who? Well here he is in the latest Dandy, being cheeky to Her Majesty…
And here he is, having jumped comic, publisher and century, in Chums in 1899!
who? Well here he is in the latest Dandy, being cheeky to Her Majesty…
And here he is, having jumped comic, publisher and century, in Chums in 1899!
Harry Blyth is a curious name in the pantheon of British comics. He created one of their greatest-ever characters, Sexton Blake, but had virtually no other input into the development of that great character. Nor did he see his creation reaching the the household name status that it eventually would. Born in 1852 (probably) he worked for several publishing companies as a freelance writer and journalist. He wrote a series of stories called “Third Class Crimes” that bought him to the attention of Alfred Harmsworth, who had just launched his new story-paper The Halfpenny Marvel, and commissioned Blyth to create a detective character. Thus Sexton Blake was created in 1893, and Blyth wrote a handful of other stories before his death from typhoid in 1898.
So, as the creator of such a great and long-lived character, he must have been an amazing writer? Well actually… no! Pretty much all the stories I have read by him have been borderline unreadable. They are often held together with ridiculous coincidences, things that happen with no explanation and amazing events being completely forgotten about 5 minutes after they happen. Apart from Sexton Blake, Harry wrote a several other adventure stories, including “The Magic Island”, reviewed in my old Union Jack Index blog. One of the very last things he must have written was not for Amalgamated Press, but for Cassel’s leading story-paper, Chums.
Hunji The Hindoo
The start of the first installment. “Fighting for the Flag” was also the title of an early Union Jack tale… but that was written by somebody different, and of course the UJ was published by a different company, so Chums or another Cassell’s publication must have carried another story with the same title.
I should start by clarifying the title, in those days “Hindoo” did not nessescarily refer to a Hindu, it instead described somebody’s appearance. That appearance was actually more like the traditional costume of a Sikh – a turban and long beard.
HOWEVER nobody seems to have told the artist of the story this, so Hunji actually looks like the image usually used in comics of that age for a general “swarthy villain” – often an Italian, Spanish or Gypsy. His religion, too, is totally unrelated to Hinduism, Sikhism or Islam… or any other for that matter. It is perhaps closest to the vague understanding most Britons had of Chinese religion in that age.
But lets not dwell on such details, or before you know it i’ll be judging antique publications by modern standards in the way pathetic hacks for rags such as The Guardian do when they can’t dream up anything else to lecture the nation about. I’ll run through the story part by part looking at the inexplicable events, silly cliffhangers and odd occurrences within. One of the things i like about this serial is how, on occasion, the story shifts to the perspective of the villain. This even extends to some of the cliffhangers, where we see Hunji’s despair at his plots being foiled, only for him to recover in the next episode and continue to menace our heroes.
Part 1 – Chums no. 278, January 5th 1898
This first installment introduces the hero of the tale, Ready Ralston (Harry clearly had a thing for unusual names too!) . He is a pupil at Dr ‘Caney’ Woodward’s school, and rescues a new pupil called Willie Scott. This lad is (presumably) half Indian, but his parents were murdered because his father took something from a temple belonging to an “exclusive sect” of, ahem, Hindoo’s. So Willie ended up living with his English uncle, who is a scientist. Willie is also due an inheritance of some kind when he is older, which the members of that “exclusive sect” want to capture for themselves by killing Willie.
Their conversation turns to sailing, for Ready owns a small yacht and promises Willie a sail in her. They then return to the school where they meet Hunji the Hindoo! He says he was a friend of Willie’s father and uncle in India, and so wished to meet Willie. As he does so he drops some poison into the wine Willie is about to drink. But just then a policeman walks into the room, to arrest Ready Ralston! Hunji insists Willie finish his wine before they all go to the station together.
Was the Kaiser-ish moustache intentional?
Part 2 – No. 279, January 12th 1898
Just as Willie is about to drink the poisoned wine the highly stereotyped Scottish groundskeeper of the school (why no, I doubt Matt Groening has read this story!), also in the room, spots the headmaster coming and throws it out of the window, saved! Ready Ralston is to be arrested for “setting about” Ned Breton, an expelled former pupil of the school. When actually Ready had just fought him off to protect the young Willie. Thugs and bullies running to the police as soon as somebody stands up to them? It’s the same thing 112 years later!
The headmaster discovers that the only magistrate on the warrant for Ready’s arrest is the father of Ned Breton! With such a clearly prejudiced case he can’t allow Ready to be taken, and sends the policeman on his way. He then speaks to Hunji, who says he wants to work for Professor Scott and so has come to see Willie. He is shown around the school and secretly marks Willie’s bed, and the door of his dormitory.
That night various other boys dress up as ghosts to “haze” Willie on his first day. However as they creep to his dormitory they run into a hideous creature – as tall as a man, with leathery bat-like wings, slippery skin and two glowing red eyes!
The dreadful scream of the boys who came across the horrible creature rouses the school, who find them in shock. The groundskeeper is convinced that one party dressed as ghosts ran into the other unexpectedly and they scared each other! The headmaster then shows up and the “ghosts” slink off to their beds. However one of the boys, the one who first ran into the monster, is found insensible – dead!
Hunji appears, feigning ignorance as to the cause of the screams. He inspects the dead boy and finds that he is not dead, simply shocked. The doctor who has been called says that the boy has been bitten by a small animal, but Hunji wipes away the “bites” and says he is simply in shock. But then seconds later says that Indians are more used to “such attacks” by small animals? Eh?
