Bill Lofts – the journey of a collector and researcher

More material from the Haining archive, this by his friend and colleague W.O.G. ('Bill') Lofts. Some of it is covered by Bill's piece on market places. As a researcher pre-internet he haunted the British Museum and saw himself as a kind of knowledge sleuth (hence the title).


  Like most normal children I started reading the coloured nursery comics at an early age:    'Chicks Own' and 'Tiny Tots', for example. With their hyphenated script underneath they helped us a great deal in learning to read. W. Howard Baker recently - and without any prompting from me related how it taught him to read in his home in Cork, Ireland. Later I went on to the older, 'Rainbow', 'Tiger Tim's Weekly' category, and later still to the black and white comics such as 'Chips’, 'Comic Cuts', 'Larks', 'Jester' and 'Funny Wonder'. I think my favourite was 'Larks'. That had Dad Walker on the front page, and was drawn by Bert Brown whom I was to meet many decades later, and whose originals I greatly treasure.

  At the age of ten I bought my first boys paper, 'The Hotspur’. It was my birthday, 2nd September 1933. Out with my Mother I saw No 1 displayed in a paper shop window, its cover showing a giant eagle attackinq a much smaller plane. I was so struck with this that I asked my Mother to buy it for me as an extra birthday present. I liked the contents so much that I had it delivered every week after that until the Second World War bombed out the paper shop.

  Here is a clear case for the fact that the artist does as much as the author in selling the: project. The artist in this case was a William Blain. In later years I discovered he was the editor as well as the artist. Because of his eye catching art work he gained me as a subscriber for at least seven years.

  Curiously, at school we all read the D.C. Thomson Papers:     'Hotspur',    'Wizard',    'Rover',    'Adventure'    and 'Skipper’. The only boys I can recall who read the 'Magnet' and 'Gem' attended grammar schools; these in the great minority. I did read the old Greyfriars yarns - reprinted in 'The Schoolboys Own Library' - that were book length and mainly complete. It was irritating to read part of a serial in 'The Magnet' and then not have the next issue. I never read St. Jim's after my first attempt. 'Gussy', with his lisp, made the dialogue hard to follow and slowed down the reading speed of a then rather immature, small boy!

  If anyone influenced me in my reading it was my Mother. She read all the William stories by Richard Crompton in 'Happy Magazine' as well as serials in the comics. 'Jenny the Flower Girl' is one series I can still remember today. She also used to read the Bessie Bunter Stories in 'The Schoolgirls Own Library'. Whenever she gave me a few pennies to buy some second-hand boys papers she always told me "not to forget to bring back a 'Bessie Bunter’”.

  Our local bookstall was run by a Gerald R. Swan. In later years he was to become a publisher of boys comics and papers. I met him again in the sixties and remembered him at once, though he obviously did not recall me. His rate of exchange was simply two of your papers for one of his. No wonder he made his fortune in time; doubling his money from our tattered papers.

  I had two brothers and two sisters. Although my older sister read womens magazines, and my younger brothers read the same as me, none today show the slightest interest in the reading of their youth. I cannot recall my father ever reading a novel at all; he was probably far too busy with his roles as secretary of several sporting clubs. He did at odd times tell us about the boys papers of his youth, one entitled 'Blood-marks’. Curiously, I have never been able to trace it. It was probably an obscure, gory paper with a limited run, from an equally obscure backstreet publisher.

  At school I was considered 'bright' and, I suppose, something of a 'Tinker' like Sexton Blake's assistant. A school prefect, I ended up as Vice-Captain of the school - a sort of Wingate - being excellent in all forms of sport. Probably I had some sort of detective instinct in me at an early age, as I was instrumental in recoverlng a silver cup which had gone missing from a showcase; as well as catching a sneak thief who had been stealing from the pockets of coats left in the cloak room. I solved this by simply hiding in a corner - practically hanging myself up on a hook - with an overcoat concealing me, and waiting till someone turned up. The culprit's excuse - that he had come to get a hankerchief from his coat pocket - bore no weight when, after a search, other items not his own were found on him. When I met him again many years later, he was, by then a alerqyman; while our old School Captain always seemed to be on the wrong side of the law! This shows that one can never Judge by a boy's school report what he willl become in later llfe.

  At about the age of 15 I gave up boys papers completely, being more interested in sport. Many collectors never give up but carry straight on from boyhood, We still had the good, old 'Hotspur' delivered but I hardly read it. Apart from a peep at an old copy of 'Film Fun' my younger brother had, my reading was practically nil. I certainly never read Sexton Blake or any other detective novels, I was always proud (after a boyhood experience of trying to find the house of Sherlock Holmes down Baker Street) that the greatest detective of them all lived only ten minutes away from my home in St. Marylebone. In those days we still had thick fogs, gaslights, cobbled streets, and the handsome cabs that were then mainly in the area of Regents Park. I loved the films with Basil Rathbone (in my view, the perfect Holmes) in the leading role.

