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Monday, May 21, 2007

James Edward Crabtree

James Edward Crabtree is a name new to collectors of old British story papers. Even when you hear that Crabtree was the author behind the detective adventures of Gripton Court it is likely to elicit a bit of head-scratching and little more.

Partly, the problem has been collectors themselves; when I became interested in the history of old boys' story papers, many of the finest collections had already been broken up and names like Barry Ono, Herbert Leckenby and Frank Vernon Lay were spoken of in hushed tones. Magazines covering the interests of 'old boys' (as they were known) had been around for decades (Collector's Digest had been running uninterrupted since 1946), yet there was barely a single index available for any paper and what was available -- indexes to Magnet and Gem, for instance -- were inexplicably incomplete despite the fact that full runs were in the hands of collectors. Bill Lofts and Derek Adley had gone some way to creating lists and identifying pseudonyms but there seemed to be no effort from others to get involved in producing something more comprehensive.

Several years ago I set up the Story Paper Index to try and remedy the problem and, although we've scratched the surface -- indexing some 16,800 story papers -- it's still only a flesh wound. Finding old story papers is nowadays almost impossible and there are still many hundreds of titles that have yet to be looked into. The chances that the Story Paper Index will ever be anywhere near complete are becoming more remote by the day.

However, it's also equally true that new information does come to light -- perhaps not daily but certainly every week. In the case of James Edward Crabtree it comes from Sybil Lee, the author's granddaughter who asked Jess Nevins about the detective character Gripton Court; Jess passed the enquiry onto me because he knew it would be something I'd be interested in (although if you look me up on Wikipedia you'll find that I was a former actor/model and dead these past ten years!).

Sybil has very kindly sent some information on her grandfather... so let's make this less about me and more about the man in the subject line.
James Edward Crabtree's family originally came from the Todmorden area of Lancashire but his father, Howarth Crabtree, a commercial clerk, moved his family -- wife Lucy M., two daughters and a son -- to Balsall Heath, Kings Norton, near Birmingham, in around 1877 and it was here that James Edward was born, on 20 April 1878.

He was still a scholar at the time of the 1891 census and was married in 1898 for Florence Mary P. Essex at Kings Norton. It may have been something of a shotgun wedding as the marriage was registered in the June volume and the happy couple's first son was born in September 1898.

By the time of the 1901 census, Crabtree was living in Ashby de la Zouche, Leicestershire, and was listed as an author and journalist. His parents and five of his seven siblings were still in Birmingham but it is worth noting that two of his brothers also had connections with journalism: George as a newspaper proof reader and Robert as a reporter.

I shall let Sybil take up the story...

"He was still living in Ashby until at least May 1902, but must have moved to London shortly afterwards as my mother, the fourth child, was born in Fulham in October 1903. He must have been working for one of the London papers because my cousin recollects being told that there was some sort of scandal connected with something he wrote and he was forced to leave. He was definitely back in Ashby de la Zouche in 1906, as the next child was born there.

"By 1908, he had moved the family to the Black Country and my next aunt was born in Tividale (now West Midlands). In 1911 he was living in Smethwick, where the family seems to have settled.

"During the 1914-1918 war, he served with the Royal Lancaster Regiment, Private 25913, as I found his war medal. My cousin said her mother told her he used to send written pieces home to be sold but I am unclear as to whether this was from overseas or not."

(A brief interruption here: The King's Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment) was split into three battalions, of which only the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion remained in the UK throughout the war.)

"Throughout his working life he wrote articles and detective stories for boys' magazines, in addition to his newspaper jobs. When asked about pseudonyms, my cousin recollected the name Dorien Esmark. He was writing for the Boys' Weekly in 1919 and I remember my mother mentioning Boy's Own."

(Interruption no. 2: Dorien (or possibly Dorrien) Esmark was a byline that appeared in the comic paper Comic Life, founded in 1899 and originally published by James Henderson until Hendersons were bought out by Amalgamated Press (A.P.) in 1920; the paper ran for 1,465 issues until January 1928 when it began a new run under the title My Favourite.)

"He later became the editor of the Oldbury Weekly News and my cousin thinks he was still the editor of this paper at the time of his death on 13 February 1927 at the age of 48. We always took this paper at home and it continued to be published until at least the 1950s. He was buried i n Uplands Cemetery, Smethwick, on 19 February 1927."

James Edward Crabtree's career as a writer for boys' papers began at least as early as 1915 and it seems likely that he was already established before the war began. His novel, Black Magic, originally appeared anonymously in the pages of Sparks (another Henderson magazine) in 1915 and was subsequently reprinted in issue no. 26 of Nugget Library in May 1920. Gripton Court also appeared in a number of other issues of Nugget Library which collected serials from various Henderson papers and, after the A.P. took over, from A.P. papers. Boys' Weekly (you can see James holding a copy in the above photo) was another short-lived Henderson paper which ran only 20 issues between May and September 1919.

The series is probably best remembered (when it is remembered at all) for the detective character Peter Flint, written by Stephen H. Agnew. Indeed, Gripton Court was thought (by Bill Lofts and Derek Adley) to be another series by Agnew but this now appears to be disproved. It seems more likely that Agnew's output of tales for Hendersons was disrupted during the war (when it is known he served on the Western Front) and other authors were drafted in to fill the papers, amongst them James Edward Crabtree.

Gripton Court was a famous London detective who shared his adventures with an office boy and junior assistant, red-haired Joe Sparks, formerly a conjurer, call boy and stable-hand in Enrico's Circus.

My thanks to Sybil and her family for allowing me to post this little piece and the photo of James Edward Crabtree. The rather battered copy of Black Magic, above, is also from the family collection.

Novels (published anonymously; series: Gripton Court in all)
The Panic Plunderers. London, Amalgamated Press (Nugget Library 24), Apr 1920.
Black Magic. London, Amalgamated Press (Nugget Library 26), May 1920.
The Arch Rival. London, Amalgamated Press (Nugget Library 28), Jun 1920.

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