The tale then jumps to the house of Professor Falkland Scott, who is working on a way to decompose the elements (you need one of them Hadron Colliders, mate). Hunji comes to see him and we learn a little about his odd religion – He accepts an offer of curry, saying he is cosmopolitan in his tastes (as an Indian being offered Indian food would, eh?) but the story says that his religion doesn’t allow him to eat meat. They then talk about seeking “the great sun stone”, mentioned in manuscripts written by “Isiti the sage” which talk of “the god of the sun” who cast his fires upon the earth and so created volcanoes. However one of his missiles, the sun stone, came to rest on an island where time has removed it’s evil qualities and filled it with good… thus anybody who owns it will somehow have “limitless wealth and endless fame!” …none of which has anything to do with Hinduism!
Hunji says he has a map which tells of the location of the sun stone – an island that was Chinese, but is now ruled by Japan, but which is still a hide-out for Chinese criminals. He says he needs money for an expedition, money that Professor Scott can provide. The two plan their voyage, but conversation turns to Willie Scott – when he is 21 he will inherit his father’s money and also the “Staff of Vashti”, the object that had been stolen from the temple of the “exclusive sect” – who are now named as Mesus. Was he just making this up as he went along? The professor says that if Willie is killed before reaching 21 then nobody will be able to obtain the money, though the staff is in his house. Hunji realises if he wants the money he will have to capture Willie, but he determines to get at the staff there and then, and creeps into the room where it is kept. However just as he picks the lock of the chest it is in, a rabid dog bursts through the window and attacks him!
The first time in the story where the cliffhanger ending actually puts the villain in peril rather than the heroes – a brilliant idea! It’s just a shame it’s saddled with this story! One wonders what Harry Blyth could have come up with if he’d been given time and money to write something decent and not hack out any old nonsense just to pay the rent!
You will notice that the episode of the hideous, demonic creature is completely forgotten about, nor is it explained in any way. It seems that Hunji is able to summon real creatures from hell and everybody’s fine with that! Note also the part about the island being a haunt of Chinese criminals but part of the Japanese empire. Do Chinese or Japanese people show up at all in the story? Nope!
Part 4 – No. 281, January 26 1898
Hunji drops the staff of Vashti to defend himself against the dog, however the staff groans like a human when it hits the ground, causing the dog to pick it up and run away with it. Hunji quickly replaces the lid of the chest and lays on the floor as if he’s fainted, and this is how the Professor and his housekeeper find him. He then pretends to recover and is left alone. He pulls out some small idols to worship, but then gets angry at them for causing his loss and stamps on them, only to then have an attack of superstition and pray for forgiveness. He plans to discover the whereabouts of the staff after the voyage to recover the sun stone – by allowing the Professor to be killed on Formosa and then returning and digging up the entire grounds of his laboratory.
Meanwhile back at the school Ned Breton sneaks aboard Ready Ralston’s yacht and plans to scuttle her. But then Ready and Willie happen along and set out on their cruise. Ned is hidden below.
Part 5 – No. 282, February 2, 1898
Ned Breton is still concealed below on the yacht as Ready and Willie enjoy their day sailing. He assumes, judging everybody by his own standards, that they will throw him overboard and drown him if he is discovered. He lays hidden for several hours, going near-mad and starting to think he is held prisoner below by the evil men on deck.
Ready and Willie are having a great time, not hampered by a storm that blows up. They savour the hard work and element of danger in sailing on such rough seas. However Ned Breton is driven more insane. When Willie comes below for something the thug attacks him and ties him up. Then he is driven on deck to beg Ready to let him help sail and save the yacht. When Ready refuses Ned reveals that he has Willie captive below – and inadvertently that he is carrying a drill – for an obvious purpose! However as they argue Ready spots a large vessel approaching them on a collision course, and then Ned is dragged backwards into the cabin!
Part 6 – No. 283
Willie appears on deck, he had escaped Ned’s crude bonds. The two break out the oars to try and row the yacht out of the path of the approaching steamer, but the heavy swell holds them still. Ready snatches up Willie and leaps at the last moment, grabbing a trailing chain from the steamer. The yacht is smashed into matchwood and the wreckage, with Ned Breton swimming amongst it, is lost astern. The two climb aboard the steamer but find the decks deserted, there is not even a watch. They take a look around, peer through a skylight and are shocked to see…
The story then jumps back to Burton Towers, where Hunji and the Professor are preparing for their voyage. The professor has the idea that “such an ancient race as the Hindoos” must possess great secrets that have been lost to time, and that modern science is simply a rediscovery of the ancient ‘magic’ of long-lost civilisations. Hunji implies that some of this is true… and that he is in fact possibly centuries old, his ageing halted by the elixir of life! (The search for such a potion is also the theme of another Harry Blyth tale, The Magic Island, from The Union Jack).
Hunji later introduces the professor to the captain and officers of the ship he has engaged, who are little better than pirates. The first mate is a hideous villain named Thomas Pill, the cook is named Mr Bundersnatch and boasts he can drink a gallon of rum and not get into a fight. The captain is called Nathan Jork, as these sailors start to party the professor’s housekeeper suddenly springs at the captain, determined to settle some old score. Meanwhile Thomas Pill draws a dagger and advances on his captain’s attacker…
Part 7, No. 284, February 16, 1898
Hunji throws Tom Pill off just before he lands a fatal blow, then drags the Professor’s housekeeper, Dennis, away too. Dennis says that Nathan Jork apprenticed his son, only to subject him to ruthless and barbaric treatment and finally kill him. Jork fills in the story – he had forced his crew to swear that the death was an accident, but one of the other sailors on that voyage had made a deathbed confession to Dennis. However a jury had found Jork innocent at the time, and Dennis had been confined to an asylum for a time… and now who would believe a lunatic?
The sailors later leave for the ship, The Weasel, complaining that these modern times aren’t nearly as “fun” as the old days of piracy! Dennis watches them go, determined to save the professor from “the villainy that hems him in on all sides”. The voyage commences and Hunji muses on his failure to recover the staff. If he doesn’t bring it to his masters he will be killed, as well as being denied entry to paradise after death.
