The Magnet in Wartime

Most commentary on First World War boys’ literature has concentrated on stories about the war itself, on the gung-ho chronicles of heroic and very male battle exploits that are typical of what has been called the ‘pleasure culture of war.’

But stories of the battlefield are not the only way to write about the war; indeed, a critic in the Westminster Gazette in 1916 suggested that ‘the better examples of war fiction’ would not include depictions of battle:

They do not give realistic and yet artful description of actual battle — that is journalism; and when it is glazed with a surface of fiction it is very hard to read. The real war novel tells us how non-combatants behave under this particular strain, and shows us the humour, the goodness, the heroism and the treachery of daily life.

That is quite a good description of the better adult novels of the war years, of Arnold Bennett’s The Pretty Lady, of E.M. Delafield’s The War Workers, of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Little England. These are novels that show the effect of war on British life and the disparity between traditional social values and the demands of total war. Typically, they are not expressions of opposition to the war, but they do show how some people are using the war to their own ends and purposes.

Is there an equivalent to this in children’s literature? Yes. Angela Brazil’s novel A Patriotic Schoolgirl, for example, which gently shows how the heroine’s intense patriotism blinds her to other aspects of life.

But what about boys’ fiction? Well, there was certainly a lot of gung-ho patriotism about, in both books and magazines, but I want to suggest that that was not all there was. I’ve been looking at the weekly boys’ paper The Magnet, and its stories of the students of the fictional public school, Greyfriars. I shall be suggesting that its portrayal of the war was fairly complex and sometimes surprisingly subversive.

The Magnet was one of the many papers published from Fleetway House, the home of Lord Northcliffe’s Amalgamated Press. Born in 1908, it was a weekly paper that each week carried a long school story, plus a shorter episode of an adventure serial. The school stories were each about 20,000 words long, twenty or more pages of small print in double columns. Readers must have been strongly motivated to get through these stories. With the wartime paper shortage the print became smaller, and the text was in three columns.

Who read the paper? Here is a page of photographs sent in by readers in 1916:

Ages seem to range from about ten to about eighteen. There’s a prep-school boy in his boater. There are boys in cloth caps and one in a Jewish yarmulke. There are two readers from South Africa and three from the Sea Scouts. Most readers were schoolboys themselves, or boys who had left school at twelve to become office boys or apprenticeships. The readership extended more widely than this, though. A few weeks after that picture gallery, they printed this one, of girl readers. Maybe the girls had protested at being left out.

During wartime the paper often prints letters from serving soldiers, sometimes asking girl readers to be pen friends. and many issues contain this notice explaining how to obtain the paper while serving in France.

The Greyfriars school stories all appeared under the name of ‘Frank Richards’, and most of them were written by an extraordinary man called Charles Hamilton, who also, under the name of Martin Clifford, wrote the long weekly story about St Jim’s school in the Gem, and plenty of stories elsewhere. Wikipedia lists twenty-five pseudonyms that he wrote under. It has been estimated that he wrote over a million words every year.

The magazines were sold at pocket-money prices – a halfpenny in 1908, then a penny and rising in price again during the war. The stories are set in a boarding-school of the type that most of Hamilton’s readers could only fantasise about. It’s a school that owes more to classic school stories than to any actual school. It is a closed community with a very varied, all-male set of characters. These range from the ultra-decent Harry Wharton to the sneaky coward Skinner. There is Bolsover the bully and Lord Mauleverer the aristocrat. There is Wingate the upright captain of the school and Vernon-Smith the Bounder of Greyfriars, who drinks, gambles and takes risks in ways that provide some of the best stories. And there is Billy Bunter, fat, greedy, cowardly, lazy, lying, stupid – with his unregulated appetites, a Falstaff among schoolboys, and an absolute stranger to the code of honour that governs the decent schoolboys of the stories. Originally conceived as absurd comic relief, but eventually becoming the most popular of all the Greyfriars characters. After the Magnet stopped publication during the Second World War, Billy Bunter survived to become the star of novels, television series and comic strips.

Some of the attitudes would today be thought questionable. Here’s the cover of the issue in which militant suffragettes come to Greyfriars. It’s a long way from the version of the Suffrage movement approved for young readers today.

