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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gerald Verner

There has always been a question mark over the name Gerald Verner. For many years it was thought to be the pen-name of an author named Donald Stuart who wrote prolifically under both names between the 1920s and the 1960s. When Verner (believed to be the name he legally adopted) died on 16 September 1980, his age was given as 84 and long-time fan Bill Lofts believed he had discovered Verner/Stuart's real birth name to be Donald William A. Stewart, born in Hackney in early 1896, which tied in with the birth date given for Verner on his death record (29 January 1896).

However, it now appears that Stewart was a red-herring. Some additional information supplied by Verner's son has recently appeared online which reveals that his birth name was actually John Robert Stuart Pringle. His date of birth is given as 26 June 1897, but further research shows this to be wrong. A lot of tortuous digging comes up with a different date entirely, which doesn't match any of the above.

First a little background. Donald Stuart had made various colourful claims about his background when talking to journalists, saying that he had worked as an actor and a Billingsgate fish-porter at various times. He began writing thrillers for the Sexton Blake Library in 1927 and was a leading light of Union Jack, The Thriller and various other papers in the 1930s as either Stuart or Verner. As Stuart he wrote a play featuring Blake, produced at the Prince Edward Theatre in London in 1930.

In 1933, Verner's first hardcover appeared from Wright & Brown: The Embankment Murder was, in fact, a Sexton Blake yarn (The Embankment Crime) de-Blaked to feature other characters, a common habit amongst Blake's authors throughout the 1930s. Verner, more than any of the Blake authors, recycled ideas, borrowed ideas from other sources and even had other people's novels appear under his (or, rather, Donald Stuart's) name.

Jack Adrian, an enthusiastic studier of Verner and Blake, has said that "During his lifetime he had over 130 books published under four pseudonyms, an oeuvre which may be cut down as much as by half because of recycling earlier material and, at times, outright theft."

Still, Verner was hugely popular with his audience and a favourite of the Duke of Windsor, who was presented with an especially bound set of 15 of Verner's thrillers.

But let's go back to the beginning.

Above is a copy of the baptism record for John Robert Stuart Pringle. I've enlarged the date which reveals that he was born on 31 January 1897, the son of John Charles Rochfort Douglas William Stuart Pringle and Ellen Emma Stuart Pringle.

His parents were both named Pringle when they married—in fact, their marriage certificate records their names as Stuart Pringle, although not hyphenated and what census information I have found always lists the family name as Pringle.

Ellen Emma Pringle was born in Swansea, Glamorgan, around 1876 and was 19 when she married her cousin, John Charles R. D. W. S. Pringle, then 38 and described as a Gentleman.

Ellen was the daughter of Robert Wallace Pringle (born Robert William Pringle, London, 20 May 1840; d. 1915), who had married Francis Campfield Friend (1839-1917) in 1862. Robert was a Professor of Music and lived most of his life in Kent and London, although it was interesting to see that Francis was, for a time around 1871, running a hotel in Worcester while her husband was living in London. The two had a family that included:

Albert John William Pringle (b. Walmer, Kent, 1863), who became an actor
Harry Thomas Pringle (b. Torquay, Devon,1866), who became a musician
Frank Slodden Pringle (b. Newport Pagnell, 1868) who became a clerk in Holy Orders
Arthur Ernest Pringle (b. Newport Pagnell, 1870) who became an actor
Ellen Emma Pringle (b. Swansea, c.1876) who became an actress

Robert's older brother was John Robert Pringle (b. London, 10 April 1831). I've not been able to track him quite so firmly. The Pringle family seems to consist of parents John and Emma, and children Emily, John, Emma Margaret Mercy (b. Hampstead, Middlesex, 1833), Charlotte Isabel (b. Portland Place, London, 2 April 1835; d. Headington, 1918) and Robert William, who can be found living in Margate, Kent, in 1841, moving to Thanet, Kent, in 1851, by which time Emma is a widow. Emma Pringle was living in Newport Pagnell in 1871 (which probably explains why some of Robert's children were born there).

What happens to John R. Pringle in 1861 to 1881... well, he's proving to be a bit elusive, as is his family. In 1901, he is living with his brother, Robert, at 163 Shirley Road, Southampton, a 69-year-old widower. At the same address is his grandson, John R. S. Pringle, aged 4, who would grow up to be Donald Stuart and Gerald Verner.

Young John's father is nowhere to be seen, although his actress mother is boarding at 63 Palace Road, Hornsey, and it seems quite possible that daddy, too, was treading the boards somewhere.

In 1911, 14-year-old John Robert Stuart Pringle was living in Lewisham, still with his grandparents Robert and Frances, but that's as far as I can track him until the appearance of his first Sexton Blake yarn in 1927.

Whilst the above research doesn't reveal as much as I'd have liked, it does seem that John Pringle/Donald Stuart/Gerald Verner was raised primarily by his grandparents and was likely to have been influenced by his mother and uncles to pursue a theatrical career as an actor (or so he claimed) and a playwright.

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