Meanwhile the captain and his officers, such as they are, are already deciding to steal the “loot”, whatever it turns out to be, that they are sailing to recover, and murder the professor and Hunji. They then begin to talk in superstitious tones about the powers of the Hindoo, when he reveals that he has entered the room without them knowing. He pretends not to have heard what they were saying and joins them in drinking. Soon they are blind drunk but he is as sober, cool and calculating as ever. He returns to the cabin he shares with the professor thinking he has nothing to fear from the pirates. He also muses on Indian nationalism and thinks that if all his countrymen had his own intelligence and ruthlessness then maybe Britain would be in the Indian empire, and not the other way around! However his thoughts are broken when he enters the cabin and finds Professor Scott huddled on the floor – dead!
This is the episode in which Harry Blyth’s death is announced, so he must have passed away at some point in the preceding week. The note does not make it clear what his last story was, only that Hunji the Hindoo is “one of the latest”. With the typical style of the age they are able to slip in an advertisement for another Cassell’s publication!
Part 8 – No. 285, February 23, 1898
Hunji discovers that Professor Scott has taken some poison accidentally, he meant to take a “sleeping draught”. Hunji fetches a deadly poison of his own and gives it to the professor. This poison is deadly but destroys other poisons as it does it’s work, so they cancel each other out. However the after-effects leave the professor brainwashed and liable to suggestions. Hunji plans to use this in his favour – getting the professor to sign a document that turns Willie over to Hunji’s care should any ‘accident’ happen.
Asking the captain for his two most reliable men as witnesses, Hunji hypnotises the professor and has him write out the document. However just as he is about to sign it Willie Scott and Ready Ralston burst in – the ship they had ended up on board was the Weasel!
Part 9 – No. 286, March 2, 1898
Hunji quickly hides the document the professor was about to sign. The appearance of his nephew brings the professor back to himself, but he can remember nothing about what passed whilst he was hypnotised. One man does know what happened, though, Tom Pill, who was hiding under the table! He is discovered when he is accidentally kicked, but makes up a story about being asleep under there. He has, however, decided that Hunji is beyond the pale and vows to “make a start on” the Hindoo.
Hunji attempts to cultivate the friendship of Ready Ralston during the voyage – and is shocked when the youth asks him for the paper he was trying to get Professor Scott to sign! Hunji is trapped and hands over the paper, which goes overboard. But Hunji then traps Ready, by saying that as a feud existed between Ready Ralston and Ned Breton it will take the testimony of the ship’s crew to clear Ready of the possible charge of murdering Ned.
Ready, surprisingly, cultivates the friendship of Tom Pill. Hunji engages the latter in conversation and offers him twenty pounds to throw Ready overboard. Tom refuses and stalks away, muttering he’d like to throw Hunji overboard just for the fun of it. A few days later the island of Formosa is reached… but, as Hunji cries in despair, “the god of fire has seized the island for his own!”. A sheet of flame flashes over the mountains and the terrible heat can be felt on board the ship!
The god of the flash has seized most of the picture for his own!
Part 10 – No. 287, March 9, 1898
The huge fire is not a volcano, but simply the natives starting a fire on a mountain-top to burn out the spirits, so says Tom Pill. The story then turns into brief profile of the island. It has two ports that are better suited to Chinese junks than European ships, and the native tribes of the unexplored interior are constantly at war with each other – except for when they unite to hunt for the heads of Chinese and Europeans!
Hunji suggests that he, Professor Scott, Captain Jork and Tom Pill go ashore in a boat. Ready convinces them to take him and Willie along. Which Hunji readily agrees to. The party land their boat on the mouth of a river but barely have time to look around before a horde of savages burst from the undergrowth. The small party are worried and Ready tells Willie to swim back to the ship and get help. However Hunji reveals that he is the chief of the tribe! He asks for Willie to be bought forth, but is dismayed to see him boarding the Weasel. Hunji springs at Ready, who knocks him down. Seconds later the ship explodes and Captain Jork begins to grapple with Ready… meanwhile the savages move in, to avenge the attack on their leader!
Part 11 – No. 288, March 16, 1898
The professor, who is largely absent-minded and emotionless anyway, sets about trying to help Hunji up rather than mourn for the sudden death of his nephew. This appeases the natives, who stop attacking. They are also appeased by Ready Ralston being held firmly by the captain. They assume this man is in league with Hunji and are prepared to wait until they can torture Ready and offer him up as a human sacrifice.
Hunji orders his tribe to press on into the forest, telling the captain and Tom Pill to remain behind on the beach. These two feel it would be death either way, so decide to covertly follow Hunji and kill him. However Tom no longer trusts his captain, and so forces him to go ahead, unarmed!
The party of natives, Hunji and the professor press on into the jungle. Hunji explains that his father is the king of this tribe. He also casually explains that his father is a thousand years old and he himself is of incalculable age. The professor seems to take this amazing statement totally in his stride. But that’s a Harry Blyth story for you!
Soon the reach the city of the tribe, where Hunji’s father sits in state. They also have a pet ape that is super-strong and intelligent. Hunji orders it to kill one of the tribe at random, which it does. He then orders it to attack Ready. The professor shoots at it, but discovers too late that Hunji has loaded his revolver with blanks! Ready and Professor Scott are made prisoners… but at night Ready is awoken by Willie! He survived the blast and tracked them here, as he starts to untie Ready one of the savages begins to crawl towards them.
Part 12 – No. 289, March 23 1898
Willie finishes untying Ready and then hides, so Ready is able to surprise the savage. Soon he is tied up in Ready’s place and the two make their escape from the tribe’s arena-like city. They finally hide up a tree in the surrounding forest and talk about what to do next. Willie doesn’t really explain how he survived the explosion. Nor does he know how the ship was blown up, vaguely suggesting that “there was a good deal of powder on board, and the crew were a dreadfully careless lot”. Hmm, something exploding with only the vaguest explanation seems to be a Harry Blyth trademark! Though here it’s more likely Hunji had planted a bomb or something aboard the ship before he left her.
