by Walter Webb

  • This article first appeared in THE COLLECTORS' DIGEST ANNUAL, Christmas 1955.

In compiling an article on the adventures — and misadventures — of Sexton Blake's astute young assistant, the writer is confronted with something of a problem, for he is faced not so much with what to include as what to leave out. Before him stretches a field of information, but so vast that, of necessity, many acreages must be left unprobed. Also, to write of Tinker's history with any degree of authenticity is difficulty because, although there were several stories published — mostly in serial form — dealing with his early exploits, they were contradictory in treatment, so giving the puzzled researcher the task of sifting the wheat from the chaff.

To quote what must now be ancient history, Tinker slipped quietly and unobtrusively into an unsuspecting world during the late autumn of 1904, in an unpretentious 'Union Jack' story, entitled "Cunning Against Skill", written by a schoolmaster named Lomax, writing under the pseudonym of Herbert Maxwell. After finding him wandering in the streets of London, an orphaned waif and stray, Sexton Blake had adopted him, the circumstances being similar to those in which Nelson Lee discovered Nipper.

Tinker — first described as a 'small, bright, cheeky-faced boy' — rose to popularity with amazing rapidity, for, at the outset, 'Union Jack' readers took him to their hearts, and certainly the stories of Sexton Blake were much brighter and more entertaining for his inclusion in them. The demand for more Tinker — and Blake too — did not pass unheeded by Hamilton Edwards, who, at that time, controlled nearly all the Harmsworth boys' papers, and he arranged for serials featuring the famous pair to run in the pages of the 'Boys' Friend' and 'Boys' Herald'.

Tinker presented Blake with quite a problem at first, for whilst the boy was worth his weight in gold to him by reason of his tenacity, pluck, keen observation, and grit, that natural impetuosity with which every lad of his age is endowed, had to be curbed somewhat, and his struggle with the King's English mastered, for, be it noted, King Edward VII was the reigning monarch at the time of Tinker's entry into the fiction world. Although Blake cared not a fig what his clients thought of him for employing such an urchin to assist him he did resent the silent contempt the more aristocratic of them showed towards the cheery little waif, and, whilst cursing them inwardly, realised that in such a youngster, with so many natural abilities, the imperfection of his speech was bound to be a great handicap in the work he — Blake — would need him for. However, a year or so at a public school would soon alter that, and thus it came about that, at Blake's expense, Tinker, like his old pal Nipper, who went first to St. Ninian's and thence to the more famous St. Frank's, found himself a pupil at Telford College.

But, it seems that we are a little ahead of ourselves here, for history has it that many adventures befell Tinker ere he was fortunate enough to fall under Blake's wing.

In the prologue of "Tinker's Secret" (U.J. No. 1149) on the occasion of a wet and dreary night in November, it was revealed that when a young lad of nine or ten years of age, Tinker was selling newspapers at his usual pitch near the Three Nuns Hotel, in Aldgate, when two closely wrapped up figures came into his line of vision through the driving rain — a girl of about sixteen or seventeen years of age, beautiful and classic of features, and a golden-haired little girl of about his own age. Egged on by the older girl, Tinker saw the little girl with the fair hair make her way to a cigar stand where an elderly man was standing, and skillfully remove from his waistcoat a gold watch and chain, afterwards making off with them, in order to pass them on to the elder girl. Tinker gave chase, and catching the little girl just before she could hand over the articles, snatched them from her grip. As he was attacked by the elder girl, a constable came on the scene, and she made off, dragging the frightened child with her. After making arrangements for the stolen valuables to be returned to their rightful owner, Tinker made his way to the only home he had, till then, ever known — a little garret room in Wapping, which he rented from a woman, who, with nine small children of her own to look after, had little motherly care to spend on the little paper-selling waif.

