 years of it’s life). He also thinks it’s a good thing that Arthur Melrose is mixing with the common workers, and recalls former strikes that were provoked by Sir James Melrose, the current director.
George Hansard sets off on his train, and Geoffrey Norman goes to work in his signal box. The things going on at home distract him, and to his horror, George’s train goes racing past his signal box when it was supposed to stop. There’s a crash (“at thirty miles per hour”!), though it seems that everybody escapes without serious injury. Geoffrey had set the signals correctly, but when he hears the crash he deliberately sets the signal for George’s train incorrectly – as “anybody can make a mistake”, and it will cover up for George being drunk on duty. However Arthur Melrose is on the scene, and when Geoff arrives, pulls the flask out of his pocket and accuses him of being drunk on duty.
Nobody beleives this, and a huge demonstration gathers outside the police station and, the next morning, outside the magistrate’s court. Geoff is found to be sober by the police doctor, and is released without charge. The protesters outside are happy, though they still boo and hiss at James and Arthur Melrose as they leave the court.
Geoff goes home, and shortly afterwards gets the expected letter telling him he’s been sacked. However the letter says he has been sacked for drinking on duty, and “somebody” has made sure the rest of the workers have got to know about it. Soon a huge crowd gathers outside the house, an agitator called “Mad Max” making firey speeches.
Mad Max would, in a lesser strike story, be an unreasonable extremist, trying to get people to walk out for every petty grievance. However in this story he is an excitable orator (described as both “breathless” and “hatless” XD) who is only able to stir the men up when they have a legitimate greivance. Geoff comes out of the house and Max is unceremoniously shoved off the ‘stage’ and Geoff shoved on. He says that the men shouldn’t go on strike just yet, as the union’s funds are low. If the men run out of money and have to go back to work before the strike is resolved, the union will lose it’s credibility.
We soon learn that Sir James Melrose is actually hoping for a strike, as he has been saving his money and hopes the unrest will reduce the price of company shares, he will then be able to buy them all up and become the sole owner, rather than just a member of the board.
Public opinion around the country is on the side of the union, and the popular press reflect this. Sir James persuades his son to lay a sleeper on the track in front of the train he will be travelling on. This will then make the strikers look like wreckers and anarchists, and turn the public against them. Arthur duly sets out, but Geoff catches him in the act and they fight. George is driving the train and the fight (more clearly seen in the fog than a sleeper on the line) alerts him to the danger, so he is able to stop the train in time. Geoff and Arthur run off, but Geoff is later arrested for trying to wreck the train. He would have a good reason to – having been sacked by the company, and it’s his word against that of a “respectable gentleman”.
At the same time, Hetty and Joe were with the board of directors, pleading for Geoff to be reinstated. One of the board, a kindly man who helped Joe when he was blinded in an accident years before, has almost swayed his colleages when the news comes through. Now Geoff is looking at prison! The union beleives he is innocent, and a large demonstration gathers in the town square. This turns into a riot when the prison van tries to come through. Hetty gets back to Stonemoor in time to see the van beseiged and broken open, then the mounted police charge the crowd and Geoff escapes in the confusion.
Meanwhile, George is coming home, having left his engine at the sheds. He is accosted by Arthur Melrose in disguise, and threatens to tell the press who really put the sleeper on the line. Arthur reminds him that he has betrayed the union in the past – telling Arthur that it’s funds were low. George succumbs to this blackmail, and promises to keep quiet.
Meanwhile, Geoff has hidden at the house of Reverend Peter White, who beleives in his innocence. Arthur has guess that Geoff will be hiding at the house of this “interfering do-gooder”, and leads the police there. Geoff manages to escape by jumping on a goods train that is setting out (then, as now, there was a lot of different railway companies, so they were not all on strike). Arthur also jumps on, then follows him when he gets off. Geoff goes into hiding in an old hut on the moors, not knowing he has been followed by Arthur.
Arthur returns home, and the next day a large demonsration gathers outside. Max and Peter White come to the house to negotiate, but Sir James refuses to see them. The rest of the strikers riot and break down the railings. They smash their way into the house, but Peter White gets there just ahead of them, and stands between them and the two cowering directors, saying “no hasty blow will right your wrongs!”. The strikers hesitate, and the police come up and move them away. Peter White tries again to convince Sir James to negotiate, but he refuses.
Back at their home, Hetty is certain George knows something, but George insists he doesn’t, and leaves. Then Geoff sneaks in the back door, bringing them a soverign which he has been carrying around. Many of the striker’s families are already low on money, and the strike pay from the union will soon run out. Geoff says the only way to clear his name is to find some evidence against Arthur Melrose. He goes to their mansion, climbs up some creepers and manages to overhear them discussing how they framed him, and how they plan to buy up the worthless shares in the company, in great detail. A bit convenient, but it keeps the plot going XD. Geoff then slips off the window-ledge and the plotters overhear him, the household staff give chase, but he gets away. Arthur guesses Geoff was the spy, and decides to have him arrested. However, George gets to know and stows away on the open luggage rack at the back of Arthur’s car. Geoff, thinking he is safe, goes to sleep, only to be woken by police lanterns!
Arthur is confronted, some distance away (in case the “dangerous fugitive” fights back!) by George, who says he has had enough of living a lie, and is going to tell the truth of what he saw from the train. Arthur again threatens to expose his work as a spy in the union, but George has made his mind up. At that point the police bring Geoff, and drive him away in the car. Arthur says he has “decided to walk home”, then continues trying to threaten George, to no avail. Eventually Arthur gets angry and gives George a shove, accidentally pushing him into a deep, abandoned open-cast mine. No sound comes from the mine and Arthur, thinking he is a murderer, runs off.
Hetty and Joe hear that Geoff has been arrested, and will be tried at Stoneleigh, where the headquarters of the company is. The main strike is in Stonemoor, so having the trial there would be risking another riot. The two set off across the moor so they can be at the trail the next morning, but the badly-made path is full of potholes. Eventually it gets too dark to go on, and Hetty has to leave the path to find shelter. Meanwhile Joe, who pays more attention to his ears, thinks he can hear somebody in pain, and stumbles off to look, only to fall down the same hole George is in. The “bang on the head” returns his sight to him (a common trope in old stories, any ailment caused by a “bang on the head” can be cured by another one), but he still isn’t strong enough to escape from the pit.
Hetty returns to the hut she has found and rips up some sacking to make a rope. George and Joe escape the hole, but George is badly injured and they’re miles from anywhere. But then they find a locomotive which has been left idle by the strike. As Joe can see now, he is able to drive it, so Hetty gets the fire going and they set off for Stoneleigh.
Meanwhile the strikers, hearing of Geoff’s arrest, again lay siege to the Melrose house. The police have not organised themselves in time, so the strikers smash their way in and set the house on fire. Sir James and Arthur have already escaped in their car, but Arthur pushes it too hard and it breaks down on the railway line. The engine driven by Joe comes flying around the corner and hits the car, the three aboard are flung clear and the Melroses escape into the night, eventually moving abroad. George is rushed to hospital, where he recovers and tells the truth about the attempt to wreck the train. Geoff is freed and the strike comes to an end. He is also able to make a certain proposition to Hetty, with his job secure and chances of promotion in the future.