Some years ago from a Sydney charity shop I picked up a collection of THE GEM story paper from the 1926-28 period. They'd been discovered when the floor coverings in an old house were being replaced , having been used as insulation, a not uncommon practice in the period between the wars, usually under Linoleum. Recently I found the most comfortable chair in the office, located the collection, and started reading. What follows is a cursory review of those papers.
THE GEM, for those of you not familiar with that pre-ww2 icon of the British Empire juvenile world, was a story paper similar to THE MAGNET and survived 1711 issues. It featured throughout the years stories of St James College in Sussex - more commonly known as St Jim's to its scholars - and in particular the adventures of the Fourth and Shell forms. There were two houses, the School House and the New House. The main characters were the 'Terrible Three' - Merry, Manners and Lowther from the Shell; Blake, D'Arcy, Herries and Digby from the School House Fourth; Figgins, Kerr and 'Fatty' Wynn from the New House Fourth. It should be mentioned that the latter two groups were combined for certain classes. These boys would all have been around 15 years of age.
It had been a number of years since I'd picked up an issue of THE GEM to read; I've always preferred THE MAGNET. However, it only took 30 minutes of reading to well and truly immerse myself in the schoolboy world of 1926.
Issues 876-7 deal with the Stark Island Mystery. D'Arcy's brother, Lord Conway, takes the boys on a channel cruise, during which a raging gale wrecks his yacht on Stark Island. Mysterious happenings, dark caves and rough men give this story a dramatic feel. Things move along at a fast pace, with a subsequent lack of characterisation. If you like action, you'll enjoy this story. Editor's rating: 60%.
Issue 878 features Reginald Talbot of the Shell. Talbot is a reformed junior cracksman, known to his peers as 'The Toff' . He was in a gang controlled by John Rivers, now reformed and working for Scotland Yard. Rivers' daughter, Marie, is now reformed as well and is employed as a nurse at St Jim's. These three feature in many of the stories which follow. Talbot is probably the best-defined character to inhabit St Jim's and certainly one of author Martin Clifford's finest creations. ('Martin Clifford' being Charles Hamilton in most cases.) A number of Gem readers remarked in the Collector's Digest that they considered Talbot to have been overused, but it depends on ones point of view. Old beyond his years, due to his early life on the streets, Talbot is a very easy character to absorb, unlike Tom Merry, for example. To return to this issue, Gerald Crooke (by name, and by nature) has a rich uncle coming to see him and wants a place in the football team so as to impress said relative. He tries to use Talbot's friendship with Merry, firstly to gain a place and later to make Merry out to be a thief - but Talbot puts paid to his dirty tricks. Rating: 80%.
Issue 885 is well below par. It features D'Arcy, or 'Gussy', the most well-to-do member of the Fourth. Rylcombe was the closest village to St Jim's and this location is where all the strange action of this tale takes place. D'Arcy plays the good Samaritan to an old villager, saves another from a fire and so on. Almost painful to read, this story was penned by a sub writer (Pentelow) and just makes 20%.
Issue 886 features in my view the most unlikable member of the Fourth, 'Baggy' Trimble - an unsympathetic version of Billy Bunter. Lord Eastwood, D'Arcy's father, is attacked on his way to visit St Jim's, rescued by an unknown and Trimble (on the spot but hiding) takes the kudos. Until the real rescuer comes to light, Trimble reaps currency notes left and right. Along the way, forgeries come to light, but Kit Wildrake (from Canada and probably the most astute member of the School House) solves things at the end of issue 887, after Talbot and Merry disappear in the middle of a paper chase. This two-part story (for some reason not indicated thus in THE GEM CATALOGUE) brings in many of the characters of the school and makes excellent reading. Rating: 70%.
Issue 888 sees D'Arcy take to the stage in a not-very-convincing story. The real humour comes from a double-play. Hard to believe that D'Arcy could have a look-alike! Gerald Knox, the shady prefect, features and thus gains the story a rating of 40%.
George Grundy, the 'Horace Coker' of St Jim's, makes his mark in issue 889. A slight story, involving an attempt to rob the school, it's difficult to believe that this was penned by Hamilton. Ill-constructed sentences and strange expressions just give this effort 40%.
