He wrote all his life, he wrote for the Million but was he an Author? by Julia Jones

Herbert Allingham was born in 1867, the year of the Second Reform Bill. Not everyone was happy about this modest extension to the franchise. “The only thing we can do is as far as possible to remedy the evil by the most universal means of education that can be devised. I believe it will be absolutely necessary that you should prevail upon our future masters to learn their letters,” said Robert Lowe MP. The Education Act of 1870 was the vital first step towards compulsory education for all. For the remainder of the nineteenth century young people were more likely to be able to read than older people and males more likely than females. Most of the new readers who wished to continue reading after they had left school wanted fiction. They bought weekly newspapers or magazines, nothing costing more than a penny or, preferably, a halfpenny. These were Allingham’s customers from 1886 when he was 19 years old and his first serial story was published in a penny weekly paper for boys.

Over the next fifty years until his death in 1936 he wrote at least ninety-eight identifiably separate serials which were published at least two hundred and ninety nine times in various formats (re-print, abridgement, re-write, re-format) in at least fifty-eight different periodicals or newsagent’s ‘libraries’. The weekly readership of some of these papers was measured in the hundreds of thousands or even millions. Over the fifty years of his publishing career Allingham’s words touched the lives of many working people -- many of them among the most financially impoverished in society.

Yet Allingham did not consider himself to be a ‘proper’ author. To be a proper author, he told his younger daughter, Joyce, you had to be published in hard covers. His older daughter Margery achieved this distinction in 1924, also aged 19, when her first novel, Blackkerchief Dick, was published by Hodder & Stoughton for 7s 6d. By 1924 the papers in which her father’s work was cost tuppence rather than a penny – which would mean that one of Allingham’s reade
rs would be able to purchase nine months of weekly entertainment for the same price as a single hardback novel. It’s an interesting price differential compared with today when new fiction in hardback will probably cost £18.99 whereas an independently published e-novel might be £1.99 – or, briefly, given away. These gaps seem set to widen. A recent survey shows the hardback market strengthening as the physical medium of first publication becomes more consciously valued. Publishing by instalments would seem a completely logical way forward for e-writers who hope to earn more than tea-money for their work.

The genres are not, however, interchangeable. Margery Allingham’s 7s 6d novel had been rejected by even a relatively up-market story paper as “insufficiently exciting” for serial publication. When, in the early 1930s, she wrote weekly serials for Answers her style was utterly different from the Campion detective novels she was producing for the hardback market – and much closer to the melodramas that her father had been writing throughout his working life. The requirements for fiction when it is published as journalism are different from fiction when presented in volume form. Even Dickens’s novels required revision when they migrated out of Household Words or All the Year Round and into hard cover editions.

Allingham had started his career in a boys’ weekly penny paper, owned by his uncle, whilst also contributing to the Christian Globe, a penny evangelical newspaper founded by his father. He was the best-educated member of his family but as soon as he left university in 1889 he began twenty years editing and writing for a penny story paper, the London Journal – a paper whose readers would have found Dickens too complex and too slow. His most significant successes came in the first decades of the twentieth century when he was writing for the Harmsworth comics – Puck, the Jester, the Butterfly, Merry & Bright, Fun and Fiction. During the war, when his young male readers were dying abroad and paper rationing decimated the comics, he wrote for Womans Weekly, the Happy Home and the People’s Journal. In 1924, when Hodder accepted Margery’s novel, her father’s audience was to be found in Film Fun, the Kinema Comic, My Weekly and the Mascot.

The great age of print for popular entertainment was almost over. As well as cinema, wireless was increasingly competing for attention in households with a little more than minimal disposable income. Allingham’s Indian Summer of success came during the depression years of the early 1930s when a combination of penury and a need for comfort reading pushed many people (women in particular) into buying mass-circulation, value-for-money magazines such as the Family Journal and the Household Companion. 1936, the year Allingham died, was the inauguration of the BBC TV service but it’s probably more significant to notice that the early months of 1937, when the last of his serial stories were still being published, saw the first episodes of the world’s longest running wireless soap opera. Entertainment media was diversifying and printed instalment fiction was being superseded.

