Monday, August 20, 2007

W. Holt-White

I had the good fortune recently to stumble upon a series of old (1913-14) paperbacks which contained 'bijou biographies' of some of the series' authors along with photographs. Over the next few days I'm hoping to share some of them with you as many of the books were by big names of their day who have since slipped into obscurity.

William Edward Bradden Holt-White was born in Hanwell, Middlesex, on 22 September 1878, the son of William (an architect) and his second wife Jane Bateson White (nee Cooke) who had married a year before. William had previously been married to Ellen H. White.

Holt would appear to have been a family name also, I suspect, given to William's younger sisters Gertrude Florence H. H. White (1879- ) and Helena Elizabeth H. H. White (1881- ).

William was originally intended for the Church, something of a family custom as three of his immediate relatives were bishops. His career took a different path and he was in turn a footballer, boxer, longshoreman and special correspondent around half the world. Holt-White wrote that "Constant change and a spirit of adventure are the main constituents of happiness. Adventures are to the adventurous. Every time I walk upstairs I hope that I may meet an angel at the top and every time I walk downstairs I think how jolly it would be to meet a burglar at the bottom. I have been nearly all over the world, but I find London the finest place of adventure. Every time I blithely mount a motor-'bus I do so no merely to get from one place to another but with the sence that I am meeting with adventure at the corner."

"It was my journalistic experience which gave me this idea. The life of the modern special correspondent is one long series of adventures. I have ridden with the North-West Mounted Police across the prairie, enjoyed the hospitality of princes and potentates and hunted with Scotland Yard men on many a murderous trail. And it comes in handy. Truth is stranger than fiction and were it not so there would be no fiction so far as I am concerned."

Whilst in his twenties, Holt-White began writing novels which have become popular among collectors of early science fiction. His first novel, The Earthquake. A romance of London in 1907 was inspired by the earthquake in San Francisco. "I simply transferred the earthquake to London and founded a novel on that."

The Man Who Stole the Earth was a Ruritanian novel of politics and romance inspired by "the first Zeppelin scare some years ago" and was responsible for "a spate of novels about future air wars" (Michael Paris, 'Fear of Flying: The Fiction of War 1886-1916'), although contemporary critics were not always complimentary of the story line, The New Age Supplement calling it "a crack-brained story of a young man whose author would have us believe was a general benefactor of humanity. By means of bombs dropped from an airship, this hero succeeds in gaining possession of Balkania, wherever that may be." The love-lorn inventor hero of the story "bombs most of Europe into submission in his drive to wed the daughter of the King of Balkania, forcing the world, en passant, into a state of peace" (John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction).

His other novels include Helen of All Time ("rather remarkably compresses into one volume an advance airship and the reincarnation of Helen of Troy", Clute); The Man Who Dreamed Right("movingly depicts an innocent man whose dreams predict the future and who is destroyed at the hands of the world's rulers (including Teddy Roosevelt), all desperate to corner his power", Clute); The World Stood Still, inspired by the 'Money Trust' which created something of a sensation in the United States ("not entirely plausibly describes the catastrophic effect on the world when its financiers go on strike", Clute; "Thriller of high finance and intrigue in which the four wealthiest men in America and Europe (who effectively control the world) decide to retire and hand the reins over to two young reprobates, causing world-wide chaos", George Locke, review); and The Woman Who Saved the World ("concerns near-future terrorism", Clute).

Holt-White's books also included biographies of Edward VII and Theodore Roosevelt.

At the age of 33, he was the editor of a London daily newspaper but forsook the editorial chair for advertising shortly before the beginning of the Great War. In 1914 he is said to have been a correspondent in Berlin.

Holt-White was married to Patricia Holt-White (in 1903) and as of 1915 was living in River Dup, Twickenham.

The BFI's Film and TV Database reveals something of his later life. In December 1915, Holt-White joined the Canadian War Records Office (some of his experiences were used in his final novel, The Super-Spy) and subsequently became the editor of Beaverbrook's paper for troops of the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force, the Canadian Daily Record. By July 1917 he was head of the Editorial Department at the War Office Official Topical Budget, supervising the production of newsreels for the Ministry of Information about actions during the war. He also remained in charge of publicity for the Canadian War Records Office.

Holt-White was made an honorary Lieutenant, then Captain, retaining his captaincy in peacetime. Unable to return to journalism, he remained with the Topical Film Company after 1918, working in much the same capacity as he had during the war, although now under William Jeapes' direction, whereas previously Jeapes had answered to him. Officially he was head of the editorial department, with news editor Charles Heath working under him. According to the BFI's biographical database, Holt-White "Must be considered the person most responsible for the high quality of much of Topical's output at this time." It would appear that Holt-White had left the company by 1926.
He died in Eastry, Kent, in late 1937, aged 59.

The Earthquake. A romance of London in 1907. London, E. Grant Richards, 1906.
The Man Who Stole the Earth. London, T. Fisher Unwin, 1909.
Helen of All Time. London, T. Fisher Unwin, 1910.
The Man Who Dreamed Right. London, Everett & Co., 1910.
The Prime Minister's Secret. London, T. Fisher Unwin, 1910; as The Crime Club, New York, Macaulay Co., 1910.
The World Stood Still. London, Everett & Co., 1912.
The Woman Who Saved the World. London, Everett & Co., 1914.
The Super-Spy. London, Andrew Melrose, 1916.

The People's King. A short life of Edward VII. London, Eveleigh Nash, 1910.
Theodore Roosevelt. London, Andrew Melrose, 1910.


  1. I wrote that note on Holt-White for the BFI database (I used to work there), and I'm really pleased to have stumbled upon your post, as I'd not seen a picture of him before now, nor such a complete biography. He was an interesting, creative, dependable, but I think also troubled character, who deseves to be rescued from obscurity. He achieved notable things in science fiction, journalism and film production - no mean achievement. I write about his film work in my book "Topical Budget: The Great British News Film".

    Luke McKernan

  2. Thanks for the comment, Luke. Most of the early biographical info. was taken from a paperback reprint of one of his novels which I came across by luck and from census records. I must admit that I didn't know anything about him beyond his entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction before that but, like many other authors, he turns out to have been quite an interesting character.

    Makes me wish that some of his novels were still available. I'd quite like to read his "crack-brained" novel, The Man Who Stole the Earth.

  3. I have stumbled into Bear Alley a few times over the years.
    Always rewarding, I would like to say how pleased I was to discover such a lot of interesting facts about Holt-White.

  4. We have come across your blog and have found it so interesting as our grandmother was Helena Holt White and we knew so little about her brother and had never seen a photo of him.

    Dale Jones (nee Addis)



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