The Sexton Blake Library turns 100

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I don’t actually own this, I nicked the pic off an Ebay auction years ago

 The Sexton Blake library was the longest-running publication to contain stories of Sexton Blake – who, by the time it was launched in 1915, had already been around for 22 years – and had been appearing in the Union Jack every week for 11 of those (plus extra serials and short stories in the Boys’ Friend, Boys’ Realm, Penny Popular, Answers etc etc). There had also been a few longer, book-length stories in the Boys’ Friend Library. But, in 1915, Sexton Blake was given a library all his own!

I don’t know the exact date the first issue went on sale, but it was sometime in September. Somebody with a collection of Amalgamated Press publications for that year might be able to find an advert with a specific date, though. The first issue was The Yellow Tiger, and cost 3d. It was a “yellow peril” story, with wartime elements; the “minister of munitions” is kidnapped, and at one point, Blake & co are held up by a German submarine (at this point, they would surface and use their deck guns on unarmed ships). Wu Ling, basically the Sexton Blake version of Fu Manchu*, teams up with another guy called Baron De Beauremon, who leads a gang called The Council of Eleven. Many super villains had been established in the Union Jack stories, by now, and Blake regularly had to fight team-ups, like an evil “Avengers”! Anyway, the story is one of the best in the Sexton Blake saga, with loads of fist fights, gun fights, plane chases, ship chases, captures and rescues. But copies of issue 1 of the SBL are very rare and expensive…

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Fortunately, the first four issues were reprinted (apparently very hastily – many spelling mistakes!) in this book. The Sexton Blake Detective Library, published by Hawk Books (who also reprinted some Eagle material, and had a very familiar logo) in 1989. Being considerably easier to find, and considerably cheaper, to boot (I got it in a Mind charity shop, for £1), it’s a great introduction to the world of Sexton Blake. The first four SBL stories are all vintage Blakiana – master villains, devious disguises, journeys to exotic lands and conspiracies that nearly ruin innocent victims, until Sexton Blake comes through! The book also contains an extensive introduction (still more-or-less “up to date”, there’s been precious little additional Blake material since 1989, and only one “official” new story!). There’s also several pages of cover pictures from various story papers, including full-page reproductions of the first four SBL issues, though the quality is, erm…

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Not colour filtered in any way, only brightness and contrast!

Still, the introduction reproduces several illustrations from the Blake saga, many by prolific Union Jack artist Eric Parker – who also did a large number of Library covers:

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And, to round it off, a reproduced comic strip from Knockout. There was a later and (now) better-known Sexton Blake comic strip in Valiant, but that was rubbish – the plots were Scooby Doo esque ghost investigations, and not even original! They were re-drawn, and slightly re-worded, copies of a modern-day ghost hunting strip from Buster.

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This is the real stuff!

Anyway, the SBL’s publication schedule was initially just one issue a month (there was, after all, a war on. It didn’t affect the paper supply nearly as badly as World War 2, though. At least, not to begin with). By 1916/17, the schedule appears to have increased to two or three per month (“digests”, like the SBL, BFL, and today’s Commando, generally come out in ‘batches’. Though the My Weekly and People’s Friend libraries come out every two weeks). But 1917 paper shortages saw the page count drop from the initial 120 to just 72. By 1919, with the war over, the library went up to four issues per month (five per month for most of 1922, but it dropped again, at the beginning of the following year), and stayed that way until the paper shortages of World War 2 again hampered it.

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The oldest one I actually own is from 1917… features a train chase across Argentina!

In 1925, “Series 2” of the library began, though it wasn’t much different (not even a price increase, it had gone up to 4d in 1918). The golden age of Sexton Blake encompassed the post-WW1 period until the mid 1930’s, at which point a time known in Blakian circles as “the lean years” began (heralded, more or less, by the death of Union Jack in 1933 – it was replaced by the less-glamorous Detective Weekly, though the very first series of Blake tales to run in that was a belter).

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A late issue in series 1, and an early issue from series 2. 

There’s actually a new “Blackshirts”, having a meeting somewhere in my county today. But, though they claim to have “no policy” on homosexuality, I’m still too scared to go.

In 1940, wartime pressures saw the SBL increase it’s price from 4d to 4½d. It was also reduced to three, and then two, issues per month. In 1941, the third series began, with a whole 1½d leap to 6d! By this point, stories of supervillains and epic adventures were out, and hunts for spies and war profiteers were in. Uninspiring titles like “The Scrap Metal Mystery” hid tales that are still of use to social historians (or just people who want to soak in the atmosphere of a long-gone age), being more concerned with the trials of everyday life in those dark times. Paper shortages also saw the page count drop from 96 to 64. Some issues containted two short stories, instead of one long one, in an attempt to keep things varied.

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The library remained at two issues per month until December 1950, when it finally returned to it’s pre-war publication level. In the late 1940’s, it began to take on a more ‘standardised’ look. First, the title of the story was in a blue bar on the cover. This was soon replaced with the title being written in yellow, often in a red block. This look endured for many years.

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The stories were still of the more “ordinary crime” type. There’s lots of house parties where a shot suddenly rings out, impossible murders in a locked room, or some poor guy being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of the golden-age supervillains made occasional appearances, though, but the days of them raising private armies and trying to destabilise the west were more or less over (or just didn’t seem so romantic, after two people had managed to do exactly that, a few years earlier!). Again, though the stories of this period didn’t live up to the epics of the golden age, many of them are still interesting mysteries in their own right. The odd secret mission behind the Iron Curtain harks back to the spy capers of the world wars, too.

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In 1956, the at-first-unofficial (the editor later ‘retconned’ it) fourth series began, with No. 359, “Frightened Lady”. By now, the library was 10d, and had a red bar down one side of the cover. The cover artwork was a lot more “suggestive”, often with glamorous women showing a lot of leg! This sort of thing continued on the inside, too. Sexton Blake moved from his cosy baker street home to offices in Berkeley Square, and a secretary called Paula Dane – who often assists him on cases, sidelining Tinker to a cameo appearance at the very beginning or end. Tinker also dropped his old “street arab” nickname, preferring to be called Edward Carter. These changes all became known as the “New Order”.

The plots started to feature more gruesome hints of torture and brutality – and romance and hints of sex also began to make an appearance (though were then toned down in 1957, when the Obscene Publications Act threatened). A spymaster called Eustace Craille was introduced, and Blake was once again jetting off around the world (on jets, not steamships, too!), fighting master villains – though these were more in the cold war, James Bond mould. Most of the stories were still murder mysteries, set “at home”, though. Oh, there was also a few tales featuring “flashbacks” to World War 2 – and, it turns out, these are the only New Order stories I have! So I can’t show you any of the “leggy” covers. The New Order war stories were in that grim, gritty style that characterised the lurid war paperbacks of the 50’s and 60’s – and the early issues of War Picture Library and Commando – written by men who had actually been there!

Anyway, series 4 ran into the 1960’s with the James Bond-ish stuff increasing slightly. There was even a cod-golden-age story called The World Shakers, about an ex-Nazi supervillain who has built a fleet of flying saucers! This was written by “Desmond Reid”, who was an interesting character. At some point, the format was also stretched upwards, going from “Library” size to “Paperback” size. Though still only 64 pages!

