Monday, January 11, 2010

Mystery Editor


What follows is a minor literary and pugilistic mystery which, so far, has me stumped. The anonymous author in question, with the “sober eye of the historian,” wrote of the great international contest between Tom Sayers and John Camel Heenan in the very first issue of Famous Fights Past and Present, and seems to have written most articles, if not all, in every issue of that penny periodical that I have had the pleasure of reading I had always assumed that the editor Harold Furniss, whose name appeared on the masthead, was probably the author of all the main articles, but as it turns out he may not have contributed anything but his name and his illustrations.

Ripperologist Robin O’Dell, in his book Ripperology said a curious thing about Furniss who is assumed to have written the article on the Whitechapel murders in Famous Fights sister publication Famous Crimes. The Whitechapel article “was told in four parts and written in the first person, possibly by Harold Furniss, who only claimed to be the editor.” I would love to know what O’Dell meant by that “only claimed,” and on what evidence he was basing his bald assertion; unfortunately he has nothing else to say on the subject. In the old days scurrilous penny publications often used a beard to pose as editor in order to prevent reprisals from the law or the libeled. Was Furniss a beard for the real editor? If so who was the ‘real’ editor? I don’t have enough of Famous Crimes to make a judgment but I do have 27 of the first 53 issues of the companion Famous Fights, also attributed to editor Furniss.

My mystery man has something to do with the above query; my mystery man was a boxing historian, journalist, collector of boxing memorabilia, and probably a pioneer photographer. Judging by the clues left in his writings he must have been a “celebrated” chronicler of the ring, well-known to his readers, since he seems to have known everyone involved in the pugilistic community; editors, journalists, publicans, bankers, bettors and boxers. He was intimately familiar with gentlemen’s clubs like the National Sporting Club, “one of the best clubs in London,” knew all the watering-holes frequented by the pugilistic fraternity, and counted such boxers as Jem Mace, Nat Langham, Jem Ward, Harry Broome, and Owen Swift among his personal friendships. He also spoke fondly of George Borrow, author of “Lavengro,” and “my old friend ‘Harkaway,’” the penny dreadful author Bracebridge Hemyng.

He wrote under no byline, not even a pseudonym like his acquaintances “Augur” of the Sporting Life (Harry Feist) or “Hotspur” of the Daily Telegraph. He did offer various personal clues to his identity in various asides contained in his articles. In the first issue of Famous Fights for 4 March 1901 the first autobiographical clues are presented in the cover article on the Sayers and Heenan brawl.

“The present writer has some advantages not possessed by others who have told the story. For not only did he witness the fight himself, but there have been placed at his disposal the letters and memoranda of many old sportsmen who also witnessed the contest, and were intimate with both the combatants.”

He “had the pleasure of knowing Miss (Adah Isaacs) Menken personally, and I retain a lively and agreeable recollection of a supper on the stage of the Marleybone Theatre, after she had been playing William in “Black-Eyed Susan,” for the actor named Booth, who had taken the theatre for a few weeks -- no connection to the great Edwin Booth, or his brother who shot Abraham Lincoln. She sat beside me in the sailor’s costume which she had worn on the stage as William, and most fetching and bewitching she looked, with her crisp crop of curly dark hair, her expressive features, and snow-white neck. It was not surprising that such a charming creature should have captivated John Camel Heenan, or any other man over whom she chose to throw the spell of her witchery. She died in Paris in the August of 1868.”

This was my first inkling that the author was not the supposed editor Harold Furniss, since Furniss was only twelve years old in 1868 and presumably living in Birkenhead, opposite Liverpool at the time. Our author dropped more personal information in the second issue of Famous Fights. He writes of the capable editors of Bell’s Life in London, Vincent Dowling and his son and successor Frank Dowling. He knew Frank Dowling well, and, judging by the many glowing mentions of that editor in Famous Fights, may even have had a connection with that penny paper, perhaps as a reporter.

“Occasionally, indeed, savage assaults were made upon the editor of Bell’s Life, and I remember Frank Dowling’s showing me how he had planned his sanctum so that he could command the fire-place and the fire-irons, and keep any number of assailants at bay from behind his desk. But then the editor, if so assailed, had terrible powers of retribution. He could bar from the columns of Bell’s Life the challenges and advertisements of all who came under his ban and the professional pug who was thus excommunicated found himself practically deprived of his livelihood.”

Part 3 of the Sayers-Heenan match was covered in Volume I No. 3, which featured an engraving of a ‘bewitching’ Adah Isaacs Menken on the cover, as well as the most revealing autobiographical information our mystery historian has revealed thus far in the narrative.

