by W. O. G. Lofts

  • © This article first appeared in COLLECTORS' DIGEST Vol.11 Issues 119 to 440, 1956.

Part 1: The Recollections of H. W. Twyman

Living in semi-retirement in a 300-year-old (but now modernised) cottage in Surrey is the man who, from 1921 to 1933, personally knew and saw practically every Union Jack author of that period. I have recently had the good fortune and privilege of paying Mr Twyman two most enjoyable and interesting visits, for he was only too pleased to converse with me about the 'old paper'. He has, in fact, enlightened me on quite a few things relating to Blake authors and stories which, until then, had been very obscure. H. W. Twyman I learned that Mr Twyman started at the Amalgamated Press as a proof reader in 1914, but was soon appointed Chief Sub-Editor of Chuckles (H. A. Hilton was the controlling Editor). He then joined up, serving with the A.S.C. (now R.A.S.C.). On his return, Mr Twyman was given the editorship of a new paper, the Detective Library (1919). Most of its stories were reprints, but he did write several original stories for that publication. In connection with the Detective Library, Mr Twyman was able to enlighten me on two things which I (and many others) have been wanting to know for a very long time; firstly that 'Derek Clyde' was created by William Murray Graydon, and secondly, that the stories featuring Blake at Kingsmere College were written by Stanley Gordon Shaw. The editor of the Union Jack at that time was Walter Shute (better known as the writer Walter Edwards) and when he left in 1921 to become a freelance, Mr Twyman took over the Union Jack from him. From that time onwards the Union Jack continued to be a great success and although the official records cannot be stated, an estimated weekly circulation of around 300,000 copies would not be far out.

Mr Twyman has his own personal record of all Blake writers in the Union Jack from issue 906 (19th Feb 1921) to 1,216 (5th Feb 1927) and these details, having been entered at that time, must be accepted as correct.

Len Packman and Walter Webb very kindly loaned me their books of records and, with Mr Twyman's permission, I was able to check, amend and add authors' names where necessary (it must be remembered that the author's name was not given with the stories at that time). Here, I would pay tribute to Len and Walter — and those who have helped them in compiling their lists — on a very fine achievement, for out of 300 odd issues I only found 38 authors' names needing correction, half of which one would never have imagined could be wrong. Some of them were practically unknown, in addition to which I discovered that ten of the 'Criminals Confederation' stories were written by Gilbert Chester, as Robert Murray was indisposed at that time. (Mr Twyman wrote one of the later 'Confederation' stories himself: "Enter the President" U.J. 1,484).

Apart from his official list, he was also kind enough to give me the names of several Union Jack writers whose work had previously been undetermined.

A document even more authentic than the copied list referred to, and covering about twice the length of time (1921-1933), was the office record-book in which were entered not only authors' and artists' names, but all the day-to-day details such as press dates necessary for the running of the paper. Because it was so continuously referred to for guidance, it was jocularly known as 'The Bible.'

On our Editor's taking over another paper, the ‘Bible’ passed into the keeping of his successor and was finally lost sight of — probably in a load of paper salvage only to reappear in the shape of sugar cartons or suchlike.

Thus, the definitive and indisputable answer to many a baffled collector's questions, which would have been worth untold gallons of midnight oil, was lost to the cause.

Mr. Twyman was very interested in my Blakiana article last year on Gwyn Evans, for he knew the colourful Gwyn better than anyone; he has in fact written an account of Gwyn's escapades and 'goings on' in the freelance market (entitled "Good Evans — Crazy as a Coot"). Having kindly been loaned the manuscript, I must say it makes very interesting reading, and Mr Twyman has most kindly promised that I may let Mr. Leckenby publish it in the Collector’s Digest later on. Speaking of Gwyn Evans, my host's opinion was that he was undoubtedly one of his best writers and certainly the most colourful personality. But, of course, there was a snag: his casualness and irresponsible ways made an awful lot of subbing necessary before all the loopholes were plugged and the loose ends tied up. Conversely, there were other authors — notably Edwy Searles Brooks — whose copy was as easy to read as a page of print.

Gwyn Evans wrote all his stories in a small, neat, round hand, with a left-hand margin that rapidly became wider and wider as he got down the page. This, as any handwriting analyst knows, is a sure sign of fast, fluent writing and it is an indication of how smoothly those flights of fancy poured from his pen.