Nathan Jork and Tom Pill happen along at that point, and stop right under the tree that Ready and Willie are hiding in. However they shoot a snake, which is bound to bring the natives running. As they argue Ready and Willie drop on them, and soon capture the guns. Captain Jork runs off but Tom Pill vows to stick by Ready for the coming fight. The three hear the savages ahead of them, and Ready urges the other two to hide in a tree. He is quickly captured by Hunji… but suddenly seems to have a change of heart and immediately tells the hindoo where Willie is hidden! Willie is in deep despair at this betrayal as the three are led back to the native city.
Part 13 – No. 290, March 30, 1898
Hunji turns the charm on Willie as they trek back to the city, with Ready Ralston joining in. Tom Pill is easily placated by being told that he can become the next king of the tribe once Hunji’s father returns to India. Tom is immediately lost in thoughts of creating a country of lawlessness with himself at it’s head. Somehow he doesn’t see the possibility of a trap in the scheme!
With the three safely back in the city, and Professor Scott too absorbed in his studies to even realise he is a prisoner, things look bleak. Ready becomes more and more friendly with Hunji. The two make plans that will result in his and Tom Pill’s fortunes being made, for there is a rich diamond mind elsewhere on the island. But first Hunji needs the professor’s signature on a will, just like he did before. He gives Ready a ring that will allow him to pass among the natives in safety. But no sooner is this in Ready’s hands than Hunji finds himself set upon and tied up! Ready was only bluffing and now rushes to the rescue of his friends.
Part 14 – No. 291, April 6, 1898
Ready comes before Hunji’s father, wearing the ring. However elderly leader suspects a trick regardless and calls to the tribe’s pet ape. It springs at Ready who is, erm, ready with Hunji’s prized jewelled dagger. He plunges this into the beast and kills it. Hunji’s father says Hunji would not give his dagger to anybody unless he completely trusted them, and leads the way to the professor. He shows Ready two inks, one of which vanishes after an hour, the other lasts forever. They must get the professor to write a document with the first and sign with the second… so that they may later fill in something else!
However as the two near his cell they are confronted by Willie, who is determined to stop the plot. They take him into the room, which has a door that can only be opened from the outside, and act as if they are getting the professor to sign a completley innocent document… one that will of course be changed later. However Ready puts himself between Hunji’s father and the door, then reveals his true aim! He ushers the Scotts out of the room whilst holding the chief at bay. Then goes to slam the door on him. At the last second the chief pulls out a concealed revolver and fires, hitting Ready. He collapses, wounded severely, and the professor goes to his aid… suddenly a voice rings out, telling them they are “in such a precious pickle as you can’t escape from till you are dyed more red than master Ralston is now!”.
Part 15 – No 292, April 13, 1898
The voice belongs to Tom Pill, who is thinking of helping the natives re-capture their escaping prisoners, to smooth things over for when he becomes their king. However Ready springs up and threatens him with Hunji’s poisoned dagger, and soon he is back on side. The professor tightly binds a stone against Ready’s arm to stop the flow of blood from the wound, and they begin to make their escape. Tom Pill’s status as king-to-be helps them get past the natives, as does the fact several of them are off hunting for Chinese heads!
They escape the city, and are forced to hide in a tree when a party of the returning savages passes beneath, carrying their gruesome prizes. The professor, slowing them up as it is with his constant stopping to inspect unusual plants, thinks he can smell hints of volcanic activity in the air. Eventually they come to the diamond mine, and pick up a pocketful of the valuable gems. Tom Pill, driven crazy by greed, wants to get hold of the entire haul for himself, and when denied rushes back to the end of the valley in which the mine is located and shouts to Hunji and his tribe, who are now following closely.
However at that moment there is a huge and sudden volcanic eruption! The sky is turned black and flaming debris rains down. A huge part of the nearby mountain is blown away and millions of tons of red-hot rubble tumbles onto the luckless natives and their leader. Ready and the Scotts rush to the coast – finding the body of Nathan Jork, and Dennis, the professor’s housekeeper! He has followed the Weasel to the island in another ship and killed Jork in revenge for his son. Suddenly the professor hears voices in the jungle… Hunji has survived and is following them with the remains of his tribe!
Part 16 – No. 298, April 20, 1898
Ready, near to the point of collapse with his wounds at the long journey to the coast, is bundled into the ship’s boat and the party narrowly escape the spears of Hunji and his tribe. Aboard the ship, Merrythought, they run into Mr Bundersnatch who also survived the destruction of the Weasel. He says he is going to “regular turn over a noo leaf” and open up a shop selling lifebelts. Stuffed with shavings rather than cork for more profit, of course!
The captain of the ship says that the expedition to follow the professor was organised by Dennis, Dr Woodward of the school and Colonel Ralston, Ready’s father. He also warns that there are people saying that Ready must have murdered Ned Breton, as Hunji had threatened! However these details are forgotten on the long and tedious voyage. For all the villainy of Nathan Jork’s crew they knew how to sail a ship! Finally they reach England and are in for a shock – Hunji is there! And he immediately hands Ready and Willie to the police, charged with the murder of Ned Breton. He and Tom Pill both overheard their “confession”!
Part 17, No. 294, April 27, 1898
The case looks black against Ready and Willie. Their solicitor, Mr Bicks, says that Mr Bundersnatch has dissapeared. Not surprising for a pirate when the police are involved. The two are bought up in court and have no real way of disproving the charge. Their amazing story of adventure and account of Hunji’s villainy would do them no good in front of a down-to-earth jury.
