The Men Behind Girls’ Fiction
ONE page on the Collecting Books and Magazines web site based in Australia.

(c) Steve Holland, 2001

Writing for the Collector’s Digest some years before he died, Bill Lofts took a brief look at the subject of why so many men had written for girls’ papers. "Life was certainly full of surprises in the early days of the hobby," he wrote, "I discovered that practically all the well-known writers for girls’ papers were men." Coming to the hobby thirty years after Bill had started his research, to me it didn’t seem such a surprise… simply because the research by Bill, Derek Adley and others had already elucidated so many of the names, and because I was approaching the girls’ papers from a distinctly different angle.

To put it briefly, my main interest back in the early 1980s was paperbacks, specifically the British paperback boom of the post-war decade which had turned Hank Janson into a multi-million seller and was fuelled by a paper shortage that had crippled the British publishing industry since the early months of 1940 when Scandinavia was over-run by German troops and the main supply of wood pulp to the British printing presses was cut off. The War Economy Standard was drawn up (you can often see the seal and a note about books conforming to the guidelines set down in titles published during the war) and the paper supply rationed. Children’s comics and story papers were decimated, and even the two biggest publishers had to switch their schedules, cancelling the lowest sellers and producing many other titles fortnightly instead of weekly.

This left a number of authors out of a job, especially after V.E. Day when demobbed writers started to drift back to their old employment only to find that magazines and publishers had gone out of business. To earn a living, writers turned their attention to the cheap paperback market, turning out yarns for anyone who would publish them. Three of the most prolific writers were Charles Hamilton, Richard Goyne and Ernest McKeag. Of these, Hamilton should need no introduction: after the Magnet folded, he had struggled to find a steady market until the post-war paperback boom gave him more than enough to tide him over until he found renewed success in hardcovers.

But Goyne and McKeag were different kettles of fish. With no famous characters to fall back on, they turned to writing whatever the publishers demanded. Back in the 1920s, both had been successful writers of risqué romances under the names Paul Renin and Roland Vane respectively, and were able to revive their fortunes turning out more of the same; McKeag also had a sideline of writing gangster novels and launched the pen-name "Griff", until eventually he was able to find employment back at the Amalgamated Press on the girls’ papers where he had previously worked in the 1930s.

This was the intersection where Bill’s research and mine met; but where Bill found it surprising, to me the connection between male writers and girls’ stories was already made: both Goyne and McKeag had produced hundreds of yarns for girls’ papers. Goyne, in fact, was the most prolific writer for the Girls’ Own Library, writing the equivalent of two full-length novels (60,000 words apiece) each month, earning a fortune and spending it as quickly – often in Paris, enjoying the night life in the red light district where he went to research his Paul Renin novels! McKeag had feet in both camps: as a boys’ writer he penned the Colwyn Dane stories in Champion for many years (and also the "Come Into the Office, Boys and Girls" editorial in The Magnet); at the same he was Eileen McKeag, writing for Schoolgirls’ Weekly, School Friend and Schoolgirls’ Own.

Goyne and McKeag were far from unique, and were following a tradition that dated back many years at the Amalgamated Press where perhaps the greatest writer of girls’ stories was Mabel St. John in the Girls’ Friend. Mabel, of course, was Henry St. John Cooper, who wrote dozens of romance novels and boys’ stories, often under the abbreviated name of Henry St. John. Two other extremely popular series, the Cliff House stories by Hilda Richards and the Morcove series starring Betty Barton & Co. by Marjorie Stanton, were also wholly created and written by men; Charles (Frank Richards) Hamilton was creator of the first, although soon handed over the reins to other writers (John W. Wheway, Reginald S. Kirkham and others) and the latter was the creation of Horace Phillips, a former editor of The Scout.

The publication of The Schoolfriend in 1919 cemented the connection between the story papers and male writers. The wartime editorship of the Companion Papers (Magnet, Gem, etc.) had been in the hands of John Nix Pentelow and his young assistant editor Reginald Eves. When the war – the Great War – finished and staff began to return to the Amalgamated Press to resume their jobs, the publishers offered editorships to anyone who could come up with a successful new paper, partly as a reward for loyal service during the difficult years just past, but mostly because the company saw an opportunity to expand into new areas and make even greater profits. During his time on The Magnet, Eves had been highly impressed by the contributions of the papers’ female readership; their letters proved girls were more opinionated and were generally more talkative and open about everything from their likes and dislikes to their pets. It struck Eves that there was a perfect opportunity to launch a title that could tap into this unexplored market (he was probably unaware of the short-lived girls’ paper published by D. C. Thomson some years earlier).

His bosses agreed, but to weigh the odds in the new paper’s favour it was decided to create a female Greyfriars, complete with Billy Bunter’s sister – and who better to write the stories than the creator of Greyfriars himself?