The series most popular in the Union Jack during Mr Twyman's editorship was that featuring the 'Criminals Confederation' and the most popular artist was Eric Parker.

A very fine artist himself, a number of Mr Twyman's oil paintings adorn the inner walls of the cottage. Many readers of the Blake Annual No. 2 will remember the plan of Blake's house in Baker Street, which was also his work, though this was rather in the nature of architectural fantasy than portraiture, which is his present interest.

Mr Twyman, who is, I would say, in appearance much like the great Blake himself (complete with pipe), told me a number of amusing stories concerning readers' unquestioning belief in the actual reality of Blake as a living man. For example, there was the elderly woman reader who wrote asking in all seriousness whether she could be considered for the job of Blake's housekeeper when Mrs Bardell retired. Also, later on, a second lady had a similar ambition. She went further and called at the office asking to see Mr Blake. Realising her error, Mr Twyman gently tried to disillusion her when she addressed him as Blake, but she could not accept the idea of a fictitious detective and must have thought that her hero was going about incognito for some reason, for she persistently held to her belief. Moreover, she deduced that the Union Jack's chief sub-editor must of course be Tinker.

He also told me of a visit to Paris to see G. H. Teed, who was then living there, to talk over plots for future stories, and of how one story was inspired by certain unrehearsed events in Notre Dame Cathedral.

One of the most frequently-asked questions is why the Union Jack was changed to the Detective Weekly. The answer is simple — because of the decline in the sales of the former. Like many other papers, when all the plans for changing over were cut and dried, the sales began to pick up again!

Leonard H. Brooks (I was told) was the brother of Edwy Searles Brooks, and this explains Walter Webb's statement as to the similarity of their work. Walter also told me that L. H. Brooks died in very tragic circumstances about four years ago.

Generally speaking, about two out of every three Union Jack stories were accepted for publication, the rate of payment for a story being about £28.

The knock-out blow to the Blake saga, Mr Twyman reckons, was just before the beginning of World War II: Gwyn Evans, G. H. Teed and Robert Murray all died at that time or shortly after, as did the artists Fred Bennett and Val Reading, while H. M. Lewis abruptly vanished without explanation or later trace (a job for me to solve, he jokingly remarked). William Murray Graydon was lost sight of, and perhaps died, in Paris, and that was the last seen of him. Ladbroke Black and John G. Brandon were two others who died. Clifford Gates was another, in his case after the war and as the result of a mine explosion.

In addition to the stories he wrote for the Detective Library, Mr Twyman also wrote some for the Detective Weekly and numerous other publications, by Amalgamated Press and otherwise. In the Union Jack he is represented by only two stories: "Enter the President", already mentioned, and "The Case of Cormack's Key" (issue 1,073). And, (for the information of Hamiltonians) he confesses to being one of the ‘untouchables’, a substitute author, with "Billy Bunter's Legacy" in Magnet, issue 941 and "The Temptation of Peter Hazeldene", issue 949.

Here is an extract of a letter from Mr Twyman to Len Packman:

I may say I am vastly impressed by the work, not only of Mr Lofts himself, but of other members, in so patiently and skilfully assembling through deduction and research such a mass of information. Because of the inevitable limitations of the techniques they can use there are naturally some errors — being gradually weeded out as the wholesale research progresses — but on the other hand some of the facts I have read would, I am sure, have come as a revelation to my colleagues in the A.P., as they do to me. But, of course, there is a difference between the situation of the collector and that of the editorial worker; you have the whole range of the finished product before you in which to compare, compile, evaluate and detect lapses into inconsistency; whereas we lack both the opportunity and inclination for the historical approach because of deadlines and detail, the preoccupations of policy, of being harassed by authors and artists who simply won't deliver to time, and of too much work and too little staff. Yes, there is a difference between running a paper and running down the facts about it long afterwards. It is the difference between a man working with a fine-focus microscope and another surveying the scene with a telescope.

One thing strikes me as odd — the care, almost anxiety, to establish the name of anonymous writers, or the real name behind a pseudonym, when that name, when discovered, is just a name that in many cases can be associated with no known individual. There is so seldom any clue as to what he looks like even, though I am glad to say that during my time as editor of Union Jack I did run photos of most of the writers and artists from time to time — though, what with the coarse-screen halftones it was necessary to use, even the subjects of the photos could hardly recognise themselves!