Suddenly Squire Breton bursts into the court with his son! Ned had survived by clinging to the wreck of the yacht for two days. He was finally picked up by a Spanish ship, but was struck by fever and a raving lunatic for some time. Finally he recovered his senses and contacted his father, who came to find him, and then rushed back, learning of the court case. With the victim alive and well… and repentant too, there is no murder case! Hunji slips silently out of the court.
The party, united again, have much to celebrate, though they suspect Hunji will make his way to the professor’s house. The following day they travel there, and discover Hunji, half-mad, perched on the edge of a cliff with the Staff of Vashti. He tells them all it will strike them blind by magic. They close in to capture him but the dog, angry at the theft of “his” staff, is quicker, and leaps at Hunji from a bush. The two of them plummet to their doom on the rocks below, the staff of Vashti, the source of danger for Willie, goes with them.
this is a pretty good story compared to other Harry Blyth efforts that I have read. Often his shorter stories in publications such as The Halfpenny Marvel or Union Jack tried to cram in far too many events and thus became very confused or illogical. This tale, being a serial, has a lot more room to grow and explain just why the characters are doing whatever they are doing.
That said there’s still plenty of strange and unexplained occurrences. For instance just what was the horrible bat-like creature encountered in the school? Is Hunji able to actually summon demons from hell? Is the magical staff of Vashti actually enchanted? It groans like a man when dropped and, after falling in the sea, is said to have returned to India. There’s also quite a few all-too-convenient events which aid Hunji’s plans, but which only happen by luck. For instance the professor taking a sleeping draught that renders him liable to suggestion… he seems rather distracted and absent-minded for the rest of the story. Even so far as allowing himself to be virtually imprisoned in the native city. The “sun stone” is pretty much forgotten once the party set foot on the island too.
In addition people returning from the dead is a cliffhanger and resolution that occurs rather too often. Hunji’s survival of the volcano and subsequent pursuit of the party through the jungle is rather too ‘soon’ and obviously just used to provide another action scene (mind you i suppose Harry only had a limited space to fit an installment in to, and felt the need to keep the pace up!). It would have been more ‘shocking’ if Ready and Willie think they have left Hunji’s body far behind only for him to re-appear in England ready to have them arrested. Some of the other cliffhanger escapes are rather lame too, puts me in mind of the “it’s only a cardboard cut out!” repeatedly used in Viz! The use of cliffhangers that involve the villains is, as i’ve said twice already, a fantastic idea that i’ve never seen in stories before, and which i will promptly stea-er-be inspired by.
A word must be said for the brilliant character of Thomas Pill, while i’m here. He is never really illustrated but his hideous, leering face springs off the page nonetheless. His complete and utter lack of morals and willingness to change sides at the drop of a hat to save himself is a perverse joy to read.
In the end this is a story i enjoyed reading, it rattles along at a good pace and there’s always some interesting reverse around the corner to keep the heroes and villains guessing. One wonders what would have happened if Harry Blyth had been given the chance to write a long serial about his greatest character in a paper such as The Boys’ Friend…
Let’s take a complete story from an issue of Chums at random, shall we? Hmm, No 736 from October 1906 looks good…
‘Twixt Jackson and Barker
It’s the typical boarding school tale of the time. A boy called Jackson has some important news for his friends when his eye falls in a great new bicycle just received by one of them called Barker. After admiring it he wishes he had such a machine: “what wouldn’t i do for a mount like that!“. Barker asks him what he would do for it, Jackson asks him to name his terms, these are:
-To climb to the top of the cathedral in the nearby town
- To persuade the timid science teacher to tackle a local ‘tough’, an ex-sailor called Jem Starbottle
-To cycle from Arlington to Greatthorpe, a distance of 5 miles, in 15 minutes
A short story this, it’s only over two pages. Mind you the pages of Chums are pretty big. The illustration on the second is a cartoon and not related to the story.
The first challenge passes easily enough. Jackson and co. climb to the top of the acessible steps in the cathedral and then sneak out onto a narrow parapet. Jackson then climbs above this and stands up on the ball right at the top of the spire, with only the lightning conductor for support! He then descends but misses his step and has to circle the entire spire to find it again (this scene is not too well described XD). The first challenge is over, his friends say it was the easiest one but he says he wouldn’t do it again for a thousand sovereigns. His friend Burgess says he wouldn’t even watch the feat again for two thousand!
The next challenge is more difficult. Jackson, on the next half-holiday (a day with only half the amount of school work and the other half given over to sports/hobbies/free time, as these were boarding schools the pupils could not go home for short holidays) Jackson agrees to accompany the science master, “Smiley” on one of his long and invariably boring nature rambles. Meanwhile another of the friends named Timmins rushes off to find Jem Starbottle and tell him that a licking awaits him at such-and-such a place.
As Smiley comes to the end of the ramble, composing a poem about a Dandelion watched by Jackson and, unknown to him, the others hidden in a haystack, Starbottle comes along looking for his “licking” …and gets it! Much to the astonishment of all concerned. Jackson later explains that on the same afternoon the bike arrived the science master gave him a lesson in boxing: “You should have seen his arms – wire ropes!“
The final challenge awaits, Jackson is lent the bicycle and travels down to the starting place with Timmins, who has synchronised his watch with Burgess who awaits at the finish line with Barker. He is a bad cyclist and knows it, he doesn’t expect to actually finish the course in the alotted time, to make matters worse the road is very bumpy. Still he decides to have a try at it, and sets off.
As soon as he is out of sight Timmins is accosted by a local farm-hand, advising him: “Oi’d go b’train ef oi ere you, Wi’ Capt’in Symons tiger loose, the roads bean’t safe after dark“. Timmins takes the advice. He’s no coward but the road is dark and “Tigers are tigers!“. Meanwhile Jackson is in the depths of despair, he has done the first mile and is already behind time and worn out beyond beleif. However suddenly the tiger leaps out behind him and starts to chase him. With this ‘encouragement’ he rushes the rest of the course and finishes it in record time, winning the bike! Towards the end the tiger, seeing the lights of the town approaching, gave up the chase, leaving Jackson wondering if he had imagined the whole thing.