Following a period of serious illness, due to the exposure of his little ill-clad form to the elements, Tinker began a slow fight against the miserable conditions of his uncared for existence, and eventually, feeling well enough, made for his old pitch at Aldgate, searching the vicinity where the 'beautiful pale devil', as he mentally termed the older girl, and her golden haired little companion, used to stand in search of intended victims. But the two girls never came back, and after nearly three weeks of patient waiting, the ragged little newsboy suddenly disappeared, and was never seen at his old pitch again. Nine years later, as the friend and protégé of Sexton Blake, Tinker was once more to meet them and in circumstances which were seriously to jeopardise his friendship with Blake and come perilously near to causing a permanent breakage of his relations with the man he admired, loved, and respected more than any other living being. For the child with the golden hair was Nirvana, whose beauty was to completely turn Tinker's head and have him floundering confusedly in a world suddenly become unreal by her ethereal presence.

It was a slightly older Tinker who appeared in a serial written anonymously and presented for publication by Hamilton Edwards in the weekly 'Boys' Friend', in the year 1913, and if not perhaps the best of stories of Blake's famous assistant, was certainly not lacking in thrills. It described his many tussles with a coldly calculating master-criminal known as 'The Baron', who was assisted in his criminal activities by 'The Toff', a crook of similar calibre.

The spirit of Christmas was in the air again, and in the theatres it was rehearsal time. Tinker, having become much interested in the stage, and with a view to emulating H.B. Irving, Lewis Waller and one or two others, had an ambition to play Othello, rather strange in one so young and uneducated, to say the least.

But the lad's venture had a very abrupt ending, for having obtained a job in the chorus of a theatrical company, he fell foul of the stage-manager, a bullying type of individual. During a rehearsal, the latter was venting his wrath and spite on one of the pantomime fairies, when much to Tinker's indignation, he saw the man reach out and box the little girl's ears. As she dissolved into tears, Tinker hurled himself at the stage-manager, butted him in the waistcoat, and deposited him over the footlights into the big drum left by the orchestra. Before the enraged manager could recover, Tinker had departed with alacrity, leaving all his ambitions behind him, not to mention a tearful little girl, whose gratitude was so overwhelming that she was heard to vow solemnly to marry him when she grew up!

Still alone and friendless in the world, and outcast that he was, the young lad, although having lived and run with all the riff-raff street life knows, remained clean and unsullied, and although the temptation to drift into crime had always confronted him the purity of his soul, inherited from the gentle mother he had never known, was a rock of resistance against which such temptations crumbled, as the crook known as 'The Baron' was soon to discover.

TinkerWhen he came into contact with the master-criminal, Tinker's impetuosity and lack of detective training almost led him to disaster on several occasions, and some of his miraculous escapes from death made exciting reading. One of the most remarkable crooks Tinker ever came in contact with, ‘the Baron' was grossly fat, with cold fishy eyes, a bland, child-like expression on his face when in repose, giving way to something far more menacing and beast-like when roused. The only hint of affection the man permitted himself was that shown towards a sleek white rat, which he fondled in the way an ordinary person would pet a cat, or tame rabbit. The ruthlessness and calculated cruelty of the man struck terror in the soul of the friendless boy on the occasions when they clashed, although Tinker was not to wage a lone battle for long, for it was his destiny to fall in with, and be befriended by, a stranger, calling himself Mr. Nemo. The latter, although ostentatiously a member of the 'Baron's' gang of toughs, was working secretly against them in an endeavour to secure sufficient evidence to convict the master-criminal on a charge of murdering his brother. Mr. Nemo's real name was Allandale. With the 'Toff', who was in every way as ruthless, cold-blooded, and evil a character as the 'Baron’, the pair constituted as dangerous a combination of criminal intent as even Sexton Blake himself would have cared to pit himself against, but justice emerged triumphant in a climax fought out on the broad bosom of the Thames, when the ‘Baron' and the 'Toff', with Tinker held fast a prisoner on a barge, endeavoured to reach safety with their charge. But Mr. Allandale and a friend of his, a young war correspondent named Harley, gave chase in a tug, and after a gun battle, victory went to the pursuers with the 'Toff' going to a watery grave and the 'Baron' being brought to justice to answer for his many crimes.

The name of the author who wrote "Tinker's Boyhood" was never disclosed, even when it was reprinted later in the 'Union Jack', but that Cecil Hayter wrote it there is no doubt, for his style is unmistakable.

