Charles Dickens wasn’t the only Portsmouth-born writer to become a superstar, but while Charles was fiddling about with rewrites and plot structures, Percy Westerman was hammering out adventures at an unbelievable rate of knots.
He is, I think, the single most prolific author I’ve featured here, with only Edgar Wallace to pace him. He was born in 1876, and settled down to a contented life as a clerk in Portsmouth Dockyard, marrying at 24 and siring a son a year later. The young family spent much of their time on water, and according to legend Percy began his writing career as the result of a sixpenny bet with his wife, after reading a story to his chickenpox-ridden boy and vowing that he could produce something better.
This was around the time of the scouting movement’s birth, and Westerman’s passions perfectly matched the somewhat nacktkultur-ish mood of the nation. His debut illustrated novel, A Lad of Grit, pretty much says it all, and was the first of around 175 books, the last being written in 1959, the year of his death.
A great many of his children’s novels involved submarines, sea scouts, despatch riders, empire builders, battle planes, tanks, buccaneers, secret islands, wirelesses and yet more sea scouts, but there were other titles that we would now greet with knowing sniggers, including The Fritz-Strafers, Deeds of Pluck and Daring in the Great War, The Riddle of the Air, The Terror of the Seas, The Rivals of the Reef and Standish Pulls It Off.
Westerman was so successful that he was able to give up his Admiralty job and write full-time on a houseboat in Dorset. During the First World War he was commissioned as a navigation instructor for the Royal Navy, and in the Second World War he joined the Dorset Home Guard.
I must admit to tackling only one of his books (King of Kilba) and yes, it is fairly dreadful, although there’s a spiffing bit with natives on stilts and a marauding 8ft crab.
Percy wrote wizard yarns for English chums, and looked down on the poor uneducated fools who were stupid enough to be born in inferior lands, but such were the times, especially between the wars, when he was voted the most popular boys’ author in Britain. Now beloved by collectors (particularly for some wonderfully camp covers), the Westerman books can still sometimes be found at jumble sales, especially in coastal towns.