Charles Hamilton and ‘The Modern Boy’

Found among the extensive papers of Peter Haining this article on an old magazine for boys The Modern Boy by the late Tom Ebbage, an Australian book collector also known as Harry Wharton and part of a long gone Sydney 'hobby circle.' The article appeared in the defunct magazine Golden Hours in 1987.

- Tom Ebbage

  As we all know, Charles Hamilton with the help of a number of "substitute" authors, wrote most of the Greyfriars and St. Jims school stories in the "Magnet" and the "Gem" commencing in 1907 and 1908.

  From February 1915 until April 1926 he also wrote nearly all of the 524 Rookwood school stories which appeared in "The Boy's Friend". Thus for over eleven years he kept three different schools going simultaneously, which was a remarkable task.

  When the Rookwood school saga concluded in 1925 he was allowed only a little less than two years to concentrate on the Greyfriars and St. Jims stories. Then on 11th February 1928 commenced THE MODERN BOY, and from the first issue, and with some intervals, Charles Hamilton wrote so many different yarns in this paper, that it could truly be said that he was the leading author in three different "companion papers" until they terminated in 1939 and 1940.

  Hamilton began his career in THE MODERN BOY with “King of the Islands”, a stirring yarn of adventure by air, land and sea. In all, C.H. wrote 209 stories of Ken King, and they made absorbing reading matter for the boys of the time. From September 1937 until February 1938, Hamilton wrote a series of Stories of "The Rio Kid", which were western adventures.

  Also in THE MODERN BOY C.H. supplied 36 yarns about a schooolboy detective named Len Lex and 30 tales under the heading of "The School for Slackers". Hamilton stories featured altogether in about 300 of the 610 issues produced.

  Another famous author in this paper was W.E. Johns, with his “Biggles” serials, which started in issue number 257 with “Biggles and the White Fokker”. Then followed a Great War series between issues 285 to 299, next set was titled “Biggles Learns to Fly” in numbers 323 to 339 and then we find “Winged Menace” in issues 366 to 375.

  The famous test cricketer and master batsman Walter Hammond was named as the writer of a cricket serial "Cloyne of Claverhouse", running from issues 69 to 80. George E. Rochester with his "Black Squadron", in issues 81 to 93, was another favourite author.

  I remember that C.H. once included the following Quotation in a "Magnet" story:
  "You cannot judge a book by its cover or an Ethiopian by his skin."

  In the case of THE MODERN BOY I think you can judge a book or rather a paper by its cover. In reviewing over 300 different copies of this paper, this opinion has been confirmed. The covers were always colorful and mostly showed pictures of locomotives, ocean liners, submarines, Zeppelins or airships, and rockets and novel inventions and ideas. Inside the papers we find very interesting pages about the matters displayed on the covers.

  The serial stories were invariably of a high standard, as we would expect from authors like Charles Hamilton, W.E. Johns, George E. Rochester, Murray Roberts, John Hunter, Stanton Hope, and others. Only a few times were the serial stories illustrated on the covers. This was in contrast to the "Champion" and "The Triumph", where the covers almost always depicted some dramatic scene from the inside Stories.

  But THE MODERN BOY was not only up to date, sometimes it was far ahead of its time. Most modern boys in my time were keen on trains, ships and planes and THE MODERN BOY should have appealed to them.

  For example as early MB no. 6, of 17 March 1928, the cover shows R100, “The Worlds Greatest Airship”, moored at its hanger. The headline states “NEW YORK NON-STOP” and “Soon to Commence TransAtlantic Service” (page 5 . This was a sister airship to the ill fated R101, which struck a hillside, exploded and burst into flames during a storm Beauvais in France, on 5th October 1930. Only 6 out of a total of 54 crew and passengers were saved. All airship construction by Britain was abandoned as a consequence of the official enquiry.

  MB no.7 of 24th March 1928 is both astounding and outstanding. It shows a rocket blasting off from a huge cannon. The headline says "ALL ABOARD FOR THE MOON!" At the foot or the cover it truly states as follows;

  "The Most Up-to-date Boys Paper in the World!"

  On page 2 of this issue there is a full page illustration of the craggy surface of the Moon, showing the rocket resting in a ravine, and the two "hardy adventurers on the ted of a plateau" admiring the amazing view of the "earth above their heads." On page 5 there is a full page story about the trip to the Moon “at seven miles a second.”

  The following description of the journey to the moon is amazingly prophetic:

  "One is for the construction of a giant rocket, cigar-shaped, to carry two passengers. The sealed rocket would whiz straight into the sky, carrying its tremendous driving force in its tail ... extremely powerful gasses which would be forced out in such a hurry that the rocket would be jerked and hustled forward at a speed of anything up to seven miles a second!"

  "Apart from a few lively possibilities, such as the Moon bus becoming white hot with friction, or tearing off into limitless space and getting lost there, the thrilling journey would be in full sunshine all the way, once the Earths shadow was left behind."

  The first paragraph above contains a nearly accurate forecast of tile way Armstrong travelled to the Moon about forty years later.

  Again, in MB no. 285 of 22nd July 1933, the cover shows another rocket speeding on its way to the Moon. The headline at the bottom states: "TO THE OLD MAN MOON IN TWO HOPS!" (See centre pages.

  Turning over to the middle of the paper, we read the following introduction;

  "You've heard of-the Floating Airports that one day may be anchored in mid-ocean so that planes can halt there and refuel? Well, these inventor fellows are now suggesting something of the same sort in Space ... a huge refilling station at which Passenger carrying rockets may stop on their way from Earth to Moon! That's the idea of our Cover in the picture on the right."

