||FLEETWAY IN THE TWENTIES
By ERNEST L McKEAG
Originally published in GOLDEN HOURS V1 #5; June, 1962.
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It has been my privilege to meet many editors
connected with the papers we remember so vividly, but in
all sincerity one of the friendliest I have ever met -
and the most co-operative - has been Mr. E. L. McKeag. /
Himself a most prolific author of Boys' and Girls'
stories, he has written for Aldine Publications, Chums,
British Boy, Champion, Triumph, Nelson Lee Library;
Magnet (Serials), Boys Friend Library and girls'
publications too numerous to mention. Running the Ruby,
Schoolfriend and Schoolgirls' Own papers at different
times (whilst retiring a year ago as editor of The
Schoolgirls' Picture Library) the reader can see that Mr.
McKeag would be a very interesting personality to meet. /
If I also add that he was creator and writer of that
popular feature in the Magnet - 'Come Into the Office,
Boys and Girls', a personal friend of Gwyn Evans,
G.H.Teed, Harold May (editor of the Nelson Lee Library)
and Hedley O'Mant,
(who was running The Magnet under C.M.Down), the reader
can well understand that I have every reason to be most
grateful to Mr. McKeag for a great deal of information -
which I have been able to use in many articles. / Rather
than bore some readers with a lot of statistical facts,
in the following article E.L.McKeag has written a most
delightful account of the 'good old days' at Fleetway in
the Twenties, when the reader can - for a change - see
the gay and colourful life some of our favourite authors
led when they were not pounding away at their typewriters
giving us those stories which we still treasure today!
It was Erie McLean who, under the name of Eric W.
Townsend, wrote so many magnificent boys' yarns in Chums,
Champion, Sport and Adventure, 'way back in about 1921,
who suggested that I should have a shot at writing boys'
I was living in a top front room in a Bloomsbury boarding
house at the time, working "on space" for a
theatrical paper and trying to eke out a rather
precarious living as a freelance journalist and short
I had never tackled a boys' story but as the
"British Boy" (published by Lloyds Periodicals)
had just come on the market, I decided to take Eric's
advice and I sent off a short story and some articles to
the editor. Rather to my surprise they were accepted, and
the cheque I received whetted my appetite.
In went some more stories and back came other cheques,
followed by a letter from Richard Hebert Poole - himself
a well-known boys' writer under the pen-name of Michael
Poole - who was editing the "British Boy",
asking me to call. That was my first contact with the
editorial side of boys' publications.
When I left Poole that afternoon I was assured of a
regular market for short stories and also for long
complete stories which Lloyds were publishing in a
threepenny paper-backed "Library".
For the first time I found myself possessed of enough
money to allow me to carry out a long-cherished ambition
--- to go and live on the Continent for a while,
travelling around and taking my typewriter with me. I got
as far as North Germany and there I settled, living like
a lord; for my income - paid in English money - was worth
five or six times its spending value in German marks. In
fact, by the time I left, I was getting nearly
18,000,000,000 marks for an English pound!
Such a fantastic existence couldn't last for ever, of
course, and I experienced a rude awakening when Poole
wrote to me to tell me that not only was the
"British Boy" closing down; but so were all
Lloyds Periodicals. But Lloyds looked after their
contributors and I received quite a large cheque for
everything I had written up to date, even though quite a
lot had not been published.
Back I came to England to start all over again and seek
for new markets. I was side-tracked from boys' writing
for a time, editing a short-lived weekly review in the
North of England and turning out newspaper features and
serials for a Syndicate. I still had a hankering to write
Boys' yarns, however, and I sent a few ideas along to
F.Addington Symonds, who was running the
"Champion" for the Amalgamated Press.
Symonds took a few stories from me and asked me to call.
I asked him for a job on the editorial side but was
unlucky. Symonds already had a large staff which included
John W. Wheway, Gwynn Evans, Alfred Edgar, Rossiter
Shepard, Ronald Fleming and quite a number of others
whose names are now household words amongst collectors of
Old Boys' Papers.
However; Symonds told me that R.T. Eves., who was in
charge of a number of girls' periodicals at the time,
needed someone; so off I went to see R.T. and within an
hour or so I was engaged to take over the Girls' paper
the "Ruby" - from Draycott M. Dell, one of the
most prolific of boys' and girls' authors of that time.
"Monty" (everybody called him that) was one of
the most popular men in Fleet Street. There was hardly
anyone who didn't know him, and I was lucky inasmuch as
he took me under his wing, introduced me all round,
sponsored me as a member of the Press Club and generally
showed me the ropes. Before long I was accepted by the
A.P. crowd as one of themselves and I have never known a
finer bunch of cheery, carefree and - to tell the truth,
more erratic characters in my life.
