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Saturday, October 29, 2016

J. Weedon Birch

J. Weedon Birch is a name I have returned to regularly. Although I'd never read a word of his writings he intrigued me not only because he was a prolific writer and publisher but because, despite hours, even days, of digging, I was unable to find a trace of him for many. I'd spent hours — days even — trying to find just the tiniest slither of official documentation of his existence, just as others had before me. It's a good thing I love a mystery. When Bill Lofts & Derek 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 particular mystery started fifty or so years ago when various collectors of Old Boys Papers — as children's story papers were known amongst those who collected 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 (c.1879- ) 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 might have expected his partner to be fairly close by but, unfortunately, I could find no trace of J. Weedon Birch listed.

In 2008 and 2011, when earlier versions of this column were published, I had found no record for the death of J. Weedon Birch and speculated that 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). "This is a mystery I'm sure to return to in the future," I said...

... and it's a mystery that, thanks to the diligent digging of my mate John Herrington, that we can now mark solved. In the original piece, I speculated that the J. of J. Weedon Birch may have stood for Joseph, having tracked down a family where a Mr. Birch had married a Ms. Weedon (you can find the 2011 column here).

Jesse Birch was born in Watford on 22 August 1875 [baptized 26 September 1875], the son of Jesse Birch (c.1847 [bapt. 21 Feb 1847]-1885), a brewer's drayman born in Sarratt, Hertfordshire, and his wife Martha Jane (nee Bradford), who were married around the time of Jesse's birth. Jesse grew up in Watford where his father died when Jesse was only nine or ten. He was educated in Watford including a brief spell in 1888 at the local Victoria Boys' School. At fifteen he was working as a solicitor's clerk and living in lodgings at 85 Sutton Road, Watford.

Martha Jane Birch remarried, to David Rowbotham and continued to live in Watford along with her second son, Harry, who later became a factory hand. Martha died in 1916 and I believe Harry died in 1957.

I've yet to find Jesse on the 1901 census, but on 10 February 1902, at the age of 26, he was married in Watford to Kate Weedon, the daughter of Thomas Weedon. According to records, Jesse was widowed at the time of his marriage, although there is no sign of an earlier marriage.

Jesse was living at 11 Balmoral Road, Watford, by the time the 1911 census was taken, living with Kate and three children: Charles Ronald (1903-1993), Kate Louise (1905- ) and Grace Evelyn (1909- ). Jesse's occupation was described as "Publisher and Sales Manager to a Publishing Company issuing cheap literature"— "cheap" had been crossed through and replaced with "popular".

It is likely that this was Aldine Publishing Co., with whom Birch was involved with as a writer, as we have already seen. He subsequently ran G. H. Robinson & J. Birch and Sphinx, which were publishing in the early 1920s. Birch moved to Clarendon, Parsonage Road, Herne Bay, Kent, and continued to write right up to his death on 21 July 1926.


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.

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