Nevertheless, it is certainly a fine hobby — not the mere accumulation of collecting, but one with an appeal to nostalgia and the glamour of the past, and with scope for acquiring fresh knowledge by observation of literary styles, by research, and by a kind of Blake-ish detective work generally. It's an active kind of collecting; not just acquiring things to look at. And as hobbies go, it's not expensive. We people who laboured to produce those old papers week by week little realised the eyes that would be upon us years hence, or what custodians of a continuing tradition we were. Otherwise we might have been a bit more careful despite the deadlines and the detail.

Part 2: The Twyman Letters

One of the most interesting personalities I met during the middle fifties was H. W. Twyman, former Editor of Union Jack (1921-33) and Detective Weekly. Apart from these two positions, ‘Twy’ as I will call him, started his career as a proof reader on The Magnet in 1914, later being Editor of Detective Library (1919). Unlike most other editors, authors, and artists — who I met either at the old Amalgamated Press building in Farringdon Street or in Fleet Street taverns — I used to meet Twy at his 300-year-old cottage buried in the heart of the Surrey countryside. It was here that we discussed for many long hours, in many meetings, all aspects of the papers mentioned above. I only wish now that I had had a tape recorder to record everything!

Apart from these meetings, Twy wrote me long letters, packed with priceless information, which I still retain in my files. Some data was published in the Collectors' Digest starting with the November 1956 issue, but certainly not all. Twy did not wish some points to be printed, in case they aroused some unwelcome controversy or correspondence that he could not cope with. One respected his wishes at the time (Twy died in 1971, aged 78).

It is most interesting to record Twy’s reactions to my initial contact with him, in August 1956, and his impressions on collectors as a whole:

Thank you for your letter just received. I was of course very interested in what you tell me — an interest not unmixed with gratification, because of the nice things you have to say about my work on Union Jack. It is now some years since I relinquished the editorship of that paper — or rather of its reincarnation Detective Weekly — after running it for fifteen years, and of course a lot has happened in that time, a good deal of which I can still remember which may be of interest to you.

Naturally I am always glad to meet so interested and knowledgeable a person as yourself, and would be able to discuss the events and personalities of those old days, now passed into history.

May I say meanwhile, I am very impressed by your interest and activities as such a dedicated hobbyist. This sort of hobby seems to me to involve a great deal of detective work, such as would be exercised by Sexton Blake himself, and much exchange of information with others likewise interested. Strangely, it was not till I had been running the paper for some years, that I ever heard there was any interest other than by the week-to-week reader, and then only in the vaguest way, aware merely of the fact there were such people as collectors. I have also learned that there is far more to this pursuit than just the accumulation of back numbers. In your own case, there is the additional achievement — on which you are to be much commended — of compiling the Gwyn Evans book, which I imagine must have been done by the 'Information Received' method.

I had compiled, in rough form ,a manuscript entitled `Good Heavens — it’s Gwyn Evans', and handed it over to Twy for revision, subbing, and hopefully eventual publication. Unfortunately with his pressures of writing True Crime stories for the American market (I helped him a great deal by research), then long periods of illness, he never got around to finishing it. On his death (unknown to me for a long time), all his papers, letters, files, graphs, etc., pertaining to Union Jack etc., were destroyed, including the mentioned manuscript; a terrible tragedy and a great loss to future historians of the old papers.

In the early days of the hobby, and up till about 1943, it was always assumed that the very first Sexton Blake story was in No. 2 of the Union Jack in 1894. It took a dedicated hobbyist — Walter Dexter — a world authority on Charles Dickens, to discover that three earlier Blake yarns had appeared in the Halfpenny Marvel. The first historic tale being 'The Missing Millionaire' in No. 6, dated 20th December, 1893.