  In 1942 at the age of 18, I was called up for war service. After initial training in England I found myself out in India in a special hush hush unit that was preparing for combat in jungle fighting against the Japanese In Burma, behind enemy lines. Probably the greatest laugh I get today is reading war novels of 'true' accounts of what actually happened; they make me wonder if the writers had ever been there. In my case I found the experience extremely harrowing for apart from the Japs, one had to put up with bird eating spiders, which spun their giant webs over footpaths so that at night one walked into them, being attacked by giant hawks as soon as one showed any bits of food, snakes, wild animals, blood sucking bats, malaria, fevers, ringworm and so on. With Jap snipers about as well, there was always the thought at the back of one's mind that one would never see England again.

  As a G.P.O. Ack it was my job to relay back the position of the enemy to our guns. Seeing, from a distance, a small clearing with some mud huts, I thought it looked like an ideal place for shelling if it was occupied by the enemy. I crept forward with bren gun at the ready but the place proved to be deserted. The Japs had been in possession of the place, judging by various papers strewn around. So had some poor British soldiers, captured and probably, by then, well on their way to a prison-of-war camp in Siam. In one 'basher' (hut) were some English paperback novels having the title 'Sexton Blake Library' so I stuffed these in the front of the large pocket of my jungle outfit to read at some later stage when I was back behind the safety of my lines.

  We used to get parcels of books to read from England, but many were reprinted American-style fiction. When I read the Sexton Black novels I found them so refreshing, and so English, as well as the mention of the Baker Street area, so nostalgic, that when writing home I asked them to send me any copies of The Sexton Blake Library.

  On my return to England by hospital ship, back in civy street, I found I had developed a taste for reading, so I used to go round the second-hand bookstalls and pick up old copies of The Sexton Blake Library. I kept them in a bookcase and started keeping a record of the numbers I wanted, At the time, I believed, by the numbering, that it had started around 1941, and it was with a shock one day that I found a copy numbered 744. (It was actually the last of the second series). I was astonished when told there was an earlier series.

  The Library had actually started in 1915, so I had an awful lot of collecting to do to get the complete set! And this was not all, a collector told me later; Sexton Blake stories had appeared in many other papers; 'Union Jack' and 'Detective Weekly' to name two, and had actually started way back in 1893 in the 'Halfpenny Marvel'.

  I entered the hobby seriously when a chap at my engineering works (I was a carburettor engineer at that time) told me that a good way of obtaining back numbers of old magazines was by advertising in 'Exchange' and 'Mart'. I did so and began receiving copies from a well known dealer. One day he sent me, gratis, a copy of a collecting magazine entitled 'The Collectors Digest'.     I found this most fascinating and soon became a "regular subscriber, becoming also a friend of the editor, Herbert Leckenby.    Later I would entertain him on his visits to London.

  What puzzled me at that period in 1951 was the awful number of mysteries which appeared in the magazine; readers writing in saying they were 'mystified as to how long a paper actually ran for', or 'who had been the author behind such and such a pen name' ... they seemed content to simply pose the question and remain mystified whereas my type of investigative mind would not let me rest until I had solved the mystery. Maybe I'm different than most. I found the solution to these mysteries by routine investigation. There was nothing clever about it.

  For instance; the British Museum Library has files of old papers and catalogues of runs and dates, so I simply went there and got the run out. In the case of the mysterious pen-names, I wrote to the publishers quoting the story in question. Amalgamated Press was then still in existence with many old editors still in harness. In time I built up a reputation in the Old Boys book field as a solver of mysteries; mysteries which to me were simply in need of an 'elementary My Dear Watson' type of explanation.

  I must add that I have always greatly appreciated the fact that not every collector has the same opportunities as I have - living in the heart of London. I especially have a soft spot for overseas readers who are so far away from the hub of things. Many readers live in remote places as well as having families to look after, so all in all I regard myself as being lucky in many respects in being able to glean the details and information which mean so much to many collectors.

  My first article published in Collectors Digest was about Cecil Ponsonby of Highcliffe School. (I'd had one or two letters inserted before this date). Afterwards, it became almost a flood of writing. I wrote for the Canadian 'Story Paper Collector' and American 'Dime Novel Roundup'. At one time I had obtained copies of The Magnet and realised (as an adult) what a brilliant writer Frank Richards really was, with his characterisation that made the school and boys real to the reader. He was simply a born story teller. But I found, in trying to re-read 'Hotspur', that it was a bit juvenile.