  The story concludes as follows;

  "One German merchant actually built a Space Ship and was quite ready to launch it. Unfortunately, he didn't want to travel in it himself and couldn't find a passenger."

  "It's my private opinion that anyone setting out for the Moon during the next few years will certainly arrive at another world, but which one they get to wilt depend more upon their past life than on the direction in which they aim their ship!"

  "But no one dan deny that a trip to the Moon, either by rocket or by some other clever device, is a possibility of the Future .. and of the not ... too distant Future at that!"

  And so it came to pass within less than forty years after that story in THE MODERN BOY. In the tong history of the human race, such a short time means the immediate future.

  Still on a similar subject, MB no. 339 of 4th August 1934, shows on the cover a rocket shooting from London to New York. The title underneath says; "THE ROCKET POSTMAN!"

  We have a double page story in the centre of the paper expanding on this interesting subject.

  It starts as follows;

  "You all know about rockets as fireworks. And you know they are used as lifesavers at sea. But what about Rocket Postmen. They're going to shift letters across the Ocean at breath-taking speeds ... England to New York in a couple of hours!"

  "England to France in one and a half minutes ... to Ireland in three minutes ... to New York in less than two hours … Some postman, that?"

  Of course we could have had rocket mail long ago. Within ten years of that MB story, Hitlers V1 and V2 rockets were exploding over London and Southern England.

  But wireless and international telephonic communications have made rocket matt unnecessary. The speed of airmail by planes which travel from London to Sydney in a tittle over a day is fast enough.

  MB no. 352, of 3rd November 1934, displays on its cover an ingenious idea entitled “THE PADDLE-WHEEL AEROPLANE!” To my knowledge, this has not become a practical invention.


  "Next Week. The latest L.M.S. loco PRINCESS ROYAL." The centre pages contain illustrations and a description of the COCK O' THE NORTH. Great value for two pence.


  Underneath there is an illustration of the free gift. The gift no longer being inside my copy, I don't know exactly how it worked, but it seems to have been very clever.

  MB no. 421, of 29th February 1936, has a cover picture of the latest Zeppelin flying over an Atlantic liner. The heading says;


  From the description on pages 2 and 3, I feet sure that this airship was the tit-fated "HINDENBURG", which crashed with tragic loss of lives as she was being moored at Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6th 1937.

  The story states the following;

  "Germany's new giant Zeppelin, LZ129, is nearly ready to take to the air. She can skim the clouds at eighty miles an hour, and fly 7000 mites non-stop!"

  "The greatest Zeppelin that has ever ridden the skies!"

  "Step aboard her and you will imagine yourself to be in a liner. No small gondola hanging beneath the gasbag but built-in accommodation on two big decks, with long windows that look out through the main structure. On the tower deck are bathrooms, smoking room, the purser's office, and tile Kitchen. On the upper deck are the dining room, a halt, a writing and reading room, and 25 sleeping cabins, each with two beds."

  In conclusion the story says;

  “Docking an airship of this size, perhaps with a gale blowing, is a ticklish business; on the opposite page you see a diagram of the docking arrangements at Lakehurst, USA, which will be used by the LZ129 … You see how the Zeppelin, coming down in any position, is attached to a mooring mast. Then a locomotive, running on a circular track, brings a 186 foot docking beam right around under the tail of the airship, swinging the Zep until it faces the open hangar. Two other locomotives on the straight track in the centre move forward into the hangar, taking the mooring mast, Zeppelin and docking beam with them."

  And so all this work and ingenious planning went for nothing, as the "Hindenburg" exploded into flames as it was being brought down to the mooring mast. As a consequence of this disaster the use of airships as passenger liners was discontinued by the nations of the world.

  The MB story was incorrect In one important matter. It said;

  "Helium gas fills the many separate "bags" inside the vast main envelope, and crude oil drives the tour motors, which total 4400 horsepower."

  In fact the bags were filled with highly inflammable hydrogen lifting gas, not the much safer helium gas. This was because the United States refused to supply Nazi Germany with the helium.

  The disaster occurred during a spring thunderstorm, and one theory was that the airship was struck by lightning. Another theory alleged that the Zeppelin was the victim of an anti-Nazi sniper firing from the ground, or of sabotage on board the airship.

  The Charles Hamilton story in this issue appears to be a real thriller. It is titled WRECKER OF THE PACIFIC, and the foreword states;

  "KING OF THE ISLANDS is a prisoner aboard his own ketch. And it's heading to destruction .... with a mutineer in charge, recklessly determined to pile the "Dawn" on a coral reef!"

  Hamilton was a master of sea stories. Even in his early twenties he wrote some gripping sea stories in "The Union Jack", under his own name, with titles such as CAPTAIN NEMO (No. 171 of July 1897 , THE SLAVER CAPTAIN (No. 185 of 4 November 1897, BY A HIDDEN HAND (No. 253 of 25 February 1899 and SUNK AT SEA (No. 270 of 24 June 1899. By the middle nineteen thirties, when he had reached sixty years of age, Charles Hamilton had perfected his art, whether he wrote school, sea, western or adventure stories.

One thought on “Charles Hamilton and ‘The Modern Boy’

  1. John Tipper

    Amusing to read so many articles I published in ‘Golden Years’ a few decades ago. I’d been going to scan all issues of ‘Golden Years’ and make available as .pdf files but will link to your site instead. Cheers.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *