Obituary: Leonard Matthews
Friday 05 December 1997
Halfway through 1962, a weekly news magazine in London appeared with its front page fully devoted to a cartoon. It showed the figure of a man in Napoleonic garb flagged "Napoleon of the Comics". This was Leonard Matthews, the newly created director of Fleetway Publications. A long- standing member of the staff, Matthews had become director in overall editorial command of such weeklies as, Buster, Film Fun, Girls' Crystal, Jack and Jill, Lion, Look and Learn, Playhour, Princess, Tiger and Valiant.
Previously he had worked for an Italian firm which made carpets, and later joined the London department store Whiteley's, where he ran the Whiteley's Dance Band.
The Amalgamated Press had advertised for an editorial assistant, and Matthews, who had a talent for drawing, submitted some of his material. He was fortunate enough to secure an interview with Monty Haydon, a director of the company, who, impressed with his ability, took him on.
The Second World War took him into the RAF, but he also worked for the RAF at the Air Ministry in Kingsway, where he compiled air-training manuals. Fleetway House was not too far away, so he kept his hand in by doing editorial tasks there. He volunteered to fire-watch on the building, and one occasion fire-bombs fell when he and his colleague George Allen (a lifelong friend whom he had first met at Whiteley's) were on watch. They scooped up the bombs and shovelled them over the side. Next morning, Fleetway House was intact, but its next-door neighbour was burned to the ground.
Towards the end of the war, Matthews married. Pat, his wife, had some show-business connection, and they appeared in a short film together, but the marriage did not survive. With the end of the war, he resumed his editorial work and in 1957 married Barbara Hayes, an attractive brunette in the nursery papers department.
The Amalgamated Press was taken over by the Mirror Group in 1958, and renamed Fleetway Publications. Matthews began to reorganise his papers, which now included all the boy's titles, the girl's weeklies and the nursery papers. A small man, he was a keen admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte and, like him, not entirely democratically inclined, but his leadership was tempered with a charismatic quality which quashed resentment. Matthews tended to recruit tall men on to his team.
His capacity to enthuse was enormous and infectious, but he made sure that all under his command knew their place. He expected you to agree with him, and indeed, to do his bidding. As one of his editors, I was given a large, airy office right next to his. Once he called me into his office, and told me of a project he was planning. He asked me to take part in a particular mission for its furtherance. I could not, in all conscience, oblige him, and gave him a definite, and, I hope, polite, "no".
His reaction was, I suppose, to be expected. He nodded gently, said he understood my point of view, and I departed. Next day, Colin Thomas, Matthews's "adjutant", dropped in see me. "Oh, a small thing. Leonard wants to make a few changes in the office locations, so we'll have to move you, old man." I then went down to inspect my "new" office. It was a quarter of the size of the old one, overlooked the fire- escape at the back of the building, and had one tiny window. I had been punished.
Changes occurred at Fleetway House. The Hulton publications - Eagle, Girl and Robin - fell within the Matthews orbit, after being taken over by the Mirror Group, which in turn, incorporating Odham's, Newnes and other companies, became IPC, the International Publishing Corporation. Matthews, strong personality as he was, felt eventually that he had no choice but to leave the company. He would shortly have been able to take early retirement, in any case.
He did not, of course, actually retire. Within a month or so, he had set up his own publishing and production company, Martspress, accompanied by a few of his old staff. One of his first moves was to buy up some old titles, among them Men Only, a mildly saucy pocket-sized monthly issued by Newnes. Matthews appointed as its editor Tony Power, who had edited children's comics at Fleetway House. Men Only had been slowly fading, and its demise seemed imminent. Power, out for an evening, met Paul Raymond, who ran night-clubs. The outcome was that Matthews sold the title to Raymond, who turned Men Only, still with Power as editor, into a hugely successful publication.
Matthews devoted his attention to juvenile publishing, this time as a packager, producing a complete magazine or book for any publisher who required it. First among such publications was Once Upon a Time, issued by City Magazines.
With the passage of time, Matthews's operations lessened. His company continued production, mostly with books for children, with the able assistance of Elizabeth Flower, his former secretary at Fleetway House.
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