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The “regular” Sexton Blake library came to an end in 1963, with the story The Last Tiger. The New Order did a lot of re-writing to Blake’s back-story, and it’s almost tempting to believe the return of the word “Tiger” in the title was a happy accident, rather than intentional! Anyway, this was another “yellow peril” story – this time, the villains are Japanese soldiers who don’t realise the war is over, and are using a “tractor beam” to kidnap airliners. Sexton Blake ends the tale proposing to Paula Dane, and writes a letter to the readers on the back cover, in which he reveals he has the middle initial “T”, and says that “nobody seems to have met” Desmond Reid. This is probably because he doesn’t exist! It was a fake name, used for editor-reworked stories, or just to cover up an author’s name, if they had written too many stories in a short period. Still, that didn’t stop his photo appearing in The World-Shakers! They chose a picture of some actor who looks like a right spiv.

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Anyway, after 1964 passed Blake-less, the fifth series of the Sexton Blake library appeared in 1965, this time published by Mayflower-Dell. This time, they were in the standard paperback format – tall and narrow, with around 150 pages. But the type was considerably larger, so the story length was probably about the same. These came out at the rate of two per month, and initially cost 2/6 (quite a jump from the 1/- The Last Tiger cost!), though soon went up to 3/6. Some of these were terrible, though others are alright. Some follow the New Order mould, with Berkeley Square and Paula Dane, while others feature Blake plodding about his office, smoking a pipe while being fed by his housekeeper, Mrs Bardell. Several of them are very 60’s, with twangy pop bands (and hysterical fans) and hippies present and correct. This series lasted until 1968, ending with Down Among the Ad Men.

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Howard Baker, the last editor of the regular SBL, was, by this time, reprinting loads of old Amalgamated Press material (he kept it up until the 1980’s). This included hardback Sexton Blake omnibus books, reprinting two issues (mainly from series 4 and 5) at a time. In 1969, four new stories appeared, in the same hardback format, and apparently costing a whopping 16/- (or 18/- or “90p”… erm…). Those were the last “official” Sexton Blake stories published (except for a TV show adaption in 1972), and the end of the SBL…

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Until 2014! A company called Obverse Books launched series six of the Library. This time, it’s a “series” of “quarterly” hardbacks, retailing at a whopping £20 each! Containing one original story, and one reprint from the archives. I say “series” and “quarterly”, because there has actually only been one issue, so far, and that came out more than a year ago. Looks like they’re not going to “make the century” with a new issue this month. But “insiders” report that the second book is on it’s way… slowly!

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I think series 6 is far too well-bound and irregular to be truly classified as a story paper, though. Oh, for “that” Euromillions win. I’d buy up the copyright and have cheap, Commando-sized issues pumping out like a shot! Oh well, if the newest issue of my favourite “comic” won’t come out in September 2015, at least my third favourite will…

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Better go and buy it, quick!

Reference: As with pretty much anything to do with Sexton Blake, I inevitably made use of Mark Hodder’s Blakiana website: http://www.mark-hodder.com/Blakiana/ , he pretty much wrote this entry for me XD.

*-At one point, at least, Amalgamated Press were actually publishing stories of both characters, but they didn’t meet. Until 2009 – when Mark Hodder did a fanfic! Fu Manchu and Wu Ling are mortal enemies, though. They both want to take over China, and use her mass of people to take over the world. Mind you, if you ask me, Fu Manchu’s green-tinted skin and sideways eyelids hint at him coming from rather further away…

The Boys’ Friend – March 20th, 1915

It’s time for another 100-year-old comic! This time it’s an issue of my favourite, The Boys’ Friend.

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Cover dated March 20th 1915, so that’s probably the day it went off-sale, actually!

This is possibly a significant issue, but now I’m not so sure. It features a story of Rookwood school, the other, other, school series that was primarily written by Charles Hamilton (aka Frank Richards, of Billy Bunter fame). Apparently Rookwood stories began a mere 4 issues earlier, in no.715. The beginning of the Rookwood stories apparently heralded “four consecutive double numbers”. However, this issue appears to be the first of four consecutive double numbers, rather than the last of them. Is this really the first Rookwood issue, or did the stories begin in a less-ostentatious manner, in an ordinary “single number”?

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The adverts and “contents” page. Maybe the Beano having one isn’t so bad after all – not if my favourite comic also did it!

Anyway, this issue is interesting, because usually the double numbers were sold for double the price – at this time, 2d. But they have kept the price of this one (and, apparently the following three double numbers) down to 1d! As good as sign as any that the Boys’ Friend must have been selling incredibly well, and making a huge profit. Not something that is likely to ever be repeated in this country, sadly.

It also came with a “free gift” a coloured war picture. But, unfortunately, this is missing. There’s reproductions of the first three pictures on the inside back cover, though:

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 A scheme that would be repeated after the war, too!

This was also before paper shortages forced the Boys’ Friend to shrink. In 1916 it would drop from 16 pages (ordinarily!) to 12, and later still a mere 8! It wouldn’t get back to 16 pages until 1922.

Anyway, as I said, the first story is about Rookwood School. written in the usual breezy, fun Hamilton style. Rookwood is divided into two large “houses”, Ancient and Modern. They seem to almost be two separate schools, complete with their own masters. The masters of the Ancient house all come down with the flu, leaving the boys to play football all day, and to crow over the Modern house, who still have to work!

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Naturally, the headmaster isn’t having that, and sends prefects from the Modern house to watch over the Classical boys, who have to do acres of ‘prep’. Inevitably, there’s a rebellion! Presumably the story of the rebellion continues over the four double numbers (I’ve not actually read any of the stories, yet!). Though an early attempt to make a diplomatic protest ends the way you’d expect!

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After that, we come to the editor’s page. The editor’s page in the Boys’ Friend (and, of course, The Boys’ Friend itself!) was at it’s best in the 1900’s – and one of the best editor’s pages there’s ever been in a British comic. Along with those in the two near-identical sister papers, The Boys’ Herald and The Boys’ Realm, that is! It was still pretty good in 1915, but was, sadly, already starting to show signs that it was being dumbed down slightly. Here’s one from 1906, alongside the one from this issue:

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Fatherly, yet friendly, advice, and interesting information.

By the end of the war, it had been reduced to little more than a box, describing the next set of stories. Mind you, when the Boys’ Friend had been reduced to only 8 pages, I don’t suppose they could afford to give the editor a whole one to himself – the readers wanted stories, after all!

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The very week the war ended, in fact.

As the page number began to increase again, after the war, the editor’s box started to fill out, again. However, the tone had subtly changed. There would often be jolly “pen pictures” of places and jobs, rather than advice on getting jobs, or visiting nice places for yourself. There would also be crosstalk-type jokes, and funny “catches” to try out on your little brother.

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The second issue after the return to twelve pages

By August, 1919, the editor could occupy a whole page again. There’s plenty of references back to the late war, and the vast changes happening in the world – particularly in the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, which were being speedily dismantled into a collection of not-always-satisfied independent states.

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The editor’s section began to shrink again, sometime in the 1920’s. The Boys’ Friend was already in decline then, anyway. The coloured covers of Union Jack, and Scottish rivals like Adventure, were making swift inroads into the sales of big, black and white, old-style tabloid papers. Here’s an editor’s section from late 1927, one of the very last issues.

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To return to 1915, though… The next story is part 1 of a new serial. In fact, every serial in this issue, begins in this issue! I suppose a coloured-cover double number for a penny was too good a chance to pass up, and they wanted the issue to become a “jumping-on” point. Probably the first “jumping-on” point they’d had since issue 1, back in 1895! (they were re-numbered when it became a penny paper, in 1901, but serials may have continued over the “join”. They did in Union Jack!)