But as regards the war, the Magnet’s record is interesting and complex. Most of the stories printed during the four years are not about the war at all. Then there are a few that are gung-ho stories in which gallant youngsters foil Hunnish plots and capture German spies. The paper’s support for the war effort is never in doubt. There are several stories on the pattern that was popular in wartime adult fiction, where the war is shown as solving the problems of peacetime – For example, the father of one student is jailed for fraud and escapes from prison. The war gives him the opportunity to redeem himself by enlisting in the army. So the war has dealt with the problem. Sometimes, though, the Magnet challenges, or at least questions some wartime attitudes and stereotypes.

In one issue it parodies some of the clichés of war writing, by making the ridiculous Billy Bunter try his hand at writing a war story in order to win a competition prize. Bunter’s story is called ‘Through Mud and Blood’, and only two brief tantalizing extracts are given. Here is the story’s beginning:

The shades of night were falling fast, and the silence lay silently on the sleeping camp, while the German guns thundered and roared with a terrific din. Captain Fearless stood in his dugout in Flanders, watching for the vile foe. ‛Aha!’ he muttered, his eyes flashing, his lip curling scornfully, his nostrils dilating, his hands clenching and his breath coming thick and fast. ‛Aha! They come!’

A second extract is presented with Bunter’s original (very original) spelling accurately reproduced:

‛Mercy!’ cride the shrinking Hun, as he fell upon his neeze. ‛Spair my life!’ Captain Fearless razed his gleeming blaid, and the Hun’s head roled in the dust.
‛Ha!’ cride our hearo. ‛Revvenge!’

The Magnet often encouraged youngsters to send in their own pieces of fiction, and my bet is that this parody is a reflection of the sort of writing that readers were offering the magazine. This story of Bunter’s is actually endorsing the war crime of murdering a prisoner. ‘Frank Richards’ would not have done that. The paper wants to express wholehearted sympathy for the war and yet the Greyfriars genre is rooted in the values of fairness and decency. There is a conflict of principles, and some of the more interesting stories are attempts to deal with this cognitive dissonance. In, for example, stories about Germans.

It is very difficult to feel any sort of kindness for a Hun. Day by day the horrible tale of their atrocities grows, until sometimes one feels that not all the years to come can ever wash out the stains of that vile people, who seem scarcely human [….]
Yet not all men with German names must be counted as Huns [….]

There are decent men – good men and loyal – of German birth; and Herr Otto Gans is among them.

Herr Gans is the Greyfriars German master, and the war is a difficult time for him. In one story, Herr Gans is persecuted by the students. He finds a drawing of himself in his desk, showing him as a stereotypical Hun, with a baby on the end of a pitchfork. It was drawn and placed there by Skinner, the rotter of the Remove, and the story goes on rather painstakingly to contrast Herr Gans’s decency with Skinner’s sneakiness. At a time when many papers, for both adults and children, were encouraging prejudice against all Germans, this must count as enlightened.

On the other hand, when, in another story, von Rottenstein, a German Prince, becomes a a Greyfriars student, he behaves with all the arrogance and cruelty one might expect of a German stereotype. Yet when he arrives, the decent form captain Harry Wharton speaks in his favour:

We don’t like Huns, we’re right not to like them, but it’s rather rotten to set on a fellow.[….] We pride ourselves on not being Prussians [….] and fair play’s a jewel. So my advice is, let the poor beast alone.

So the story still manages to make the point that you should judge someone on his behaviour, not his origins.

A similar ambivalence can be seen in a remarkable pair of stories published in 1918.

In ‘A Case of Conscience’, a slightly mysterious new boy arrives at Greyfriars – Dick Hilary. The classmates of the Remove are very surprised when the new boy will not stand up for himself when Bolsover Major, the class bully, picks on him. Harry Wharton and Company decide that he is a “funk” and will have nothing to do with him.

“I am not a funk.”
“Well, you’re acting jolly like one!”
“I suppose it looks like that.”
“It does!” said Wharton drily. And the Captain of the Remove quitted the study, and returned to No. 1, puzzled and repelled.

Those lowest in the class pecking order – the reprobates Skinner, Stott and Snoop – decide that they can bully Hilary with impunity (Skinner delivers a white feather to Hilary’s study.) The cover picture shows even Billy Bunter brave enough to fight someone who won’t fight back. (“Billy Bunter was a great fighting man if the other party was afraid.”)

