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Friday, July 06, 2007

Michael Storm

I mentioned last week that I thought I might have resolved a long-standing mystery. Unfortunately, I'm now not sure whether it's solved or not.

I'd better explain what the mystery is first. Back in around 1906-10 there was a writer who penned a number of stories for the Amalgamated Press. Although most of the stories he wrote were published anonymously, quite a few were discovered thanks to old payment records and correspondence with some of the old editorial staff who remembered the writer in question. Two collectors in particular, Walter Webb and Bill Lofts, spent a lot of time trying to resolve the mystery of this author as he was a prolific writer of Sexton Blake yarns and had created one of the most popular of Blake's gallery of villains, George Marsden Plummer. Plummer, a Scotland Yard detective-turned-crook, first appeared in Union Jack in 1908 and was subsequently teamed up with another character written by the same author, Rupert Forbes, in one of the classic Blake stories 'The Mervyn Mystery' (Boys Friend Library, 1909). The same author also wrote a series of tales about Ravenscar school and two youthful crimefighters called Bob Dawson and Harry Fairfax for Pluck. Further stories appeared in Marvel, Boys' Realm, Gem, Penny Pictorial and Answers.

The writer was known as Michael Storm and he was described by one former editor as looking "like Peter Ustinof, with a fringe of whiskers all round his face. He was middle-aged -- about 45 I should say." This put Storm's year of birth at around 1862. But a search of records shows no Michael Storm born around that time.

Herbert Leckenby (the founding editor of Collector's Digest, the long-running magazine for collectors of old British story papers) believed Michael Storm was the same author as Duncan Storm, the pseudonym of Gilbert Floyd. This was quickly dismissed by Webb as Floyd was a well-known editor at Amalgamated Press and of independent means which allowed him to leave and take up writing. This did not match the description of Michael Storm who was said to be "invariably after money" and always being pressed by creditors.

Payment records showed that all the tales attributable to Storm were paid to "M. Storm", although the cheques were often picked up and cashed by Mrs. Storm, her husband only ever making fleeting visits to the Amalgamated Press' offices.

All very mysterious. And the mystery deepens... stories written by Storm dried up in 1910 and, apart from a brief visit in 1911, no more was heard of Mrs Storm. In 1912, Mrs. Storm was said to have met a Canadian by the name of George Heber Teed on a boat sailing to Europe from Australia; Teed had recently been a farmer but the drought in Australia had wiped him out and he was off to Europe to seek work. Learning that Mrs. Storm's late husband had been an author, he struck a deal and began writing stories which Mrs. Storm passed off as the work of her late husband.

In 1913 the deal broke down and Teed approached the editors at Amalgamated Press and proved to them that he had been writing the stories which Mrs. Storm had been paid for. He went on to become one of the most popular (if not the most popular) writers of Blake's golden age.

Years later, in 1940, a children's novel entitled The Grey Messengers appeared under the byline Michael Storm from Blackie & Son. This proved to be a reprint of an old Amalgamated Press yarn which had originally appeared in the Boys' Friend Library in 1929 under the title 'The Death Drums'. The byline used there was Innis Hale and it had already been established that Michael Storm had used the name Innis Hael for a series of stories in Gem in 1908.

The novel in question was written by one Charles Ignatius Sempill and a check in The Author's and Writer's Who's Who turns up the fact that Sempill was born in London in 1898, educated privately in Paris and Perth and had worked as a Superintendant of Police in Kenya as well as for the R.A.F. Intelligence.

Bill Lofts subsequently established that Michael Storm's real name was Ernest Sempill and he had lived in France for some years, which tied in nicely with his son, Charles, being educated in Paris.

However, the one major sticking point to all this good work was that there was no record of Charles Ignatius Sempill being born in London when he says he was (the Who's Who, of course, being compiled by information supplied by the author). Nor was there any record of an Ernest Sempill being born or married in the UK.

All this I learned from Bill Lofts many years ago. Bill added that more hours had been spent trying to establish authentic facts about Ernest Sempill than every other Sexton Blake author put together.

I've dipped into the mystery on and off for the past seven years without adding anything useful, although I did manage to establish that Charles Ignatius Sempill had fought during the Great War with the Australian forces. Last week I managed to follow that clue a little further and found a record of Sempill's signing up in the Australian National Archive. Sempill signed up in 1914 and at that time gave his address as London, England. He was actually a farmer in Western Australia. The vital information, as far as I was concerned, was that he gave his age as 22 years and 2 months. This dates his birth as being around June or July 1892, not 1898 as recorded in the Author's and Writer's Who's Who.

However, before we get too excited, there's no record of a Charles Ignatius Sempill being born in the UK that year. Or any other year for that matter. But it is the first official document I've traced that relates to the mystery.

There is, however, a Charles Ignatius Howden born in 1892. This discovery was what caused me to mention the Storm mystery last week and I've been waiting for a copy of his birth certificate since. Trust the postal workers to go on strike the one week I'm waiting for something.

