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An Examination of the continuing popularity of the Greyfriars stories by Frank Richards.

Peter McCall

Footnotes are in Roman Numerals within [Square Brackets]  and are highlighted in Blue. Clicking on the footnote reference will take you to the footnote; clicking on the reference number to the left of the footnote text will take you back to your place in the text.

The major contributor to the Magnet was Charles Harold St. John Hamilton who so preferred his nom de plume, Frank Richards, that he came to think of himself by that name.  In his long and prolific career, spanning over seventy years, he wrote between sixty and one hundred million words.[i]   He was a talented writer who had the good fortune to find no difficulty in creating stories.  As he himself admitted, he simply put on paper what he saw in his mind's eye.  His easy style, which must have been essential to establish him as a writer, almost certainly came from the childhood telling of bed time stories to his baby sister, Una.

  Frank Richards' talent, once he had discovered and developed his true metier of teller of school stories, seems to have been assured far beyond the presumed limited life of the weekly papers in which his work appeared.

Since the Magnet was launched on 8th February 1908, the  popularity of Greyfriars has continued.  The Magnet was published continuously, with the exception of the week of the National Strike, until the paper  closed on 18th May 1940.  Following which, Frank Richards found himself "with no income - only tax", [ii]  until, in the late '40's the Amalgamated Press [iii] , released the copyright so that he was able continue writing Greyfriars stories. 

There can be no doubt that, even by the First World War, there was a substantial and loyal band of, especially, Greyfriars lovers.  Although the other series created by Hamilton had, and have, their devotees, it has always been, and will probably remain, that Greyfriars is the most admired and studied of his works. 

Since the demise of the Magnet, his popularity has continued; and not only with those who read the 'old papers' in their youth.

The 'recent' upsurge in interest in Greyfriars began in 1946.  Picture Post published a profile disclosing that, not only was Frank Richards more than one person, but he was, contrary to assumption, very much alive [iv] .  From this article, as a direct consequence, came the Skilton & Cassell books.[v]   These are new stories, and  not, as has been suggested, "reissues". [vi]   Further annuals, and writings in various formats, too numerous to detail, were to follow, until the death of Frank Richards on Christmas Eve 1961.

This enduring popularity is emphasised, and has been widened, by the ancillary writings engendered by this famous Kent school.  They range from biographies, to maps, club magazines, and appreciations of the author and his works.  Most, it is true are by people, (men and women), who read the Magnet or Cassell books in their youth, but at least one 'major work' (McCall's Greyfriars Guide)  [vii]  is written by one who had never heard of Frank Richards until the Magnet had ceased publication for almost forty years.  So, it is true to say that "of recent years no other school has spawned an entire industry. ... Greyfriars is a whole world, as detailed and richly textured as .... Tolkien's Middle Earth." [viii]  

 The reprinting of 1500 numbers of the Magnet [ix]  between 1969-91, reinforced the loyalty of the old readers and enlisted many new proselytes to the "World of Frank Richards". [x]   Recent discoverers of Greyfriars  are of all ages; [xi]  so the first argument raised by detractors to any society devoted to the study of one topic is promptly destroyed, and the 'nostalgie de jeunesse' suggested by Jeffrey Richards is by no means correct. [xii]  

In 1991, Hawk Books republished four of the Skilton and Cassell books. (They were to publish a total of sixteen.) These are faithful reproductions of the originals, and are selling in sufficient quantities to merit further volumes, supporting the thesis of Frank Richards' continuing popularity.

Having briefly examined the Greyfriars cannon, is it possible to discover why these stories still appeal, even after eighty years?

Popularity, when applied to fiction connotes wide readership, and carries a "pejorative [implication]  of middle- or lowbrow audience". [xiii]   Among the "more or less classic examples of the [school story]  are the famous Billy Bunter stories", [xiv]   itself a pejorative remark!