That was a pretty good story. I’m in the mood for some AP now, lets turn to an issue of one of thier “Big (in size!) Three”, The Boys’ Herald – No 215 from August 1907.
The Feats of Tony McTurk
By L.J. Beeston, this is a typical boarding school story of the time. A boy called Pilberry has just received a new camera from his uncle, with all the latest improvements up to the very hour. The only one not enthusiastic about it is Pilberry himself, his only photographic expedition resulted in pictures of his coat. Well how he was he to know which way around it went?
Along comes Tony McTurk, a pupil of the same school who does like photography, but who could never afford such a “snapper” as this. He instead says “There’s nothing worth doing that I wouldn’t attempt to win that spanking camera“. With the gauntlet on the ground Pilberry decides to name his terms:
-To call the headmaster, Dr Twelvetrees, a giant of a man with a fierce temper, an ass to his face.
-Persuade the French master to leap from his study window, twelve feet off the ground.
-Cycle from the town of Claythorpe to the school, a distance of 5 miles, in 14 minutes.
Three days pass in which Tony racks his brains for ways to complete these tasks. He evidently thinks too hard at them because he ends up working too hard on his French… so hard the one night his friends are awoken by monotonous chanting in thier dorm room… he’s sleep walking, and studying French while doing it! Fearful of waking the sleepwalker, they instead follow him… until he stops outside the headmaster’s door, his French verbs becoming louder and louder. The headmaster is roused to anger at first, but them realises what is happening and starts to gently shake the boy in order to wake him. This seems to bring Tony round and he remembers another task: “you – are – an – ass” he mumbles to the headmaster, before being woken up. “You were walking in your sleep, McTurk” the Headmaster tells him “You have been studying too hard, i will see that you have a holiday to-morrow!“. First task completed, and he escaped annihilation into the bargain. His friends aren’t impressed… but they can’t deny he did it!
Now he has to work out how to get the French master, Monsieur Duport to leap from his study window. A few weeks later a half-holiday rolls around and his friends are told to wait beneath the window for something to happen. The Frenchman is annoyed by boys hanging around beneath his window and repeatedly tells them to leave, only for them to return soon after. As he ponders this he is visited by an inventor of explosives (another of the French master’s interests). This melancholy man is looking for funding for his new high-powered explosive, the stick of which he is carrying would obliterate the school. When the rather extravagant funding is not forthcoming the inventor wonders what the point of living is, and throws the explosive into the fire! Duport leaps! After a few minutes he realises maybe the “explosive” wasn’t so explosive after all. Of course the “inventor” is long gone… who was he? If any of the boys know, they aren’t telling!
And now for the final challenge – the ride! Now, Tony is by his own admission not a very good cyclist, and also the road is in rather bad condition and has a couple of stiff hills. But he decides to try it all the same and, started off by a friend called Weekes, who has synchronised his watch with Pilberry. Tony begins the race… and as Weekes turns to walk back to the school he is informed by a farm hand to take the train instead… for a Jaguar which escaped from Bunkum & Barnaby’s circus is still on the loose! Now Weekes isn’t a coward, but “Jaguars are jaguars!“.
Meanwhile, Tony is already tired out, and behind schedule. The Jaguar on the other hand, is watching him closely… it hasn’t eaten all day and this strange whirling creature coming down the road seems just the ticket! It leaps to attack the creature from behind… Tony, glancing back, see’s it and starts to pedal like mad to escape certain doom!
At the end of the course, his friends are waiting with the stopwatch… will be do it in time?… listen, here he comes! Meanwhile, the Jaguar, tired out from chasing this strange, fast creature, dives through the hedge and disappears. Tony crosses the finish line with seconds to spare, and wins the camera! After the race he wonders if he had been chased by some imaginary creature… but later reads of the eventual shooting of an escaped Jaguar… and trembles!
So, what’s going on?
Well, the first and most likely explanation is that the two stories were written by the same man – L.J. Beeston. However the earlier Chums story is uncredited, so this can’t be confirmed. While some papers undoubtedly had ‘staff’ writers, there must also have been a vast pool of freelancers. (for instance Harry Blyth, who created Sexton Blake for Amalgamated Press, also wrote for Chums, then owned by Cassell’s) This was, remember, the golden age of publishing, and to my mind the golden age of British comics! There was a bewilderingly vast array of titles all crying out for stories to fill their pages. With imagination and a typewriter there must have been a decent living in it… You didn’t even have to be particularly good (just read pretty much any Halfpenny Marvel for proof!). I only wish i had lived in that era.
(The other alternative explanation, especially if these stories were not written by the same writer, is downright piracy!)
So, which is the better story? For my money it’s Tony McTurk! It’s quite a bit longer for starters (filling 3 pages and most of a column in the Boys’ Herald’s large tabloid size) and has more illustrations. The descriptive details are much better written (even the Jaguar is a character!) , the challenges and their solutions are much more imaginative and, of course, it’s a great deal funnier! The sleepwalking sequence in particular.
The British Comics Wiki is launched! Go to www.crystal-knights.co.uk/
Having built up quite a collection of food, i was able to save some money recently. And, trying to ignore my need of new shoes (“the weather’s warming up anyway, it won’t rain much”) i decided to buy a Chums volume i’ve had my eye on. It was £45 (well, 40 as the woman very kindly gives a student discount), as opposed to £2.99 (and £10 delivery) for the 1906/7 volume… but then again that was from Ebay, which is often cheaper, and in horrendous condition. It even smells like it’s been near a fire at one point, my more adventruous nature would like to think it narrowly escaped the blitz, but more likely it was in an attic near where the chimney went up for many years.
