Ron Garner was one of the longest-serving members of the Amalgamated Press nursery comics staff with a career spanning fifty years, although his name will probably be a new one to many readers of this column.
Thanks to his daughter, Karenina, I can redress the balance a little.
Born Ronald Hammond Garner on 30 August 1904 at 20 Woodfield Crescent, St Mary, Paddington, Ron Garner was the second youngest of 11 children born to Arthur William Garner and his wife Ellen (née Hammond), who had married at Paddington in 1885. Arthur worked as a supervising foreman for Paddington Borough Council and with so many children to look after, Ron was raised primarily by his elder sisters Connie and Kit.
Ron spoke very little about his childhood so his family have only a few sketchy images. At school, the Headmaster kept a woolly monkey which used to pee in the inkwells. Despite this distraction, he appears to have done well.
His father ran a yard for the council where Ron was able to play with the carthorses. Despite the stories of cruelty and thoughtlessness that circulate about the treatment of working horses of that era, Ron's memories were of the pride the men took in them, especially when preparing them for the Easter Parade when the horses would be carefully groomed and horse brasses were polished until they gleamed. On payday, his father was brought home from the pub by his horse, Peter, on one occasion ending up in a ditch.
Out of school he entertained himself by blowing up lead soldiers with fireworks in a sandheap in the yard.
The First World War intervened and one of Ron's brothers, Ned, contracted typhoid, which he survived; however, as a result Ned died a few years later in the boxing ring. Ned's best friend, a lad Arthur Garner was clearly fond of, died when the Lusitania was sunk.
Ron witnessed some of the sorrier aspects of the war: there was an uprising against any businesses which appeared to have a German name and he witnessed a Jewish shop being vandalised, a solitary policeman on horseback charging down the street to disperse the crowd.
Although it is not known precisely when he joined the Amalgamated Press, Ron Garner was a contemporary (although younger) of Bertram Wymer and Anton Lock who worked for the Tiger Tim group of titles (Rainbow, Tiger Tim's Own, Playbox) under managing editor Bill Fisher.
If, as many did, he joined the firm as an office boy, he may have joined the company as early as 1918/19, shortly before Tiger Tim's Own was launched (in June 1919), although most likely joined in the 1920s when the group had expanded with the addition of Playbox in 1925. He clearly had regular employment in the 1920s and 1930s as the family have photographs from which they know he visited the Channel Islands and New Forest, travelling around the country in an open top sports car. He enjoyed watching birds, butterflies and moths and was a good photographer.
One of his hobbies, probably inspired by Bert Wymer, was collecting fossils, a hobby which his two sons continue to this day. Wymer's enthusiasm for amateur archaeology had been revived in the 1930s by the discovery of a fossil bone in Barnsfield Pit, Swancombe, near Gravesend in Kent, where he—Wymer—had occasionally dug as a youngster. Wymer gave Ron Garner half his fossil and shell collection and, by the 1950s, Ron had a very extensive collection of ancient Greek and Roman coins, pointing out to his children how beautiful Athene was with her warrior's mask pushed up on top of her head.
It was not an entirely carefree life: Ron's first fiancée died and he remained unmarried until his early thirties; he met Eugenie P. Baker at work and they were married in 1936. The couple rented a flat in London before buying a house in Orpington. For their first Christmas in Orpington, Eugenie invited her parents and brother to stay, only realising at the last minute that she couldn't afford to buy any food. She was left with only one option, to ask her father for a loan when the family arrived on Christmas Eve. Ron arrived home early in a taxi, much to his wife exasperation at this extravagance, only to find that he had won the firm's Christmas hamper which contained everything they needed!
During the Second World War, Ron was called up and joined the RAF as a photographer. He was stationed much of the time at Biggin Hill. A friendly Sergeant loaned Ron his bicycle so that on the nights that he was off duty, he could cycle to his home in Orpington. One morning he returned to Biggin Hill to discover that many of his friends and colleagues had died following an air raid.
After the war, Ron and his wife planted what was to become a very beautiful woodland garden. Ron grew potatoes which tasted absolutely wonderful, runner beans, redcurrants and gooseberries, as well as apple, pear, cherry and cherry plum trees.
Ron was also enormously creative in the house as well as outside: he was a good artist (as can be seen in his drawing of Lincolns Inn above) and carved wooden figures, made furniture and toys for his children—especially welcome as, after the war, toys were not easy to come by. A dolls house with an operational lift and battery-run lights (using torch bulbs), a fort with a drawbridge which could be raised and lowered and an Ark were just a few of them; also wooden figures of a Scotsman and a pirate for his two sons, Leon and Stefan, and a ballet dancer for daughter Zenia. Karenina, the youngest child, was a late arrival in 1955.
Family holidays were spent in the West Country, Ron collecting tiny cowrie shells with his youngest daughter at Croyde, or collecting fossilised sharks teeth on one of many day visits to Bracklesham Bay.
As well as his wide range of interests, Ron was also keen on cricket (one of his brothers played for the MCC) and football (supporting Queens Park Rangers).
"I'm not clear at what age Dad began writing for the nursery magazines," says Karenina. "The characters he wrote included Gulliver Guinea-Pig, Wally, Sammy and Harry [from 'The Wonderful Tales of Willow Wood'], Jack and Jill, Harold Hare, Bunny Cuddles, Teddy and Cuddly, Freddie Frog, Walter Hottle Bottle, The Wind in the Willows, Fliptail [the Otter], Pixie Pip... The comics he wrote for were The Rainbow, Tiger Tim (I think), Harold Hare's Own Paper, Jack and Jill, Sunny Stories, Teddy Bear, Playbox (I think). He also wrote some of the Rupert Bear books over many years.
"He spoke little about his work, perhaps out of consideration for my mother who had also been a children's journalist, but her career had been cut short with the arrival of babies and, since then, I believe only one of the stories that she submitted was accepted.
"Dad worked from home after his retirement until shortly before he died. One of the longer stories he wrote was 'Cherry Cap', for which I recall seeing a note enclosing a cheque, so that story must have been accepted, perhaps for one of the annuals."
Ron worked as a sub-editor on the nursery group—Jack and Jill, Playhour, Teddy Bear, etc.—in the 1960s before retiring but continued to write for these papers and others until shortly before his death, from lung cancer, on 16 September 1979.
(* My thanks to Karenina and her family for sharing their memories of their father and for the photographs. The picture at the top is a drawing produced by Peter Woolcock to celebrate Ron Garner's retirement. Karenina has also very generously sent me some pictures of some interesting memorabilia from the nursery comics which I hope to share with you in the future.)