  A point which I have always felt strongly about Is that there is no doubt a big difference in reading stories as a boy to reading them as an adult. The Magnet is probably more enjoyed in adult life. Then, one is more mature and can appreciate good and skilled writing. As boys, one reads very quickly, almost skipping pages to read the exciting pieces. 'The Hotspur' and others were written for boys to read; full of gripping text with plenty of action.    I found my taste regarding favourite characters also changed. From what I recall as a boy I liked Harry Wharton when he was a model Captain of the Remove. As an adult he was, to me, at times priggish. Smithy I liked far more than when a boy, whilst Billy Bunter, I found, dominated the stories far too much, sometimes becoming a bit tedious.

  Some old readers claim to have known, when they were boys, that there were substitute tales. I would say this was impossible unless they had inside information. One may have detected that a story one week was below par, but if one does not know that such a thing as 'ghost writers’ exist, how can one know this is the reason for the drop in standard? More so when all the stories were either by 'Frank Richards’ or 'Martin Clifford'. With editors telling readers of each of their different existences who is going to disbelieve them? Boys found it impossible for editors to tell untruths.

  I can well remember going into our local paper shop and seeing piles of Gems unsold and feeling sorry for the author 'Martin Clifford', with the thought that he would soon be out of a job. In my youthful mind (and I prided myself on being intelligent) Frank Richards was the oldest ... a scholarly man with his classic quotations. Martin Clifford I thought to be a bit younger. Owen Conquest I placed as the youngest of the three. I think all three met once in a story in the Holiday Annual, again proving to the youthful reader that they were three different individuals and not the same man. Answering those clever people today who say they knew it all the time; Frank Richards himself said that out of the millions of readers only a couple guessed his secret, and they were of an adult vintage.

  Apart from visiting the British Museum ~o gather details about Old Boys papers, I also used to call at Fleetway House in Farringdon Street and meet various editors, authors, artists and a few Directors. Many became personal friends after a short time so that I was able to get priceless information on inside affairs that would not have been given to the casual letter writer. Many editors in the fifties and sixties were still in harness from pre-war days. To give a full list of them would read like a Who's Who: Editors of Triumph, Champlon, Sexton Blake Library, Detective Weekly, Thriller, Film Fun, Bullseye, Chums, Rainbow, Playbox, Tiger Tim's Week;y, Tiny Tots, Boys Friend, Knockout, Radio Fun, Nelson Lee Library, Girls Papers, and black and white comics galore. I was even able to contact and interview editors who had long retired but were still alive. One was Jack Cox of 'The Boys Own Paper'. He weighed about twenty stone and joked about his figure resembling Billy Bunter's, he being an old Magnet reader despite being editor of the staid Religious Tract Monthly. H.W. Twyman, former head of the 'Union Jack', was another. Living in an old 17th Century cottage in the wilds of Surrey, he was then ekeing out his pension by writing true crime stories for the American market. I was able to help him a great deal by sending him the latest editions of the London evening papers that contained full reports, and also by once attending a big trial at the Old Bailey to get my impressions of the case and likely verdict. I thought the defendant was as guilty as hell and was astonished when the jury found him not guilty. Many years later the same man committed another crime and confessed to the previous one as he tried to sell his story to the press. Of course, once discharged from being tried for a crime, one cannot be tried again for the same offence.

  I suppose one of the highlights of meeting personalities was my interview with the former Magnet and Gem editor, C.M. Down. A tall, very distinguished looking man who reminded me of Colonel Wharton in the Magnet series, it was fascinating to hear his own view on the Greyfriars stories. Surprisingly, he did not like Bunter at all and thought him a charicature and not like a real person. He thought Coker much more credible and a better comic relief character.

  Frank Richards in his opinion was at his best when in the school setting, plus in the feuding of masters, such as Quelch v The Head or Prout. Like Gussy, whom Frank Richards said he modelled on C.M. Down, he had a trait of feeling bound to answer truthfully, one's awkward-at-times questions. It was most enlightening! When, for instance, I suggested that Bunter was obviously so popular that in 1937 The Magnet subtitled the weekly 'Billy Bunter's Own Paper', he confessed there was no answer to it and suggested I have another port! All are now, alas, passed on. I was privileged to have met so many and still have hundreds of letters from many of them preserved for posterity in my files.

  I first met William Howard Baker around 1957 when he was editor of the Sexton Blake Library with its new look. We became good friends and are still to this day phoning each other twice weekly, and meeting at his lovely home at Wimbledon every month or so. A keen Greyfriars fan as a boy, his wonderful reprints which have enchanted tens of thousands through the years, speak for themselves.

  It would have been about 1954 when I first met Derek Adley. His name appears on most of our publications through the years. Derek was in a branch of The Fleet Air Arm during the last war. He had never given up the hobby since a boy, writing to me for data on titles of stories. Derek compiles lists of stories of papers into record books with authors pen-names etc. Being an accountant this is easy to him, whilst his knowledge is of course as good as my own in the hobby.