It is gradually revealed that Hilary’s father is a Conscientious Objector, currently in a prison farm on Dartmoor, and that Hilary is trying to live up to his father’s principles. Harry Wharton and his friends disapprove of conchies, but realise that there is something admirable about sticking up for your beliefs, and for your father. The less elevated members of the class, however, use the revelation as a new justification for bullying. Throughout the episode, Hilary is presented as misguided but dignified and sincere; his problem is that Greyfriars is not only solidly behind the war effort, but is a place where conflicts are usually settled by physical means. “He doesn’t look like a coward, either,” said Wharton, ruminating. “He may be a bit potty – perhaps brought up among cranky people with queer ideas. [….] If he’s been taught to be a silly prig, he’ll soon get it knocked out of him in the Remove, that’s certain.”

The dissonance between pacifist principles and schoolboy reality finally becomes too much for Hilary. Goaded beyond endurance, he finally stands up to the bully Bolsover, and proves his worth in a long boxing match. Pacifism has therefore been shown to be unworkable, even though it is to a degree admirable.

The story is developed further in the next episode, when Hilary’s father arrives at Greyfriars – in uniform. After much thought he has decided that;

‘If universal peace is to come, it can only come by breaking the power of the war-mongers – the Prussian bullies who would set the world on fire for their own base ends. And – when that was clear to me, Dick, I knew there was only one place for me – in the trenches with the rest.’

The judgement of the story is firmly against pacifism, but it is rare among wartime popular writing in treating conscientious objectors with respect. You should see what the Daily Mail was writing about them at this time.

The Magnet stories often show someone profiting by the war. In some cases the profit is financial, as in ‘The Schoolboy Lawyer’ (July 10th 1915). Good causes have always been a boon to the unscrupulous, and in this story the mercenary American student Fisher T. Fish raises a fund in support of the war, and does not reveal that he is taking a percentage for himself. At a time when Horatio Bottomley and others were making a very good thing out of patriotism, this was a story with a strong topical bite.

The war also gave great scope to the naturally bossy, and the bossiest character in the Greyfriars stories was the self-righteous and very stupid student, Horace Coker of the Fifth Form.

When Coker’s character came to be analysed in the ‘Greyfriars Gallery’ , the author defended him against the charge of being a bully. Coker does not bully others for the sake of causing pain, but he harrasses them when he thinks it is the right thing to do:

He is thick-skinned and bumptious. His vast notion of his own importance leads him astray. But he has no intention of being cruel; when he hurts – and he often hurts! – he does not realise the fact fully.

Since he is naturally self-righteous, the war comes as a boon to Coker. In one story we are told that he ‘[took] the war under his special patronage, as it were.’ In this he is typical of his time. When one reads the literature and journalism of the war years, one comes to realise how eagerly bossy people grabbed its opportunities. Indignant women handed out white feathers to strangers; morality campaigners took it on themselves to police the private lives of nurses and female munition workers; temperance campaigners succeeded in having beer made weaker, and in restricting pub opening hours; nationalistic crowds expressed moral disapproval of shops with German-sounding names.

Coker relishes war’s opportunities for bossiness. In various stories, he appoints himself a special constable, takes it upon himself to round up conscripts, and hunts after suspected German spies, always with a complete lack of sensitivity to the feelings of others, and always with disastrous results. In ‘The Greyfriars Organiser’ (1917), Coker decides it is up to him to organise all the students in the school on work of national importance. ‘Too much time is wasted on cricket and rowing and things…’

Coker tells the meeting:

‘Every fellow is expected to sign up for work of national importance – the said work to be decided on by me.’ Bob Cherry of the Remove answers him:

[T]here are too many organisers going about loose at the present time. The country is suffering from an over-dose of organisers. Every chap with a swelled head has started out to organise somebody or something. The Prussians are the most organised people in the world, and the Prussians are getting licked. [….] It is every Briton’s duty to look out for organisers, and squash ‘em as fast as they rise up. Whenever you see an organiser, sit on him!

The crowd respond to this reminder of traditional British values, and start throwing things at Coker.

Sometimes, but not always, Coker is supported in his efforts by his form-master, Mr Prout, the most pompous of the Greyfriars teachers. Prout’s sense of his own importance is as great as Coker’s. And he is the key character in ‘Called to the Colours’ of June 1916, the most striking Magnet story about the conflict between war enthusiasm and standard British values.