Allingham had been a master of his dying craft. His serial stories had usually been the lead items in all of these ephemeral, cheaply produced papers: millions of readers had speculated eagerly what might happen next yet none of them would have known anything about the person behind the fiction. Not even his name. There were no obituaries or even foot of the page notifications when he died. For his readers he had only existed as ‘the author of …’– and the title of his most recent serial for that particular paper would be included. He was never identified but was defined only in relation to his own works. If it had not been for his daughters’ devotion in preserving box-fulls of his typescripts and some file copies of the periodicals in which they appeared, Allingham would be completely forgotten – as are the hundreds of other writers and illustrators who worked in this hugely popular field. Allingham represents the modern Anon. How many soap-opera listeners either know or care who contributed a story-line or wrote each individual episode? The creator is an intrusion; reality lies in the fiction.

I was given Allingham’s archive by Joyce Allingham and have spent years cataloguing and trying to understand it. Writing his biography has challenged almost every one of my assumptions about literature, authorship and relative cultural values. Rather in the same way that e-publishing is currently forcing so many of us to think again.


julia jones said…
oh and PS - thanks very much for saying kind things about Marge. I am wondering whether she might go e- later this year ...
CallyPhillips said…
Jan... you mean property is thef
Julia... yes, ebook it! Very very interesting post and I want the 'spin off'... I shall now go and HUNT DOWN Herbert! I empathise with your comments re research recontexualising and changing one's views...before writing Brand Loyalty I read all 12 volumes of George Orwell's letters and I found so much in there which showed me that many of the struggles/travails of a writer and of broadcasting that I'd assumed were specific to 'our day' were actually all going on in 30's and 40's as well..(as well as socio/political gripes and 'trends') and it made me realise they are ALWAYS going in, it's we who are the change, our personal perspective is often the variable in the equation! I'd like to explain myself better but I feel the 'box' format of comments is strangely restrictive in terms of allowing intelligent discourse. Nice blog though. Well said.
martin walker said…
Brilliant website and fascinating on the Allingham dynasty. Many thanks. And the hot cross bun sounds good, too.
julia jones said…
Thanks Cally - 12 vols of Orwell's letters, wow! But worth it I'm sure. Tend to feel that the time I spent first researching Marge and then Herbert have been my best bits of Higher Ed. (Well, Herb was PhD which forced me to read lots of post-structuralist Death of the Author brain busters which perversely helped send me back hot-foot to the biography format).
(Must stop chatting and write Harry Smith review for IEBR ... today's task)
Dennis Hamley said…
Oh dear, Cally, I should be writing the three IEBR reviews I owe you instead of commenting here, but Julia's blog was so fascinating that I can't help myself. Yes, I too hugely regret the anonymity of writers like Henry Allingham. We've lost a great legacy, stories of real importance which have been deep, potent influences on many of us in the writing game. I was an avid reader of the Hotspur, Rover, Adventure and Wizard (and Champion, though that wasn't DC Thomson so didn't really count, even with Rockfist Rogan) when I were nobbut a lad. They've formed me just as much as the great canon of literature I explored at university. How I would love to be able to put a name to the creator of Wilson. How I would love to shake the hand of the author of The Team That Died, a brilliant story in the Hotspur which uncannily forecast Manchester United and the Munich disaster of 1958. And thank him too, not only because he gave me the name of my fooball team in Death Penalty but he also made me realise what a marvellous metaphor for life football is and what a great vehicle, not just for Roy of the Rovers but for subtle and memorable novels. Brian Glanville and Bob Swindells knew this well. I wrote two football novels which I was pleased with, Haunted United and Death Penalty, on the back of TDTD, Cannonball Kidd in the Hotspur and It's Goals That Count in the Rover, but a proposal for another that I know would have really worked, good on football and also saying something important (well,I thought it was) as well was turned down three times (by female editors, I regret to have to say) so I fear I just gave up and got on with something else.