“Nine months later, on the 18th of October, 1853, Tom’s (Sayers) career of conquest was rudely checked by Nat Langham. This was the first prize fight I ever witnessed, and as I hope to tell the story from my own point of view in a future number, I shall not dwell on it minutely here.

I was then an undergraduate at Cambridge, and Nat had for some months been in residence there as the landlord of the Ram Inn, Bridge Street. He very soon had his hands full of pupils, who looked upon him as a hero. Indeed, I think we all regarded Nat as the greatest master of the noble art the world had ever seen.”

“Imagine then, our surprise when just before we “went down” for the Long Vacation of 1853 we learned that Tom Sayers had sent our hero a challenge to fight for £100 a-side and the Championship of the Middle Weights. I recollect how we laughed at Tom’s cheek as we discussed the challenge in the bar parlour of the Ram Inn, and how we generally set it down as mere bounce destined to die away in a fizzle.”

After describing how, on 18 October 1853 the “sporting undergrads” at Cambridge sneaked out in twos and threes and “got off to the traps which were waiting for us at various points along the Ely Road,” to carry them to the London special for Ely where they would learn the final destination for the prizefight, our hero gives away his age, nineteen, which gives him a birth-year of 1834. At this point I knew that our scribbler was not Harold Furniss, who was born in 1856 and thus a babe of three when the Cambridge youth set off on their exciting adventure. Our author was 67 when he penned the Sayers-Heenan articles for Famous Fights in 1901.

Now I got excited and began looking up various people, hoping to identify the elusive historian. Who could he be? Unfortunately not many British boxing historians are known to us these days other than possibly Pierce Egan, John Bee and Henry Downes Miles, author of Pugilistica. I thought Miles might be a suitable suspect; he had edited a book about Tom Sayers with articles and clippings from the Times, Punch, All the Year Round, and the Saturday Review in 1866. But Miles had authored The Life of Richard Palmer, Better Known as Dick Turpin as early as 1839. Clearly he was not our man.

It was definitely not Harold Furniss, could it have been the printer and publisher of Famous Fights, Frank Shaw? Here I’m stymied again -- I could find nothing about Frank Shaw except that he was the printer publisher of The Illustrated Police Budget in 1893, as well as serving the same function for Famous Fights in 1901. By the time of the publishing of Famous Fights Volume II no. 22 Shaw is replaced by printer/publisher Harold Furniss. The Fleet Street address is the same for both publishers; Caxton House, 11 Gough Square.

Our Cambridge man seems to have been a gentleman in his own right; a powerful writer and a meticulous historian of the ring. He took great pleasure in correcting the authors of boxing bibles like Fistiana and Pugilistica, and closely interviewed numerous elderly ‘informants’ who had witnessed contests that took place before his own time.

In Volume I No. 10 in the cover article on the early fights of Jem Mace the historian gives vent to his belief that the Prize Ring gradually died in England after the second fight between Jem Mace and Joe Goss on 6 August 1866. “It was his (Mace) misfortune to appear in the ring when its fortunes were at a low ebb -- when the patronage of pugilists had fallen from noblemen and gentlemen, and admirers of courage and fair play, into the hands of flash publicans, hell-keepers, night-house keepers, and gangs of robbers, whose sole object was to fleece the fast and foolish toffs who frequented their dens of debauchery and villainy.”

That fight between Mace and Goss was the last our chronicler witnessed in person, for “although the actual mill was as stirring as any ring-goer could desire, the ramping robbery and rowdyism which one had to put up with on the way back were enough to sicken anyone of a sport which had become so degraded, and no decent sportsman cared again to face such an ordeal.”

The same issue let slip another piece of the puzzle. In ‘Tom Sayers and the Toll-Keeper’ he continues with the life Tom Sayers led after the Sayers-Heenan fight. The article is illustrated by an illustration of ‘Tom Sayer’s Circus, From a Photo by the Editor’s Father.’ Now the editor is given as Harold Furniss on the masthead, which leads me to wonder: Could our anonymous historian have been the father of Harold Furniss, the editor of Famous Fights, born in 1856? It could be, but it seems more likely to me that the real editor of Famous Crimes was the anonymous author born in 1834, and the photograph was taken by his father.

On the subject of photographs the Anecdotes section of Famous Fights in the second issue mentions that when Pedlar Palmer was training for a fight with Dave Sullivan circa 1890 the author spent a pleasant day with him at his training camp in Brighton. “I had my camera with me, and invited the little fellow to pose for a few pictures. He willingly complied…How he was beaten will be told in an early number of this paper; and we will also publish some snap-shots of the fight.” Unfortunately I don’t have the number referred to, and it’s not clear if this is the subject of our investigation speaking, or some other person on the staff of Famous Fights. It occurs to me the photographer may even have been Harold Furniss who was an accomplished lithographer and illustrator.