In this case, Eves was wrong. Bessie Bunter did not initially appeal to the girl readers in the way Billy seemed to appeal to boys. Horace Phillips, who had been brought in to follow in Hamilton’s footsteps (he was already writing two very long stories a week and could not be expected to pen a third), was asked to ‘soften’ the character, and Reginald Kirkham came aboard to write some of the stories – "Kirks" being a much more humorous writer than either Hamilton or Phillips. Bessie became a bit of a plump duffer, but no worse, and after a while was quite happily accepted by the readers of School Friend.

Phillips eventually grew tired of Cliff House, and the launch of Schoolgirls’ Own in 1921 gave him the opportunity to create his own school and cast of characters; Morcove School proved to be an even more immediate success, and Phillips steered the careers of Betty Barton & Co. for almost sixteen years.

The rest, as they say, is history, although history has failed to answer probably the most important question of why men were the behind the girls’ names on the schoolgirl papers. After all, most of the successful schoolgirl novelists were women. A couple of theories can be floated, although I suspect there are arguments for and against any of them.

The first is the simplest: the girls’ papers grew out of the boys’ papers and therefore the editors found it easier to simply ask the writers already known to them to write for girls. This is certainly a compelling argument simply because of what we know of the history of how School Friend came to be launched. Once capable writers were found who could supply copy on deadline and who seemed to be popular with the audience (and the girls’ papers were better sellers than most of the boys’ papers) there was no need to change a winning formula and seek out women writers. Bill Lofts went a step further in stating "Reg Eves chose men to write stories for several reasons, first and foremost after seeing some scripts by would-be female writers he had come to the conclusion that they simply could not write girls’ stories for his market." The implication was that whilst men were forever doomed to be boys at heart whatever their age, the psychology of women – the mothers and teachers of children – would not allow them to write about romps and japes in the same way that men could.

This seems a somewhat simplistic argument and there were many successful women novelists to put the claim to shame. I suspect it could be better argued that editor Reginald Eves could not find any women writers who would conform to the formula laid down in the Companion Papers where Frank Richards and Martin Clifford were the stars and had developed a unique style of writing that Eves wanted his writers to mimic.

A second argument is that Fleetway House and Fleet Street in general were not densely populated by women writers. In some recent correspondence with a woman who worked in Fleet Street in the 1930s, I asked about her contemporaries, and how she was treated on the Street of Ink; her reply was that "looking back I can’t remember having seen any other females there. In fact, the only one of my sex I remember from the Street was Pat Gordon, a crime reporter with the Standard." With so much of the networking between writers and editors occurring in the Punch Tavern, the Falstaff and other pubs around E.C.4, it seems unlikely that Eves or his assistants and subs would have met many, if any, potential writers of the female sex. Women writers on story papers weren’t unknown at that time – Margery Allingham was, for instance, one of the most prolific contributors to Girls’ Cinema – but they were few and far between.

I’m also fairly certain that there was a good deal of "jobs for the boys" going on – in this case quite literally. Most of the writers of the period seemed to exist in a permanent state of semi-inebriation and rarely had any money. For this reason, getting to know your editor was doubly important, not only to pick up commissions, but to get the cheque pushed through on a ‘special’ – paid on delivery on Friday in time for the weekend celebrations beginning Friday night. Any editor pushing through a number of specials would certainly be well looked after that evening.

As you will gather from the above, the why men wrote so much girls’ fiction is probably answered by the circumstances of story paper publishing rather than anything deeper.

The who question – who were the Men Behind Girls’ Fiction? – is another article entirely. The fact is, so few of the girls’ papers have been indexed (Girls’ Own Paper being the exception) that who knows what gems lurk in the pages of School Friend, or Schoolgirls’ Own, or Ruby, or Girls’ Crystal, or any one of a few dozen other papers and annuals. A breakdown of just one annual shows that the bulk of the contents were written by men: the annual was Girls’ Crystal 1944 and the known authors were John W. Wheway (writing as Hazel Armitage, Anne Gilmore and Audrey Nicholls), G. Cecil Gravely (as Daphne Grayson) and his wife Doris Gravely (as Doris Graham), C. Eaton Fearn (as Gail Western and Sylvia Macrae), John E. McKibbin (as Elise Probyn), Ronald Fleming (as Renee Frazer and Peter Langley, a rare use of a male pen-name in girls' fiction) and Reginald S. Kirkham (as Hilary Marlowe). Later annuals added R. G. Thomas, Eric L. Rosman and others – all under female pen-names – to the line-up.

Perhaps one day the definitive index to The Men (and occasional Women) Behind Girls’ Fiction can be compiled in the same way Bill Lofts and Derek Adley compiled The Men Behind Boys’ Fiction. In the meantime, hopefully this brief foray into the world of schoolgirls and their male creators will at least offer a few arguments to the why’s and werefore’s even if it’s a bit thin on the who’s.

(c) Steve Holland, 2001


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