Boys was one of the lesser-known “middle class” story papers produced in the late 19th century (in the vein of The Boys’ Own Paper, Chums and The Captain). It ran for just two years between 1892 and 1894. In common with it’s rivals, it was also sold as monthly “magazine editons” and yearly hardback editions, which were called Boys’ Illustrated Annual.


It can’t have sold well, because it merged with The Boys’ Own Paper in September 1894. Apparently the Boys’ Own Paper didn’t even mention the merger! Copies are incredibly rare today, even the hardback yearly versions are thin on the ground. I don’t have the first volume, though would like to get it one day


Boys was a high-quality paper, though. The serial stories were by famous authors of the day, as as G.M. Fenn and G.A. Henty. Of course The Boys’ Own Paper famously secured the services of Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, who are still well known today!


Some longer than others

Each serial story was complete in a volume, so you can buy the annuals without worrying about only getting the end of one or the start of another. The main serial in this volume, running for more than half it’s length and always on the ‘cover’ (more about that later) was Fire Island by George Manville Fenn. The story begins with a ship caught in a kind of ‘reverse tsunami’ which drags it onto an erupting volcanic island and somehow ‘puts out’ the volcano (the first part doesn’t make much sense). After that the gentleman adventurers and scientists aboard decide to explore the uncharted island, take specimens of wildlife and rocks, and also study the barely-dormant volcano.


Refreshingly, Fire Island doesn’t feature battles against “savages” all the time, though a couple of canoefuls do turn up towards the end. Most of the serial is about the ship’s passengers, all scientists, exploring the island and collecting samples. The crew of the ship continue to live as if at sea, and comic releif is provided by two sailors who often misunderstand what the scientists are talking about, and regularly have to save those over-curious souls from danger.


As well as Fire Island, the other initial story is called The Ransom of Kilgour, and is set “five and forty years ago”, in the late1840’s. It’s about a Scottish schoolboy who goes sailing, then is captured by Arab pirates and held to ransom. In one part of the story he terrifies his captors with the unholy sound of bagpipes XD.


Another early serial (replacing the one above) is The Adventures and Misadventures of a Breton Boy. This story is about a voyage round the world with Portugese soldiers, including to Japan and “China”, which appears to be full of people with Japanese-style topknots and samurai swords XD.

The serial instalments were always just under 3 pages in length, and sometimes unillustrated. The longer serials were truly “novel length”, with plenty of character development, excitment and interesting incidents.


In addition to the serials, there is at least one short, complete story in every issue. Fairly regularly, through the first part of the volume, there is a series of stories “Told by the boys in the big dormitory”, which are framed by characters sitting in bed at a public school trying to out-do each other’s yarns. This is the “second series”, presumably the first series was spread throughout the first volume. One of the stories, interestingly for the time, is a war story with a German hero!


In the Franco-Prussian war of the 1870’s

Other complete stories appear, towards the end of the volume some issues contain up to 3. The editor must have been trying to use them up, as production of the paper was wound down.


As well as the stories, Boys contained many long, detailed articles. A lot of them are about animals, insects and plants. “Natural History” (butterly, egg and rock collecting, for instance) was a popular hobby among the more well-0ff at the time. Going for walks in the country was a common recreational activity, so the study of natural history may simply have been a way of looking like they’d done something useful with their time. Of course, today getting kids out and about walking around at all would be considered “useful”!


Stag Beetles


A long-lived tortoise



As well as the natural history articles, other regular subjects included famous authors, such as Jules Verne. Here the article is detailed enough that the first page doesn’t even mention any of his works, only details of his life. While Corpse Talk in The Phoenix is a noble gesture, I think I prefer this!


Another of the series articles is “Boys at Work”. In those days, the children of working class families only received the most basic education and were then thrust upon the world and went to work in a factory or down a mine. Oh how I wish I’d lived in days like that, none of this “having a career”, or as I put it “not knowing where I’m going”. Anyway, as this paper was probably read by slightly better-off boys who went to public school, or at least to a more ‘genteel’ job in an office (or an officer in the forces!), these articles probably helped them to understand what life was like for the less fortunate.