The early twenties were, I think, the heyday of boys'
(and girls') writers. We didn't get much in the way of
salaries - the A.P. in those days were not very generous
so far as editorial work was concerned - but we made up
for it by writing in our spare time. A guinea per
thousand words was paid for our contributions - not a
great deal it is true; but when a man could turn out
twenty or thirty thousand words a week it was not to be
sneezed at, at a time when money was still worth its face
With beer at 8d a pint, cigarettes, at 11 1/2d for
twenty, penny bus fares and a slap-up lunch for
half-a-crown, money went a long way. And as most of us
were bachelors we made the most of it.
But no matter how much we drew on Friday which was
pay-day - few of us had anything left by the following
Thursday sometimes not even after the following Monday.
Then it was a case of 'back to the typewriter' to get a
manuscript ready for Friday morning; when - if you were
lucky enough to get it passed by the editor - you could
draw a "special" (that is, get paid in advance
for it) on Friday afternoon.
Friday was the day the freelance authors came in with
their copy and their requests for specials, for they
seemed to get through their money even more quickly than
the staff men did. The result was that Friday nights,
when everyone had drawn their salaries and their
'specials' - was indeed a 'balmy' night.
Everyone, staff men and freelances alike, congregated in
the various Fleet Street taverns and the landlords soon
found their tills denuded of ready cash and filled
instead with cheques - for A.P. cheques were rightly
looked upon by publicans as 'as good as gold'.
It was sometimes a bit of a struggle to get a story
finished in time for Friday morning - the deadline for
payment - and there is the well-known story told of Gwyn
Evans turning up one Friday morning with a 50,000 word
Sexton Blake story for Leonard Pratt, who was editing the
"Sexton Blake" Library at that time.
"Pratty" glanced through the first few pages,
said it was good stuff, and put through a 'special' for
Gwyn. It was not until Monday morning, when the editor
came to read the manuscript thoroughly that he discovered
it consisted only of a dozen or so new pages - to which
had been attached the carbon copy of a previous story to
make up the bulk.
"Pratty" was breathing fire and slaughter when
the door opened and Gwyn came into the room.
"Awfully sorry about that manuscript'', he
explained. "I fastened the wrong copy to it by
mistake. Here's the correct copy."
Gwyn had, of course, dictated the story and had it typed
over the weekend. In the meantime he'd had his cheque a
week in advance. But it was a very good story - all
Gwyn's stories were; there was no swindle and everybody
Gwyn was invariably hard-up by the middle of the week,
for when he had money he was never happy until he had got
rid of it especially when he left the firm and went out
freelancing, as so many authors did in the twenties. Gwyn
lived in Chelsea and wherever he went he was invariably
followed by a crowd of what we would now call 'beatniks'
who talked a lot about "art" but who were quite
content to live on Gwyn's open-handed generosity.
Gwyn, beloved of 'old guard' Sexton Blake readers, did
not have a very long life, but he certainly had a gay
one. He would have lived longer if he had taken more care
of himself but he had a rooted objection to going to
doctors so even when it was obvious to some of us that he
was suffering badly from ulcers.
When eventually he had to go to a doctor, it was too
late; and when I went to pay my last respects to him at
Golders Green crematorium I could not help but notice
that his Chelsea beatnik 'friends' were conspicuous by
Gwyn, however, was not as prolific an author as some of
the other A.P's contributors. The output of some of them
was truly amazing, although this was not apparent to
their readers as they wrote under a variety of
noms-de-plume. Crichton Nilne, for instance, was a
terrifically fast worker and would turn out a Sexton
Blake yarn, a romantic love story, and a schoolgirls'
adventure tale with equal facility.
I met him first when, after the demise of the
"Ruby" I was running (under R.T. Eves) the
"Girls' Favourite". Crichton had been talking
over stories with R.T. one afternoon and joined up with
me when I left the office at five o'clock. We had a
couple of drinks in a neighbouring hostelry then Crichton
excused himself saying he had two seven-thousand-word
yarns to write, but would meet me again later in the
He met me shortly after nine. In the meantime be had gone
to the hotel in the West End where he was staying,
written the 14,000 words and come back to Fleet Street. I
didn't know until the morning that the stories had been
commissioned by Eves for the "Girls' Favourite'' -
and it was no joke having to sub 14,000 words which had
been written straight on to the typewriter at such speed.
Crichton had a flat in Paris as many A.P. authors had at
that time - and when he came to London he invariably
stayed at a very expensive hotel in the West End. He was
an old Etonian with a taste for luxury and he had to turn
out a tremendous output of work to keep up with his
commitments. But he, too, like the rest of us, suffered
from a chronic shortage of cash between 'specials' .