From the reader's point of view, Frank Richards achieved several vital things.  Firstly, and perhaps the greatest reason for the continuing popularity of Greyfriars is that Frank Richards had the gift of characterisation.  Even Orwell, in his essay On Boy's Weeklies, considered Bunter to be "one of the best known figures in English fiction", [xv]  and, "among that handful of fictional characters, (Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Fu-Manchu, Bulldog Drummond, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Beau Gest), whose exploits have become part of the national consciousness and whose names are recognised by even people who have never read the books, there are two schoolboys.  One is Tom Brown of Rugby, the archetypal public school hero. The other is Billy Bunter of Greyfriars, the ultimate anti-hero, almost Tom Brown's mirror image." [xvi]  

Frank Richards' characters are real.  As he, himself,  said, "Everyone knows a Sam Weller". [xvii]   Most of the characters at Greyfriars, even if they appear for only a week or two, have true life. Billy Bunter may be, and probably is, in this respect, exceptional - a truly great creation.   On the other hand, some critics have said that his characters are cardboard cut-outs. Interestingly, almost invariably, the characters they select to support their thesis were not created by Frank Richards, but by substitute writers.

 One of the most important members of Greyfriars is the popular Head of School, George Wingate.  Below the paladins of the sixth, the fifth lord it.  Especially Horace Coker the butt of the school, whose aunt persuaded the Head to promote her beloved nephew by threatening him with her umbrella!  The Famous Five lead the Remove.  Harry Wharton, their leader, can suffer from excess pride; Bob Cherry, a noisy extrovert, would rather play games than study; Johnny Bull, a stubborn Yorkshire man; and Frank Nugent, a softer version of Harry Wharton, is in fact Frank Richards himself.  Finally, there is the Indian Prince, Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, whose 'Moonshee' English is the cause of much merriment.

With over 2,200 characters in 1,000 numbers of the Magnet, [xviii]  it is impossible to describe everyone at the school.  Suffice it to say that every type of boy is there, and as a result of these lifelike creations, virtually every reader was able to see him-, (or her-), self at Greyfriars.

Bill Lofts has researched the memories of readers around the world. [xix]   The weekly steamer was an exciting event bringing, not only news of the Old Country, but, what is more important, the latest Magnet or Gem.  The results of his survey show that stories, read up to seventy years earlier, still had a profound effect on their readers. Many recalled, not only the stories accurately, but acting the rôles of their Greyfriars heroes, had shaped their future philosophical and social mores

Next, although Orwell decried this, there was familiarity.  He called this "the untiring effort to keep the atmosphere intact"; but goes on to admit that the world so created is "not easily forgotten" [xx]   The people, the places - all recurred regularly.  All local events happened in either reassuringly familiar surroundings, or at recognisable times.  Every Magnet  followed the seasons.  Especially at Christmas, when "Frank Richards, perhaps more than any other author, wrote much, ... and from the late '20's, served up a rich fare for Christmas, often spanning several weeks as the action led from the end of term into the holidays and up to Christmas itself, before returning, reluctantly, to school". [xxi]

The Christmas special number was one of the highlights of the year.  And, since Frank Richards was not given to overt ideologising, there was no SPCK- or RTS-like pushing of religion. Instead, "There is much comedy;  there is the inevitable ghost or villain.  But, there is never, in any of these stories, the true message of Christmas.  ...  The spirit of the season may be there with its attendant good cheer; Bunter is, perhaps, treated less cruelly; villains are let off more lightly;  snow and holly abound; the tree glistens; the butler attends, smilingly, to our young heroes". [xxii]  

Most readers do not want to be preached at, and so, since "Frank Richards was not a moraliser, nor an advertiser for the church, nowhere are we reminded ... of [the true meaning of]  ... Christmass." [xxiii]       No-one can deny that among Frank Richards's Christmas stories are some of the best that ever he wrote.  The atmosphere and activities, comedy and pathos, the adventure and fantasy; all worked in different ways, and in different places, to a height perhaps never achieved by any other author.  The 'out of dateness'  that Orwell describes in the famous passage that begins "it is 1910 - or 1940, but it is all the same" [xxiv]   misses the point that "his audiences demanded, and got in full measure, the already looked back upon with yearning Dickensian scenes.  ... In other words, he unashamedly delivered the already, even by 1910, out-of-date, nostalgic view of the season". [xxv]  

Despite the pre-First World War overtones, the apparent advocating of a class society, the  elitism and imperial jingoism perceived by Orwell, the Magnet was read and enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of boys and girls.