Issue 890 has a claim to fame: 'The Cross-word Craze at St Jim's' has been put forward as a real shocker by various Gem readers but I quite enjoyed it. Samways (the sub writer on this occasion) imparts a different perspective on St Jim's by way of trying to explain what is going through the characters' minds. This is a style of writing used by amateurs - certainly not by Hamilton - but for some reason the story is quite readable and would be a good one for a first-time reader of Gem stories. In the manner of introducing a non-drinker to wine - first the common sparkling, then the Long Flat Red. 55%.
Alan Lorne of the Fourth was a new'un to this reader. In issue 891, his cousin escapes from a reformatory and comes to St Jim's in the guise of another supposedly reformed inmate, who then comes back to haunt both boys. A dramatic and engrossing story which held my attention from start to finish. In later days, this story would have been expanded to several times its length. It is in fact a little too abrupt, hence 75%.
Blake and D'Arcy come to blows in issue 892. Trimble, ever the troublemaker, helps no end. The situation takes some swallowing but as usual, the author puts a lot of it down to the supposed Yorkshire trait of stubbornness in the case of Blake. (A fellow compatriot of Greyfriars' Johnny Bull.) An intricately written story, nevertheless, with strong characterisation - deserving of 70%.
Horace Ratcliff, the Housemaster of the New House, features in issue 893. Ratcliff, 'Ratty' to his long-suffering pupils, is a tyrant of the worst kind. His one weakness is his tribe of nephews who occasionally turn up at St Jim's! In this case, Paul Ratcliff gives the cause for ructions in the Fourth. Action from start to finish, with a goodly supply of humour, grace this wonderful tale. Many characters are featured to good effect and the story continues into issue 894, with the juniors effecting a 'barring-out' in the school gymnasium. Great fun, 75%. Issue 895 is an 'April Fool' special with Lowther and Bernard Glyn taking prominent parts. Good for a laugh but not brilliant 60%.
The second 'threesome' of St Jim's feature in issue 896. Levison, Clive and Cardew were always a far more interesting trio than Merry, Manners and Lowther. Ernest Levison had a younger brother, Frank, who was probably the most level-headed member of the third form. In this issue young Frank comes up against another trio - Lacy, Carker and Manton of Rylcombe Grammar School. Through a series of events, Frank is beaten up by a farm hand, thus bringing his older brother into the story, which fairly races along. Before you know it, you've come to the end, wondering why it wasn't lengthened. Great dramatics and 70%.
Issues 877-8 relate the 'Mystery of Holly Lodge'. Monty Lowther's uncle, a Member of Parliament, disappears and 'The Terrible Three' set out to locate him. Lowther, known as the humorist of the Shell, for once gains the reader's sympathy but it's D'Arcy who injects some life into what is rather a light tale. 50%. Issue 899 features D'Arcy in a trifle, its only point of interest being the highlighting of Mr Selby, the Third's master. D'Arcy wants to invest in a money-making proposition, which goes against the grain in more ways than one. Once again, I find it difficult to believe that Hamilton penned this story and doubt if it's worthy of 20%.
One regular plotline brought forth a new pupil. Thus is the case in issue 900 when Marmaduke Muggleton makes his way through the hallowed portals of St Jim's. As he was the nephew of Mr Lathom, the master of the Fourth, one could expect him to meet with a hostile reception! It was usual for new pupils to be judged by their appearance (and isn't that so in real life?) so 'Marmy's' tall, skinny and bespectacled appearance immediately puts him down as a dummy of the first order. Obviously wise beyond his years, our hero decides to play the part where possible and put all of the regulars in their places, much to the delight of the reader. Very funny and worth 75%.
Issue 902 features Manners' young brother, Reggie of the Third, and also sees trouble between Manners and Merry. Mr Selby again stars, together with his form in another trifle from sub writer Pentelow. As it's unusual to find a story about the lower form I found this rather carefully constructed tale of interest and give it 50%.