I've always been extremely puzzled by this late discovery, as certainly even before the last war, there were hundreds of collectors of the early Harmsworth papers, many having complete runs of the Marvel, Pluck, and Union Jack type. Among them was our own Herbert Leckenby, who had been an avid collector since boyhood days. Herbert also had a great interest in Sexton Blake, and it still seems incredible to me how he was in ignorance of any of these earlier Marvel stories. ‘Incredible’ could also be used in the fact that even the publishers of Sexton Blake were unaware of the earlier stories. In the special thousandth number of the Union Jack, the Editor stated that the very first yarn was in that paper, entitled ‘Sexton Blake Detective’. Herbert, in the editorial of the C.D. November 1953 issue, was rather outspoken about the ignorance of the Editor, suggesting perhaps that they possibly may have known of the earlier stories but wanted the Union Jack to get the credit for publishing the first historic story. Twyman, who had read these remarks amongst a pile of Collectors' Digests I had loaned him, replied to this as follows:

I was Editor of the Union Jack when this erroneous claim was made, perpetrating it in my editorial page of the 1,000th number as far as I can recall, and perhaps on other occasions too. But those I have forgotten. However, in all instances it was my actual belief that Sexton Blake's initial appearance was in No. 2 of the Union Jack. There was a practical, but mistaken reason for that belief. In explaining the situation it should be emphasised that the editorial routine of producing a packed paper every week, with little assistance, hardly leaves time for research. An Editor's facilities are not those of the historian. But on this 1,000 number occasion I did consult the first U.J. volume, mainly for the purpose of obtaining the first Blake cover for reproduction. While doing this I turned up what my predecessor had to say in No. 1 about his forthcoming attraction in No. 2. Regrettably, I haven't copies of these pioneer issues handy at the moment and cannot quote verbatim, though perhaps one of your fellow collectors will be able to do so, incidentally shedding some light on the earliest Blake data question, and also on the literary origin of Sexton Blake himself.

Again relying on memory; he described the type of character this new detective was to be, suggesting that he was modelled on the Sherlock Holmes of Mr Conan Doyle (This was before Holmes' creator got his knighthood.) There was also other information, such as that the Union Jack would never publish stories of a kind to encourage boys to run off with their employer's money, which I quoted in the 1,000 editorial, but of which I likewise have no copy at hand, so cannot be more precise. The acknowledgment of Sexton Blake's literary paternity I judged better not to emphasise.

Now the implication about all this is that I knew nothing of any previous appearance of Blake in the Marvel, which is a fact. There was a volume of the Marvel on the same shelf as Vol. 1 of the Union Jack, but I doubt I ever even handled it. I was not interested in the Marvel. So that the assertion for which I was alone responsible — that Blake first saw print in our No. 2 was a genuine assertion. It was motivated by no wish to claim false credit, and the late Walter Dexter’s historic Marvel discovery was as much surprise to me as collectors generally. I was led astray by that deceptive editorial in No. 10.

It was a case of pure ignorance — inexcusable except that hard driven editors can only envy rather than emulate the leisured, scholarly approach of the collector. Had it been otherwise in my case, this dark suspicion of fact concealment and credit-stealing would never had arisen, but I am happy, even at this late stage, to be able to dissipate a mystery that threatened to remain ever unsolved.

Incidentally on this same subject, Mr W. H. Back, an early U.J. Editor and then Editorial Director of the Amalgamated Press, once told me that, at a time when he had been running a succession of adventure stories, and wished to feature another detective yarn, he looked through the file of past issues, and came across the forgotten No. 2 and a name that appealed to him. Thus Sexton Blake was resuscitated — for quite a while, as it turned out. It occurs to me that this anecdote may have been another factor leading me to the belief that Blake was born in no other paper than the Union Jack.

Twy knew Sexton Blake authors better than anyone. Not only did he handle their work for years, but also met them socially, and helped with their domestic, private, and financial problems. There are some collectors who are only interested in the stories and care nothing about the authors themselves. Others thirst for any little detail about their favourite author — in the biographical sense. It is also most interesting to know the Editor's opinions of some of our favourite Blake writers:

I was most interested to learn that you had recently met Edwy Searles Brooks. Next time you see him, give him my kind regards. I always had a very high opinion of his work on the Union Jack and consider him one of my best authors. You say that Edwy was surprised to learn that I am still alive? Well I could say the same for him, as I believe he is several years older than me! You certainly have me puzzled, when you say that Alfred Edgar took over The Nelson Lee from Harold May — first I have ever known about it. I knew Edgar very well indeed, by daily contact. A very clever writer, he was one of the very few Blake authors who really made a name for himself in later years. He wrote a play entitled 'The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse' which was a great hit at the Haymarket Theatre, made a lot of money, and went out to Hollywood to write film scripts.