And so to Tinker's schooldays — and what schooldays they were, too!

At Greyfriars, St. Jim's and Rookwood — and, to a rather lesser extent, St. Frank's — school life was gay and carefree, but it did have its serious moments. At Telford College, however, it seemed one long round of hilarity from rising bell to call-over, with juniors appearing to go to bed dreaming up the most original japes they could devise and then spending their waking hours in putting them into execution.

Like nearly all new boys, Tinker was subjected to a certain amount of 'ragging', the raggers, in this instance, being the three leading lights of the junior school, Maxwell, Orford and Micky Doran, known as 'The Three Musketeers'. That Blake's cheery, young assistant was something out of the ordinary in new fellows the japers quickly discovered, and so impressed were they by Tinker's fistic qualities and his very obvious ability of being able to take care of himself, that they invited him to become one of themselves. Thus, they came to be known as 'The Four Musketeers', and, as a result, life at Telford became more hilarious than ever. Tinker became installed in Study No. 5, which he shared with the other Musketeers, and, in accordance with what must now be regarded as the usual order of things, soon found himself in a fistic encounter with the black sheep of the Form — in this case, one Langton Mainwaring, an out and out cad, with the dandified lack of manners reminiscent of Aubrey Racke, of St. Jim's.

The four juniors became inseparable, and even during the vacation when the fellows dispersed to their various homes, there was no break-up in the combine. Where one Musketeer went the others went, too. When Sir Charles Orford invited his son and his three friends to stay at Orford Hall for the holidays, it was not long before he was mentally kicking himself for his rashness, for, even out of school Tinker and his chums found it impossible to refrain from practical jokes. When Sir Charles found a four-pound pike ogling at him out of his bathwater, and his friend, Major Wetherby, an explorer, discovered a couple of grass snakes taking refuge in his shooting boots, both elderly gentlemen thought it high time they got a bit of their own back. Consequently, when Tinker retired that night he found the snakes tucked up comfortably in his bed.

Back at Telford the fun waged fast and furious in that most unusual of scholastic institutions. When the Four Musketeers, walking through the village near the school, spied a circus pitched on some waste ground, Tinker was struck with the germ of an idea at sight of an elephant, picketed to a stout post. What followed after Tinker had indulged in a most interesting conversation with the owner of the elephant caused Telford, used at it was to the most unusual occurrences, to rock back and forth in its foundations in a sensation never before experienced in its unique history.

Those humorous youths, well-known to readers of the 'Gem' and 'Magnet', Monty Lowther, of the Shell at St. Jim's, and William Wibley, of the Remove at Greyfriars, often had their schoolfellows in convulsions of mirth at the originality of some of their japes, but there were some things at which they drew the line. For instance, they would never have thought of bringing into the school a circus elephant, but that was exactly what Tinker did, and when that outsize in beasts came lumbering into the Form-room, 'Rosie', as Mr. Rose, Tinker's Form-master was nicknamed, nearly threw a fit, as the elephant became jammed in the Form-room doorway.

When Tinker left to rejoin Sexton Blake, Telford College was never quite the same, a matter of much regret by Tinker's pals, certainly not shared by the masters. Harassed frowns on learned countenances suddenly become careworn were gradually smoothed out; masters whose figures had been seen to slither furtively and dejectedly along corridors, fearful of booby-traps, or similar appliances, beloved of the irresponsible schoolboy, braced wonderfully at the exhilarating tonic of Tinker's departure, and, if Dr. Telford, the Headmaster, and Mr. Rose were seen to shake hands silently, the reason for their solemn congratulations was not difficult to guess at.

In the 'Boys' Friend', the issue being that published week-ending 21 June 1913 (No. 628), the story of Tinker's first big case, under the title of 'Tinker Abroad', was published in serial form. Written by Cecil Hayter, and with illustrations by J. Abney Cummings, famous for his pictures of the characters of Jack, Sam and Pete in the 'Marvel', it described Tinker's relentless pursuit across land and sea of a gang of criminals responsible for his famous master's disappearance. Believing Blake to have been killed by the crooks, Tinker became obsessed with only one idea — to avenge the death of the man who had meant so much to him.