Meeting him one evening in the West End I tackled him
about a small loan until Friday.
"I was just going to ask you the same thing,"
he confessed. "I'm in the same boat. But never mind.
Have you had dinner yet?"
I confessed I had not.
"Then come and dine with me at Ciro's", he
Naturally I wanted to know how we could possibly dine at
Ciro's, one of the most exclusive and expensive dancing
and dining clubs of the time - without any money.
"Leave it to me," said Crichton, and steered me
along to Ciro's. It appeared he was a member and
well-known. We were not in evening dress - which was
essential on the dance floor - but we had a table on the
balcony; and Crichton proceeded to order a most elaborate
dinner with a very excellent bottle of wine and coffee
and brandy to follow. The aplomb with which he did it was
a revelation to me, but I couldn't help wondering what
was going to happen when the bill was presented.
It came in good time but I did not see how much it was -
although I could make a shrewd guess. Crichton glanced at
it, asked for a cheque book, filled in a cheque and asked
for the change.
When the change was brought the tip he gave to the waiter
was larger than the loan I had asked Crichton to advance.
And so, with our stomachs and wallets refilled - for
Crichton had not forgotten the loan I needed - we left
Ciro's; myself to seek a less expensive haunt and
Crichton to go to the hotel and turn out a story to gain
the wherewithal to meet Ciro's cheque when it was
presented. That must have been a very expensive loan for
Crichton to make.
Draycott M. Dell was another prolific writer, who was in
charge of Chums when it was run by the Amalgamated Press.
He turned out boys', girls' and adult stories with
consummate ease. When he left Eves' department to go
freelancing he did not neglect his social life. He was
undoubtedly the best 'mixer' I have ever known. No matter
what strange place he went into, in ten minutes or
quarter of an hour ''Plenty'' - as he was affectionately
called - would be chatting with everyone as though he had
known them all his life.
He once resigned from the Press Club over some trivial
incident but eventually a few of us persuaded him to put
up for re-election. He did so - and fully half the
members of the club signed the assentors' forms to have
him back. The other half would have done the same had
they not been out of London at the time.
Few people who went on it will forget the river trip
which Monty organised for a crowd of us at Fleetway House
- and as many freelances as could get along. He chartered
a river steamer and by the time it got under way from
Westminster Pier it was almost gunwales under with staff
men and freelances, - nobody wanted to be left out of
We hadn't got very far below Tower Pier before it was
announced that the bar stocks were exhausted. Disaster
had struck pretty early. However it turned out that what
had been consumed in that short space of time was the
normal quota for a days' outing. In a liquor store in the
bilges was the vessel' s supply for a week.
There were plenty of hands to help to get it up and once
more all was well. We cruised happily down to the Nore
and enjoyed a crowded picnic lunch on deck. It was not
until we wore on the homeward journey up river that
disaster struck again The week's liquor supplies were now
exhausted. The skipper of the steamer could hardly
believe it. He hadn't sailed with a cargo of Fleetway
But the bar takings proved that, indeed, the whole week's
supply of sustenance had vanished. There was nothing for
it but to look forward to a 'dry' journey back to London
- until someone spotted an isolated pub miles away from
anywhere on the Kent marshes.
The skipper at first ignored our impassioned demands to
heave-to and it was then that Monty - giving an
impression of Fletcher Christian - threatened the skipper
that if he didn't obey orders there would be such a
mutiny on board that it would make the 'Bounty' affair
look like a Vicarage tea-party!
Faced with overwhelming odds the skipper capitulated and
tied up to a coal barge - over which we scampered to gain
the shore with the help of a local boatman who ferried us
across to the pub.
Why the skipper didn't maroon us there and then I don't
know - unless it was that the cautious Monty had not
completed payment of the charter fee until the voyage
Having slaked our thirsts and taken precautions to see
that we would not again run out of fuel on the homeward
journey, we rejoined the steamer and everyone was so
happy that the skipper even turned over the wheel to me
for part of the way. Needless to say it was well over the
hour when we returned to Westminster Pier, but the Press
Club was still open and most of us were members - so that
the exact hour when that momentous outing finally ended
remains a matter for conjecture. I have a vague idea that
I didn't get home at all that night., although everyone
was back in the office all right on the following
Monty was also the instigator of 'the Friday afternoon
lunch parties which were held in Anderson's Hotel in
Fleet Street. By lunch time on Friday most of the staff
men had finished their work and were able to relax, and
the freelances were filling in time until cheques were
paid out at 4 p.m..
