Billy Bunter versus the Suffragettes

wild women

This November I’ll be giving a talk on the wartime Magnet comics to the Being Young in World War One conference in Manchester. I’ll be arguing that the comics had a nuanced approach to the war, remaining firmly patriotic while suggesting that the demands of war should not make people forget the civilised decencies of peacetime.

The problem with this argument is that on some subjects the Magnet was not very nuanced at all.

I’ve just been reading a copy from earlier in 1914, in which Frank Richards gives his version of the Suffragettes.

In Wild Women at Greyfriars, a group of women (representatives of the Franchise and Explosive Society) come to the town near the school, to disrupt the market day and hold a meeting. Their leader is Miss Boxer.

Miss Boxer was resolute. It needed only one glance at her square jaw to see how resolute she was. It was a bold man indeed who would have ventured to oppose Miss Boxer in anything. Perhaps that was why she was still Miss Boxer.

When the townsfolk attack the women who are disrupting their market day, the gallant boys of Greyfriars wade in to rescue them; essential to the Greyfriars code id the chivalrous idea that women should always be protected.

Despite this, the women use explosives in an attempt to blow up an ancient ruined tower on the Greyfriars site.

Probably the intention was to blow the ancient structure to ruins. But fortunately, as is usually the case with bombs placed by feminine hands, the result had not worked out according to the intentions. Damage had been done, but the greater part of the old building was still intact.

The Headmaster’s reaction is interesting:

The curious thing was that the headmaster, whose daughter belonged to one of the milder suffrage societies, was in favour of the franchise for women, and had been so for many years, but since the explosion in the tower, his views on the subject were modifying. The peculiar policy of the militant Suffragettes, attacking friends as well as foes, had its natural effect.[….] It was hardly possible to be calm and rational when dangerous explosives were used instead of arguments.

Many farcical complications ensue, including some of the remove boys using the resources of the amateur theatricals costume box and disguising themselves as suffragettes to attack an unpopular prefect (one of the boys goes by the name of Mrs Bunkhurst). In another twist on the suffragette theme, his classmates punish Billy Bunter for stealing all their food (so much of it that even he is filled up to the point of indigestion) by forcible feeding.

Throughout the story, there is clearly a strong anxiety about the muddling of gender roles. It is implied that there should be a clear distinction, and that men have an absolute duty to treat women chivalrously. (Even the nastier Greyfriars characters, like Horace Coker, instinctively know this.) When women begin behaving in violent (and therefore male) ways, men are unable to prevent them, because their code forbids using violence on women. Several male characters express their frustration and incomprehension at this situation.

When the boys of Greyfriars finally get their revenge, it is through the agency of Billy Bunter, least manly of the Greyfriars boys. He has one talent – ventriloquism – and at a suffrage meeting throws his voice to chaotic effect, so that all the suffrage leaders think the others are insulting them, and the women start fighting among themselves.

Male honour is thus satisfied. The manly young chaps have not betrayed their code; words and not blows have been used, and the effect of the words has been to expose the previously hidden antagonisms within the Suffrage organisation.

The story is undeniably sexist – and gruesomely racist too in its depiction of Wan Lung, the Chinese student (‘Me velly bad boy – tellee whoppee! No tellee truth like English boy. Allee samee in China.’). It is also daftly unrealistic in its use of the convention of the impenetrability of disguise, and in much else, too.

If one treats it as a document of its time, though, it is interesting. The headmaster is put in the position of the Liberal government – not utterly opposed to women getting the vote, but very unwilling to cave in to the threat of violence. The suggestion that the suffragettes did themselves a disservice by using violent means is not a stupid one. Many supporters dissociated themselves from the WSPU because of Mrs Pankhurst’s extremist tactics.

Doubtless the story encouraged the Magnet’s teenage boy readers in complacent mockery of the suffragettes. In its defence, there are other things happening in the story, which is cleverly constructed around a variety of instances where a wrong has been done, and people seek redress. The prefect abuses his authority, Billy Bunter steals food from his classmates, The suffragettes attack property. Society denies women the vote.

As usual, Richards’ characters model various styles of behaviour in redressing the wrongs, and he nudges readers towards a code which is decent and honourable.

And anyway, I enjoyed the story. You can read it online at the excellent Friardale site. The pdf of this issue of the magnet is at:

Maybe I should now go and get the other side of the story from the new Suffragette film.


  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted October 4, 2015 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Thank you, George. That’s an excellent way to start Sunday morning – as usual, full of interest and thoughtful provocation.

