06 February, 2009

Charles Hamilton

Charles Harold St. John Hamilton, was an English writer, specializing in writing long-running series of stories for weekly magazines about recurrent casts of characters, his most frequent and famous genre being boys public school stories. He used a variety of pen-names; generally using a different name for each publication he wrote for, the most famous being Frank Richards for The Magnet where the Greyfriars School stories (featuring Billy Bunter) were published. Other important pen-names included Martin Clifford (for The Gem), Owen Conquest (for the Boys' Friend). He wrote a series of stories for the Modern Boy, about an island trader called Ken King, under his real name.

Hamilton was born in Ealing, London to a family of eight children. He began a career as a writer of fiction having his first story accepted almost immediately. Over the following years he was to establish himself as the main writer with the publisher, Trapps Holmes, providing several thousand stories on a range of subjects including policemen, detectives, firefighters, Westerns as well as school stories. In 1906 however, he was started to write for the Amalgamated Press. Although he continued to have stories published for Trapps Holmes until 1915 (many of which were reprints), his allegiance was gradually to move (Lofts & Adley 1975:25-42).

Amalgamated Press started a new story paper for boys called The Gem in 1907 and by issue number 11 it had established a format – the major content was to be a story about St Jim’s school, starring Tom Merry as the main character and written by Charles Hamilton under the pen name of Martin Clifford. This paper rapidity established itself and anxious to capitalize on its success, a similar venture was launched in 1908. This was to be known as The Magnet, the subject matter was a school was called Greyfriars and Hamilton was again to be the author, this time using the name Frank Richards (Lofts & Adley 1975:43-51) .

In 1915, Hamilton started a third school for Amalgamated Press, Rookwood, this time under the name Owen Conquest and featuring a character called Jimmy Silver. These appeared as part of the Boys' Friend Weekly publication and were shorter than the Greyfriars and St Jim’s stories (Lofts & Adley 1975:52-55).

These publications were to absorb most of Hamilton’s efforts over the next three decades and were where he was to produce the work for which he is best remembered. In the early days of this period, the St Jim’s stories were more involved and more popular. The Greyfriars stories however, evolved gradually over the early years of the Magnet, eventually becoming Hamilton’s main priority. In all he provided stories for 82% of the issues of The Magnet compared with two thirds of the issues of the Gem. If a Hamilton story was not available, the story was provided by another author but still using the Clifford or Richards name (Lofts & Adley 1975:52-72).

The Gem carried on until December 1939 and by then the circulation of the Magnet had also declined. With England facing a paper shortage the closure of the paper was inevitable and this came about in 1940.

Following the closure of The Magnet, Hamilton had little work but ironically, growing fame as his identity as the author of so many stories became known following an interview in the Evening Standard. He was not however able to continue the Greyfriars saga as Amalgamated Press held the copyright and would not release it.

In the event he was obliged to create new schools such as Carcroft and Sparshott, as well as trying the romance genre under the name of William Cardew, albeit with limited success. By 1946 however, he had received permission to write Greyfriars stories again and obtained a contract from publishers Charles Skilton for a hardback series the first volume of which, Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School, was published in September 1947. The series was to continue for the rest of his life, the publisher later changing to Cassells. In addition, he wrote further St Jim’s, Rookwood and Cliff House stories, as well as the television script for seven series of Billy Bunter stories for the BBC (Lofts & Adley 1975:146-151).

He died on 24 December 1961, aged 85.

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