  After we met we soon found we made a good team. I did the research and Derek usually compiled it ... which suited me as I hate having to write lists of figures and other statistics.    Our "first publication was The Old Boys Book Catalogue. It gave all the data on Boys and Girls Papers, Comics, Annuals and Libraries, and ran in all to four or five editions.    In hard cover books we did:    Men Behind Boys Fiction, The Edgar Wallace Bibliography, The Saint and Leslie Charteris, and The World of Frank Richards. Catalogues included:    Rupert (in three editions), William (in two), Hotspur, Boys Friend Library, Thriller, Gem, annuals and other minor publications including a classified D.C. Thomson Annuals guide that has run into three editions.

  Written articles appear so extensively these days that it is a job to remember all of them but some excellent articles have appeared in the Book and Magazine Collector over the last few years.

  I started branching out into other fields of popular literature in the sixties. My first article was in the detective field for America, and 'The Saint Magazine'. Detective work could be said to have started when, for a large Company, I had to find the widows of the famous Sexton Blake writers, G.M. Teed, Gwyn Evans, and Robert Murray Graydon, in connection with the TV rights for their late husbands' stories.    TV had not been public when the stories were written. Needless to say I eventually found all three though they had not been heard of for some 30 years. It took some sleuthing and long hours of painstaking investigation and was quire a feather in my cap. From then on, everything snowballed till I found my name in books in credits ... books dedicated to me ... voted President at the scholarly Cambridge Club ... made Hon. Professor at an American University ... consulted by famous authors, publishers and legal departments, and by auctioneers on the value of books or the history of them.

  Up until today I must have written nearly 2,000 odd articles on all subjects under the sun relating to popular fiction, as well as being in great demand for talks at various functions. I must also be unique in belonging to practically all the Old Boys Book Clubs as well as many others in its off-shoots such as William, Rupert, Ace, Edgar Wallace, Henty Society and so on.

  I suppose one could say that I have a knowledge on almost everything pertaining to popular fiction.    This is distinctly to my advantage as I can converse with almost everyone on their favourite boys papers, detective or comic. Variety is the spice of life. My favourite boys paper is The Magnet, though it falls prey to the one snag in doing so much detective work: whereas years ago, errors in stories just slid by me, today they stick out like sore thumbs. The Sexton Blake stories, re-read today, have their limitations. Often, I start one, then give it up because of some stupid error (which the editor should really have sent back for revision) which completely spoils it for me.

  Curiously, I never got hooked on science fiction, though I loved the films based on H.G. Wells stories. It was the same with Westerns; I loved all the old stars such as Buck Jones, Tom Mix, Tim McCoy & Co, but just could not read a tale of the Far West. 'Scoops' was the first boys science fiction paper that appeared in the thirties, whilst there was a 'Wild West Weekly' in the late thirties. Both had short runs.

  Some of my detective work is highly classified, and must remain secret under the Official Secrets Act, though I can say that I once had to investigate the activities of a certain man who claimed to have been a spy in books and a National hero in his own country, and my own conclusions seemed to confirm my suspicions that he had a highly colourful imagination! Investigation into another famous writer who was certainly everything he claimed to be - only brought me into conflict with high authority in Whitehall.

  My greatest feat of research would have to be finding a friend's long lost sister. She had not been heard of in thirty years. Her first name was Betty, but all other details were vague as she had a different mother. When I eventually found her, she was living in the heart of Africa. My most eerie experience was when I had to investigate a house reputed to be haunted by the effects of a brutal murder that happened there many years previous. I saw an old woman who walked along silently, leaving no footprints after her. Could it have been a trick of the light? Recently there was the gold cup investigation. The cup had disappeared from India over 160 years ago when I eventually found it in a glass case in a famous museum.

  But all in all I would say that the collecting of Old Boys Books is one of the best hobbies in the world; whenever I see an old copy of 'The Hotspur' it brings back instantly those happy, carefree days when I was a small boy in the thirties.

3 thoughts on “Bill Lofts – the journey of a collector and researcher

  1. jill Thomson

    I have approximately 500 Sexton Blake small books from 1922 onwards in good condition wrapped in polythene. I would like to sell. Anyone interested? I am based in UK.

  2. Pingback: William Blain, The Comics Wizard from Gourock | A Wilderness of Peace

  3. John Tipper

    It’s been 30 years or so since I published “Investigations Unlimited” in issue #5 of “Golden Years”. Bill became a regular correspondent over the following years until his death. He freely gave me numerous articles to use and carried out research on my family tree. Proving his matchless ability to come up with surprising discoveries, he sent me a birth certificate for the sister of my father, about whose existence I knew nothing! We’ll never see his like again.


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