    I was reminded of something ES Turner quotes in Boys Will Be Boys about Sexton Blake, although he doesn’t give a date for the citation:

    ‘…Sexton Blake’s … attitude to the question of votes for women was clear cut. At one stage Mrs. Bardwell joined the Women’s League of Freedom and said, in reply to a query about some insignia she was wearing:

    “This lurid thing, sir, as you ‘ave called it, is a mark of honourable extinction and in no wise deserving of the finger of scorn. I wouldn’t part with it for orders or jewelled garters or for the company of the Bath nor any other boasted insignitaries of ‘igh degree. It is a toking of the fact that I have joined the Women’s League of Freedom. Sir, I am proud to state that I ‘ave become an ‘umble decipher of the great Mrs. Spankhard …”…’

    The name seems to have stimulated bad puns.

  2. Posted October 4, 2015 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Charles Hamilton (“Frank Richards” was one of his innumerable pen-names, as I’m sure you know) was a strange mixture. As you rightly say, he affirmed a powerful and consistent code of (male) behaviour rooted in an idiosyncratic mixture of nineteenth-century notions: patriotism, chivalry, racism, sexism . . . His use of disguises through which no one ever sees is, as you say, one of the odder features of his story-telling. I seem to recall that, in his famous response to George Orwell’s attack on the school stories in Horizon, he defended himself from the charge that he depicted foreigners as funny (“froggies and dagoes”, as Orwell wrote) on the grounds that foreigners WERE funny! He wrote about the U.S.A. as if the eastern seaboard were rooted in 1910 and the west of the country in 1870. He wrote about the South Seas as if time had stood still around 1880. He seemed to have a particular prejudice against the Dutch: his Dutch characters are usually evil and sadistic, while his German ones are usually comic figures. I distinctly remember an Italian character quailing before an Englishman in a story published in 1932 because the Italian was a man of “the weaker race”. Dark-skinned people, of whatever race, were always “niggers”. (Even a sympathetic character like Smithy – the one with whom every schoolboy reader would identify – would refer to Hurree Singh in a moment of anger as a “dashed, cheeky nigger”.) He recycled the Raffles theme countless times: “cracksmen” figure prominently in any list of the most famous series published in The Magnet. He was quite incompetent on the subject of women: his main heroine, Marjorie Hazeldene, is a ludicrous caricature of perfected English girlhood. His politics, needless to say, were of a simplistic and sentimentalised Burkian Tory variety. But, having said all that, he possessed an undeniable “X-factor”: the best of his stories, where he deals with the relationships between schoolboys and between schoolmasters, can still be read with enjoyment – and Bunter himself is a magnificent character!

    • Tom Deveson
      Posted October 4, 2015 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      An interesting passage from Billy Bunter in Brazil [1949]:

      ‘…“I can do with another jar, ” said Bunter. Having finished one jar, Bunter, it seemed, like Alexander of old, sighed for fresh worlds to conquer. “Tell the nigger to bring some more honey, Mauly. ”
      Lord Mauleverer fixed his eyes on a sticky fat face.
      “I wouldn’t use that word here, Bunter, ” he said, quietly. “ It’s offensive to coloured people. ”
      Bunter blinked at him.
      “ Oh, really, Mauly! Niggers are niggers, I suppose. ”
      “Will you shut up, Bunter? ” asked Bob.
      “No, I won’t! Look here, Mauly, you jolly well tell that nigger to bring some more
      honey, ” said Bunter, irritably.
      The juniors glanced rather uneasily at Tio Jose, who was hovering with a beaming
      black face behind Lord Mauleverer’s chair. He could not have failed to hear Bunter’s impatient squeak, and they hoped that the disagreeable word “nigger” was a new one to him. But it was clear, from Tio Jose’s face, that he was well acquainted with it. The beaming smile was wiped from his black face as if by a duster. Otherwise, he gave no
      sign of having heard.
      Lord Mauleverer drew a deep breath.
      “A fellow’s in a difficult position, ” he remarked. “Bunter’s my guest here, and I can’t kick him. ”
      “Oh, really, Mauly —.”
      “But he isn’t your guest, Bob, ” went on Mauleverer.
      “I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t kick him, if you feel like takin’ the trouble.”
      “Pleased! ” said Bob, heartily….’

      • Posted October 4, 2015 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        That’s fascinating, Tom. It’s decades since I read Billy Bunter in Brazil, and I’d forgotten that passage. Bunter being rude in front of foreigners and then being deservedly chastised by his better-mannered schoolfellows is a standard scene in Hamilton’s overseas adventure stories: it happens in the 1930 China series, in the 1932 Egyptian series. It is very interesting that Hamilton modified his attitude to the word “nigger” over time. Thanks for posting!