This article is about the old coal gas works. When the North Sea gas runs out we may see this again!

Of course, there was the usual “make and do” section. An early article giving instructions for building a telescope, with which to study the planets, or distant animals.


A later article in the series shows you how to build “An electrical machine”. This briefly confused me, an electrical machine that does what? Then I realised it was a machine for making the electricity! No popping down the shops to buy a battery in those days! The writer of the article all but tells his readers to use it to electrocute their teachers with… Boys was not quite up to the high moral standards of the B.O.P or The Captain after all!


Within the lifetime of the reader’s grandparents, this would have seemed like witchcraft!

The early articles in the volume are quite long, running to 2-3 large pages and great detail. For instance, this tour of the Tower of London, with plenty of melodramatic description for readers in distant parts who may never see it.


However, many of the later articles are much shorter and crammed-in among poems and jokes. It’s possible that the articles in preparation for volume 3 had to be quickly used up when the merger with the Boy’s Own was announced, so were printed in a much shorter form, quickly written from the basic notes. Some of the illustrations for these shorter articles are just as good as the earlier ones, though. They’d probably been prepared ahead of time, and the editor was going to get his money’s worth, having paid the artists!

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There’s also the inevitable stamp collecting column. Unlike The Captain, which often had quite “chatty” (to borrow a term from the mid 20’s) articles, describing stamps in detail and talking about the history and political manouvres that created them, Boys just has a plain list of new issues.


There’s also a lengthy chess section with problems, the solutions to previous problems, chess news and even it’s own small letters section.


And then there’s Our Boys’ Bookshelf, which is a column reviewing books that readers may be interested in. Which brings me on to an interesting point about where “the rot set in” to the British comic industry. Most of our great comic stories, such as Dan Dare, Charley’s War and so on, have only been published in collected form fairly recently. Even then, these collected books have been forced to use the printed artwork, not the original boards. But it wasn’t always like that – one of the highest highs of the British comic industry was in the 1890’s, with titles aimed at all ages and classes. The serial stories that appeared in the higher-class papers were not left to simply ‘evaporate’, but were reprinted only weeks or months after their end, so they could be enjoyed again and again. It was also likely that boys who did not read Boys would buy the books, or be given them as presents, and so would not miss out on a particularly good story after it had ended.

Of course, the problems of the “wait for the trade” mentality are well-known, which is why Boys and papers like it also contained the interesting articles, jokes, and short stories – to make it worth buying them as well as the collected books of favourite serials. But then again, the entire year’s run of Boys was also reprinted as a book. I guess they just didn’t think of “waiting for the trade” 120 years ago!


The story “The Black Bar” was a serial in volume 1, and soon after reprinted as a seperate book

The lack of credits in most British comics throughout the 20th century is well-documented, and likely to have been one of the many reasons for their downfall. Having no credits makes the work seem “worthless”, as if there’s nobody special creating it. It also cuts out a huge range of advertising possibilities, artists and writers can’t become “celebrities” and sell comics with their names alone. But again, it wasn’t like that back in the enlightened times of the 1890’s, Here the editor devotes a lengthy section to reporting the death of R.M. Ballantyne, an author of books and serials for several papers. He even mentions that a fund has been set up so that his fans may build some sort of memorial to him. Would a comic writer or artist in Britain get that today? Will J.K. Rowling, even?


Contrast the attitude towards today’s creators with that towards G.A. Henty. He wrote his stories in serial form for publication in “mere comics”. One of them, A Desperate Gang, appears in the latter part of this volume.


While he’s hardly a household name like Jules Verne, Henty is pretty well remembered. There’s an Anglo-American “Henty Society”, old copies of his books can fetch a high premium and, of course, his stories which originally appeared as serials in story papers, can more easily be found in long-lasting book form.


