This particular mystery started fifty or so years ago when various collectors of Old Boys Papers — as children's story papers are known amongst those who collect them — noted that the famous Fat Owl of the Remove in the pages of The Magnet was not the first star of children's fiction to rejoice in the name Billy Bunter. Shortly before Charles Hamilton (using the pen-name Frank Richards) began writing stories featuring Greyfriars School, another author, H. Philpott Wright, was writing a similar school series in the pages of Vanguard Library, a weekly published from 4 May 1907 by a minor publisher, Trapps-Holmes. Hamilton was a regular writer for Trapps-Holmes and it was interest in Hamilton that made Vanguard Library of interest to collectors. In its pages, Hamilton wrote of various schools, including Northcote, Norchester, Larkshall College, St. Kate’s, Redclyffe and various others; towards the end of the original run, between September and November 1909, Hamilton was responsible for the bulk of the contents under various pen-names, including Gillingham Jones, Ridley Redway, Robert Stanley and a number of anonymous yarns. In earlier issues he also wrote as Roland Rodway, Cecil Herbert, Eric Stanhope, Gordon Conway and contrinued his St. Kate’s yarns under the name Frank Drake.
Interest in Hamilton's tales spread to others in the Vanguard Library, especially those of H. Philpott Wright featuring the boys of Blackminster school, and starring Taffy Llewellyn, although most of the attention to the series was because of a boy by the name of Billy Bunter. Whether this inspired Hamilton when he came to name his Greyfriars' characters is unlikely to ever be known for sure; Hamilton later claimed he had used the Bunter name in a rejected story as far back as 1899, and had kept it in mind, to be revived when he started writing the Greyfriars yarns in 1908 (he certainly recycled names endlessly; most of the boys’ names were used time and time again, and even Greyfriars School had been used before in Smiles, another Trapps Holmes paper, in 1907).
Taffy Llewellyn appeared in some 44 stories in Vanguard Library between 1907-09. He then left Blackminster School and teamed up with a detective by the name of Jubal Grail, whose adventures had been appearing concurrently in Vanguard Library credited to one Captain Addison. It seems logical to conclude that Captain Adison and H. Philpott Wright were the same author.
Wright remained something of a mystery in boys' paper collecting until it was realised that photographs that appeared in Diamond Library and True Blue of the authors H. Philpott Wright and J. Weedon Birch were the same photograph. (Unfortunately, I've never seen these photographs, but as the information came from Bill Lofts I believe it to be fact.)
True Blue was another Trapps-Holmes paper whilst Diamond Library was published by Aldine Publishing for which I have only a very partial listing. Birch turns up at least twice with stories entitled 'Marooned at School' (1912) and 'The Demon Bowler' (1913) and it seems likely that Birch, for some reason unknown, switched his allegiance from Trapps-Holmes to Aldine in the summer of 1909. His mantle as the Vanguard Library's most prolific contributor was picked up by Charles Hamilton and Stephen H. Agnew.
Birch's Blood Brothers, a story of the Matabele rebellion, was published in 1912 as the first number of Aldine's World-Wide Library which also included contributions by James Skipp Borlase, William Hamilton Maxwell, James Maclaren Cobban and other adventure story writers before coming to an end in 1913.
Bill Lofts and Derek Adley, in The Men Before Boys' Fiction, recorded (under the entry for H. Philpott Wright) that "Birch was an officer and transport rider to the Chartered Companies of Rhodesia and disappeared from the writing scene before the First World War."
This turned out not to be true: J. Weedon Birch was recorded as a shareholder in Aldine Publishing in 1920, where he was described as a publisher, and, that same year, he co-launched his own publishing company, G. H. Robinson & J. Birch, based in London, which reprinted over a dozen racing titles by Nat Gould and published the Hearth & Home Library (1920-21). Birch was one of his own authors, writing three novels for the firm, At the Kraal of the King (1921), The Lure of the Honey Bird (1921) and The Rhodesian Lily (1922). A later book was The Koodoo Patrol, another African adventure, published by Pilgrim Press (1926).
Birch, again with G. Heath Robinson, also set up Sphinx to publish The All Picture Comic, the first all-pictorial comic published in the UK, although it only lasted for three months in 1921. Sphinx then published the children’s paper Toby from September 1921 which was later sold to Odhams.
G. (for George) Heath Robinson was the younger brother of T Heath, Charles and W. Heath Robinson, the famous artists. George was registered in the London phone book in 1921-22 at 21 Mecklenburgh Square, W.C.1, listing himself as a publisher. One would expect his partner to be fairly close by but, unfortunately, I can find no trace of J. Weedon Birch listed. I did find a John E. W. Birch living in Ilford, Essex, but I'm pretty sure he's John Ernest William Birch, born in West Ham in 1863, for whom I can trace no publishing connections.
Nor have I found any record for the death of J. Weedon Birch. He may have been active as late as the mid-1930s, as his story 'Marooned at School' was reprinted in The Popular Book for Boys (London, Shoe Lane Publishing Co., 1935).
The only glimmer in all this murk is that I think I've found his family. The Weedon Birch name would appear to have come from the marriage of Joseph Birch, a successful shoe and boot maker, and Ann Weedon in Amersham, Bucks., in 1842. Joseph and Ann (sometimes spelled Anne) had ten children of which only one, Joseph, was a boy (a second son, Frank Weedon Birch, died the same year he was born).
