Invisible Ink: No 134 - Charles Hamilton

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The Independent Culture

He was the most prolific author in history, but hardly any of his books can now be found – why have you never heard of him? Owen Conquest, Martin Clifford, Ralph Redway, Winston Cardew and Peter Todd were authors with something in common; they were alter-egos of the writer Charles Hamilton, born into a large family in 1876.

Tales of schooldays and derring-do filled the pages of two Edwardian story papers, The Gem and The Magnet, and Hamilton excelled at them. For 30 years, he churned out several thousand adventures about cowboys, firemen, coppers and crooks. It was estimated that Hamilton wrote 100 million words (that's the equivalent of 1,200 average length novels). He used a great many pen-names, and in the process of writing schoolboy excitements, had to create more than 100 schools in which all his heroes could study. We know there were definitely more than 5,000 short stories, and although they were extremely popular with the young at heart, Hamilton was critically ignored.

The Gem and The Magnet had a tried fiction formula and stuck to it; fair play, decency, teamwork, respect and discipline bonded groups of like-minded chums whose vicariously thrilling exploits never included smoking and gambling, unlike their creator's own fondness for the tables at Monte Carlo. Public school settings meant that adults could be dispensed with (aside from the presence of the odd teacher), allowing for readers' wish-fulfilling fantasies. But the papers became outdated. Readership declined and paper shortages led to their demise. What was Hamilton to do?

In 1946, he claimed back one of his most popular characters from Amalgamated Press, who had kept all the rights to his stories, and began a series of hardback books under the name Frank Richards. His hero was the "Fat Owl of the Remove", Billy Bunter of Greyfriars school.

The books were a smashing success, and seven TV series followed starring Gerald Campion, all written by Hamilton. There were theatrical versions and strip cartoons, parodies and catchphrases ("Yarooh!" was "Hooray!" spelled backwards). Bunter, the obese short-sighted anti-hero, was supposed to weigh 14 stone, which in the post-war years was considered vastly overweight. His slapstick exploits often ended with a caning. Librarians came to regard him as politically incorrect, and for a brief spell he was banned from shelves. Others likened Hamilton's jaunty, fluid style to P G Wodehouse. Once a household name, Bunter has utterly vanished from bookshelves.