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Anyway, there was a war on so, inevitably, there has to be an army story! This one begins with a young man having to take care of his sick sister. Both of their parents are dead, and his lowly office job is very poorly paid. On the way to work, a newly-formed battalion of soldiers marches past, an old man asking why he isn’t with them. Later, he is forced to swallow his pride and ask his uncle for help, but just as he gets there, he discovers somebody has murdered him! Now he is the prime suspect, and has to enlist under a false name to escape – all the while wondering how he’ll be able to go on sending his sister money.

The next story is a rare (for the Boys’ Friend) sci-fi / fantasy / paranormal adventure story. Usually Boys’ Friend stories stayed strictly within the realms of “possibility” (wildlife native to South America infesting African jungles notwithstanding), often featuring vaguely informative stories set in famous historical events, “accurately” (by colonial standards) described far-off lands, or various workplaces. This is another new serial, called The Hidden World.

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It starts off with two boys having a fight. Then there’s a huge earthquake, and their entire village vanishes down a sinkhole. The sister of one boy survives unharmed, and he clambers down into a vast cave network, to look for other survivors. Also, dinosaurs live in the caves!

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It’s all a bit DC Thomson. Though later on, in the 1930’s, Captain Justice would be doing this sort of thing constantly, in the pages of Modern Boy.

The next story is the first of the long completes, which weigh in at around 10-15,000 words and were in most, if not all, issues of The Boys’ Friend. I love reading through them in my big bound volumes. They’re hit and miss, but often hits – though character development is, by necessity, a bit short (and was far from a priority, anyway, in the boys’ stories of this era). They can usually do whatever the story happens to require of them XD. Double numbers often included two of these, this one no exception. At Christmas, I always settle down with one of the snow-covered ones from the end of December, over a hundred years ago!

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Anyway, this one is called A Fighting Chance, and is about a “nut” (a posh toff who throws his money around), who has got in over his head with a bookmaker. He sets out to rob his own father, and blame the office-boy. The boy is sacked, and takes to boxing to earn some money.

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Following that, another story paper stock-in-trade, the detective story! The detective in this one is called Harvey Keene, and he’s up against a gang called The Circle of 13. Perhaps taking one down in each installment of the story? No doubt Harvey Keene himself is a Sexton Blake-alike, with a cockney “Street Arab” assistant. I wonder if he was in any other stories?

The next story is the second complete one, called The Slacker’s Triumph!. It’s only a coincidence that this one is also about sport – this time a young boy, who loafs about and smokes, is persuaded to take up football by his older brother, who is just about to go out to the trenches, and may never return.

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As most of the fit young men have already gone to France, this village team of boys who are just too young feel like they’re in with a chance of winning something!

Though I prefer the previous decade, it was the arrival of Charles Hamilton (in a regular slot, anyway. He’d probably written many stories for the paper before!) that put The Boys’ Friend “on the map”, for later story paper collectors. Anything the Bunter man touches turns to gold! The idea of having four double numbers, for “single prices”, all one after the other, must have terrified what little competition AP had, too. Something that helped brighten up the war years, anyway!

And, while I’m here, this page is a useful overview of what happened to the B.F., and when:
http://www.collectingbooksandmagazines.com/boysfriend.html

A Soldier – And A Man, the Christmas Union Jack of 1914

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The famous Christmas truce of 1914 has now gone down in legend. But what were the people of 1914 predicting for Christmas day before it had actually happened? Let’s find out, from the Union Jack’s 1914 Christmas issue!

…even though it’s cover, and presumably off-sale date, is the 19th of december! Amalgamated Press were producing so many story papers by that time, many of them due double-priced “double numbers” for Christmas, that they couldn’t bring out all of these double numbers at once without risking a loss in sales, so they seem to have been staggered. The Union Jack’s Christmas double number actually going on sale nearly a full week before the date! The one actually being sold on Christmas day was a normal, one-penny issue. Why no, they didn’t “take a break”, as many weeklies seem to do these days – it really did mean “every week”, a century ago.

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As usual, the inside front cover is given over to the adverts, and the first proper page is a ‘second cover’, so people could take off the actual covers and bind them. Sadly, many did – I have the 1907 Christmas issue without it’s cover! As this issue has double the number of pages, they can afford to spend a whole one on a grand, decorated and theatre-like introduction to the story, complete with a “cast of characters”. This was a common device at the time, in serial re-caps as well as complete stories.

There’s also a map, showing where the “U.J.” is regularly read. As well as the British Empire, dominions, Japan and parts of South America (where Britain had large cattle and railway interests, if not actual governmental control), the U.J. also appears to be read in a large part of “enemy territory”!

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Any bit of intelligence helps?

After that, we get right into the main story – a very long one, taking up almost all the issue. If there was a serial running at the time, it appears to have been suspended for this Sexton Blake epic. The illustrations accompanying the main story are also given whole pages to themselves, whereas in the normal run of things they’d be in among the text (though, instead, some unrelated ones are – see later!). There’s also holly decorations at the tops and bottoms of the pages.

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The story opens with a lengthy prologue – not always possible in the typical UJ, but common in issues of the soon-to-start Sexton Blake Library (I wonder if there will be a 100th anniversary special issue?). Robert Fenmore was a wealthy and respected man-about-town, who is seized by the gambling bug and quickly runs through his money. He then marries a wealthy orphan called Marion, who has a fortune of £100,000. He swiftly reduces this to £30,000, and, as the story opens, takes another £5000 from her. Of course, he expects he will soon have his “big win”, which will solve all his problems.

Fenmore has also been seeing rather too much of a popular music-hall star called Marion Paul. Little does he know, she’s a “plant”, designed to encourage him to carry on gambling. And she was planted by his cousin, Harold Craig, who also loved Marion Fenmore (the story doesn’t mention her maiden name). He goes to his club, where three other men discuss the scandal he is causing. One of them, apparently known only as Graves, is the uncle of Mademoiselle Yvonne, an international adventuress who appears in many Sexton Blake stories. Sometimes as a friend, sometimes a rival! Anyway, Yvonne is a friend of Marion Fenmore, and gets the story of the unhappy marriage from her uncle. She decides to “get to the bottom of” the mystery… and as the female Sexton Blake (or near enough!), might just do it!

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Yvonne goes to the gambling-den, called Frileti’s, which is a high-stakes place with some strict rules, including one that all women, and any men who wish to, must come masked. This helps Yvonne watch the games unnoticed, though! She plays a little, winning and losing evenly. Finally Bob Fenmore turns up, passing straight into a mysterious back room, where high-stakes games are played. Yvonne has a lot of money on her, so follows Bob and his chorus-girl companion in, noticing that Bob, and a “dark skinned foreigner” are both losing heavily, whilst thier attractive female companions rarely wager, lose little, and win a bit on occasion. Yvonne starts to make exactly the opposite bets to the men, and begins to win – the game is crooked, and the good-looking women are there to lure in rich men!

Yvonne quickly works this out, and that the music-hall star, Marion Paul, has her claws into Bob Fenmore. She also knows the dealer. Once Bob is cleaned out, the evening breaks up. Yvonne, roping a cab driver into her black ops game, follows the dealer from the high-stakes room home, discovering him to be Harold Craig! The next day, she calls on a solicitor friend who can, by his own methods, find out anything about anyone. She quickly runs Harold Craig to earth and applies a little blackmail – threatening to go to the police if he doesn’t sell her his gambling operation for £10,000 – far less than it’s worth, and a large part of that 10,000 was won from “the house” the previous night! Craig compromises – he’ll take Yvonne into partnership, and let her do the dealing in the high-stakes room. She’ll still rip people off, but will keep half the money. This, of course, includes all the money from Bob Fenmore, and a bit over. Yvonne cleans him out entirely – but holds on to all the money, planning to deliver it back to his unfortunate wife.

