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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

John Onslow

I decided to take a little look into the career of John Onslow after discovering that there were three authors of this name listed on the FictionMags Index. The Onslow I was interested in, who contributed a number of short stories to Look and Learn, was listed as simply fl.1968-70. (Of the other two, one (fl.1901-02) was way too old and the other (fl. 1933-37) seems to have only contributed two stories to Black Mask, the U.S. pulp.)

A quick dig around in library records turned up a number of books under the byline John Onslow likely to be by the same author. If I am correct in saying that "our" John Onslow also wrote the earlier Bowler-Hatted Cowboy, it seems that his origins may lie in Canada or he at least spent time in Canada, as the book concerns ranch life in British Columbia. A dealer's description I found described it thus: "Humorous and revealing account of ranch-life in North-West Canada after WWII, contending with wolves, bears, sub-zero temperatures and people with whom he did not see eye to eye."

This led me to Book Guy: A Librarian in the Peace by Howard Overend, in which he briefly reminisces about the book (pp.281-282):
Memories kept coming. I thought of a recently arrived homesteader who ranched in the Upper Cache Creek country for more than a dozen years after the war, John Onslow, whom I knew only through his book Bowler-Hatted Cowboy, which he wrote after returning to England with his wife and two children in 1959. His sister Hope had been one of Monica Storrs' missionary assistants, who spread the Anglican evangelical word in the North Peace region in the 1930s and '40s. Hope had married Robert D. Symons, a rancher, writer and artist who lived in the Upper Cache area, and John Onslow, fresh from army life after the war, had come to settle near them.
    Bowler-Hatted Cowboy caused quite a stir when it came out: it was all the library could do to keep up with demand. I don't think John Onslow's neighbours had any difficulty recognizing themselves and others, despite the fictitious names he gave them, and in Fort St. John—or Riverville, as he called it—there was not a reader who didn't know that the editor character "Ma Callahan" was the one and only Margaret "Ma" Murray of the Alaska Highway News.
    Pseudonyms aside, Onslow's well-told story and the local reaction to it made me curious. One day in September 1963, Wayne Steeves and I delivered books to the lonely little school at Upper Cache Creek and along the way we took a collection to Mrs. Hugh Bovee who had a small community library at a ranch down the road. In answer to our queries, Mrs. Bovee talked a bit about the Onslows and told us how to get to their old ranch house. The trip was an excursion, not only on a rutted lane through some beautiful yellow-tinted polar woods and across a creek, but through a few long years of time.
    hen we came upon it—the cabit of three parts, each with its own steep-pitched roof and built, as additions were needed, in an odd staggered sequence. The centre and rear parts were constructed of well-chinked weathered logs and the front was incongruously faced with white siding. Behind it rose the hill we had driven down, and in front was the ranch yard with fences and barn intact. A small bunkhouse lay toppled in a ravine but otherwise the place looked almost as if the Onslows had moved out a few days before. But we found the house chill and desolate. People had gone; only squirrels and ghosts were left. I remember feeling like an intruder. Outside on the red roof there was a large-painted J/O, the brand of John Onslow, homesteader and self-styled bowler-hatted cowboy who once had lived there and made the place his own. We noticed the mark again on one of the cows in the woods on our way back to the road.
    On the last page of his book, Onslow tells of his strong affection for his horse Paint. In the deserted barn on a straw-strewn floor we had seen a collar, dusty and worn. I wondered if this was all that was left of the experiences they had shared, the many rides along the trail through the woods and across the sunlit hills.
This extract offers quite a few clues. I started with Hope Onslow. As it was an uncommon combination of names, I quickly established that she was born in Leighton, Shropshire, in on 7 February 1907, the daughter of George Arthur Onslow and his wife Charlottle Riou (nee Benson), who were married in London in 1902. The Onslows had eight children: Mary, Robert George, John, Hope, Charles Edward, Kathleen Theodosia, Thomas Philip Riou and Denzil Octavia.

John was born in Leighton, Shropshire, on 6 January 1906 and grew up in and around Leighton and Shrewbury, where George Onslow was a farmer. His mother died in 1932, aged 56, and George remarried a year later to  Maud Elliot Harris.

Onslow would appear to have had a career in the army in the 1930s and was already an army officer by 1938. He eventually retired with the rank of Major.

John travelled to Canada after the war and became a rancher in Fort St. John. He married Susan Towle in Westminster in 1956 and they had five children (three girls, two boys) including Andrew G. (1957), Jane Elizabeth (1958), Simon J. (1960), Sarah M. (1962) and Rachel Evelyn M. (1967). Only Jane was born in Canada. On his return to England, the family settled in Sussex and it was in Chichester that Onslow's death was registered He died on 25 October 1985, aged 79.

Onslow wrote for Wide World and Argosy as well as a dozen short stories on a nature theme for Look & Learn in 1968-69. Two of his novels were aimed at children and concerned wizardry and witches.


Fire in the Desert. Edinburgh & London, Blackwood & Sons, 1964.
The Stumpfs, illus. John Lawrence. London, Jonathan Cape, 1966.
Stumpf and the Cornish Witches. London, Jonathan Cape, 1969.

Bowler-Hatted Cowboy. Edinburgh & London, William Blackwood & Sons, 1962.

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