 Another secret of the  Magnet's popularity was its apparent reality.  It must be remembered that the age of readership of the Magnet was considered to be between ten and twelve for the better educated, and then up to perhaps twenty for the rest of society.  Although Frank Richards had not been to Public School, he obviously knew how the ordinary boy in the street viewed such places.  Just where he obtained his knowledge is not certain.  Certainly, his mental picture of Greyfriars is a mixture of Eton and Harrow.  A fact used by the artists in their depiction of the school, no doubt helping to ensure that  Greyfriars "represent[ed]  the apotheosis of public school mythification".  [xxvi]   Founded in 1551, following the dissolution of the monasteries, Greyfriars is a grey stone building set around a quadrangle.  The nearby river and the extensive playing fields are all that a prospective boy could wish for in a school.

It is true that there was only one house at Greyfriars.  In reality there would be five or six.  But, as Frank Richards said, "Who cares if Smith Minor is in Robinson's House, ... it only gets in the way of the story". [xxvii] .  The close knit campus of Greyfriars is much more what the ideal school should be like.  What counts is the inter-form loyalty and intra-form rivalry.  This is well handled at Greyfriars, unlike St. Jim's [xxviii]  where the loyalties are so muddled that it is sometimes hard to decide who is with whom when you visit the latter school.  As a result of this portrait of an, albeit invented, microcosm, the reader of both 1910 and 1993 can envisage himself in a real place. 

 The importance to most schoolboys of sport is highlighted.  Not, as Orwell suggests to the exclusion of all else. [xxix]   While it is undeniable that sport was the Victorian 'cure' for some of the ills highlighted by the Clarendon Commission of 1861, [xxx]  to most boys today, as then, sport is important.  Frank Richards was knowledgeable about sport, especially cricket and wrote well about the game.  One of his editors, John Nix Pentelow was a renowned expert who, after leaving AP, founded The World of Cricket with Archie McLaren, [xxxi]  and must have ensured accuracy, had that been required.

While games rule many boys' school lives, the school room rules very few.  Thus, the lack of attention, the borrowing of prep, (like Stalky & Co. [xxxii] ), the ragging, the schoolboy cheek and rough housing at any opportunity, do work in the Magnet.  They work by being 'just as you remember it when you were at school'.  Whether this is nostalgia or truth does not matter; what counts is that it seems real.  Orwell's attack on "bully-worship" [xxxiii]  is well refuted by Mary Cadogan who likens the high spirited 'violence' to that seen in a Tom & Jerry Cartoon; she does not see it as real, rather the parody it is intended to be. [xxxiv]

Frank Richards made good use of the classroom.  He was proficient in the classics, and believed that a good story was the right place to widen education.   His classroom scenes, usually under the basilisk like eye of Mr. H. S. Quelch, the stern but fair master of the Remove, were used unashamedly to educate as well as to amuse.  To this end, he would quote freely, frequently, and fluently from many authors.  If the tag was Latin, he usually, (not always, as he said [xxxv] ), translated it; often amusingly as Bunter was persuaded to translate "Arma virumque cano" [xxxvi] , as "I sing of the man and his dog", instead of "I tell of the man and his arms".

In spite of tautology and repetitiveness, (commented upon by many), there is no doubt that Frank Richards possessed great literary talents.  Criticism has been levelled at the recurrence of his plots.  But, how many plots are there in all of literature?  The expected 'life' of a reader was probably no more than three years.  So, what need was there to create new situations?  But, it has to be underlined that when Frank Richards did reuse a plot, the story was fresh: new characters, new places, often new dénouements, were all assured; all of which, in their turn, kept alive the affection for Greyfriars.  Harry Wharton, for example, was the central character in three series called "The Harry Wharton Downfalls". [xxxvii]   Each has a different catalyst, different protagonists, and different endings.  In all Harry Wharton's pride are central to the plots, but, the way in which he responds to the situations varies between series.