Anyway, Chums was initially started by Cassell & Co. in 1892, pre-empting the perhaps better-remembered Boys’ Friend for a large-format story paper with serial instalments, in addition to a complete story of decent length, and the odd factual article. Then again Chums was most likely a penny when it started, whereas the Boys’ Friend was a halfpenny in the 1890′s, that would have accounted for sales success.
Following the style of the times, the size of the paper was what we’d today call arbitrary. Or perhaps “two thirds tabloid”.
Volumes of The Boys’ Friend 1903-4, Chums 1906-7 (the covers are only very slightly bigger than the comics within) and a typical “half tabloid” (roughly A4 give or take a few mm’s – though older ones described as the same were actually a little bigger, especially in height, due to cheaper printing quality needing more ‘run off’ room.) comic.
The 1907 (i’ll call them by the later year now to save myself so much typing!) volume, despite being very rickety (it needed repairs i may cover in another post), contains a lot of fascinating material. The typical content of an issue seems to have been longish instalments of at least two serials, a complete story, sometimes a second complete story, as well as an “editors chat” (sometimes a page, sometimes two columns). At least one humourous comic strip, usually with it’s panels “scattered” on a text page and miscellaneous oddments of knowledge or snippets of interesting news and events. A bit like a less-childish Chatterbox, really. Some issues would include a longer article in place of the second complete story, these articles usually profusely illustrated with photographs and related to some subject of direct interest to the readers, such as scouting. Still more issues didn’t feature either, though, simply taking up the room with a lot of small articles or jokes.
The 1907 volume also reproduces the covers and adverts, in fact it’s just the same as the paper that was sold individually in the shops. There is, actually, the possibility that this is a bound volume of the paper that was bought every week by somebody and then bound together using the “official covers” that could probably be bought seperately. However the beginning of the book (mainly the bit of ‘tracing paper’ over the contents, as was the style of the times) suggests otherwise. I’m sure the advertisers and cover illustrators didn’t complain about the extra exposure anyway.
Two typical spreads from the 1907 volume. Note the comic strips (and the sometimes “scattered” layout of them), the short articles with bold headings and the adventure stories. Aside from the comic strips, covers and heading pictures for the stories (in a lot of serials this seems to have been the same each instalment) illustrations of the text stories are actually quite few and far between. The odd complete story seems to have quite a few, though. Perhaps it was just what would fit in once the story was done… or if the illustrators had time to provide any!
Photographs are actually a more common sight in the older volume than the new. Several articles on ships (this the HMS dreadnought, the insitigator of a whole era of naval warfare) and monarchs / heads of state feature them. The reproduction is actually quite good compared to the high-contrast, murky reproduction in some other papers. (It’s certainly better than the flash makes it look in this picture!)
Onto the newer volume now, covering 1932 to 1933 (the volumes start from roughly September). This one features no covers or adverts reproduced, and judging by the contents the quantity of factual articles, sage editorial advice, comic strips and amusing snippets had been reduced to almost nothing, a whole issue could seemingly pass without any of those. To make up for this, the quantity of exciting adventure stories was greatly increased. Serials were still the norm, with complete stories appearing in every issue. The number of illustrations, especially in the complete stories, was greatly increased too.
The reason for the apparent vanishing of the factual articles and such-like may be down to the fact this is a bound annual sold by the publisher, and not the individual issues. The articles may have been left out, providing only the stories. Or else the page count of the issues themselves may have been drastically reduced. The reasons for this are not too hard to work out – by this time Chums was published by the Amalgamated Press, presumably they had bought Cassell & co. out, and they wanted to run this “rival” into the ground. Or else sales were just dropping off anyway. That said the paper did seemingly continue into 1941 (so says a book i have), so perhaps it avoided “Graveyard week”. I bet the final volume, with inevitable war stories, makes fascinating reading! Another interesting note is that Chums’ seeming ‘main rival’, the Boys’ Friend, had actually vanished in 1927 (though if you ask me, from the limited exposure i have had to both, the Boys’ Friend was better!).
(Also – from the brief flick i had it appears that none of the AP staple characters of Bunter & co., Sexton Blake, Nelson Lee etc appared in Chums. I did notice the familiar styles of Eric Parker, illustrator to Sexton Blake’s golden age, illustrating a story though)
The spines. Actually a terrible pic but you can just make out the publisher’s names – as well as the shiny new card of my home-made repairs to the 1907 volume. The spine was just a sheet of cloth and some very crumbly 101-year-old card when i recieved it.
Two typical spreads, the short factual articles and anecdotes are now reduced to tiny box-outs that can be ignored. Comic strips are replaced by single “gag panels” too (not that the 1907 volume didn’t feature those in great number too, but in the 1933 one they are rarely seen at all). The rest of it is wall-to-wall swashbuckling adventure! The choice of these two spreads was actually not brilliant, as there’s hardly any pictures. They are a lot more common in this volume though – honestly!
Another thing that is a great deal more common in the 1933 volume is coloured plates. Some do appear in the 1907 volume though, and not in an “even pattern” either, so it’s probable that they were lost (i’m sure there’s the odd page missing too, i havent read a great deal of it yet. Despite immense quantites of PVA glue not all the pages are attached). In the 1933 volume though they are all present. I don’t know if they were sold with odd issues of the weekly paper (Chatterbox was apparently often sold with an optional plate – and only some of these plates appeared in the published annuals, meaning private-bound volumes had more) or just specific to the annuals. Photographs seem to only appear on the rear of the coloured plates too, and not in the actual comics.
