Being Young During World War One


A conference on the subject of growing up during the Great War will be held at Manchester Metropolitan University on November 6th to 7th this year.
I’m very happy about this because I got the email yesterday to say that they are going to let me give my paper on the Magnet comics during the war.
This is a talk I’ve wanted to give for a long while. I’ll argue that while some other boys’ papers gave unthinking support to the war effort, and encouraged readers to indulge their prejudices and wallow in the ‘pleasure culture of war’, the Magnet behaved much more like the more thoughtful kinds of adult fiction, weighing the demands of war against the civilised conventions established in peacetime.
I’ve got the paper pretty well worked out already, but shall definitely be spending quite a bit of time over the next four months further exploring the careers of Harry Wharton, Coker of the Fifth, Vernon-Smith the Bounder, and of course Huree Ramset Jam Singh, the dusky nabob of Bhanipur…

The conference website is at


  1. Posted July 2, 2015 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Hi George,
    I don’t have my references to hand, but wasn’t the editor of The Magnet in those days a man named Hinton, and didn’t he make play in his editorial columns of receiving white feathers in the mail? And didn’t he perish somewhat mysteriously in the London tube?
    Kindest regards,

  2. Posted July 2, 2015 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Hinton joined the Coldstream Guards in 1916, and after the War came back to Amalgamated Press, but not, I think, to the Magnet. I don’t know about his death. That’s one to research.

    • Bill
      Posted July 3, 2015 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      Hinton fell from a train at Weybridge during the blackout on New Year’s Day 1945 (according to Bill Lofts). He was editor of “Dalton’s Weekly”.

  3. Tom Deveson
    Posted July 2, 2015 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    In 1939, Orwell wrote about *The Magnet* in *Boys’ Weeklies*: “As for class-friction, trade unionism, strikes, slumps, unemployment, Fascism and civil war — not a mention.”

    Well, he arrived in Barcelona on or about December 26th 1936, so he probably didn’t get to read *The Magnet* of that date.

    For a variety of reasons, Billy Bunter and the Famous Five are spending the Christmas holiday cruising on a yacht belonging to the uncle of a fifth-former (not a regular member of the cast) called Valentine Compton. The uncle is a dodgy and unsympathetic character, and he’s been making the yacht linger in the Bay of Biscay.

    Bob Cherry says they may get “a squint at Spain.” Bunter’s reaction is one of alarm. “I say you fellows, we don’t want to get too near Spain. The silly idiots are shooting one another all over the shop there.”

    Then, realising they’re a safe distance from the shore, his courage returns. “Seems rather a pity not to see something of the Spanish civil war now we’re on the spot — still, you fellows would hardly care for it, I dare say…But it’s all right! You’re far enough off from the Reds, and the rebels, and the rest of them. They can’t hurt you here.”

    But then Captain Compton makes contact with a Spanish lugger, and Bunter again gets panicky. “I-I say, you fellows, d-d-do you think they’re Spanish Reds? Or-or Spanish rebels? I-I don’t know t’other from which, but they’re all a lot of murderous beasts!”

    Bob Cherry pretends that one of the men in the lugger “looks like General Franco” and Bunter vanishes. ” ‘Ha ha, ha!’ yelled the juniors. The idea of General Franco, the leader of the Spanish military revolution, standing at the tiller of a dingy coasting craft, made them yell.”

    While Captain Compton trades what are obviously guns with the men on the lugger, the schoolboys are ordered below. The steward suggests they listen to Seville radio. ” ‘Jolly good idea!’ said Bob Cherry. ‘Might get Madrid, too, and hear about the wonderful victories on both sides. Shove it on, Rawlings!’ ”

    The narrator comments that Harry Wharton “was aware that a civil war was raging in Spain, and both sides eager for supplies of munitions to carry on their murderous folly”, but Wharton can’t guess for whom Captain Compton is doing the gun-running. However, later that day they’re pursued and fired on by a cruiser. “He could not be sure, but he fancied that the cruiser was a Government craft, and that the cases of munitions had been handed to rebels on the lugger.”

    Despite the yacht’s carrying the British flag, it’s fired on several times again. And then on the next page come the small ads for stamps, height increase and the prevention of blushing to which Orwell also referred.

    The politics of these chapters are intriguing. There’s the authorial comment on murderous folly on both sides; there’s the irony about radio propaganda claiming victory on both sides; there’s the fact Captain Compton is, within the larger story, almost entirely a villain and is seen as selling arms to Franco; and there’s the false assurance that “they dare not fire on the British ensign” in an episode where a Spanish Government vessel does just that.

    *The Magnet* for January 2 1937 continues the story of the cruise. As they sail away from Spain, “the juniors were looking in the direction of that fair but unhappy land, where the embers of civil war still smouldered.”