The person I think who took over the Nelson Lee Library was H. T. (Jimmy) Cauldwell, and I should remember this clearly enough, because The Nelson Lee Library was produced in the same set of rooms, or department, at that time. Certainly I can say with complete confidence that Jimmy Cauldwell was producing the N. L. L. because they had moved his desk for some reason into a corner of my office — where he stayed for months and months, editing the Lee in my actual presence.

Coutts Armour was an Australian, big chap with a beard, who walked around like a swagman with sack on his shoulder — usually filled up with books he had bought down the Farringdon Street market. "Coutts Brisbane" and "Reid Whitley" were two of his pen-names. I first met him when I was editing Detective Library in 1919 in the same office as The Robin Hood and Praire Libraries run by Len Pratt — who afterwards ran the Sexton Blake Library for 35 years. Armour claimed to have originated from a famous English family steeped in history — hence his great interest in historical matters, in which he was a specialist, and really had good knowledge of this subject generally. Only trouble was that his A.P. Robin Hood stories were marred here and there by a kind of heavy-handed whimsicality he couldn't somehow bear to forgo. Armour's character was Dr. Ferraro — certainly not all that popular, like so many of the others. I don't know the circumstances of how he took over Gunga Dass from H. Gregory Hill (probably when Hill died in 1932). At that time I had far more important things on my mind — the change of Union Jack to Detective Weekly.

In Twy’s view, easily his two best writers were Gwyn Evans and G. H. Teed. He thought so much of their popularity with readers that he was quite prepared to put up with their inconsistency of writing, as well as at times somewhat slapdash ways. Indeed, it could be said that Teed was regarded as his star author; so much so that when he was in difficulties with the French authorities, which may have meant his Union Jack readers being deprived of his services for a while, Twy went over to Paris to get his release.

In character, Gwyn Evans and G. H. Teed were opposites. Gwyn was a tall beanpole type of Welshman with a boyish face. Happy-go-lucky and carefree — this could be seen in his Sexton Blake stories which were light and humorous in tone. When in funds, he gave lavish parties to his host of friends, not caring for the morrow. When he died in 1938, aged only 39, a collection at Amalgamated Press produced such a small amount that the collector had to make up the amount for a wreath. Such is the fickleness of human nature — many had been his best friends when he was in funds.

George Hamilton Teed was a Canadian with a loud rasping voice that could be heard over the din of loud conversation at any public house. Hard-bitten and tough, he could have easily been type-cast as a 'heavy' in any film. He had travelled the world, been a sheep farmer, even served as bar-man chucker-out at a honky-tonk. His knowledge he put to good use to give real colour to his stories, whilst his writing was first-class and on a higher tone than most other writers. He died on Christmas Eve in 1939, aged 61, at Whitechapel, London. It must be said that Teed was far more careful than Evans with his scripts, and Twy’s anxiety about him was more to do with his periodic long disappearances from the writing scene.

Returning to Gwyn Evans, Twy remarked:

I would never seek to discount the story-telling ability of Gwyn Evans — in fact just the contrary, for it was because I estimated has work so highly that I bought has stories so often. The stimulating gusto of Evans was not lost on me but it is a fact — and an unrecognised fact — that his manuscripts meant for me a lot of corrective work — unfairly left for me to do. He was incredibly slapdash and irresponsible in these matters. Also, I was sometimes disappointed that the story hadn't turned out as brilliantly as it seemed in the first place. I say 'first place' because nobody will ever know, and I myself have forgotten, all the hours I have sat with him in pubs and places hammering out the details of an idea that I had given him for a story or series. The 'Onion Men' and 'Mr Mist' were two that come to mind — there must have been many more — including some of the highly esteemed Christmas stories. And, apart from initiating and polishing the story itself, there was the presentation of it in the paper, with all sorts of little ideas and garnishings that seem to all add up to the Golden Age of the Union Jack.

I was much amused to see that Maurice Bond in the first volume of the Collectors Digest praises and picks out a paragraph of Gwyn Evans which was my very own. He quotes a passage which is in my own typical if inferior style — and this, maybe, also indicates my opinion on those who claim to be able to identify an author’s style by just reading through a few paragraphs.

© W. O. G. Lofts