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Stories for the people

23 November 2012

Peggy Woodford considers Herbert Allingham's career


A reign begins: Victoria Regina by Henry T. Wells, repro­duced in Joanna, George and Henry, reviewed overleaf, depicts the moment in the early hours of Tuesday 20 June 1837 when Princess Victoria heard of her acces­sion. This is his second treatment of the subject

A reign begins: Victoria Regina by Henry T. Wells, repro­duced in Joanna, George and Henry, reviewed overleaf, depicts the moment in the early hours...

Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory: The working life of Herbert Allingham
Julia Jones
Golden Duck £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20 (Use code CT517 )

HERBERT ALLINGHAM (1867-1936) was only 18 when his first story was published in his uncle's weekly penny magazine, The New Boys' Paper, for which he was paid 30 shillings (a working man's weekly pay). This princely sum encouraged him to start a fascinating career in mass-market magazines which spanned his whole life. He produced 1500-2000 words every day in his elegant clear handwriting, using different pseu­donyms for different weekly publications. Each periodical was passed from hand to hand, as well as being read out loud to groups who were keen to follow the stories.

Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1861, describes the very people who loved to hear the kind of stories that Allingham wrote. In his study of costermongers, for example, Mayhew says: "They are very fond of hearing anyone read aloud to them, and listen very attentively. One man often reads the Sunday paper in the beer-shop to them, and on a fine summer's evening another literate coster­monger reads some of the cheap periodicals to ten to twelve men, women and boys. . ."

The crucial development in Fleet Street in the late 1890s was the arrival of the Harmsworth brothers: their newspapers cost a halfpenny rather than a penny - a difference that was crucial for the new readership. Huge circulations and impressive profits followed. Allingham wrote stories for all their papers, including the new Daily Mail, launched in 1896. He had found regular work for the next ten years, and "his own inconspicuous place in Harmsworth's Schemo Magnifico" - incon­spicuous because no one knew his real name and who was behind his various noms de plume. Allingham's annual income rose to its peak in 1912 - £1210. To put this in perspective, the room that he took at a smart central London hotel cost just over £1 for four nights' bed and breakfast.

When the First World War began, one of the con­sequences that affected Allingham, who was too old to fight, was that his main readership (male working-class readers) was called up. His income fell dramatic­ally, and a further problem for newspapers was lack of paper - submarine attacks reduced supplies of all raw materials.

But a new element entered during the course of the war which reflected the profound changes that were occurring in society: women became Allingham's main readers. This naturally affected content, and subjects that he had never touched before became his main themes: maternal suffering; child insecurity and mortality; women as part of the workforce.

In the early 1920s, his readership and income started drying up, and by 1925 he was £250 in debt, and writing less and less. Then, in the early '30s, and with the encouragement of a new editor, Allingham had a wonderful final burst of success.

Although he wrote during a period when print ruled fiction, his themes are still the mainstay of radio and TV soaps - love, betrayal, success, failure, family stress, death. Fortunately, all his papers were kept by his family, and Julia Jones inherited the boxes. She has now written this excellent study of his life, and reveals an important but forgotten supplier of popular enter­tainment.

Peggy Woodford is a novelist.

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