D'Arcy's father seemly forgets to keep his honoured sons in cash in issue 903 ('Gussy' has a young brother, Wally of the Third). This situation provides a source of amusement for Racke and Mellish, two of the 'cards' of his form. Both loaded with 'tin', these two shady lads arrange for a money lender to visit the Swell of the Fourth. This is a very amusing story, especially when Gussy decides to auction off all of his worldly goods in order to raise some much-needed cash. 70%.
Issues 906-9 apparently make up a story featuring Frank Levison but I only possess 907-9. 907 sees Frank saving his young brother after the latter is suspected of lifting a French banknote belonging to Mr Selby. Racke is the guilty party but it isn't until the end of 909 that D'Arcy solves the mystery. This is Hamilton at his best, writing as only he could write, with several story lines side by side, flowing along without even one unnecessary word. This is the best of the Gem stories reviewed so far, and deserving of 90%.
Issue 912 brought me back to earth in what is a colourless sub story penned by Austin. With a title like 'The Hour of Atonement', one might not expect much. Talbot and the Rivers feature, but the author just can't handle these essentially strong characters. The side plot of the entire school camping out is laughable. If you ever pick this story up, I suggest you give it a miss. And if you're a Miss, Ms or Mrs, I would expect you to suspect that this writer never had any dealings with your sex. 0%.
Sub writer Austin has Cardew carrying a revolver in issue 913! He spends half this story driving around the countryside playing detective with Clive and Levison, in an attempt to keep Gussy out of harm's way. Mildly amusing, 30%. Issues 914-18 constitute the Old Bus series featuring Merry and friends, Blake and friends, Trimble and an appearance by Figgins and his New House chums. Gussy hires a motor caravan for the holidays but their youthful driver is not what he seems. Austin penned this series before disappearing forever, but it's quite readable if not out of the ordinary. The writer actually brings Tom Merry to life, more so than Hamilton did most of the time. But - and this is a big but - he turns Merry into a normal boy! He endows the leader of the Shell with negative traits such as petulance and unreasoned anger, for example. And of course he continues to explain what is going on inside the various characters' minds. The juvenile readers must have found the stories tedious. Hamilton never wrote down to his readers, which explains his popularity. No doubt the parents of the time picking up these stories would have thought them to be very suitable reading for the children! Still, Austin tried and gains a pass of 50%.
Time for another new starter in issue 919. Sidney Troope comes into money when he comes of age and naturally is a good subject for sundry kidnapping attempts. Trimble foils one attempt with the result that Troope (strangely enough quite a normal lad) feels obliged to keep Baggy in funds. Issue 920 continues the story, being appropriately titled 'Too Much Trimble!' while everything is sorted out in 921. Why Hamilton decided to feature Trimble is beyond this reader. However, it's not a bad series and gains 55%. More Trimble in 922 when Baggy takes on the persona of his favourite fictional hero, Bob Briton. This story, however, really is funny. The cover illo of Baggy head-butting old Taggles, the school porter, is a scream. Our hero actually saves a life in this story and gains 65%.
Issues 923-4 again feature the Third and Mr Selby but Hamilton, who'd possibly seen the sub story mentioned above, shows what he can do and comes up with a superlative mixture of drama and humour. Although Wally D'Arcy is harshly treated by his form master, Gussy's young brother does all he can to keep Mr Selby from the clutches of a blackmailer. 75%.
Gussy has to dress up in a monkey suit in issue 925 to help out a carnival man. Gordon Gay and friends of Grammar feature in this slight story which has touches of humour but barely gains 40%. Sub writer Pentelow seems wary of the old college and once again takes readers to Rylcombe in issue 926. Cardew has come into 157 pounds (!!! must be about a million in today's lucre) and decides to firstly have a record 'spread' and secondly bet Racke 50 pounds that he can get an apology out of Tom Merry... ! Okay, it's a ridiculous notion but the story is amusing. Worth a read if you're looking for something out of the ordinary 50%. If Pentelow and Austin could have co-authored a story, I'm sure they could have come up with something quite close to Hamilton's style.
