Goodbye, Great Age of Print and Fare Well, Herbert Allingham by Julia Jones

Last night I picked the final piece of paper from my newly emptied attic floor and placed it in Box 16 of 22 (labelled Amalgamated Press serials 1931-1935, print and manuscript, since you ask). I turned the page and this was how the story began.


Well, the answer to that question was not Herbert Allingham – the author of The Spell of a Rogue and about 300 other magazine serial stories. The issue of The Oracle that I was packing away was published in March 1934 when Allingham was approaching the end of his fifty year working life.  Less than two years later Allingham would be dead but neither The Oracle nor any of the other cheap papers would mention the fact – let alone pay tribute to his lifetime of work. The first instalment of Allingham's first serial story had been published in 1886, the last would be completed posthumously in 1937. Allingham was just one of the hundreds of anonymous writers and artists whose existence went unacknowledged through the Great Age of Print.

What Great Age of Print, you ask? I'm canvassing for that title to be applied to the period that began in 1867. The passing of the Second Reform Act in that year led directly to the Education Act of 1870 which established the principle of compulsory state education for all. Literacy levels continued to increase, slowly, patchily, until in the decade immediately before the First World War when it was possible to claim that 100% nominal literacy had been achieved. The 1851 census had revealed that Britain had become the first country in the world where more people lived in towns than in the country. I claim the Great Age of Print as those later decades when the social changes of second generation urbanisation were beginning to alter people's leisure expectations, their incomes and their spending patterns, encouraging them to enjoy new types of entertainment. The Great Age of Print arrived when post-industrial revolution developments in both transport infrastructure and print technology made it possible for more books, posters, periodicals and pamphlets to be distributed more quickly, more cheaply and more numerously than ever before.

1867 was the year that Herbert Allingham was born. It was also the year that Karl Marx completed the first volume of Das Kapital and it was within a few years of the births of Allingham’s significant contemporaries Lords Northcliffe (1865) and Rothermere (1868), founders of The Daily Mail and owners of The Times and Arthur Pearson (1866) necessary rival to the Harmsworth brothers and founder of the Daily Express.  I would contend that it was these men who were decisive in establishing the powerful newspaper corporations of the twentieth century – demonstrating par excellence the patterns of capitalism as described by Marx. During the 1930s, the last decade of Allingham's life, the most intense rivalry existed between the working class newspapers – the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Herald, Daily Mirror. Newsprint was a vibrant, nationally important industry.

That's history now and it's well-known history. What is less well-known is that the initial capital that funded those Harmsworth and Pearson papers came from the penny weeklies produced for the newly literate households towards the end of the c19th. The Harmsworth brothers began their career with the publication of Answers in 1888. They followed it up with the half-penny Comic Cuts and the Illustrated Chips in 1890: Pearson countered with Pearson's Weekly. New titles followed at the rate of two or three a year. It was the millions of pennies and halfpennies spent on these proliferating papers by the 'board-schoolers', the second and third generation urbanised families, that funded their publishers' c 20th entry into newspapers. What did the papers offer that was so attractive to those hard-pressed working people? Itty-bitty factoid information on the Tit-Bits model, stupendous marketing offers, jokes, cartoons and serial fiction. Who wrote the fiction? It was Herbert Allingham and his many anonymous peers.
from an Allingham story of 1894
"It's hard to earn money, isn't it?"
said the artist
Theirs was anonymity of a practical variety. In a business that was greedy for cheap, voluminous content, a writer like Allingham was wise to retain the copyrights of his serial stories and re-sell the re-print rights as often as he could persuade editors to buy. The Spell of a Rogue, for instance, had been first published only three years earlier in a companion paper The Family Journal where it was called She Loved a Rogue and the hero was John instead of Roger. When I first noticed this re-cycling – twenty-five years ago on the hearth rug at Tolleshunt D'Arcy,when Herbert Allingham's daughter, Joyce, had asked me to help her sort her father's papers – I was rather shocked. What a cheat, I thought, as I observed the same stories being brought out time after time - and often advertised as 'new' - with just the titles and the names of the hero and heroine changed.
Her Own Game
Woman's Weekly 1916

Her Luck in London
My Weekly 1915

Herbert Allingham's fiction was never published in book form. Book form implies a certain permanence whereas these half-penny, penny, tuppenny papers were always intended to be ephemeral. Readers were encouraged to pass their copy to a friend and buy another. The editor arranged their reading and re-reading choices for them and I believe that the readers of these papers understood the conventions of the game. I think they knew when they were being signposted to an Impersonation Story (such as The Spell of a Rogue), a Mother-Love Story or a Convict Story – all recognised types which an editor might ask Allingham and his fellow 'common writers' to provide. Then they made their choice and paid their penny. 

There was another practical aspect to this authorial anonymity. Cheap papers running on a tight budget to make maximum profits might not have a wide range of contributors and busy editors felt safest with the writers they knew. There were certainly occasions in the 1930s when Allingham was supplying all three of the regular weekly serials in mass-market publications such as The Home Companion, The Oracle, The Family Journal, Poppy's Paper and The Miracle (all of them managed by the same editor). Including his by-line wouldn't have been politic.