Frank Richards truly believed that all boys had some good in them.  And, of all the characters in the Magnet, only Ponsonby of Highcliffe School is really evil.  His plotting, his violence, his caddishness, and general behaviour, (especially to his form master, Mr. Mobbs), would have ensured his expulsion - if not criminal record!  Even Loder, the bullying prefect, has the occasional flash of decency.  While it is true that most of the School is composed of ordinary, decent, caring teenage boys who are white, middle class, and well off, (again a cause of criticism by Orwell [xxxviii] ), nonetheless, a cross section of all classes, races and creeds were represented at Greyfriars.  Although, as Lister says, "Hamilton wrote ... when public schools consisted almost exclusively of boys from these classes.  ...  [He]  included working class boys, ... frequently contrasting them favourably with boys from more prosperous backgrounds". [xxxix]  and, the example they set is one that was emulated by generations of schoolboys the world over.  Also, there were many girls among the faithful.

Despite the popularity of most Greyfriars 'men' with the readers, Bunter won very few hearts which is hardly surprising when one considers that, "Of the Seven Deadly Sins, he is the living embodiment of pride, envy, avarice, greed, sloth, wrath, and gluttony; and no doubt will soon add lust to complete the list!" [xl]   In today's climate, there can be no doubt that Billy Bunter is racist.  But, the 'decent chaps' - the majority of Greyfriars - will always ensure that the Fat Owl, no matter what his misdemeanour,  gets his comeuppance!

For all the popularity of the school stories, it has to be conceded that there was usually a serious message within.  Already, the overt considerations of manners, support for the Empire, and Conservatism are apparent.  Perhaps Frank Richards' politics were not right wing enough to please his masters, but Skimpole at St. Jim's did act as his author's political mouthpiece; usually advocating socialism of an extreme, sometimes ridiculous, ideology.  The Famous Five [xli]  led the Remove at Greyfriars and were the arbiters of most things 'British'.  Above all, they had no obvious politics, but their ideology was of the Conservative persuasion central to the middle class way of life.

Propaganda, as a term, derives from the 17th century committee of the Roman Catholic Church responsible for dissemination of the faith.  When literature is or is not propaganda is much debated.  "If an author sets out to make a case for a particular ... social or political view, through [literature] , and is seen to be doing this, and in the process sacrifices verisimilitude, (sic), [to attain]  his thesis, then ... [the resulting]  work is a work of propaganda." [xlii]   The presumption has to be that the author means 'truth' rather than 'probability'.

Throughout the years 1914-1919 there was, most weeks, a page of "Our Readers", nearly always photographed in uniform.  This patriotic ploy, together with obviously proselytising messages such as "eat less bread", was perhaps the first subliminal attempt at propaganda in the Magnet.  But, this did not come from Frank Richards, who had tried to enlist, but was rejected on medical grounds, (probably poor eyesight).  Whether it required editorial pressure or not, Frank Richards obviously did do a great deal to influence his readers to volunteer.  While a devout patriot, Frank Richards was still able to see through the hypocrisy of the national propaganda being disseminated.  This is not tackled in the Magnet, but is in the Gem, where, writing as Martin Clifford, Frank Richards uses Skimpole to express many of his views about politicians.  Frank Richards love of classical music is underlined in his 'pro-German' comments about Handel and Beethoven, [xliii]  as well as his tolerant view of 'decent men' irrespective of nationality.  His view, criticised by Orwell, that "all foreigners are funny", [xliv]  was defended in "Frank Richards Replies" [xlv] .  His biting and accurate description of Hitler is 'funny', but at the same time, he points out the dangers of the man.  And, to finish, underlines that the 'funniness' is in people like Hitler's and Mussolini's posing - and nothing else.

Many of his war time stories were intensely patriotic and propagandist.  Petty criminals, frowsters, and slackers answered their country's call and became instant heroes.  Herr Gans, the German master at Greyfriars is, like Max Stiefel in Good-bye, Mr. Chips, [xlvi]  a 'good' German.  Not only is he 'not a Hun', he saves his chief tormentor Skinner from deserved expulsion. [xlvii]   When rescuing Alonzo Todd, who has been stranded behind enemy lines, [xlviii]  (as Frank Richards had been himself), the 'stiff upper lip' is shown to the juniors' captors.  But, even while advocating 'True British Pluck', Frank Richards is still able to portray the truth about war.  He describes refugees, and the miseries of war - not the drum-beating, flag-waving jingoism that typifies authors like G. A. Henty.