It seems unlikely that Joseph was J. Weedon Birch — I say this because he would have been in his seventies when setting up his publishing company. It is, however, possible that he is the Joseph Birch listed in the 1871 census born c.1848 in Chesham who became a farmer in Great Marlow. He had, by the age of 23, married Emma (25). He may also be the Joseph Birch who, in 1881, aged 32, was the inn keeper of the Albert Arms in Reading. He does not seem to appear on the 1891 or 1901 census returns.
Whether Joseph and Emma had any children I've no idea. From Lofts & Adley we know that J. Weedon Birch spent some time in Rhodesia, which could explain why he doesn't seem to appear in census records. Of course, I could also be barking up completely the wrong tree.
The 1861 census lists the Birch family thus:
- Joseph Birch (42)
- Ann Birch (40)
- Jesse Birch (16)
- Mary Ann Birch (14)
- Joseph Birch (12)
- Sarah J. Birch (10)
- Kate Birch (8)
- Henrietta Birch (6)
- Emma Birch (4)
- Amelia Birch (2)
- Fanny W. Birch (3 mo)
- Joseph Birch (57, b. c.1819; d. 1878)
- Ann Birch (50, b. 1821; d. 1875)
- Jesse Birch (26, b. 1845)
- [[Mary Anne Birch (would have been 24) (b. 1847) poss. married]]
- [[Joseph Birch (would have been 22) (b. 1849)]]
- Sarah Jane Birch (20, b. 1851) became a domestic servant/cook
- Kate Birch (18, b. 1853) m. Beale
- Henrietta Birch (16, b. 1855) became as jeweller's assistant
- Emma Birch (14, b. 1857) became as jeweller's assistant
- Amelia Birch (12, b. 1859) became a music teacher
- Fanny Weedon Birch (10, b. 1861; d. Uxbridge, 1921) m. Henry Thomas Cherry in 1885
- [[Frank Weedon Birch (b.1861; d.1861)]]
- Lucy Birch (8, b. c.1864) became a governess/school mistress
- Emma Weedon (14, b. Cripplegate, Middlesex, c. 1857)
- Kate Weedon (11, b. Cripplegate, Middlesex, c. 1860)
- Alice Weedon (10, b. Cripplegate, Middlesex, c. 1861)
- Charles Weedon (5, b. Cripplegate, Middlesex, c. 1866)
- John Weedon (3, b. Chesham, Bucks, c. 1868)
- Frank Weedon (1, b. Cripplegate, Middlesex, c. 1870)
- Emma (b. 9 December 1856)
- William (b. 25 February 1858)
- Kate (b. 3 October 1859)
- Alice (b. 22 December 1860)
- James (b. 1 June 1862)
- Richard (b. 11 November 1863)
- Charles (b. 6 May 1865)
- John (b. 17 September 1967)
- Frank (b. 20 September 1869)
- Thomas Ramsdale Weedon (b. Chesham, 1872)
William's younger sister Ann, meanwhile, had married to Joseph Birch in 1842. Hence the family connection.
What these census records don't explain is why six of the Weedon's nine (at the time) children were living with the Birch family in 1871. James and Richard, two of the other three were pupils at a school in Tring, Hertfordshire, but William, Amelia and their eldest son, also William, are missing from sight. Maybe it was something as simple as a holiday abroad.
William Weedon died in 1880 and his widow is living in Hampstead by the time of the 1881 census along with her children Emma, Kate, James, Charles and Thomas R. and two servants, so the family were clearly not left destitute. By 1891, she has moved to Hendon, still living with many of her family (Emma, William, Charles, Frank). She died in 1899 in West Ham.
I seem to have travelled some distance away from the original mystery, but I'm resolute in my notion that somewhere amongst the above family is the mysterious J. Weedon Birch.
Here's my final stab at this for the moment. In the 1901 census there's a Joseph W. Birch, born in Chesham, Bucks, aged 41, married to Sarah A. Birch (36, also born in Chesham), and their children Maggie (8), Constance (6), Leonard W. (5), Charles F. (3) and John A. (7 mo). His occupation is given as bookmaker. He must be Joseph William Birch, born in 1860, married Sarah Ann Lacey in 1892. I'm including him here as an outsider — perhaps almost definitely an also ran — in the search for J. Weedon Birch.
When Lofts & Adley wrote that Birch was "probably one of the most interesting authors in the early days of the century and certainly the most mysterious," they weren't joking.
This is a mystery I'm sure to return to in the future.
Novels by J. Weedon Birch
Blood Brothers. A story of the Matabele rebellion. London, Aldine Publishing Co. (World-Wide Library 1), 1912.
Marooned at School. London, Aldine Publishing Co. (Diamond Library 170), 1912.
The Demon Bowler. London, Aldine Publishing Co. (Diamond Library 202), 1913.
At the Kraal of the King. London, G. H. Robinson & J. Birch, 1921.
The Lure of the Honey Bird. London, G. H. Robinson & J. Birch, 1921.
The Rhodesian Lily. London, G. H. Robinson & J. Birch, 1922.
The Veldt Trail. London, National Sunday School Union, 1925.
The Koodoo Patrol. London, Pilgrim Press, 1926.