Judging from the article Sayer’s Circus was touring England in the year 1862. Our historian visited George Borrow at his home in Oulton, in Suffolk, and they shared a visit to the Isle of Man. Elsewhere he writes that in 1860 he was residing at Stone, in Staffordshire, which is in the Midlands and closer to Birkenhead, near Liverpool, where Harold Furniss was born, than to London. It was the age of the telegraph and the railroad, and our man, from 1853 until 1866 seems to have been constantly on the tramp, never staying in one place too long. He had an intimate knowledge of every public house in London and environs, and weaves the publicans history into his articles.

In 1902 the 4th volume, 52nd number of Famous Fights under the heading Editorial Notes we find the following address:

“With this number our little paper completes the first year of its existence. It was started as a hobby and to oblige a number of personal friends who were interested in the Records of the Prize Ring, and who yearned for a full, true, and unbiased account of the Historic Fight between Tom Sayers and John C. Heenan. The story of that contest as told in the first numbers of our paper has been pronounced by all who have given their opinion to be the best ever written -- perhaps the best that ever can be written.”

This sounds more like the voice of our mystery author than that of the supposed editor, Harold Furniss. It was the mystery author who wrote the majority of tales in Famous Fights, both main and secondary stories, his style was unmistakable. When starting a new serial he often referred to his previous articles, and repeated details; how he was a Cambridge man, how he witnessed his first fight in 1853, and how he witnessed his last in 1866. Many articles repeated accounts of his friendship with George Borrow. Famous Fights began with a serialization of the Sayers-Heenan fight, and the old man, at 67 years old, was still writing articles about his favourite period 52 weekly numbers later.

The only articles he did not write were those dealing with modern boxers like John L. Sullivan and John Corbett, if he is to be believed when he repeats that he witnessed his last match in 1866. It could be that Robin O’Dell was right about Harold Furniss and that he did “only claim to be the editor,” of Famous Crimes. The same claim could be made about his editorship on Famous Fights. It looks like the editor, who started the paper as a ‘hobby’ to record his reminiscences of the pugilists, was someone else, an unknown. It may also be that the editor’s father, the photographer, was not Furniss’s father after all, but the mystery author’s father, who, the old man informs us, was a fan of the ring long before 1853.

Who was the mystery author-editor? Was Harold Furniss a beard for Frank Shaw? And was Frank Shaw the printer’s real name or a pseudonym? I could find no printer or publisher under that name in the 1901 census. As I noted in a previous post Harold Furniss appeared in a court case in 1894 over the Illustrated Police Budget which was also printed and published by Frank Shaw. He was described not as the editor but as “an artist, named Harold Furniss, employed upon the paper.”

I have too many questions, with as no answers. Could he have been Furniss’s father? I did look through the 1901census records for someone named Furniss born in 1834 and found quite a few under that name, male and female. Of the four men born in 1834 there were Arthur G. Furniss, an Electro-Plate manufacturer in Sheffield; Mark Furniss, a farm laborer in Nottinghamshire; Thomas Furniss, a book-binder publican residing in Essex; and Thomas S. Furniss, ‘living on his own means’ in Sussex. The two Thomas’s are possibilities, as well as Frank Shaw, if that was his real name. Even more likely is that the editor had no relation to Furniss at all, a talented historian whose identity still waits for rediscovery.

NOTE: Some new information has come to light about the career of Harold Furniss since I first posted on ‘Harry and Harold Furniss.” See HERE.


3 comments:

  1. I am interested in your mystery author`s associations with George Borrow.
    Coincidentally in the latest edition of the George Borrow Bulletin is a short article written by Dr. Ann Ridler the editor and chairman of the George Borrow Society. She reproduces an extract from a book "The Phantom Journal" (London;Methuen & Co. Ltd. 1919 ) by E.V. Lucas which describes the editor of a weekly paper "The Mirror of Life and Boxing" - a Mr Bradley, who knew Borrow well in later days having met him in the Isle of Man. You mention that your historian and Borrow shared a visit to the Isle of Man. Strange coincidence ? Could this help identify your man ?
    Regards, Christopher Moughton

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  2. That's a great lead, and thanks for posting the information. Although I have never heard of Bradley, or the Mirror of Life and Boxing, the shared visit is intriguing -- I'll do some digging and hopefully this post will have a sequel in future.
    Regards, John

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  3. Actually a quick search of Google Books brought up Lucas Phantom Journal and another search brought up the editor of Mirror of Life and Boxing. His name was J. Frank Bradley. A great start!

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