Orwell makes a slighting comment about no mention of the Second World War in the Magnet.  [xlix]  In fact there is a satirical story about 'Digging for Victory' in "The Phantom of the Moat House" [l] . Frank Richards, too, had dug up his beloved flower beds to grow vegetables.  There is also an episode in which the Removites have to carry out gas mask drill.  This, probably, was used on instruction from above - Frank Richards was far too unworldly to have thought of such a sub-plot himself. 

The last Magnet Series of all is a spy story.  It features a Mr. Brown - a German indistinguishable from an Englishman; no doubt a sober reminder of the maxim that "careless talks cost lives". [li]

Frank Richards' clear style, despite the tautologies, kept and still keeps the reader entranced.  Whatever his message, it was always delivered clearly.  There is rarely any covert propaganda.  So, the question has to be asked, 'did he write propaganda or from his heart?'  The ideologies he propounded, no matter how serious, are put forward with humour, excitement and, as we have seen, a lack of proselytising fervour.  As he said, "if a boy does not understand what you are saying, he will not read it.  You cannot write down to your reader.  If they do not like what you write they will not read it." [lii]

So, it seems fair to say that many, if not most, of Orwell's accusations against Frank Richards can be either refuted or justified.  Even if they are true, it should not matter, for a master craftsman must be given the recognition he deserves.  Ninety years of readers cannot all be wrong.

The final word is given to John Arlott, a lifelong admirer of Greyfriars,  who said on radio, "Frank Richards!  My word, how we lapped him up ... when we were boys at ... school.  I suppose there was an element of snobbery about it, and I wonder if public school boys ever read his stories?  But, we did.  These were things we would like to have done, magnified to something more than life size.  All his characters were more good, more brilliant, more athletic, or more wicked, fat, unscrupulous or strong, than ever we could hope to be." [liii]  

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Beal, George, The Magnet Companion, Howard Baker Press, 1977.

Butcher, J.S., Greyfriars School - A Prospectus, Cassell, 1965.

Cadogan, Mary, Frank Richards - The Man Behind the Chums, Viking, 1988.

Carpenter, Humphrey, & Prichard, Mari, Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, OUP, 1984.

Chandos, John, Boys Together, Hutchinson, 1984.

Collector's Digest, Published Privately, 1945 onwards.

Cuddon, J.A., Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, Penguin, 1991.

Down, Michael, Archie, A Biography of A. C. McClaren, George Allen & Unwin, 1981.

Friars' Chronicles, Published Privately, 1983 onwards.

Gem, Amalgamated Press, 1908-1940.

Guinness Book of Records, 1984.

Hall, Maurice, I Say, You Fellows, Wharton Press, 1990.

Howarth, Patrick, Play Up and Play the Game, Eyre Methuen, 1973.

Lister, Raymond, Charles Hamilton, Greyfriars, and Myself, The Private Library, 1974.

Lofts, W.O. & Adley, D. J., Greyfriars Since the Magnet, Published Privately, 1983.

Lofts, W.O. & Adley, D. J., World of Frank Richards, Howard Baker Press, 1975.

Magnet, Amalgamated Press,  1683 Numbers, 1908-1940.

McCall, Peter, McCall's Greyfriars Guide, Howard Baker Press, 1982.

Museum Press, Charles Hamilton Companion Series, 8 Volumes, Privately Published, 1965-1993.

Musgrave, P.W., From Brown to Bunter, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.

Orwell, George, On Boys' Weeklies, Horizon, March 1940. reprinted in
                                                Penguin Collected Essays of George Orwell, Vol. 1,  1968. p 505-531.

Quigly, Isabel, Heirs of Tom Brown, O. U. P., 1984.

Richards, Frank, Autobiography of Frank Richards, Charles Skilton, 1952.