    They pick up a castaway called Senor Don Guzman Diaz. Compton, the Fifth Former, tells the Famous Five about him. “He belongs to Madrid, and got away from the city when General Franco attacked it with the rebel army.
    He sailed from Cartagena in a coasting brig. The brig was bombed by a plane — whether Red or Rebel he doesn’t know. It went down, and he thinks he was the only survivor. He had been hanging on that spar for more than twenty-four hours when we picked him up. Just a little episode of the Spanish civil war.”

    Harry Wharton asks, “Has he told you which side he was on in the scrap?”

    Compton replies. “Neither side, according to his own account…Most people in Spain, of course, are on neither side, and would be glad to see both mobs of scrapping swashbucklers kicked out of the country. From what Mr. Diaz says, all he wanted was to keep clear, and he’s glad to find himself under the British ensign…In a foreign country he will be safe from both gangs.”

    Johnny Bull says, “Well, those scrappers in Spain are a lawless lot of rotters on both sides..But bombing a coasting brig is rather thick!”

    They go on to discuss the bombing and who might have done it.

    Later on, the smugglers who are secretly running the cruise ship discuss robbing Senor Diaz of his well-stuffed wallet and putting him ashore on Majorca. “I suppose he knew what he was risking when he took a hand in a civil war!…I don’t know which side has the upper hand in the Spanish islands at the moment — he can take his chance of that! A man who doesn’t want to take chances has only to stick to honest work, and leave revolutions alone!”

    The schoolboys are still “sympathetic enough towards a man who had been through so fearful an adventure, though in more than one mind there was a lingering doubt whether he had given an exactly veracious account of that adventure.

    It was possible, of course, that his account was true, and that he was, as he had stated, a non-combatant who had been only anxious to get out of a country torn by internal strife. But as the vessel he had sailed in had been bombed at sea, it was much more probable that that vessel had belonged to one of the contending factions.”

    The man tells them a bit more. “Don Guzman gave the Greyfriars fellows a description of the air-bombing of Madrid by General Franco’s forces. Evidently he had been through it; though he made no reference to any part he might have played himself in the civil war. But when he spoke of the black African troops employed by the rebel general against his own countrymen, his eyes flashed and his teeth gleamed under his black moustache in a way which sufficiently showed on which side his sympathy lay…But that he belonged to the losing side, and was a fugitive from the victors, the juniors did not doubt.

    They knew too little about Spanish affairs to have any decided opinion about the rights or wrongs of the civil war; in fact, they regarded it as a sort of case of Kilkenny cats! But they rather liked Don Guzman, who seemed a very courteous and agreeable old bean. Certainly they were glad that he had been rescued and was on his way to safety in a foreign country.”

    This is, of course, very naive stuff. But it seems worth mentioning that it doesn’t take the line of ‘Thank God for Franco who is saving Christian civilisation from godless bolshevism.’

    There also seems to be something gentler and more compassionate here than Orwell’s pungent final phrase ‘sodden in the worst illusions of 1910’ would perhaps suggest.

  4. Tom Deveson
    Posted July 2, 2015 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Apologies for the configuration of the above – I was carelessly cutting and pasting from something I wrote back in 2001.

    I would be *very* interested to read your Magnet paper, George.

    • Posted July 2, 2015 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for a very interesting comment. (I’ve sorted the formatting.) I didn’t know about this Spanish adventure.
      Orwell also missed out on the ‘Dictator of Greyfriars’ series, which appeared in the mid-thirties.
      In fact, the stories are full of comments on contemporary life, including politics.
      Orwell’s judgement that the papers were stuck in the mind-set of 1910 might have some justification, though, if he’d been looking at the Magnet’s sister-paper, the Gem. In the thirties the Gem recycled a lot of stories from twenty years before, so the values of 1910 were alive and well there.
      I’ll happily send you a copy of the paper, Tom.

      • Posted July 2, 2015 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

        Hi George and Tom,
        I used to be a full bottle on all this stuff, but that was many years ago, and memory fades! Orwell’s article on the Boys’ Weeklies appeared in Horizon, I think, and he was clearly unaware that the writer of the Greyfriars stories in The Magnet and the St. Jim’s stories in The Gem (and the Rookwood stories in The Popular, etc., etc.) was the same man: Charles Hamilton, who used a vast array of pseudonyms, “Frank Richards”, of course, being the most famous of them. Hamilton wrote a reply to Orwell that was also published. As George says, the tyrannical temporary headmaster and the heroic resistance to him by the boys is a recurring Hamilton story-line. Interestingly, his worst foreign villains were usually Dutch, not German. Germans, like Frenchmen and Italians, are usually figures of fun in Hamilton’s stories.

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