Allingham's sister-in-law Maud Hughes
wartime editor of Woman's Weekly
then founder of The Picture Show,
the first 'fan' magazine in the UK
And were readers interested in the personality --  or even the existence -- of the author? The culture of Celebrity grew steadily from the nineteenth into the twentieth century – from the star preachers of the 1870s evangelical revival (hyped by Allingham's father, James, in his Christian Globe) to the Hollywood stars of the 1920s silent screen (brought to readers week-by-week in his sister-in-law Maud Hughes's Picture Show)
Allingham's father, James
at his desk in Fleet Street
He made money from the evangelical revival
then became advertising agent

Fiction was different -- for  the lowbrows, anyway.  When Allingham himself was a penny paper editor (London Journal 1889 – 1909) he expended a degree of ingenuity pretending that his first and most sensational drama-story (A Devil of a Woman 1893, subsequently re-printed at least seven times) was REAL and that the anonymous author was an actual participant. After all it's more fun to live in a world where such highly-coloured adventures might be happening around the corner ... Many devotees of soap operas such as The Archers or EastEnders prefer not to accept that the characters are played by actors, let alone that the episodes have been professionally scripted.

Allingham's readers were not stupid. They were abiding by a set of conventions that suited their tastes and circumstances. Readers of the Oracle, for instance, were described by Richard Hoggart in his classic study The Uses of Literacy. Hoggart does sometimes struggle not to sound patronising but his intentions are clear: these were people to be respected; people who were taking their cultural pleasures in the way that suited them. If there had been any sustained reader demand to be given the names of their favourite authors, editors would soon have responded. In the 1920s, for instance, at attempt was made to glitz-up Allingham's reprints by attributing his stories to current celebrities – Houdini, Norma Talmadge, Fatty Arbuckle, Tom Mix, Sessue Hayakawa. It was relatively short-lived. “Films in Film Fun, no room for me,” commented Allingham sadly in 1927 when this market for pseudonymous reprints faltered.

Herbert Allingham had been born into a print-trade household and had an intense interest and expert view of his section of the periodical world. He referred to his readers as the 'common people' but never belittled or failed to do his best for them. He saw it as his duty to understand and reflect his readers' hopes, fears and dreams and his choice of narrative formulae to relieve or comfort them is illuminating -- as is the subtle way in which he manipulates his story themes to express the changing public mood over the different decades of his productive life. This is fiction as journalism. There is an explicit idealisation of working folk in many of his stories which is obstinately attractive – though, as his daughter Margery once commented, when he tried to make friends in person with working people, they were apt to touch their hats and move away. 
Herbert and Em Allingham visiting Gypsy families c 1912
Allingham died in January 1936. Soap opera arrived in that year and so did TV. Radio was already installed in many people's homes and the cinema had posed a major competitor for readers' disposable income since the end of WW1 if not earlier. The Great Age of Print was over. In the late 1980s, when I finished my preliminary sort through these papers, shocked to my Eng Lit. core by their formulaic construction and clichéd language and uncertain of the commercial morality of their publication patterns, I suggested to Herbert Allingham's daughter Joyce that they should be given to a University with a strong Media Studies department. By the time you read this article my newly re-packed, re-catalogued boxes will have set off for their final home in the University of Westminster archive.

from The Amazing Exploits of Houdini
Kinema Comic 1924
I can't pretend I'm not emotional about this. I've had to restrain myself from writing endless little notes as I put each shabby page into its designated box – reminding their new trustees that they like a hot-water bottle in the colder weather and on no account should they be allowed down to the beach without a shady hat and sun cream. I've studied Allingham's diaries, magazine cuttings, letters from editors intensively for a PhD (thanks, HEFC, for the funding and Professor Jenny Hartley for the supervision) and I've grappled with the unexpected difficulties of re-writing that thesis as a biography. The papers have lived under the piano, in the attic bedroom, and threatened to spread throughout the house since somewhere around the year 2000. Will anyone cherish and understand them as I have?

This is my biography of Allingham
on Kindle or in print
My PhD can be downloaded free
Well of course they'll be cherished -- the University of Westminster Archive is professionally managed -- and I hope that their new readers will understand them differently. What is there for other researchers in the record of Herbert Allingham's working life? Alternative ideas of authorship, different ways of reading, new insights into the role of the editor, into commercial, technical and marketing developments, into the potential and the limitations of print as a medium, responses to social change, the narrative conventions of instalment fiction, issues of capital and class, the peddling of dreams. Perhaps that last phrase isn't one that'll attract an earnest undergraduate looking for a dissertation topic but arguably that's what published fiction does – whether it's being sold for tuppence weekly in The Oracle or £18.99 for a hardback copy of the Booker Prize winner, £6.30 on Kindle. And if you don't agree - Discuss.

And from 25th December to 28th, Authors Electric will be peddling dreams at a discount!
16 days to go!