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Bob Fenmore goes home, his cousin with him. Harold tries to give him a loan – to bring him under complete control – but then the butler comes in with momentous news – war has been declared on Germany! Bob decides to write his wife a letter, admitting that he is bankrupt, and that he is “going away” – to enlist in the army under a false name – and will probably be killed (in “the greatest slaughter in history”, hardly the grand boy scout adventure we’re told papers of this kind described it!). His life insurance, and the diamond-encrusted Fenmore Necklace, will then provide for her. As soon as Bob has gone, leaving Harold with the necklace, the latter decides to, instead, give it to Marion Paul (“thank fortune their names are the same!”). Bob’s apparent “mistress” appearing in polite society wearing the famous necklace is bound to cause a scandal, further blacken the Fenmore name, and make Marion Fenmore totally dependent on Harold Craig!

The war drags on, the battle of Mons is fought to a standstill, and the lines of trenches begin to solidify across Europe. Bob Fenmore has vanished, and Marion Fenmore has moved into a small flat. But she has dismissed Harold Craig from her life entirely, and has a mysterious source of money that is keeping her head above water. Nobody but her and Yvonne know that she received an anonymous letter containing £40,000 – her own money, really, stolen from her husband! Harold Craig is seeing much more of Marion Paul, who scandalised society by wearing the necklace, as planned. Then, one night, Harold is seen entering her flat, while she is performing. She comes back later, with a group of friends, and they find Harold in the flat – poisoned! There has obviously been a huge fight, Harold the loser – but nothing has been stolen. Nothing, except the Fenmore Necklace!

Inspector Thomas, one of the lesser-known police friends of Sexton Blake (After the awkwardly-talking Spearing, and before the well-known Coutts), says that he is investigating the crime, and that Marion Paul thinks Bob Fenmore has been sending nasty letters, and that he stole the necklace. Thomas then visits Marion Fenmore, who is apparently too ill to see him, but, while the maid is out of the room, he spots the necklace on her sitting-room table! It looks like the vanished Bob Fenmore is responsible – but can Sexton Blake find him?

Blake and Thomas travel to the crime scene, where Blake quickly notices that the “signs of a struggle” appear to be faked. Lots of frail ornaments have fallen on the floor, but haven’t been broken. Also some flowers from a vase were not just thrown away, but burned! At this point Maron Paul arrives, and isn’t happy at Sexton Blake’s insistence that he takes the letter, which accompanied the necklace, with him. He then investigates footprints outside, and compares fingerprints with those of Marion and her servants – finding no unusual ones, whoever stole the necklace was an expert safe-cracker. Sexton Blake quickly spots that the necklace was intended for Marion Fenmore, not Paul. He then finds a single petal from the burned flowers, which he’d accidentally put in his pocket with something else. He takes the petal to his laboratory, to analyse some curious blue spots on it – but collapses halfway!

The scene then changes to the Western Front. Now, only a month ago, I showed you what The Boys’ Journal was writing about the war – the trenches becoming huge fist-fights, the Germans running away at the first sign of a counterattack, and so on. Certian “other” places, when writing about the British comics of this era (never mind the fact they have never read any), will tell you that those sorts of attitudes persisted throughout the entire First World War, brainwashing working-class teens into signing up for some easy “sport”. But is it actually true? Well, lets look at how the trench battles were being described in Union Jack by december 1914…

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Hardly sounds glamorous, does it? Men with agonising wounds, vomiting into the freezing sewer which, to them, represented a narrow strip of safety in a land stripped of all life. And yet tens of thousands were still willingly volunteering – they went because they saw it as their duty, as a service to something bigger than themselves. Look at Britain today – the majority of people are begging the government for more censorship, for more police surveillance. This nation is awash with cowards, willing to surrender any freedom if “even one child” is saved, “even one bomb” prevented. A sickening insult to the sacrifices of our greatest generations.

To continue, Bob Fenmore, under the false name of Robert Fraser, rescues his sergeant from no-man’s land, receiving several severe wounds in the process. He is taken to hospital, raving to himself, and is not expected to survive. But even as he hovers between life and death, his commanding officer is recommending him for the Victoria Cross. Back in London, Tinker discovers his master collapsed on the floor, and calls a doctor. They eventually revive him (the doctor saying “we are losing enough good men in the trenches”), and he explains that some sort of poison was on the rose petal, even that small amount nearly enough to kill! Clearly, the murder of Harold Craig, instead of being a disturbed burglary, was in fact carefully planned. The wrecked room just a blind.

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Sexton Blake is wondering about the case, when Yvonne visits, she also wants Bob Fenmore to be found. Blake also gets her to confess that she broke into Marion Paul’s flat and stole the necklace, sending it to Marion Fenmore. She mentions that the room was wrecked when she arrived, and the roses were on the floor. She also noticed a strange smell, and felt slightly giddy – the poison had already been placed! They then, quite easily, work out where Fenmore has hidden himself – ruined, wanting to die, and with a war starting, he obviously went into the army.

While they’re working that out, Tinker is out looking for Marion Paul, who clearly knows more about the crime that she’s letting on. He tricks his way into the flat, which is a spacious one, and is able to spy on her and a “servant”, who she speaks to as an equal. Unfortunately Tinker can’t hear what they are saying. Marion leaves, visits a bookshop, and returns, followed by Tinker the whole way. She didn’t buy anything in the shop, though – why go directly there and back for no reason? Tinker gets on the roof, and is able to spy on the maid and her mistress – though, again, they talk to each other as equals – through a skylight. He still can’t hear what they’re saying, though! After a while, the maid cleans up in the kitchen and leaves. Tinker breaks in, and gets into a room opposite to the one where they are all sitting – Marion, her two servants, and a man with “a Teutonic cast of features”(!). The two doors are left open, and Tinker can hear them talking – they are worried about Sexton Blake “discovering the truth about the murder”. The other three are also called Johann, Max and Zela, not very British names! They are talking about the stolen necklace – they haven’t worked out who has taken it, yet, and plan to put a notice in the newspapers, hoping to draw out the thief. They then talk about how to “deal with” Sexton Blake, Tinker can’t quite hear and leans forwards – only to be spotted by a dog, which he hadn’t noticed before. The animal raises the alarm, and he is captured.

Sexton Blake is still at home, testing the poison on the petal. He gets a phone call from the secret service, they want him to take some documents to France, and can’t trust a normal courier. War work must always come first, and he is soon off on, it turns out, Yvonne’s yacht, which she has turned over to military work. The crew are the same, and know Blake well. He reaches France and stays the night in a hotel, where he will meet another secret agent. Meanwhile a German spy tries to kill him, but is soon knocked out and tied up. All in a day’s work! Blake meets the British agent, who asks him to use the yacht to take back a tired-out volunteer nurse, who is only named as “The Hon. Edwina”. Sexton Blake has met her previously, at a dance (I expect she was briefly referred to in an earlier story, by a different writer, and this writer didn’t want to step on the other’s toes by coming up with a full name for her!).  She talks about a wounded, raving man she had to treat, who kept calling himself Robert Fenmore!