About 19th century jounalism and literacy, Julia: you must know George Gissing's New Grub Street. I can never make up my mind whether Whelpdale's forecast of what universal literacy would mean was either all too true or a class-ridden establishment view of the capacity and potential of the newly-literate working classes of which he should have been thoroughly ashamed. Whichever it was, it's still relevant. Nothing changes. You're right there, Cally.
julia jones said…
Dennis you bring tears to my eyes. That is so exactly the reaction of my wildest dreams. One of Allingham's slightly older contemporaries E H Burrage (a great and prolific and unsung writer) said "we were the men who wrote for the Million and as such were not without our influence in the world" - but not if we can help it, says the cultural establishment. One of the best books ever is Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes and there's a chapter where he uses the clerk in EM Forsters Howards End as an example of the way that the Bloomsbury-ites consistently raise the bar and change the goalposts (to mangle your football analogy) in order to exclude the aspirant workers. The people Gissing couldn't really cope with - because he was such an intellectual snob, though wierdly trying not to be.
Allingham was even 'worse' as he wrote for the non-aspiring. People who didn't want to better themselves but simply wanted entertainment and escape , a good story to brighten a few snatched moments of leisure in hard dull lives. And he really gave it his best shot, respected his readers and laboured for them.
Dan Holloway said…
This sounds fabulous, and the questions you and Dennis raise are so important. Soap operas are a very good contemporary example for their writers' anonymity - sadly we have often vaguely heard of the "creative directord" like Tony Jordan but not the actual writers themselves. I suppose the closest we come to recognising them are ith writers like Jimmy McGovern and Russell T Davies
CallyPhillips said…
Dennis and Julia - I've got 13 reviews to do (and 11 of them still to read!) outstanding.
Dennis - Me too Roy of the Rovers and Hotspur AND I used to be babysat by one who drew Desperate Dan/ Beano characters! (childhood in Dundee DC Thompson land)
Dan - I was 'nearly' a soap writer (well, I got sacked off The Tribe and never quite 'made it' to Take the High Road and almost almost got onto Holby City) So.. 11 years in London not wasted then eh? But I could bore you for hours about screenwriters for soaps.. life is far too short for that.
Julia.. sorry to hijack the more important and interesting parts of your post (that tends to happen around comment 10 doesn't it?) It's like pub chat (I can't remember when I was last in a pub, 10 years?) a good conversation gets hijacked or you listen in to someone else's or someone more drunk than you makes a stupid joke.... One to One conversation so much better but not exactly in the spirit of the blog I suppose. That's what emails for.. or LIVE face to face. One day.
julia jones said…
Actually I rather like the pub chat aspects of the comment box and I would love to hear Cally going on about her just-missed career as a screen writer for soaps. And thanks Dan for your understanding. One of most illuminating books I read when I was being academic about Herb was a study of Crossroads by Dorothy Hobson which really seemed 'get' the perspective of the audience -- suspensions of disbelief etc etc.
Jan Needle said…
terribly late and i should me in me bed, but i've just got back from yorkshire so what the hell. i used to sit alongside an old casual sub called Hugh on the daily mirror in manchester - in his early seventies, still doing the odd shift, and god help me, i can't remember his last name - and in the quiet moments he was always writing in a big notebook (in Pitmans shorthand). i asked him what it was once, and it was the latest episode in the adventures of a brave and wonderful collie dog in scotland, called black bob, i think. he did the words for years and years and years for, again from memory, the sunday post. he said it didn't pay well, but it didn't tax his brain much, either - he'd been doing it for x million years!

and, hem hem, if you're looking for a soap script writer, chaps and chapesses, look no further than me. i did it on brookside for a couple of years, with jimmy mcgovern, frank cottrell boyce, andy lynch (who i'm dining with on wednesday) and other stalwarts. sadly - because the dosh was good - i didn't really enjoy it much and quit, to everyone's fiscal astonishment, including my many dependants'. writing by committee just didn't float my boat, and what does money matter? bloody idiot!
julia jones said…
Frank Cotterell Boyce, eh? We worship him. But then you don't need reflected glory Jan - you always arrive trailing clouds of the stuff.
Enjoyed your Dooms review, by the way. Archie a great Horrible Histories fan - and is planning to do it for A Level. If only the little blighted would read I'd give him Joslin (full of action etc etc) but he won't. Only listens to audios
Dennis Hamley said…
Julia, I'll get an audiobook out somehow, even if I have to read it aloud myself. Jan, how wonderful to work with the Black Bob man. I'd never heard of the Sunday Post then, but I'm sure I read it in the Hotspur. Or it might have been the Rover. Or the Wizard. Derfinitely not the Adventure, in our opinion the weakest of the DC Thomson big four (although their football serial wasn't bad, though I forget the title. There was a player in it called Sailor Smith. Or was he the manager?)and the object of our derision. Anyway, Black Bob was much better than Lassie. I'd been dragged by my mother to pictures to see the films and remember sitting in the cinema desperate to get out. I don't think I really enjoyed a film wholeheartedly until Just William's Luck came out.
julia jones said…
We must investigate audio then. I would quite like to force his to listen to something of mine ... I keep wondering whether Audible is the way forward but no time to think really. One day.
Thoroughly enjoying Joslin pt1. Hope you won't be deterred from converting (and then recording!) the rest.

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