What more enjoyable way of relaxing and passing the time
than by lunching together; swapping stories, singing
songs and generally having a carefree time? A banqueting
room with a piano was provided by the hotel. Each paid
for his own lunch at the hotel's usual table-d'-hote
price and, of course, for any additional refreshment we
Once the mundane matter of eating was ended, proceedings
started generally with the communal singing - if it could
be called 'singing',- of the Volga Boat Song. After that
there was a free-for-all entertainment which invariably
consisted of scurrilous songs specially written for the
occasion, Rabelasian reminiscences, barrack-room ballads,
and severely heckled after-lunch speeches.
Towards the end the proceedings generally became -- well,
boisterous to say the least; but it would be quite untrue
to attribute the eventual demolition of Anderson's Hotel
to the activities of the Fleetway lunchers.
Anderson's was pulled down before World War II - if they
had waited a little longer Hitler would have saved them
the trouble. When a building was eventually raised on its
site, it was Hulton (since renamed Longacre) House - now
part of the Fleetway 'Empire'.
Probably the most successful social functions which were
run at that time, however, were the annual dinners of the
"0. and E.O.". The initials stood for
'Ourselves and Each Other', although certain disgruntled
scribes who were not invited - and didn't think much of
our literary abilities suggested they represented
"Orthers and Editers Only".
Originally they wore intended as a 'get-together' of
staff and contributors of R.T. Eves' department - which
included both boys' and girls' periodicals - but
eventually guests from other departments were included
and most boys' or girls' authors of the period attended
some of theme
Reginald B. Kirkham - a writer of many of the Cliff House
stories and better known to boy and girl readers as
'Frank Vincent, or 'Joan Vincent' (and quite a number of
other pen-names) - was the prime mover in these; and it
was largely due to his efforts that "0. and
E.0" continued until the outbreak of World War II.
The dinner which opened proceedings was merely an excuse
to introduce what was in effect, a 'revue' of
contemporary Fleetway activities; and the pseudo speeches
songs, skits and sketches which made up the evening's
entertainment -- all of which had to be strictly original
and topical - frequently taxed the author's ingenuity to
Some time later, the "Fleetway Players" -- a
dramatic society largely composed of editorial staff --
produced a "Fleetway Revue"; but alas, none of
the "0. and E.O." presentations could be
included. They would certainly never have passed the
The "Fleetway Players" was another organisation
which owed its inception largely to boys' and girls'
authors. It was started in 1926 and, while most of the
'business side was tackled by members of R.T. Eves'
department St. John Pearce was Chairman, Stanley
Boddington secretary and John W. Wheway treasurer - the
actors came from most of the "juvenile'' departments
of the firm.
It would be impossible to give a complete list but
included amongst those who "strutted their fretful
hour" during the "Twenties" were Phil
Swinnerton of 'Chicks Own', Teddy Wass of 'Answers',
Hedley O'Mant of 'Magnet', Rowland Jameson of
'Schoolgirls' Weekly', Henry Cauldwell of 'Nelson Lee
Library' and St. John Pearce, John Wheway and myself from
various girls' publications.
I had known Hedley O'Mant (who also wrote a few Sexton
Blake stories) much longer than I had any of the others,
for he had been on the professional stage at a time when
I was a critic on a North country paper; and I had made
his acquaintance when he was appearing in the first tour
of the famous long-running musical "Chu Chin
I believe the "Fleetway Players" still exists,
although I haven't seen one of their productions for some
years. I doubt, however, if they are the happy-go-lucky,
care-free, "get together" occasions we knew in
We played in the Blackfriars Theatre - a tiny but
well-appointed theatre originally built by the First Lord
Leverhulme as a private cinema. We generally played for
three nights and quite a number of our supporters took
tickets for all three. The reason was that the theatre
was fully licensed and so many of the "old
gang" met former editors and contributors they
hadn't seen for months that they couldn't tear themselves
away from the bar for more than an act. And. as plays
generally consisted of three acts
I shan't mention the name of the well-known editor who
described one of our productions as the "finest show
I've never seen!"
And when the final curtain fell - and the theatre closed
- well, we in the cast had taken good care to see that
the dressing rooms didn't run dry.
But the real final curtain did not fall until 1939. For
the cheery days of the twenties persisted for nearly
another decade, although they slowed down somewhat.
There were slumps which closed down papers; there were
marriages which depleted the ranks of the "bachelors
gay"; there were strange disappearances of old
familiar faces; there were black-bordered cards on the
notice board of the Press Club, and, finally, there was a
so-called statesman who promised us that "never
again will there be a war between these two great
And they all added up to one thing:
"Those days have gone for ever!"
This article was compiled by scanning the original
publication using OCL software. If you spot any errors,
please let me know, as it was a tedious job due to the
archaic print face. John email@example.com
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