The good news is the certificate has arrived. Charles Ignatius Howden was born at 90 Ponsonby Street, Toxteth Park, Liverpool, on May 29, 1892. That's just about the right time although, in September 1914, he would have been 22 years and 3 months, not 2. These inconsistencies are important to note because -- and here's the bad news -- a birth certificate doesn't prove anything. All I've discovered is somebody with the first names, an admittedly odd combination of names, who was born at approximately the right time as the person I'm looking for.

However, with birth certificate to hand, I can now say that Charles Ignatius Howden was the son of James Howden and Alice Mary Howden and a dig around various genealogical websites offers the following:

James Howden was born approx. 1857 in Liverpool. He married Alice Mary Cross in 1887 at Toxteth Park. The two had at least five children, all born in Toxteth Park, over the next few years: James Francis Howden (b. 1889), Mary Ursula Howden (1890-1894), Charles Ignatius Howden (b. 1892), Alice Lucy D. Howden (b. 1894) and William Stansislaus Howden (b. 1895).

On his son's birth certificate, James Howden is described as a "Gas Meter Maker Journeyman" and 1901 census also records his occupation as "Meter Maker". By 1901, the family had moved to 96 Rosebery Street, Toxteth Park, Liverpool.

The other interesting thing about the census records is that whilst James Howden aged from 33 to 43 in ten years, Alice Howden only managed to age from 29 to 36. I believe she was born in 1862 and the 1881 census gives her correct age.

None of this particularly inspires me to believe that James Howden, gas meter maker, would soon to change his name to Ernest Sempill and present himself at the Amalgamated Press as author Michael Storm. And why would James Howden, who has worked as a gas meter maker for over twenty years find himself dodging creditors and being described as a man of "good education but, I should say, of lax morals." It just doesn't ring true.

So the file on Ernest Sempill, a.k.a. Michael Storm, remains open.

That said, this latest run of research has revealed a number of things about Charles Sempill: I have a better idea of when he was born (1892 rather than 1898) and I've discovered that his mother's name was Margaret. Or, at least, his mother was known as Mrs. Margaret Sempill.

This in itself is intriguing as one of the early lines of enquiry taken by researchers was into the family of Lord Sempill whose family hold a baronetcy that dated back to the 15th century. However, when Lady Maria Sempill, the 16th Lady Sempill, died without any children, the title passed to her first cousin once removed, the 8th Baronet of Craigievar, Sir William Forbes who, by Royal License in 1885, was allowed to add the principal surname Sempill. Thus at around the time that Ernest Sempill first appeared, the 17th Baron Sempill was Sir William Forbes-Sempill.

Could this have been the inspiration for naming one of his most famous characters Forbes?

There was a Margaret Forbes-Sempill who died in 1966 following a motor accident aged 61. She was the daughter of the 18th Baron Sempill. I'm not suggesting that she was related to the Mrs. Margaret Sempill who was known as Mrs. Storm, but it's a curious coincidence that Margaret Forbes-Sempill was born in 1905, shortly before 'our' Ernest and Margaret appear. I should note that there doesn't seem to be any family connection between the Storms and the Forbes-Sempills (having Barons in the family means that their family tree has been extensively researched and widely published).

The other good news from my research is that I managed to confirm that Charles Ignatius Sempill was married (to Edith, b. c.1900) and had at least two children, Pamela June Sempill (b. 1924) and Barbara Gay Sempill (b. 1925). Both children were born in Africa whilst father Charles was serving with the Police although there is a record of them travelling from England to Australia in 1929, accompanied by their mother. They presumably remained in Australia as both enlisted for the armed services at Perth during or shortly after the Second World War.

All roads seem to lead to Australia as far as Charles Ignatius Sempill and his family are concerned, although I'm reasonably convinced that Charles himself was in the UK in the 1930s, perhaps as late as 1940 when his book The Grey Messengers appeared under the byline Michael Storm.

And that, my friends, is where I have to leave the mystery of Michael Storm -- a few steps forward, admittedly, but still frustratingly unresolved. Could Ernest Sempill really have been a Liverpudlian gas meter maker? What happened to make him change his name. Did Ernest Sempill die in France in 1910 or perhaps in Australia? Does Perth University hold any records for Charles Ignatius Sempill that might reveal anything? What about his war records and those of his daughters held in Canberra? Did Margaret Sempill, his mother, die in Australia?

I've just ordered a copy of Sempill's (or Storm's) The Grey Messengers... I'm rather intrigued by the sound of it as it involves spying and policing against a setting of African unrest. I'll post a scan of the cover when it arrives and no doubt I'll try to tackle some of the above questions at some point and add a few more hours to the total that have been devoted to Michael Storm for over fifty years!


  1. Just found bit about gas mete maker in Liverpool. According to 1881 census, my grandfather Adolphus Vahle was a gass meter maker too, living as a boarder on Kent street. Any connection? I really can't find much on him - he came from Germany.

  2. Dear Steve,
    It may be another red herring, but in googling Charles Ignatius Sempill - a fairly distinctive name - I came across a man of this name, holding the Military Medal, in a list of RAF promotions,in 1931.