The content of the adventure stories in the 1933 volumes has two overriding themes when you turn to a random page. Flight is the first, the 20′s and early 30′s being a golden age of aerial navigation, without ground control or radar anybody who could afford a flying-machine could take to the skies whenever the fancy took them, and charge about at leisure. A close encounter with another aeronaut being the occasion for a friendly wave and maybe a little stunt display – and not terrified screams from air-traffic control, perhaps the scrambling of fighters and a front-page headline “NEAR MISS DEATH MANIAC! – It wouldn’t have happened if we all had ID cards” on every paper the following day.
The other common theme is war, most especially “The World War”. The stories are somewhere between later reflections on the horrors of the trenches, and the stories of “Let’s get ‘em! hurry up it’ll be over by christmas (notice we don’t say what christmas)!” that appeared during the conflict. So whilst the stories still provide the right amount of thrilling adventure and characters devoted to duty and doing everything they can to fight the enemy so long as they have breath in thier body, the tales still muse on the horrible toll, and the fact that not all of your friends, or you, will ever return home. Which if you ask me is the perfect balance – because if you want realism, go outside.
As an aside, just look at the picture below, taken from the very last complete story in the book – wouldn’t look out of place in Charley’s War, would it?
A final oft-seen theme in the book, primarily in serial form, is the boarding school story. This was, after all, the age of the Magnet and Gem. No obvious Charles Hamilton spotted… but he had his hands full writing for the Magnet, Gem, Penny Popular and who knows what else each week. So i doubt there is any.
Another interesting thing that appeared in the 1907 volume is this fold-out coloured plate, that was just tucked in near the back. It appears to be from the Boys’ Own Paper? I might frame it one day, even with that crease.
As everybody else is doing it, here are some assorted covers of christmas issues from my collection. Most of the suff i had to hand is in bound volumes, so these are photos. Though i suppose i could properly scan the Victor’s at a later date (when/if i have that strange thing called “free time”).
The Union Jack Christmas Double Number 1906. This is actually the first page, as when this volume was bound the covers were removed, seemingly a common practice with these old papers. The story is, as ever, a Sexton Blake tale, seemingly revolving around a VC-winning soldier now being literally “left out in the cold” and appealing to an old officer for help. I intend to read this one on Christmas Day this year, and a review will eventually appear in the UJ Index blog.
1925 now, and Sexton Blake is still going strong in his golden era. The UJ by this time had colour covers, and was entirely crime-and-punishment related (the 1906 issue also contained a serial story set in the Zulu wars), containing a “detective supplement” with real-world crime information. The serial stories and “Tinker’s Notebook” feature were also firmly rooted in the world of detection. Nirvana was, if i remember the sextonblake.co.uk site correctly, a friend of Tinker’s whom he had known before he became Sexton Blake’s assistant.
Back to 1906 now, this is an issue of Chums, a storypaper published by Cassel & Co. A company which also published the New Penny Magazine (a 1901 “volume” of which i recently bought, and which contains many fascinating articles). This paper is a curious size, being slightly under the tabloid size used in the Boy’s Friend, but still bigger than the “average” (if the huge variety of sizes in use at that time allows for such a word to be used!) comic. Aside from christmas wishes along the top, and a message in the editorial section within, there’s not a great deal to distinguish this issue. Unlike some publications which featured the traditional snow on the logo…
…like this! This is the Christmas issue of Adventure for 1948. Adventure was the first of DC Thomson’s “Big Five” adventure story papers. In the early years it looked like any other story paper, but with the coming of comics it began to adapt, with these “full colour” strips on the covers. The interiors were still entirely taken up by text stories however. Wartime paper shortages continued into the late 40′s, so the paper was only published on alternating weeks (i beleive by this time it was moving back towards a weekly, though). The paper is very thin too, it’s no wonder so few wartime and 40′s issues of these papers have survived. A shame as many of the stories are excellent… the DCT papers had a way of always having serial stories, but each instalment was a good enough story on it’s own. Re-caps were often expertly fitted into the text where they would provide enough information for a new reader, but not irritate regulars. Getting the stories for these papers ‘just right’ must have been a supremely difficult task, which makes the complete lack of credits all the worse.
10 years later, and Adventure now features much more detailed comic strips on the cover, with better art and bigger captions to describe the action (speech bubbles and sound effects did not exist in this paper!). The issues were a lot thicker too, and frequently boasted of “four extra pages this issue!”. Additionally a further comic strip, in the same style but using red spot-colours rather than full colour, could be found on the centre pages. The stories kept thier brisk and exciting style, but the days of the story-paper where coming to an end as the comics took over. The Adventure name, merged with Rover, would continue into 1963, when the merged paper reverted to being called The Rover once again.
The Victor was another DCT publication, a comic this time (though i beleive early issues in the 1960′s featured a single text story). DCT liked to re-use characters who originally appeared in text form as comics, and Alf Tupper was one such character who made the transition. In typical British Comic style he never appeared to age but at the same time his “past caught up with him”. Some of these issues feature a story called “The Boyhood of Alf Tupper”, which appears to be set in the 1970′s. However in The Rover, where he first appeared, he was 18 in 1949! I originally found this selection of issues (in amazing condition) in a charity shop in Lincoln. However as most of them are Christmas issues i decided to wait until i was making a post such as this before posting them. They have colour covers and black and white interior work, the artwork of a lot of which appears to be (whisper it) a bit rushed. Then again the artists probably wanted to get finished in time for christmas! Some of the art styles are actually recognisable from my 1958 issues of Adventure, though in that they only had to provide one or two illustrations per story, so could take a lot longer over it. Victor was the last remaining of the “boy’s own”-type of weekly adventure comic, an attempted revamp with a lot more colour stories in the early 90′s failed to lift the slumping sales and it vanished from the shelves. The next generation along (of which i was a part) had to resort to creating thier own adventure/war comics (i even remember trying to start my own text-only storypaper! before i even knew what such a thing was), or else become superhero addicts. Thanks a lot, late 70′s/early 80′s-born people.
Just another picture i had kicking around for size comparison