Baggy Trimble is once again featured in issue 927 dated November 14th, 1925. The fat scrounger of the Fourth form of St Jim's normally wouldn't tell the truth if his life depended upon it, but in this amusing tale he tells the truth without fear or favour. His fellow pupils, who originally set out to punish him into doing just that soon realise their monumental blunder by the time issue 928 draws to a close. 75%.
Cook, another sub writer, attempts to make his mark with issue 929. Why some sub writers had to start with such a dumb plot is beyond this reviewer's comprehension. Gussy, the swell of the Fourth, purchases an old car at an auction in Wayland for forty 'bob' and promptly drives his chums back to St Jim's! He then spends his spare time doing it up, with Bernard Glyn's help. The secondary plot involves a local council election and naturally the old bomb comes in useful at the very end. Quite a well-written story, but what a pity the editor didn't insist on something a little more in keeping with Hamilton's work, as Austin shows a good deal of promise. 50%.
Issue 930 is a Christmas number but apart from the usual holly along the top of the cover and the snow-covered title, is not out of the ordinary. The days of double-length stories and full-coloured covers had long gone, more's the pity. This story involves the usual mysterious strangers on dark moors and a Christmas at Eastwood House, home to Gussy's father. On the way, stops are made at Tom Merry's and Lowther's homes. The story continues in 931 - but I don't possess that issue, unfortunately. 55%.
A change for the better in the next few issues of the collection. Issue 942 features Ernest Levison and his two pals, Clive and Cardew. An old associate of Levison comes looking for help but is of course only interested in getting the latter expelled from school through blackmail. This story is a treat, full of action and drama. Manners and Frank Levison also feature and one wishes that the story had gone on much longer. 75%.
Reginald Talbot, the 'Toff', features in issues 943-4. Unfortunately, the time-worn theme of a double (this time, of Marie Rivers, the nurse and Talbot's old partner in crime) rather spoils the enjoyment of this tale. The most amusing aspect of the story is the 'no nonsense' behaviour of the bogus school nurse. Whereas the genuine Marie was a real softie, her impersonator sends her visitors off with groans and red faces. 55%.
'Grundy the Artist', issue 945, is one of those stories which promises little but delivers lots of laughs. George Alfred Grundy and his long-suffering chums, Wilkins and Gunn, star in this tale. Grundy takes up painting with a vengeance, even to the point of wanting to improve upon an Old Master (of the painted variety) hanging in the Head's study. 70%. Talbot again features in issue 946 when due to a feat of heroism he's transferred across the quad to the New House, just in time to upset the School House plans to win a sports carnival. A rather run-of-the-mill story. 65%.
Monty Lowther gets his just desserts in issue 947, appropriately enough, the yearly 'April Fools' issue. Most of the school are featured in this humorous story and it all works really well. A much superior story to the one a year previously. 75%. You may be thinking that it's time for a new boy - and you'd be correct. Issue 970 (rather a large gap in the collection at that point) brings forth a real prize - Angelo Lee. He's the brother of a friend of Gussy's cousin Ethel, so the lads, especially Figgins who rather fancies Ethel, promise to look after him. Manners and his camera come in useful for once but to say any more would ruin the story for prospective readers. Continues in issue 971. 65%.
Racke, Mellish and their caddish pals feature in issue 975, together with Gussy, who is set to take on all comers in the Schools Boxing Championship. A good story, if you're a boxing fan. 70%. Skimpole, Gussy and Racke feature in issue 976, a rather light affair in which Skimpy's telescope catches Racke up to his usual dirty work. 60%.
Jack Blake's stubbornness overtakes him in issue 977, not for the first time. This is the type of story at which the genuine 'Martin Clifford' excels, though. The setting of friends against each other and the consequent effects and eventual reconciliation. Aubrey Racke manages to wrest the junior captainship from Tom Merry, with rather remarkable results. Yet another story which would have made a good series, rather than an all-too-short single issue. 80%.
Issue 978 presents a story after this reviewer's own heart when Gussy takes over the local village newspaper. Unfortunately, the young reporters don't know the meaning of tact - especially where the feelings of school masters are concerned! 70%. In issue 979 the school gymnasium once again finds itself useful in a 'barring-out' after Horace Ratcliff is left in charge of the school. A boxing match has to be staged as well. Passable but not up to scratch. 50%. Due to poor performances in class by the Fourth form, floggings are promised to any members who don't pass a special examination in issue 980. Baggy Trimble sets out to avoid both at any cost. Quite amusing. 65%.