But, of course, Blake was not killed; ultimately he was to wage a successful war against such kings of crime as George Marsden Plummer, Dr. Huxton Rymer, Prince Wu Ling, Leon Kestrel, Zenith the Albino, Waldo the Wonder-Man, Mr. Reece, Professor Kew, and many others, and in those titanic battles Tinker was to be a trusty and invaluable ally at his side.

The lad, under Blake's expert tuition, became a master in the art of shadowing, and it was in this role that, above all else, his master found him most useful.

A somewhat strange fact about Tinker is that, despite his full and adventurous young life, he made hardly any friends of his own age after leaving Telford. Blake made many, and they are well-known — Coutts, Dirk Dolland, Splash Page, Hon. John Lawless, Sir Richard Losely and others — but apart from his brief and whirlwind romance with Nirvana, and even briefer association with Topper, where were Tinker's young friends?

It was, perhaps, a craving for the companionship of boys of about his own age that set his feet in the direction of St. Frank's when Blake had no need of his services. One of those occasions happened just prior to a Christmas vacation when Nelson Lee was drawing the net tightly round a crook, known as Mr. Howard Martin, who had been engaged as Headmaster of St. Frank's in the temporary absence of Dr. Malcolm Stafford. Under cover of his honourable position, Mr. Martin had committed several robberies in the surrounding districts. Tinker's arrival at Study C in the Ancient House, greeted with jubilation by Nipper and his closest chums, Sir Montie Tregellis-West and Tommy Watson, coincided with Nelson Lee's denunciation of Mr. Martin; but in saving the life of one of Mr. Martin's unwilling associates from the hand of the schoolmaster-crook, Tinker almost wrecked the final plans of Lee, but, fortunately, merely delayed Martin's arrest by Chief Detective-Inspector Lennard, their old friend of Scotland Yard (see Nelson Lee Library, No. 236, Old Series, containing story 'Exit The Tyrant', published week-ending 13 December 1919).

TinkerImmediately following the rounding-up of the crooked Headmaster St. Frank's broke up for the Christmas vac., and Tinker, along with Sexton Blake, was invited by Lord Dorrimore to spend Yuletide with him at his fine old historical mansion on the coast of Cornwall. Among the others invited to form the party were Nelson Lee, Nipper, Umlosi, the Kutana chief, Handforth and Co., Pitt, De Valerie, and several other St. Frank's juniors. In this merry gathering at Cliff Castle, Tinker cast all thoughts of detective work from him and became Tinker the irresponsible schoolboy once again, in which role he was encouraged by his genial host, Dorrie, and his popular sister, Lady Mornington. A Christmas Day full of fun and incident, with the one and only Edward Oswald Handforth supplying much unconscious humour to add to the hilarity of the proceedings, and an evening spent round a crackling log fire with Dorrie relating some of his most exciting expeditions in all parts of the globe, and Sexton Blake and Nelson Lee swapping details of some of their most memorable cases, what time the wind moaned and sighed outside, as it drove the falling snowflakes in soft whispers against the windows.

No less welcome was Tinker when he made his way through the shady woodlands and green meadows that led to Calcroft School. Sight of the silver Calder, rippling and gurgling its way to the sea, with Barren Tor's shaggy shoulders draped in a mantle of purple heather in the distance, always brought back to Tinker pleasant memories of happy days once spent at the famous old school.

His first visit to Calcroft was on the occasion when his master received an urgent telegram from Dr. Harpnor, the Headmaster, requesting him to come over and investigate a murder which had taken place on property belonging to the school. The victim was a Mr. Gideon Crayne, whose nephew Lucien, a temporary Science-master, having just taken up his post at the school, was suspected of taking his life. Everything pointed to Lucien Crayne having committed the crime, but Blake soon began to have his doubts. It was during their investigations that Tinker met Fane, Eagleby and Curtwin of Pycroft's House, three decent fellows whom he chummed up with at once. Blake, ably assisted by Tinker, finally vindicated the honour of the suspected master, and, incidentally, that of the old school as well. Thereafter, Tinker was always a welcome visitor to Calcroft, and spent with Fane, Eagleby and Curtwin many happy hours in the shady glades of the extensive Calcroft Woods, boating on the shimmering Calder, picnicking on the banks of that cool stream, or rambling round the narrow, cobbled streets of picturesque Calcroft Town. Familiar landmarks, these, which will bring back nostalgic memories to those who remember Sidney Drew's famous tales of Calcroft School. Happy days for Tinker, too, and a pleasant change from the routine of detective work.