Back at Baker Street, Yvonne is waiting for Sexton Blake or Tinker to show up. She hears noises in the laboratory, and hides herself in a cupboard. A man comes from the lab, and into Sexton Blake’s bedroom. When he comes out again, she surprises him. He doesn’t think she’s a threat, so she shoots him in the shoulder. Pedro holds him down while she ties him up and dumps him back in the bedroom. She looks out the window, and spots a taxi waiting. She gets into it with Pedro, says the previous fare is not coming back, and asks to be driven to where he was picked up from. She gets taken back to the flats where Tinker is being held. Climbing on the roof, she spots the villains about to kill him with the same poison they put on the flowers. But, at the last moment, they decide they’d better have a taxi ready for an instant getaway. Yvonne quickly gets into the room, pours the poison away, and replaces it with water. The crooks come back – they have a cab driver working for them – and drive out into the countryside, dumping Tinker in a ditch. Yvonne picks him up and carries on after the villains, but they realise they are being followed and try to get away – right into the path of  a train! The maid, butler and driver are all killed. Tinker and Yvonne go back to Baker Street, where they find the prisoner dead, too. He had saturated Sexton Blake’s room with the same poison – which kills by inhalation – and Yvonne had left him laying on the floor!

Only Marion Paul is left out of the gang, and she says that the leader, Max, had forced her to marry him in Vienna, where they bled rich men dry. They did the same in Berlin and Paris before coming to London. Marion was completely helpless, her servants were really the spies of her husband, and he would punish her if she ever went to the police, or warned one of his victims. She has many letters and papers that prove this, and Yvonne quickly arranges matters to hide her involvement in any wrong-doing from the police. Sexton Blake gets back, and she tells him about all this. He later goes back to France and finds Bob Fenm0re – who has now “come to his senses”, and can hardly continue to fight, with his wounds.

Bob Fenmore is bought back to England, and taken to his wife’s new flat. She forgives everything, and he, in turn, forgives Marion Paul. We also discover the reason for Marion Fenmore being confined indoors – not just depression, but the fact Bob Fenmore now has the greatest gift of all – a son!

There’s little else, apart from the story. There’s an article on the Fall of Antwerp, in a similar style to the one about the Belgian forts from the Boys’ Journal issue I looked at in the previous post. Except here, half the article is missing! However, there doesn’t seem to be a page missing from my copy (I have the corresponding one, with the start of the Sexton Blake story on it, and the page seems to ‘bend down’ at the spine). Maybe it was a printing error?

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Continuing with the warlike theme, the issue contains two illustrations of The London Scottish in action. The regiment’s name is pretty self-explanatory, and they still exist today, though as a company in a larger London Regiment. Apparently they existed before World War 1, but were re-raised as part of Kitchener’s new army, and distinguished themselves in their first battle. Today, however, the Wikipedia entry for them just has a blank space for World War 1.

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There’s also an extremely grainy picture of “pay day in the navy!”, photographic reproduction in mass-market, cheap publications was a hit-and-miss affair in those days (though Chums, and other “upmarket” publications, did it better, despite their weekly issues also costing a penny).

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As well as the incomplete Fall of Antwerp article, there’s an also-grainily-reproduced wash illustration of the German army under bombardment from offshore “Monitor ships”, which were warships with a shallow draught, allowing them to come up close to the muddy, indistinct coast around river estuaries and fire at enemies on shore.

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I try to avoid mentioning the adverts in the old comics I look at – the stories are more important! But Amalgamated Press liked to advertise their papers in one another. Here’s adverts for the Christmas special of the Boys’ Journal, as well as the next, regular-sized issue. That Zeppelin cover looks great! Was it an all-over wash illustration, in the style of the Boys’ Friend Library?

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For decades, people have been going on about Christmas being “too commercialised”. Well it was the same back before living memory, too! What’s the best way to have a truly happy Christmas? Buying the Weekly Friend, of course!

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And finally, an advert for an electronic gadget that will keep the boys happy. A light! Not sure about that “burns for hours” claim, though some of the bulbs of those days were only a single watt. “A battery that lasts for years” needs some explaining to modern readers, too: They meant you’d need to “re-charge” the battery, by literally refilling it with chemicals when the power ran out! Children who wanted to dabble with electricity in those days had to put quite a bit of effort in just to get electricity!

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The Boys’ Journal vol. 3 No. 60 – November 1914

Earlier in the year, I looked at a Boys’ Journal serial which began exactly 100 years (going by the cover date, anyway) prior to the post. I promised another “100 years later” post, and promptly forgot about. Oh well, 100 years and a week and a bit, then!

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Of course, the cover date could have been when it went off sale.

Modern historians like to talk about how the “popular magazines” (because the very term “story paper” has been erased from the cultural consciousness. Even though it’s possible that, in 2014, Britain is one of the countries with the most story papers in current publication – all four of them!) of World War 1 talked up trench warfare as “a grand life” of camping, cricket and the occasional battle, in which the “huns” would quickly surrender or run away. For most of the war, that wasn’t true – plenty of the soldiers at the front, especially junior officers, were able to make it back home on  a week’s leave and describe their experiences. It became clear, very quickly, that what was going on was not “glamorous”. Most of the story papers quickly switched to escapism: spy chases, behind-the-lines adventures, or stories about other, much older European wars. An early Sexton Blake library urges to pray that a such a war “will never be seen again”, and the Christmas 1914 Union Jack (to be reviewed when the time comes) hardly paints a pleasant picture of the trenches.

But, before all that, for a few glorious months, AP papers were exactly what those historians talk about! They make fascinating reading now, the hysterical anti-German hatred and ludicrous battle scenes need to be seen to be beleived. Apparently The Boys’ Friend was one of the “best” papers, for this sort of thing. Though I have some some pretty silly Dreadnought covers, too. Unfortunately, I only own one of these hate-crazed papers, this issue of The Boys’ Journal!

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The inner pages, note “second” cover, so the real cover can be removed, if somebody wants to bind it in a book.

The lead serial is called “War to the Death! Or, When Britain Fought for Right”. The title ought to give you some idea of what to expect – two territorials are called to war, but not before discovering that a German spy is trying to diddle one of them out of his inheritance (a very common theme in AP story papers, right up into the early twenties!).

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I came into this serial at just the right point for a major battle scene. The evil, cowardly Germans are, of course, advancing while disguised as Belgians. Though apparently the illustrator forgot this, showing them in their usual spiked helmets. The advancing teutonic horde is given a good pasting by artillery and, as they get into range, rifle fire. Tragically, this was probably the part that seemed most “unbelievable” to soon-to-be-eligible teenage boys reading it. But was, of course, pretty much the standard attacking procedure until towards the end of 1917.

Once the enemy are close enough to get to grips, the soldiers all jump out of their trenches, and the scene starts to look more like an overgrown pub brawl. Just have a read of this!

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The accompanying illustration looks similar to those in stories about Victorian-era wars, where the red-coated Brits swarmed amongst sword-armed Arabs and Africans. Two of the Germans even appear to be bayonetting one of their own comrades XD.

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Note they’re still wearing cloth caps here, rather than the steel helmets.

Both of our heroes are wounded in the battle (though continue fighting until they drop from exhaustion, naturally). Sidney ending up in hospital, where he finds his girlfriend has enlisted as an amateur nurse. Just as they’re being reunited, German aeroplanes (all with specific “names”, and talked about as if they are ships) start bombing the town. The villain of the tale is piloting one of these, and has somehow worked out that his enemy will be in the hospital, so he orders his observer to bomb it. The observer, to his credit, doesn’t want to – but “he knew what it meant to disobey an officer”!