The Drere Manor mystery runs through issues 981-4, which includes the Christmas issue. Kit Wildrake and his pal and uncle from British Columbia feature. Buck Whipcord, his pal, is larger than life, like most characters Charles Hamilton introduced from across the sea. More to the point, he is outrageous when coming into contact with the average Englishman. Merry, Blake and pals, together with Trimble also feature in this story which contains the usual hidden panels, secret caves and dark mystery. Not outstanding but enjoyable. 65%.
Yet another new lad comes to St Jim's in issues 985-7. This time it's Percy Knox, cousin to Gerald Knox, the school's most unpopular prefect and all-round cad. Percy is hell-bent on blackening Tom Merry's name and manages to do quite a good job. He replaces Tom Merry as junior captain and leaves him on the mat in a boxing match, thanks to his prowess on the footer field and in the ring. Another story full of both drama and humour - quite the best for some time. 85%.
Issues 988-90 star our old friend Talbot, this time with his cousin Gerald Crooke who runs up a fifty pound debt with the local bookie. Talbot has to save Crooke's skin after he finds a key lost by his Housemaster and removes the required amount from the latter's desk. Quite a good story but once again the last issue, 990, is missing, apart from the front cover! 70%.
D'Arcy again takes the stage - literally - in issue 993. The local hospital is in need of funds so the good-hearted Gussy puts on a comic opera to raise cash for same. 'The Tyrant of St Jim's' is based perhaps a little too closely on reality. Mr Ratcliff asks Gerald Knox, the unscrupulous prefect, to keep an eye on things. Knox gains a part in the play as a constable, which results in his becoming involved in a rather humorous situation. Entertaining; 70%.
Issues 994-7 comprise the 'St Jim's Inventors' series. Bernard Glyn's father puts up a series of prizes for the best inventions from the junior school. Surprisingly, this is an excellent series, filled with amazing yet believable inventions and is just about guaranteed to give you at least one big laugh per page. Almost every member of the Fourth and Shell come into the story. The explanations on how the inventions work are generally very well-reasoned, unlike those in other stories of a similar nature this reviewer has come across. Certainly the best long humorous series read so far in THE GEM. 75%. That was the final Gem in the collection. By this time I'd become quite attached to the lads of St Jim's. Time to reach into the carton and pull out issue 876 of THE MAGNET...jt#
Greyfriars Book Club Vol.5 (Limited to
400 copies in slipcover, 1976.)
Issue #3 brings us 'Tom Merry's Schooldays' and the first appearance of the infamous Miss Priscilla Fawcett, Tom's old nurse and guardian. She's dressed poor Tom in a velvet suit for his first appearance at Clavering. Due to his sheltered upbringing by Miss Fawcett, Tom's speech is somewhat out of the ordinary. More becoming of a Nineteenth Century child, it amuses his headmaster, Mr Railton. Lowther, Manners and the rest of the Shell form give Tom a rough time but as the author says, 'Merry by name and merry by nature' sees Tom soon settling in once he manages to ditch the velvet suit and suit up in a set of Etons kindly supplied by the Head. He becomes popular due to a seemingly inexhaustible supply of pocket money which enables limitless supplies of tuck to be purchased for midnight feasts! The final paragraph sums the situation up. "And when Miss Priscilla finally left the school, she was persuaded that she had not, after all, made a mistake in sending Tom Merry to Clavering College."
Issue #4 reverts back to an adventure story, 'A Secret Quest'. Issue #5 contains 'Troublesome Tom' by which time Tom Merry has become part of the Shell, helping to organise a cross-country run. The villain of these early stories was Gore, who never quite held the spotlight as in these early issues. During the run Tom saves the life of a child who has fallen into the stream leading to a mill and its water wheel. Another character who isn't very fond of Tom and Co is Herr Schneider, the German master, who "belonged to the old school of masters, who believed in driving knowledge into the heads of boys as you drive a nail into wood - with repeated blows." The German master is an interesting study, and it will be some time later that we find out the Herr has his good points. The author brings Tom down to earth, the latter having been hailed a hero, when Gore sends Miss Priscilla a telegram reporting on Tom's brush with death. Finally the two come to blows in a vividly portrayed fist fight, the likes of which you won't read of in later numbers.
Again the following issue reverts to an adventure story, 'A Britisher's Pluck', by Brian Kingston. Issue 37 offers 'Our Captain' in which Tom Merry promotes himself as a possible captain of not just his form, but Clavering College! This he attempts by bribing the juniors with a promise of a gigantic feast! Not that it is quite portrayed as a bribe. During the run-up to the election, he saves a train from saboteurs but the Head persuades him to see common sense and withdraw his nomination for the good of the school. Two issues later in #9 comes 'Tom Merry on the Warpath', a forgettable tale, and two issues after that, 'Tom Merry at St Jims', which cements Tom Merry into every issue from then on. Clavering College has closed so Tom, Manners and Lowther find themselves at St James's College, thereafter known as St Jim's. Mr Railton, their old head, arrives there as house master of the School House, the older and of course the best! The New House, peopled by the other famous three, Figgins, Kerr and Wynne, offers many opportunities for friendly conflict.
'The Terrible Three' is born in #12, that being the story title. Herr Schneider also ended up at St Jim's and often plays the foil in these early stories. 'The Master's Secret' in #14 though featured a device used in many a Hamilton tale later on. A master who was not what he seemed. The author's contempt for bungling members of the constabulary comes through in this story in references to Inspector Skeet. "The inspector was busy making notes in his fat notebook, though what he wanted to make notes for was a mystery. Perhaps he did not know himself; but it looked impressive and businesslike." Both the Head and Mr Railton appear amused when Tom leads the inspector on a false trail. 'St Jim's Curate' in #15 is an amusing story of a member of the clergy who makes Tom and friends look like proper idiots when they are silly enough to invite him onto the cricket field.
A nostalgic volume which see Charles Hamilton via his Martin Clifford pseudonym honing his craft. Not every story in this volume is a 'gem' (pun intended) but nevertheless, you'll find many wonderful moments and lots of laughs. #j4.01
Greyfriars Book Club Vol.23 (Limited to
400 copies in slipcover, 1978.)
With more than 300 issues under his belt, Hamilton was turning out brilliantly written stories of his favourite school on a regular basis. There are a number of interesting studies to be found in this series, one of which is Ernest Levinson, a boy who had left Greyfriars under a cloud. He sets his sights on bringing Talbot down, but will he, and does he really want to? Another 'must read' for any 'Gem' fan. #j4.01
Greyfriars Book Club Vol.17 (Limited to
400 copies in slipcover, 1977.)
Clarence York Tompkins was a relatively inoffensive member of St Jim's but is given his head in the final two issues of this volume. His uncle, 20 years in Australia, returns to England and pays a visit to the nephew he has been supporting financially. Now apparently destitute, the uncle arrives to the derision of the snobbish element. Thanks to D'Arcy, Tompkins behaves in a noble manner towards his relative.
One must ignore the holes in the plot in the Levinson story and simply enjoy the mostly marvellous characterisations. Baggy Trimble was not a likable character in the Bunter mould. He had no redeeming features at all and is the fly in the ointment. Cardew, a late arrival in The Gem saga, is on the other hand a good reflection of the later Vernon-Smith, 'The Bounder' of Greyfriars. He's more likable than Smithy, lacking in the latter's occasionally nasty qualities, though not so deep. The Tompkins story over two issues is amusing and a good example of Hamilton's skill in examining human nature via his school stories. This volume is entertaining but not a 'must read'. #j4.01
Greyfriars Book Club Vol.14 (Limited to
500 copies in slipcover, 1977.)
The high point of this series is the Levinson-Bounder combination. Smithy had never forgotten Levinson's kindness when he was in trouble and here finally is given a chance to return the favour. Even Bunter comes in useful at one point. This is Hamilton at his very best. In other words, a 'must read'. #j5.01
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