Richards, Frank, Floreat Greyfriars, E. M. I. Records, 1965.

Richards, Frank, Frank Richards Replies,  Horizon, May 1940. reprinted in
                                                Penguin Collected Essays of George Orwell, Vol. 1,  1968. p 505-531.

Richards, Frank, The Saturday Book - 1945, Hutchinson, 1945.

Richards, Jeffrey, Happiest Days, Manchester University Press, 1988.Samways, George, Road to Greyfriars, Howard Baker Press, 1984.

Stephens, John, Language & Ideology in Children's Fiction, Longman, 1992.

Sutton, Laurie, Greyfriars for Grown Ups, Howard Baker Press, 1980.

Turner, E.S., Boys will be Boys, Michael Joseph, 1948.

 

Footnotes: 


[i]  Guinness Book of Records, 1984, p 87.

 [ii] Hall, Chapter title.

 [iii] Amalgamated Press, formerly Harmsworth Press.

 [iv] Picture Post, 11th May 1946.

 [v] 39 titles published.  Not 33 as Richards says on several occasions - ie Butts p 10.

 [vi] Cuddon, p 140.

 [vii] Cadogan, Birmingham Post, 27th Septmeber 1982.

 [viii] Jeffrey Richards. p 271.

 [ix] Howard Baker Press.   200 Volumes published in several formats.  In all 1,510 Magnets reproduced.

 [x] Title of Biography of Frank Richards by Lofts & Adley.

 [xi] Howard Baker Press Gazette, the result of several surveys published 1969-90.

 [xii] Jeffrey Richards, passim.

 [xiii] Cuddon p 729

 [xiv] Ibid. p 140

 [xv] Orwell, p. 509.

 [xvi] Jeffrey Richards, p 266.

 [xvii] Frank Richards on Record.

 [xviii] McCall, p. 12.

 [xix] Lofts, Friars Chronicles, vol 1, pp 6-9, 28-32, 94-96, 206-208, 225-230, 279-282.

 [xx] Orwell, p  509.

 [xxi] McCall, Friars Chronicles, No.50 pp 9.

 [xxii] ibid.

 [xxiii] Ibid.

 [xxiv] Orwell, p 518.

 [xxv] McCall Friars' Chronicles, No. 50, p 8.

 [xxvi] Jeffrey Richards in Butts, p 9.

 [xxvii] Richards on Record

 [xxviii] Hamilton, writing as Martin Clifford, created this school's adventures for the Gem.

 [xxix] Orwell, p. 509; & several references passim.

 [xxx] Chandos, passim.

 [xxxi] Down, p. 126-7

 [xxxii] Stalky & Co. by Rudyard Kipling. (1899).  Orwell suggests that Mr. Prout at Greyfriars is lifted from this book.  In fact, Frank Richards had almost certainly created this character before Stalky was published.

 [xxxiii] Orwell, passim.

 [xxxiv] Cadogan, p.61-63.

 [xxxv] Richards on Record.

 [xxxvi]  Æneid, line 1.

 [xxxvii] .Harry Wharton's Downfalls: 879-888; 1255-1261; 1422-1433, (strictly, The Stacey Series); 1683, the start of another Wharton Downfall.

 [xxxviii] Orwell, passim.

 [xxxix] Lister, p 53.

 [xl] McCall's Greyfriars Guide, p. 46.

 [xli] Harry Wharton, Frank Nugent, Bob Cherry, Johnn Bull, & Hurree Jamset Ram Singh.

 [xlii] Cuddon, p. 749.

 [xliii] Magnet No. 422.

 [xliv] Orwell, p. 516-517.

 [xlv] Frank Richards Replies, p. 538-539.

 [xlvi] Goodbye, Mr. Chips,

 [xlvii] Magnet No. 348.

 [xlviii] Magnet No. 357, The Return of the Prodigal.

[xlix]   Orwell, p. 516-517.

 [l] Magnet No. 1661.

 [li] Second World War propaganda slogan.

 [lii] Frank Richards on Record.

 [liii] John Arlott quoted  from B.B.C. Radio, 27th Dec 1962 in Museum Press Vol. 1 p vi,

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