This story is signed ‘Frank Richards’, but it is not by Charles Hamilton, the main author of the Magnet. It is by George Richmond Samways, one of the writers who contributed substitute stories when Hamilton did not met the deadline. To be more accurate, it was written by No 45007 2nd Class Air Mechanic Samways, G. R., of the Royal Flying Corps, and at that time very discontented with the military life.

Samways had been an employee of the Magnet before the war, and since enlisting had already published one story in the magazine expressing negative feelings about militarism. In ‘The Mailed Fist at Greyfriars’, a school governor had decreed that the students should be toughened up by a bullying ex-Army sergeant. The results are counter-productive.

In ‘Called to the Colours’, Mr Prout decides that Greyfriars needs a cadet corps, and that it should be compulsory. Anyone objecting must come before a tribunal, of which he will be the chairman. All those who join willingly are given an armband to wear, and when some boys with armbands start bullying boys not in the group, Mr Prout defends the bullies smugly: ‘If you do not enlist and obtain an armlet, you must expect to be badgered.’

When the tribunal is established, many claim exemption. Some of the claims are absurd, such as Billy Bunter’s complaint that he should not be enrolled because he is feeble through not getting enough to eat. The protests of foreign students like Fisher T. Fish, the American, or Wun Lung, the Chinese student, that they belong to neutral countries.are swept aside as irrelevant. A deaf student is told that his disability is no reason for exemption, though he has to be told in writing because he cannot hear the judgement. Three Fourth formers who declare a conscientious objection to fighting are treated with contempt. Almost the only student granted an exemption is Claude Hoskins, who claims that he cannot afford to spend time on the cadet force because he needs to practice his music. Since Mr Prout is a keen musician, his claim is granted, in a display of utter favouritism.

The question of favouritism was one that rankled personally with Samways. Lord Northcliffe had arranged for some of the young men employed by Amalgamated Press to be granted exemption from conscription. Samways in later life said that he could have taken advantage of this scheme, but did not because he thought it wrong.

This crude but effective satire on the tribunal system has its parallels in pacifist writing, such as Douglas Goldring’s novel, The Fortune, but has few equivalents in mainstream publications. Yet it was published by Northcliffe’s Amalgamated Press. Does this mean that children’s papers were considered to be unimportant, not worth monitoring? Or is it a sign that the culture in general was more varied in its attitudes than is sometimes supposed?

None of this this should not be taken to suggest that the Magnet wavered in its support of the war. But it does show that the magazine was not just an organ of propaganda preaching mindless patriotism. Instead, it seems to be encouraging its readers to be intelligent in their patriotism, and not to automatically follow anyone beating a drum or waving the Union Jack. It encourages awareness that some people are using the war to promote their own agenda or to enhance their own importance. The attitude is like that found in some liberal newspapers – like Arnold Bennett’s articles in the Daily News, for example, in which he attacked the idea that Britain could only fight Prussian militarism by itself becoming like the Prussians.

I would suggest that when we read juvenile literature of the war years, we should not ask ‘Does it support the war?’ – because almost the whole country supported the war. We should ask ‘How does it support the war?’ and discriminate between unthinking patriotism and the intelligent kind.

One Comment

  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted February 5, 2020 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    A fascinating read – thank you!

    ‘…When one reads the literature and journalism of the war years, one comes to realise how eagerly bossy people grabbed its opportunities. Indignant women handed out white feathers to strangers; morality campaigners took it on themselves to police the private lives of nurses and female munition workers; temperance campaigners succeeded in having beer made weaker, and in restricting pub opening hours; nationalistic crowds expressed moral disapproval of shops with German-sounding names….’

    My grandfather was landlord of a pub in Peckham, where there were a good number of Germans employed as waiters and cabinet-makers etc. I was told that early in the war a crowd was behaving in an ugly manner towards some German women and their children. My grandfather [so I’m told] let them into the pub and told them to get safely into the cellar; and then stood in the pub doorway defying the crowd to come and get them.

    I don’t know if it’s true, but I hope it is. My father and his three brothers – I can’t say about the four sisters -knew Magnet and Gem from those days.

    Your examplary article gives me a three -dimensional sense of the boys’ minds of the time.

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