CallyPhillips said…
Oh Julia... I know how you must feel. And once again can only state how important all your 'Allingham' work has been for me. Literally life changing. S.R.Crockett was writing for the 'opposition' in magazines and did what Herb never achieved which is get published (very successfully) in his own right eventually - but both long gone and forgotten now. BUT it makes me wonder whether when you see what I've done with The Galloway Collection, Golden Duck will think about extending the connection with H.A that bit further and re-publish some of his magazine articles into a collection? (What goes around comes around) Meanwhile. Look out in your postbox. I've sent you something to take up the tiniest bit of spare space!
Jan Needle said…

If you're talking about Francis, I think it's the new beard. If he doesn't win the award, there's no justice in the world.

But seriously, that's a fascinating and wondrous piece, Julia, and thanks. How lovely to be able to wake up on a cold grey morning, and be so thoroughly transported with a finger-click. Long live AE!
Bill Kirton said…
This was such a pleasure to read, Julia. Thanks for such an absorbing start to the day. When attention spans are so short and flash fiction is the preferred medium of so many, it's great to share the sort of scholarship that gets well below the surface.
julia jones said…
It's also pretty fab - on a cold grey morning - to write something and discover so soon that 3 good friends have read it. Herb Allingham with his millions of readers never got a SINGLE letter. If there was anything it went to his editors.
Dennis Hamley said…
Julia, what a superb post. And what a lucky University to be the new possessors of such an archive. I'm reminded (once again) of George Gissing, New Grub Street and GG's jaundiced view of of the Great Age of Print which he puts into the mouth of Whelpdale when he starts Chit-Chat: "I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to say, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board Schools...who can just read but are incapable of sustained attention." Well, that may have been so, but it started the long emancipation of people like me after the war. It's sad that this process is now being snuffed out as a matter of policy.
julia jones said…
There are many things about Gissing that I admire but gosh he could be a misery-guts! However he's tremendously relevant to Allingham, though from the opposite direction, as it were. His Thyrza is PRECISELY an Allingham reader - I can almost imagine her with a copy of the London Journal under his editorship and she lived in the part of South London that was formative for him.
Chris Longmuir said…
Fascinating, Julia. I really enjoyed reading this.
Dennis Hamley said…
Misery-guts indeed. I only read him because it's so nice to feel I'm not as badly off as he is. Thyrza is lovely - both herself and her story. I reckon it would make a great TV serial.
There's such a wealth of information in your post. What a beautiful project. Many thanks.
Lydia Bennet said…
Lovely post Julia, your attachment to the Allinghams is wonderful, scholarly yet empathetic. I wrote some plays on George Stephenson, discovering that the coming of the railways did a huge amount to bring the written word to 'ordinary' or less educated/affluent people, not only news and new ideas (hence the opposition to the railways by various aristos) but fiction too, in newspapers and other periodicals. Ebooks have further spread this access which is a Good Thing.
Kathleen Jones said…
Lovely post, Julia. I thoroughly enjoyed both the biographies! Know how you feel about letting go of the archive though .... it's like sending your babies out into the world to fend for themselves. I hope the University of Westminster are good caretakers - so many docs go to the Harry Ransom in Texas and they don't have things properly catalogued and no online or digital access - a nightmare. Fortunately, with the Nicholson, the JOhn Rylands at Manchester was a model of how things should be done!
Oh what an interesting post! I didn't know about Allingham though I remember my nana and grandad talking about Comic Cuts - and I remember Tit Bits always being in the house when I was a little girl. Even back then, your post makes me realise that there was so much short fiction to be had - even, for kids, in weekly comics like The Beano and the Dandy and later in Bunty and Judy. We never thought about who had written it. Only that it was readable and we were waiting for the next instalment!
julia jones said…
Thanks all - I feel we've given HJA a great send off for his university career! Catherine makes such a good point about the short fiction that was simply around for children when the old style comics carried more story (and less celeb tatt - can't get on with my grandchildren's mags)and the point of HJA life was that this applied to many more mags for adults as well. Only three left now of all those that he wrote for.
julia jones said…
Having made that grouchy comment about children's mags now I think children's books are SO much better and generally available. Must keep them that way
True about the books for children - they're great. If I'm honest we didn't really read the stories in the Beano! (Anyone remember Black Bob, the border collie?) But I do remember reading the stories in Bunty and Judy - we were just that bit older by then.
Susan Price said…
I remember Black Bob! - And I did read him, as well as the Bash Street Kids. I've just finished a book about two border collies making their way alone across Scotland, from the Falkirk Tryst to Mull, and I've several times wondered how much Black Bob was involved in their creation. (Not least because my partner says, 'Black Bob!' every time I mention my story.)
And I should add - Julia, a scholarly, witty, beautifully written article which we are so proud to host!
I remember liking Black Bob but not reading him properly. Our first dog was a Border Collie Sheltie cross - fortunately he had the Collie brains and the Sheltie sweet temper. My son, carrying on the Beano Tradition, helped to create the recent iPrank App for the Beano. Dennis and Gnasher figure prominently and it also includes a Fart Finder! No Black Bob though.

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

A Glittering Gem of Black, Gothic Humour: Griselda Heppel is intrigued by O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

Little Detective on the Prairie

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee