When Fat Was Fat


He was the most prolific author in history, so why have you never heard of him?

Owen Conquest, Martin Clifford, Ralph Redway, Winston Cardew and Peter Todd were authors with something in common; they were alter-egos of the writer Charles Hamilton, born into a large family in 1876.

Tales of schooldays and derring-do filled the pages of two Edwardian story papers, the Gem and The Magnet, and Hamilton excelled at them. For the next thirty years, he churned out several thousand adventures about cowboys, firemen, coppers and crooks.

It was estimated that Hamilton wrote 100 million words (that’s the equivalent of 1,200 average length novels). He used a great many pen-names, and in the process of writing schoolboy excitements had to create over a hundred schools in which all his heroes could study. I know there were definitely more than 5,000 short stories, and although they were extremely popular with the young at heart, Hamilton was critically ignored.

The Gem and The Magnet had a tried fiction formula and stuck to it; fair play, decency, teamwork, respect and discipline bonded groups of like-minded chums whose vicariously thrilling exploits never included smoking and gambling, unlike their creator’s own fondness for the tables at Monte Carlo.

Public school settings meant that adults could be dispensed with (aside from the presence of the odd teacher), allowing for readers’ wish-fulfilling fantasies. But the papers became outdated. Readership declined and paper shortages led to their demise. What was Hamilton to do?

In 1946 he claimed back one of his most popular characters from Amalgamated Press, who had kept all the rights to his stories, and began a series of hardback books under the name Frank Richards. His hero was the ‘Fat Owl of the Remove’, Billy Bunter of Greyfriars school.

The books were a smashing success, and seven TV series followed starring Gerald Campion, all written by Hamilton. There were theatrical versions and strip cartoons, parodies and catchphrases (‘Yarooh!’ was ‘Hooray!’ spelled backwards). Bunter, the obese short-sighted anti-hero, was supposed to weigh 14 stone, which in the postwar years was considered vastly overweight.

His slapstick exploits often ended with a caning. Librarians came to regard him as politically incorrect, and for a brief spell he was banned from shelves. Others likened Hamilton’s jaunty, fluid style to PG Wodehouse. Once a household name, Bunter has utterly vanished from bookshelves.

Was he simply out of his time, or is a fourteen stone boy no longer special enough to have a series of books written about him?

12 comments on “When Fat Was Fat”

  1. madmary says:

    I loved Billy Bunter. I suppose these days there’s nothing really special about overweight boys. I always felt sorry for him and didn’t like the others bullying him. I cannot imagine why he was considered Politically Incorrect.


  2. John Howard says:

    and of course, we must not forget the always elusive postal order. Who amongst us can remember postal orders…?

  3. BangBang!! says:

    Oh, I used to love Billy Bunter in The Valiant! I liked his companions too – Captain Hurricane, The Steel Claw, and of course Sexton Blake who Mr Moorcock loves as well. I miss those comics likeThe Victor and The Hotspur. I liked Alf Tupper the Tough of the Track and of course the mysterious Wilson!

  4. Oldlought says:

    I remember waiting with eager anticipation on Saturday mornings for the newsagent to deliver The Victor with the morning newspaper. Also remember my mum binning my Victor collection one morning while I was out – still hurts! 🙂

  5. Helen Martin says:

    There should be a law against mothers (it’s always mothers) throwing out their children’s collections without getting permission. It’s the sort of thing that stays in the memory. My mother suggested I throw away my son’s stuffed animals while he was in hospital having an appendectomy. When I stared at her she admitted it probably wasn’t a good idea.
    Canadians got the bronze in football! Yea – sorry people just had to cheer.
    It’s the morning of the 9th and no postal knocks heard yet. (nor rings, neither once nor twice.)

  6. Dan Terrell says:

    You, too? Groan… moan.
    The same down here, dang! I’ve heard nothing about a plane going down over the Atlantic – heaven forbid – or a mail robbery or a postal strike anywhere. As former President Bill C would say “I feel your pain. I really do.”
    On the hopeful side, however, today I received a Bach guide shipped by the Book Despositry in the G.B.(an Amazon subsid.). It was sent out two days before Amazon prime announced it was shipping my “Bryant & May and the Purloined Code.” Is that the title? I forget.
    So my hope springs, still, a little bit. Be glad John Howard posts to this blog and doesn’t Skype. The look on his face would probably be more than a body could handle.
    Congratulations on the team win. We took the gold in Beach Volleyball yesterday, again. Rah.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Dan, Dan! It’s 3:58 and we’re just back from the library. While we were gone it arrived (along with P.D. James’ Maul and the Pear Tree. Whoo Rah! And I just got Wolf Hall from the library along with research material to write about military cadets in Canadian schools. I’m set for a good long time. Hope yours comes tomorrow.

  8. keith page says:

    For some reason I used to love the Greyfriars stories although my real favourite was always Biggles

  9. Dan Terrell says:

    I feel your joy.

  10. John Howard says:

    Hi dan, sorry but have just finished. BUT just think whilst we are all sitting here wishing that we could go back to the beggining and start again without knowing what happens, YOU still have the joy to come of doing just that. I am trying to make you feel better honest..

  11. madmary says:

    Did someone mention Alf Tupper Tuff of the Track. My hero! And an apt one at this time of the Olympics. Bring him back!


  12. Peter A says:

    Christopher, did you choose that pic of Billy as some cryptic reference to Gerry’s in Soho?

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