    • Tom Deveson
      Posted October 4, 2015 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      I posted extracts here from a Magnet story published during the early stages of the Spanish Civil War. The attitude was surprisingly tolerant of the anti-Franco side, modified by despair about the violence on both side. It was far from being ‘sodden in the worst illusions of 1910’ as Orwell alleged. He was actually in Spain when it appeared….

    • Posted October 20, 2015 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      In point of fact, even from the earliest days of the Magnet and Gem, the epithet “nigger” is never used by any of the sympathetic characters — only by stupid ones such as Bunter, or cads such as Skinner or Bulstrode. And when it does appear, it seldom or never fails to be pointed out, either directly by the author (as in Tom D’s extract) or by other characters’ responses, that it’s inappropriate. For instance (Magnet #312):

      “‘Rotten fuss to make about a nigger!’ sniffed Fisher T. Fish.

      There was a howl at once.

      ‘Bump him!’

      ‘Hyer, I say — I guess — Yaroop! Leggo! Oh, jumping Jehosaphat!’

      Bump, bump, bump!

      Fisher T. Fish tore himself away. and fled.”

      Hamilton’s racism is one of the many fascinating aspects of his writing. It’s easy for modern eyes to fall upon and condemn the broken English of Hurree Jamset Ram Singh without realising what a remarkable thing it was for Hamilton to make him one of the leading characters of his series, and in every way the equal of the others in the Famous Five. And then there’s the 1928 series where a mixed-race boy joins Greyfriars, often thought of one of the Magnet’s best series; Hamilton doesn’t exactly tackle racial issues head-on in it, but neither does he ignore them, and he makes it plain that the decency or otherwise of anybody is nothing to do with their skin. Which, considering the age range he was writing for, is praiseworthy.

      One more quote, from Richards’ autobiography:

      “…But Frank’s object in making the dusky nabob a member of the ‘Famous Five’ was not only to introduce an entertaining character. There was a pill in the jam. Frank did not forget that his young readers were growing up citizens of a great Commonwealth, which included many dusky millions. By making an Indian boy a comrade on equal terms with English schoolboys, Frank felt that he was contributing his mite towards the unity of the Commonwealth, and helping to rid the youthful mind of colour prejudice. And he has reason to believe that he did some good in this direction.”

      I won’t attempt to defend the racism of Wun Lung’s depiction, though — other than to point out that almost every character in the Magnet and Gem who doesn’t hail from the Home Counties is given an equally implausible accent to match, be they American (see Fish, above!), Irish, French or Greek.

      • Posted October 21, 2015 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

        There is a parallel to the presentation of Hurree Jamset Ram Singh in the introduction of a Jewish character, Montague Newland in a 1912 story (‘The Schoolboy Outcast’).
        When it is rumoured that a ‘Sheeny’ is coming to Greyfriars, there is great consternation, and nobody wants to share a study with him. Even Harry Wharton, who argues that he should be treated fairly, is not keen on his race, telling Quelch: ‘I can’t say I’m particularly fond of Jews, but it is all rot to be up against a chap because he is of a different race. I know that, Sir.’
        Newland proves himself against the bigots by being stunningly superior to others. He beats the massive Bolsover in a fight; he is brilliant on the football field; and he saves the Head from bankruptcy and ruin. This is enough to get him accepted despite his origins. (One maybe has the feeling that anything less would not have been.)
        He is contrasted in the story with another Jew, Levinski, every inch the Jewish stereotype. He is the moneylender who has the Head in his clutches. Newlands undoes the harm that the evil Jew does, but readers might have been left wondering which of the two was supposed to be more typical of Jewry.

        After this introduction, Hamilton found very little to do with Newlands, who only occasionally pops up in stories. Maybe such a paragon was not easy to fit into the usual plots.
        Hurree, on the other hand, is much more useful to Hamilton and the other Magnet writers. His extraordinary manner of speech made him a favourite with readers, and he took on the role of supplying common sense to the Famous Five.
        Newlands is purely a fantasy figure – the exemplary Jew, and not very human – whereas Hurree probably had a real-life model in the very popular Indian cricketer Ranjitsinhji, an Indian prince (universally known as Ranji). Hurree inherits his cricketing ability as well as his popularity and sense of style.
        In the ‘Greyfriars Gallery’ about Newlands, the writer (Pentelow?) says that the magazine often receives letters from Jewish readers: ‘They want Jews to be made more prominent in the stories to show that Jews can be fine fellows.’
        He answers: ‘Who can doubt it? Why should it need showing? And what is the matter with the Jews who figure in the Greyfriars and St Jim’s stories?’
        In other words, the magazine, like the sort of public school it depicted, was running a quota policy; Jews were admitted, but not in such large numbers that they would be noticed.

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