During Tinker's long association with the 'Union Jack' and 'Sexton Blake Library', there was no attempt made on the part of any author — G.H. Teed with his Nirvana series excepted — to bring even a breath of romance into the young assistant's life. What Tinker's feelings were towards the opposite sex in the days when he and his master were engaged in a ceaseless war against the giants of crime, such as Kestrel, Wu Ling, the Confederation, etc., is difficult to define, for, with so many authors engaged in turning out the stories, there was bound to be a certain amount of inconsistency. The general impression formed was that Tinker took a very dim view of girls, and, if they roused any interest in him at all, it was of a most academic nature. Certainly, he had no time at all for them in his leisure time, for when not pasting press cuttings into the famous Index, he liked nothing better than to visit a cinema or theatre, or take Pedro for a run round London's streets. The friendly look of invitation in the clear blue eyes of the pretty blonde in the Strand was sufficient to send a discomforted Tinker stumbling by with quickly averted head and heightened colour, whilst the look of admiration in the wistful brown eyes of the attractive brunette dining alone in the Venetia met with similar rebuff.

Typical example of Tinker's apathy was well illustrated in 1930 when George Hamilton Teed rather shocked us by having the glamorous Mademoiselle Roxane flung unconscious on a rock on Bonaventure Island from a crashed helicopter, unclothed, save for a few wispy items of torn lingerie. Thereabouts Tinker's age was given as being nearly nineteen, but, for all the animation he showed at sight of mademoiselle's practically unadorned and inert figure, he might well have been an old man of ninety!

Today the modern author shows a more realistic and sympathetic attitude towards him. To the brand new name of Edward Carter, which Anthony Parsons has bestowed upon him, John Hunter has given him one or two girl friends to go with it. No more do we read of Pedro tugging at the leash in Tinker's hands, for it has given way to something warmer, intimate and exciting. The friendly invitation in the blue eyes of the pretty blonde in the Strand no longer meet with studied indifference; nor does the attractive brunette, with the appealing brown eyes, dine alone within the imposing walls of the Hotel Venetia.

But with the amorous streak developing more strongly in his nature, Tinker still remains the cheery, unassuming, fun-loving lad of his early Telford days. Compared to them, things seem rather tame today, and he finds less opportunity of indulging in his whim for practical jokes. Coutts, a regular victim in the golden age, pays only rare visits to Baker Street these days, and only then when Rex Hardinge brings him along, and it is that immaculately attired representative of New Scotland Yard, Superintendent Claudius Venner, whose faultlessly groomed figure is the more familiar sight in the consulting-room at Baker Street nowadays. Then, with an appetite made ravenous by a famine of prospective victims, Tinker really lets go, and the elegant limb of the sooper is pulled long and unmercifully.

And so, having emerged more or less successfully from the maze of Tinker's history, it only remains to express the hope that many more milestones of it will be reached ere, like so many of the old and popular characters of the past, he drifts into the gradual obscurity that ends in total oblivion. When that time comes — as, inevitably, it must — there is no doubt that the name of Tinker will live long in the memories of those who followed his adventures week by week in the pages of the 'Union Jack' and 'Detective Weekly', and month by month through those of the 'Sexton Blake Library'.

In October last year (1954) he accomplished a feat seldom achieved in the realms of fiction. He reached his fiftieth year of continuous and unbroken appearances in reading entertainment. It was a record which did not receive the recognition it so well merited. Here again is the season of good cheer and goodwill, when the health of relatives and friends all over the world is drank with more fervour than usual. To the character who has so deservedly earned the affection of millions and brought countless hours of thrills and enjoyment to those millions let us pay tribute. The toast — "Long Live Tinker!"