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The next story is a complete one, called The Ghost Lugger. This one doesn’t mention the war, it’s a straightforward smuggling tale (the smuggler’s aren’t even bringing over German spies, or taking stolen arms to the enemy!). The “ghost lugger” in question being part of a ship with several removable sections, which can be used to hide contraband in.

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After that, there’s the inevitable stamp section. This about the stamps of Alsace-Lorraine, a part of France that had been seized by Germany in the earlier Franco-Prussian war. The writer, confident of an allied victory, predicts that “one of the most certain results of the present war will be the return of these provinces to France”. No illustrations of the stamps in question, though!

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This is followed by The Great Tunnel Tragedy, another non-war-related story about a policeman who solves a mystery. It has no illustrations at all, though the title has a flag, which is an exact copy of one from the “The End” block on the previous story! There is a photo of a naval gunner, though.

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As this issue is from early November, the old customs can’t be cast aside just because of a bit of a ruckus on the continent. There’s an article about how to make a “fire balloon”, what we’d now call a Chinese Lantern. Unlike todays modern dolphin-choking plastic models, this is all biodegradable paper!

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After this, on the centre spread, there’s a strange “factual” story about the fall of Liege, an early battle in the war. It’s “framed” by two British boys, who were on holiday when the war broke out, and have only just made it back to England. They “heard something of the battle”, and ask their father about it. He was fortunate enough to have actually been…. in England, and read about it in the papers. He gives an account which contains passages about the Germans being like “flies around a cube of sugar”. The gallant Belgians kill thousands of Germans from their safe trenches and forts, but are still beaten by the ever-increasing field-grey horde. Also the dastardly huns capture a bridge by parking a van full of wounded Belgians in the middle of it. The story ends with the two boys edging towards the door. “Where are you going?” asks the father. “To enlist!” they reply. “Bravo!” he whispers, in awed envy!

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The dots are pencil, added by a previous owner.

After that, we have a photo of one of Britain’s warships – HMS Monarch. Probably built only a few years after the still-surviving Mikasa, in Japan, but with a much more squat, narrow, “all big gun” profile. Oh if only one of these dreadnought-era ships had been saved!

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The next story is another serial (which also reaches chapter 15 in this issue!). The Mystery at Craghurst is a school story, with a mystery of missing persons, criminals prowling the district, and distractions in the form of “Football” (Rugby!) matches. The match in this issue being between a team of “peat cutters” and the schoolboys. Except the dastardly local landowner has swapped out the peat cutters for big, tough miners. The crowd of locals is looking like trouble, too – a teacher advises members of the schools cadet corps to be ready to rush for their (blank-loaded!) rifles if there’s any trouble. I suspect the unscrupulous landowner goes face-first into a peat bog at least once in this story!

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After that, a Sexton Blake serial! This one is an adaption of a Sexton Blake film, which was then being shown. With rather more dialogue, I suppose – considering the film would have been silent! Up into the twenties and thirties, written adaptions of films were pretty common. There was even some story papers dedicated to them – Boys’ and Girl’s Cinema, for instance. A cinema ticket was probably roughly equivalent in price to one of these papers, so you could see one popular film and read about the others. Later on, paperback adaptions of films had to “make do” until video players came along in the 1980’s, and bought “on demand” replays into the average home.

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This is followed by the script for a “crosstalk”, a type of stand-up comedy with a straight man and a comedian interrupting him. That lasted well into the twentieth century, too – no doubt you’ll be able to catch some Morecambe and Wise over Christmas! Being from late 1914, this one tells of a heroic wartime exploit (shooting down a Zeppelin, capturing it, and flying over the heads of a besieging enemy to fetch reinforcements). Naturally, the characters decide to join the army at the end.

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There’s some more factual content on the back covers, too. Remember that some binding readers would have thrown them away. On the inside cover is a “poster”, showing British army and navy officer ranks. Some readers no doubt put it up on their walls.

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The back cover is a short article about Krupp’s, the famous German armaments manufacturer. “Krupp Steel” was a byword for strength in those days, and the power of their naval guns was well-respected. At the time, the firm was run by a woman – Bertha Krupp, eldest daughter of the previous manager. German surface raiders certainly did plenty of damage, but it was the submarines that really caused Britain trouble!

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British comics herald the start of World War 1

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And, as usual with my ‘projects’, I’m starting to write this post the day after the anniversary. But then again, the British Expeditionary Force did have to get to France, then march across half the country, before they even saw a German.

Anyway, while I say “British comicS”, I really only have one thing from the true start of the war (I did have some Dreadnoughts and Boys’ Journals from that time, which I sold ((making all of 7p profit, after postage -_-)), but they didn’t mention it), which is the 1914-15 volume of Young England.

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The volume seems to have started around September or October, so was probably well along the line of preparation when war broke out. It opens with this introduction, stating that “very different fare” had been prepared:

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The serial stories in this volume – probably fully written in advance, rather than in separate parts, as they were in “downmarket” papers – don’t mention the war at all. Though the main one is also set in 1911, and is about a quest across China to retrieve the “true emperor” from a mountain hideaway. Only to find that the Chinese have risen against the monarchy and established a republic in the meantime!

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The other main serial story is a school story, presumably set when it is published. Though it too doesn’t mention the war at all.

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Though the title could suggest mysterious spy capers

The third one, rather shorter, and appearing at the end of the volume, is quite warlike… but set several hundred years previously! Perhaps this one was at least partly written after war was declared, and is an attempt to conjure up the “spirit of old England”?

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Stay, thy Norman churls!

The short stories in the early part of the volume don’t mention the war either. Later ones do – but not all of them! Several seem to have a Canadian Backwoods theme. Perhaps, before the war broke out, there was a push to expand the colonies in Canada.

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Before long, the war-related fiction appears, such as this story called The Yellow Streak, which starts off in a school before moving to the Western Front.

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There’s also a number of factual accounts of heroic deeds, often with a big illustration. Some of these are “independent”, whilst others are part of a regular series. I suppose they were written-up and crammed in as quickly as they came into the office. Several are about the war in the air – this new arena of battle fascinated the public of the day, especially boys! One article is about the first Zeppelin to be destroyed in an air-to-air fight. Though we now see them as rickety flying bombs (the planes of the era were proabably more dangerous!), early in the war Zeppelins seemed invincible – they could fly much higher than any plane could, and ordinary bullets would pass straight through them. “Archie” was still in nappies, too. It wasn’t until incendiary “tracer” bullets were invented that they could be reliably bought down by gunfire.

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Right from the word go, the articles are almost all about the war. Except for some of the early Scout and Boys’ Life Brigade (seemingly an even more militaristic “scouts” – are they an ancestor of today’s cadets) ones, which were ‘regulars’ and so written as they went along. Later ones explain why the war hadn’t yet been mentioned.

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It’s interesting to see how the BLB and Scouts helped out with the war effort – taking messages, acting as lookouts, training in first-aid, and so on. If the “balloon went up” and a major war started today, would the Cadet and Scout leaders dare to use thier boys for war work (at least until the nukes started falling, anyway)? Or would they be facing the wrath of furious parents, who put thier “fammleh” above the greater calling of service to one’s country?