Though made a long time ago, the decision not to continue including credits, and not to continue reprinting the best serials as books, began to weaken the reputation of even the high-minded story papers and comics such as this. Of course, this has been mostly rectified today, but it’s too little, too late. Our industry appears to have already entered a terminal death spiral. How different might things have been if the practices of the 1890’s had persisted?


Not to make any implications about anything…

But, to continue with the article… in the earlier part of the volume, extra space in the columns is filled with “Splinters”. These are small jokes, which are even printed in a smaller font. Most of them are truly horrendous puns, which would quickly have attracted a storm of projectiles at the local music hall.


Later on, this section lost it’s name. Later still, the jokes were expanded to the full-size font, and even given their own titles, or were arranged into themed groups (school jokes, work jokes etc). Presumably there was more space to be filled in the then-winding-down paper. The “quality” of the humour didn’t improve at all, though.


Boys contained a few poems through it’s run, most of them comic. Here’s a rare full-page one, wonderfully illustrated, from around Christmas 1893. Boys also contained one solitary comic strip, the first volume of Chums, produced the year before, had one in every issue. I think this one is better illustrated, though.


On the back page of each issue was a Correspondence section. In the style of the time, this did not reprint the letters the readers had sent in, only the answers. Some of them are long explanations of practical advice for hobbies (how to develop photos, and so on), whilst others are something vague like “yes, try it and see”. Many of these correspondence pages have a one-off illustration for the title, used only once!

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That last one looks a bit ‘Japanese’, there was an on-and-off craze for Japanese things throughout the period

Many of the other illustrations are top-class too. While a lot of the story illustrations are disappointingly small, some excellent ones accompany the articles. A few are labelled as being “from a photograph”. Reproducing photographs in print must have been a very rare and expensive process in those days, so much so it was cheaper to hire a good artist to draw an illustration from the photo!


An early steamship, fully rigged “for safety”


Part of the upper workings in a coal mine

With regard to the covers, this volume reproduces all of the weekly editions for that year, but without the price or date on them. It’s possible that they were actually sold in another, advert-filled cover. Early editions of papers such as Union Jack also had a cover with an interesting picture on the front, but only adverts on the back (and inside covers, though these could also be blank!). Many people who bound their issues threw the covers away, and it was often the same with the official volumes of higher-class papers (though not Chums, which actually reproduces all the adverts in early annuals!).

There’s a few clues to what the covers may have looked like throughout. The Editor, referring to a letter received from Canada, says he is pleased that “our yellow cover” can be seen on sale in that land. He also refers to his paper becoming known as “Yellow Boys”. It is possible this refers to an advert-filled yellow cover wrapping the weekly editions, though Boys was also evidently produced in a 4-week omnibus “Magazine edition” (in common with Chums and Chatterbox). Chums and Chatterbox monthly editions, at certain points, had coloured covers, some of which would be included in the yearly volumes as coloured plates. However, Boys only contains a few plates, and most of them are not colour – so the yellow covers may have been used on the monthly editions, and the weekly ones were as they appear in the yearly volume (though with a date and price, of course!).


Big gatefold one from the front of the volume

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Many other plates are blue, not coloured!

A few tantalising illustrations appear, showing issues of Boys on sale, or being read. They appear to show the cover as being covered with squiggles, with a contents section in the lower right corner. Of course, there’s no indication as to whether these are weekly or monthly editions.

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Very obviously a later addition to that blue plate!

A cover with lots of fanciful twirls and twists obviously didn’t help much, for at the end of volume 2 the merger with the Boy’s Own was announced, in place of the usual correspondence section. The editor tries to play up the merger as a partnership of equals, but actually Boys was being obliterated entirely. It didn’t do the Boy’s Own much harm, as it ran into the late 1950’s (though by then as a small monthly).

Curiously, the publisher of Boys, Sampson Low, continued to exist as a book publisher. They even put out the misleadingly-covered Schoolboy Speed Kings, reviewed elsewhere on this blog. I’m not aware of any other story papers produced by Sampson Low – did they find the market too competitive, and retired from the field?


Great news inside, chums!