Thanet Writers Spotlight Charles Hamilton

David Chitty highlights the life, works and legacy of writer and author Charles Hamilton, and spotlights his connection to Thanet.

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Charles Hamilton was one of the world’s most prolific authors and, at one point, held the Guinness World Record for the number one spot. He also lived in Kingsgate up until his death in 1961.

As well as writing hundreds of stories under his own name, Charles had a habit of using a different pen name for each different set of characters he wrote about. Frank Richards for the Greyfriars School stories, Owen Conquest for Rockwood stories and Martin Clifford for St. Jim’s stories. One of Charles Hamilton’s go to genres was that of writing about boys’ public schools.

Hamilton began his writing career with quite a bit of success. He had his first story accepted for publication straight away in 1895 and quickly worked his way up to become the premier writer for the publishing company Trapps Holmes. He would continue to write for them until 1915, when he moved to Amalgamated Press.

Public Domain

It was with Amalgamated Press that Hamilton produced his most well-known work, writing under three different pseudonyms to create three different schools and three different sets of characters. These were written for the story papers Amalgamated Press were releasing, and were specifically targeted at boys. For one of these papers, The Magnet, Hamilton wrote stories in 82% of the issues. This would last until the late 1930s and early 40s, with the decline partly due to competition and new emerging formats, but also because of the lack of availability of paper during World War Two.

Hamilton continued to write in the same vein but for a new publisher, but due to copyright ownership he was unable to continue writing some of his most well-known characters. However, he eventually gained permission to write about them again and was able to produce a hardback series. The first novel in the series, Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School, was an instant success. Published in 1947, it sold the maximum amount of books that were allowed because of the paper shortages. It was reprinted multiple times over the decades that followed by multiple publishers, and between 1947 and 1965 Hamilton published nearly forty books in the series. He wrote other books in this time too, as well as several series of the Billy Bunter books for the BBC.

It wasn’t until somewhat later in his career that Hamilton began to gain any real notoriety for his work. His early stories for the papers were, largely, printed on cheap paper and, by its very nature, disposable and short lived. This meant that he would have probably disappeared into obscurity had a privately printed publication called the Story Paper Collector not distributed his work. Hamilton had his loyal following before this, but he hadn’t received any noteworthy mainstream attention.

Hamilton’s writing even caught the eye of George Orwell, who wrote about it in an essay called ‘Boys’ Weeklies.’

Consequently they have to be written in a style that is easily imitated—an extraordinary, artificial, repetitive style, quite different from anything else now existing in English literature …

Boys’ Weeklies by George Orwell

One of the main issues with Hamilton’s writing was that, when he was unavailable to write for one of the papers, another writer would continue the story under Hamilton’s name. That led to the writing itself becoming quite bland, for the papers at least.

Between 1926 and his death in 1961, Hamilton never left England, staying in his home in Kingsgate and being looked after by his housekeeper, Edith Hood. Hamilton was dedicated to his fan base and, even while a recluse in his later years, would still keep in touch with his fans through letters.

What I personally found most interesting about Charles Hamilton is how little he is mentioned locally. He is known, but not to the same degree as others. If we compare Hamilton to another well-known writer who lived in Broadstairs, Charles Dickens, we can see quite a difference. Charles Dickens has a pub, a festival, a museum and a school all named after him, whereas Hamilton has nothing. Both men had a great amount of success in their times and Hamilton had quite an impact on the industry and his readership. I’m not saying that Dickens doesn’t deserve the attention that he has, but that he wasn’t the only local writer that had a great deal of success and notoriety. And, as a writer, I like to study why some writers achieve immortality through their works while others do not. I think Charles Hamilton and Charles Dickens are a very good example of this to discuss.

If you’re interested in or like reading classic literature, I would definitely recommend giving the work of Charles Hamilton a read to see what you think.

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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