Obituary: George Samways

Click to follow
The Independent Online
For a time during the 1940s and 1950s, G.R. Samways was a much detested man - detested, moreover, by one of the best-loved, most extolled and remarkable writers of this century, Charles Harold St John Hamilton, or to give him his most famous pseudonym (and he had over 20 to choose from) Frank Richards. Hamilton was the man who created quantities of fictional public schools for the juvenile story-papers of the first 30-odd years of this century, including, as Richards, the paradigm of the genre, Greyfriars, whose most (in)famous pupil, Billy Bunter, has become a byword for greed, laziness, venality, and the kind of whoppers that sit up and beg to be found out.

In this chosen sphere, Hamilton was immensely fecund; he was also well- recompensed for his labours. Greyfriars was created in 1908, for the Magnet; for this paper and its companion, the Gem, Hamilton wrote roughly 40,000 words a week, for which he received approaching pounds 40. He wrote for others papers too, and 80,000-word novels. In the period up to the Great War he was thus earning well over pounds 2,000 a year at a time when the average wage was around 30 bob (pounds 1.50) a week.

Hamilton was a great traveller, and an inveterate gambler, who plunged recklessly at the roulette tables of Monte Carlo. He invariably took his typewriter, but copy was not always forthcoming. Other hands had to be called in, often on a Friday night to hammer out a 20,000-word Greyfriars story by Monday morning, to appease an exasperated printer.

George Samways was one of these young men who aped Hamilton's style for half the money and no kudos. They were the substitute writers. Some were good, some bad: but all helped to get the papers out on time, every week, for year after year. Hamilton, in later life, loathed them all.

In 1940 his markets, due to the war and falling circulations, disappeared. He was in his mid-sixties, and had spent intemperately throughout his life. Now he was broke. In an ungenerous moment he blamed the sub-writers for all his ills. When his fortunes revived after the war, he passed on this hatred (by no means too strong a word) of the subs to his fans, none of whom had any experience of working in the madhouse that is a busy editorial office, or of having to put up with authorial egos (often of Brobdingnagian proportions). Astonishingly, Samways rarely had anything but the kindest words for Hamilton.

George Richmond Samways was born in Hampshire in 1895, and educated at King Edward VI School in Witley, Surrey. When he left at 16 he was already writing light verse and limericks, and he began to send poems to the Magnet. In 1914, aged just 19, he was summoned to the editorial offices and told to write a Magnet there and then. This was The Reign of Terror, the first of nearly a hundred Greyfriars stories Samways wrote over the next eight years (he also penned over fifty St Jim's tales as "Martin Clifford").

During the First World War he was in the RFC, stationed in London. This enabled him to keep up a steady flow of copy of all kinds. He continued to write for Gem and Magnet, weekly stories as well as verse, but extended his range by writing full-length books, juvenile novels for mainstream publishers, slim volumes of poetry (Ballads of the Flying Corps was critically well received), as well as two fine soccer stories with a Greyfriars background, as "Frank Rich-ards", School and Sport (1915) and Football Champions (1919), and a boxing yarn The Pride of the Ring (1919) using the name "Mark Linley" (one of his own favourite characters from the Hamilton universe).

He had a knack for light verse and an easy, fluent style (his "To An RAF Chauffeuse" begins "Oh! you look so slim and slender as you drive the Crossley Tender . . ."). During the war his work, stories and articles as well as verse, appeared in Flying, Aeronautics and Answers, and later The Passing Show, John O'London's and Punch.

In the juvenile field he wrote for Merry and Bright, The Popular, The Scout, Boys' Realm, Boys' Friend Weekly, Boys' Friend Library, Chuckles, Football and Sports Favourite, and (a spin-off from Magnet) The Greyfriar Herald, many of whose issues he filled virtually single-handed.

He was a clever parodist, his best targets the classics of English poetry (Shelley's "Skylark", Keats's "Nightingale" and Wordsworth's "Cuckoo": all were made risible through his skills), and when he moved out of the juvenile field in the late 1920s his flair for words proved crucial in the peculiar and precarious profession he followed for the next 40 years: that of professional solutionist, selling to subscribers solutions to competitions in job-lots of, say, 15 shillings per hundred. These payments were regularly augmented by the many large prizes, both cash and goods, he won over the years.

George Samways' life was never smooth (his first marriage was one of almost continual separation), yet he had boundless optimism (sustained by his strong belief in reincarnation) and an extraordinary, vivifying drive. He felt, even at the age of 100, that his Greyfriars writings - despite the scorn heaped upon him and his fellow sub-writers by the Hamilton apologists, and despite the fact that this period in his life had lasted little more than 15 years, and that nearly seven decades before - had more or less shaped his entire existence, for better or worse. And, like Hamilton, he felt that there was really "nothing better" in life then entertaining the young.

Jack Adrian

George Richmond Samways, writer: born Kingsclere, Hampshire 14 January 1895; married 1917 Helene Logan (one son, one daughter), 1958 Olive Field; died 8 August 1996.

Comments