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Several of the early war-related articles were rushed in to replace other material. Treating thier readers as intelligent beings, rather than money-laying chickens, the editors of Young England admit that these are reprints:

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While a few other articles were nothing to do with the war, but became important – for instance, this one about the Suez Canal. In peacetime, it was just an interesting feat of engineering, but in wartime it became a place of vital strategic importance – especially with Britain’s colonies in the east (and her alliance with Japan). A new introduction has been added, mentioning that the Turks are making a move on the canal.

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Apart from that, there’s plenty more up-to-date articles written about the war, they really dominate the volume – featuring all sorts of stuff about uniforms, aircraft, songs and slang of the time.

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Inevitably people die in wars, and this means obituaries. Though one of the biggest is actually dedicated to a military commander who died of old age, having led British (and Indian!) troops in former times. Even before the war broke out, military commanders were regarded as celebrities – they, and thier campaigns, being household names in the same way actors and pop stars are today. How much do we hear about the leaders of our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan?

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Another feature of the more upmarket story papers was poetry (though editors of the likes of The Marvel and The Boys’ Friend threatened to throw poets down the the stairs!). The poems follow the themes of the complete stories, starting off “normal”, but getting more and more warlike:

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Some nice illustrations, too.

As the war dragged on, and got more and more bitter, propaganda pieces started to appear, often illustrated. In this volume, they concentrate on the use of submarines by the Germans. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem that the use of gas by the Germans is mentioned – you’d have thought that would be an atrocity worth commenting on (though, before very much longer, everybody was at it).

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There’s quite a few sea illustrations, actually. Though the much-vaunted Dreadnoughts of the early part of the 20th century didn’t really score the smashing victories either side was hoping for (though the blockade of Germany was a ‘victory’, it lasted years and involved very little gunfire!).

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I’ll be lookig more at WW1 publications (what I have, anyway!) as the 100th anniversaries come up. Not all of them will be in English, though! I’ve already reviewed a Japanese story paper called Hiko Shonen here:

http://thingsjapanese.crystal-knights.co.uk/2014/08/08/hiko-shonen-may-1917/

I also have the Christmas 1914 issue of Union Jack, which is worth another look. Unfortunately, I don’t have any German story papers from that era… time for a holiday? I bet they make very interesting reading!

It’s Hard To Get On!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

Buckle of Submarine V2

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While much that has been written about the use of submarines in WW1 concerns the Germans alternating between the use of restricted and unrestricted (IE, torpedoing merchant ships without warning) warfare, other nations used them too. It was actually the first war where submarines were really used on a large scale, bar the famous one in the American Civil War (which sunk itself as well as the enemy), and rumours flying about in the Russo-Japanese War. With the war bogged down on land, and a lot of the naval engagements “inconclusive” at best, both sides looked to their submariners and airmen for “good news”. This was reflected in the boys’ own adventure stories published as the war went on, with tales of air raids on Berlin, by experimental new planes able to fly that far, or submarines pulling off daring attacks against the German fleet.

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One of these stories was called Buckle of Submarine V2. My copy has an inscription dated to February 1917 (though it could have been published before then). It reads like a series of shorter stories – and in December 2013 I discovered why! It was originally a series of short stories published in Young England, from early 1915.

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The inscription. Is that “young news bible class”?

Each of the shorter Young England stories is broken up into several chapters in the book. I have the 1914-15 volume of Young England (containing the twelve issues from September 1914), and this contains three Buckle stories. However, the book is longer – perhaps the extra chapters appeared in the 1915-16 volume, or else were written for the book.

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The book opens with some verse, which is also reprinted from the original short stories, though the one of the poems has been put in the front of the book, rather than used to open a chapter, as it was originally.

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The stories themselves feature a number of incidents, of greater or lesser realism. As you can see from the cover of the book, one of these involves Buckle and his crew taking on a Zeppelin! And yes, some of the submarine’s crew are killed or badly wounded during the course of the battle. No doubt, with this year marking the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1, we’re going to be hearing a lot of nonsense about how the “popular magazines” of the period made the war look like “fun”. But that’s an article of it’s own!

Another of the stories involves the successful sinking of a German submarine as it’s being resupplied by a surface ship. In the Second World War they’d learned their lesson and had dedicated supply subs, which traveled to their rendezvous underwater!

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Another part of the story involves a large sea battle, in which Buckle’s sub acts as a scout. For most of the war, before Jutland (though some minor, half-forgotten battles did take place, such as the one near the Falklands), the British and Germans were both anxious to “get to grips” with the enemy’s navy, confident of a quick victory. But at the time, battlecruisers and dreadnoughts were the most expensive things the major powers owned, and they didn’t want to risk them coming to any harm! Even Jutland itself might best be called a draw, both fleets retreating after roughly equal losses (though it did ‘bottle up’ the German surface fleet).

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The first of the short stories / chapters have Buckle on a fairly ‘routine’ (by the standards of the story, anyway) mission, to sneak up an estuary and spy on the German fleet at anchor. This involves a nerve-wracking trip through a minefield, using nothing more than blind dead reckoning! It sounds far fetched, but incredibly, an article elsewhere in the volume reports on something similar being done for real.

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The submarine B11 passed through five rows of mines in the Dardanelles and sank the Turkish battleship Mesudiyeh (spelled Mesudiye in modern times). The feat is illustrated with a diagram which doesn’t make it look particularly difficult, the mines all neatly floating on the surface and the sub merely trundling along beneath them.

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However, remember that the mines would have been anchored to the seabed by varying lengths of chain. In buckle’s case, V2 actually snags one of these chains and must be very gently handled, lest the mine is pulled down into the hull and detonated. The Young England episodes of the story don’t contain many illustrations, but this incident is given one.

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The wartime Big Comic

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Inflation moved pretty slowly until the Second World War. A penny bought you one of the earliest Penny Dreadfuls in the 1830’s and could still have bought you one of the cheaper comics almost 100 years later, too. Towards the end of the 19th century, as Alfred Harmsworth was making waves with his “Halfpenny Dreadfullers”, he was doing so on the back of a series of halfpenny humour comics.

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While most of the adventure story papers (such as Union Jack and The Boys’ Friend) went up to a penny and gained pages in the early 20th century, the humour comics stuck to a halfpenny, so children could afford them. The Boys’ Realm Sports Library was one exception, being an all-text story paper of 24 (very thin) pages which still cost a halfpenny in 1911! Once the First World War came around, prices began to rise due to shortages and increased taxation. Many smaller publishers went to the wall, swallowed up by Amalgamated Press. In 1918 even that juggernaut was forced to increase it’s penny comics to a “War Time Price” of 1½d.

bcom03But the shortages didn’t stop a publisher called James Henderson & Sons launching their tabloid-sized Big Comic in “1917” (see below). Priced at a halfpenny, it consisted of just 4 pages (or one sheet of paper folded over). The pages were packed full of single-panel cartoons and strips of no more than 6 panels in length. There was also a text adventure serial about Buffalo Bill, a real Wild West “character” who later started a famous travelling show. Of course, all the adventures he was later ‘credited with’ in story papers from both sides of the Atlantic would have filled about 10 lifetimes!

According to the UK Comics Wiki, Big Comic began in 1917, however this issue, from late 1917, is No. 204, meaning it should actually have started in late 1915, surely? The Wiki goes on to say that James Henderson & Sons were bought out by Amalgamated Press early in 1918. Big Comic was merged with another Henderson comic called Sparks, after a run as Big Comic and Sparks it was renamed Sparks and Big Comic. Presumably the Big Comic logo then quietly faded and Sparks continued alone.

