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