To celebrate the release of Green Lantern…

Lets look at how comic movies were advertised 101 years ago!

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Or in the week ending May 21st 1910 to be precise.

The advert is rather more, ahem, restrained. It appears on the editor’s page and concerns a film made about a complete story that is printed in that very issue. As soon as readers finished with it they could rush to the “electric theatre” and see “clever performers” acting out the story in “living pictures”!

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Did I mention The Boys Friend had the best editor’s page ever?

Of course not everybody counts the text-only story papers, such as this one, as “comics”. However for those that do, could this be the first ever comic movie?

Anyway, here is the ad itself…

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Film was not exactly a brand-new technology in 1910, but was apparently rare and interesting enough for the editor to go into a technical description of how it works.

With seventy copies distributed to the ends of the country, I wonder if any copies of the film survive? And also how they stack up against the written story. Were liberties taken to ‘simplify’ scenes that wouldn’t have been easy to capture with the limited filming time, heavy equipment and lack of sound in those days?

The Case of the Nihilists Daughter – A Brilliant Union Jack

I recently read this tale, as a breaktime-filler at work, and just had to write about it, it’s brilliant!

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New Series number 606, May 22nd 1915

The story begins with a lengthy prologue, in fact it’s so long you forget it even is a prologue and wonder when Sexton Blake is going to show up!

As it is, the tale begins in winter in the Russian city of Petrograd. General Karoski is waiting at a resturant for Elga Seblinsky, the daughter of a count that he is deeply in love with. However she is engaged to another man, Boris Tchapernoff. But the general has an ace up his sleeve – he knows that Elga’s father is “The Wolf”, and a member of The Nihilists, a group that want to bring down the government of Russia. The general attempts to blackmail Elga, telling her he knows where her father is meeting that very night, and that if she doesn’t promise to marry him her father will be arrested and exiled – virtually a death sentence.

Just as the general loses his temper Boris Tchapernoff appears on the scene and knocks the general to the ground, Elga faints and by the time she has come around the general is long gone – to arrest her father! Boris races them to the meeting-place in his sleigh, but they are just too late – and they witness Elga’s father being led away in chains, never to be seen again. Elga wants to shoot the general there and then, but it would only result in them being arrested too, and Boris has to drag her away.

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Which can’t have been very easy in a Russian winter

During the earlier ‘scene’ Boris and Karoski had arranged to fight a duel – which is to take place in the gardens of a mansion during a masked ball. Elga drugs Boris and takes his place in the costume, eager to have her personal revenge. However the general cheats at the duel – turning and firing after only five paces instead of the agreed six. “Boris'” second. Alexis Irloff, pulls off the victims mask and discovers the truth, shortly before being shot himself. Boris, recovered from the drug, arrives just in time to swear he will have his revenge on General Karoski!

Five years pass, and the world is plunged into a devastating war. One that causes Tinker, Sexton Blake’s assistant, to compose a ‘touching ballad’:

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Tinker’s anti-German song!

 A woman named Enid Delane comes to visit the great detective – she is the victim of a blackmailer named Latham Gower, who has got hold of some silly love letters she wrote as a teenager, and is demanding ever-increasing sums of money not to send them to her husband. Gower has now invited her, and several other of his victims, to a party. Sexton Blake decides to accompany Miss Delane to the party, disguised as her father!

At the party two kinds of guests are present – high society, all of them Gower’s victims, and gower’s associates – dodgy bookies, loan sharks and the like. Enid and “Sir Thomas” Delane both arrive at the party, the latter engaging Gower in a protracted conversation about safes and burglars – in order to find out the location of Gower’s safe.

As the party wears on Sir Thomas, AKA Sexton Blake, slips away and breaks into the safe, collecting up all of the blackmail documents and burning them in the gas stove. Just as he is about to leave the room Gower enters and passes into a private office with one of his “clients”, the French Monsieur Leon. As Sexton Blake listens from his hasty hiding place the “Frenchman” begins to tell Latham Gower a ‘leetle story’ – about a murdering Russian officer who dissapeared, after wounding a woman severely in a rigged duel and driving her half-insane! For the Frenchman is really Boris Tchapernoff and Latham Gower is General Karoski!

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I swear an illustration very similar to this one has been used at times to represent both Sexton Blake and Nelson Lee! This was before the reign of Eric Parker, who gave Sexton Blake a defined image.

Boris demands that the general fight the duel that they could not in Russia, when suddenly Elga bursts in through the large windows. She has been free of her insanity – which comes and goes, and begs Boris not to murder the general, for duels in England are illegal. Sexton Blake decides to intervene – when a body thuds against the office door and slams it shut. Then there is another thud, a whistle, and a sucession of horrifying screams!

Blake forces his way in and finds Boris knocked out, an ugly wound on his head – Elga is in the corner, screaming with insanity, and Latham Gower is dead, with a knife buried deep in his heart! Of course Sexton Blake is still in disguise so has to leave with his daughter, who “is ill”, and then rush back to the mansion as his true self and “discover” the crime. Luckily a doctor arrived quickly while Blake was away and the scene has not been disturbed too greatly – but the mystery is baffling – Boris was knocked out before the murder, and Elga could not have been strong enough to do it. Besides which the knife is a huge showy Mexican piece, not the thing a Russian would carry around. Added to this are some strange animal tracks in the room.

Inspector Martin, one of the Scotland Yard officials that Sexton Blake is familiar with, arrives at the scene and immediatley arrests Boris. The robbed safe and burned papers only add to the confusion. Blake decides to proceed more carefully and has Tinker bring Pedro, their intelligent bloodhound, over from Baker Street. they set pedro on the trail of the small animal that had been in the room… and wind up at a circus! On the way the Inspector tumbles to the  fact that Sexton Blake had robbed the safe and actually heard the murder happen.  The trail Pedro follows ends up at a tent where Captain Emanuel Carlos, a famous Lion-tamer, is performing. He wants to try and enter a cage containing a dangerous untamed lion, but has not so far managed the feat. He also has a pet ferret – the mysterious small animal!

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Sexton Blake

Sexton Blake and Inspector Martin return to the mansion and search Latham Gower’s office to try and connect the lion tamer to the blackmailer. Eventually they find a hidden compartment in his desk with documents relating to Gower’s other, “official” business, as a moneylender with absurd interest rates. Emanuel Carlos is one of his victims. They need more proof, however, and Sexton Blake, disguised as a general worker at the circus, manages to enter the lion tamer’s caravan, and discovers that Carlos used to be a knife-thrower, and has 40 knives that are the exact duplicates of the ones that killed Latham Gower.

Sexton Blake and Inspector Martin go and watch the lion tamer, intending to arrest him afterwards. However the lion attacks him and he is fatally wounded – he makes a deathbed confession – he had originally borrowed money for his daughter’s medical treatment, but had got deeper into Latham Gower’s clutches. One night he heard that his daughter had died, and went to Gower’s house, taking advantage of the confusion of of the argument he witnessed to throw a knife through the window and kill the blackmailer!

In the end a friend of Sexton Blake performs an operation on Elga and cures her insanity – and later on her and Boris are married.

This is a brilliant story, with a lot of unexpected twists and angles. It goes off the boil in the end, though. The Lion-tamer’s mauling and deathbed confession is all a bit too neat and tidy – but space restrictions and wartime shortages applied. I wonder how much better this tale may have been if it had been extended and held over for the 60-80,000 word Sexton Blake Library, which began in September 1915?