F. W. Thomas: Star Man
F. W. Thomas was, by a huge margin, the most prolific contributor to The Star. His output for the paper far outweighed and outlasted that of any other writer. Between 1912 and 1945, Thomas' humorous stories, sketches, poems and articles were a weekly feature in The Star, entertaining many thousands of Londoners on their way home from work. Thomas was a wildly inventive writer, a literary craftsman whose vast array of tales bubble over with piquant dialogue and sparkling wit. For decades, his customary short story appeared every Saturday in The Star, prompting the author and journalist Gerald Gould (1885-1936) to call him "the man who is Saturday." Thomas' assorted writings for The Star and Daily News were held in high regard, with one reviewer in 1927 describing Thomas as "the most artistic of living English humorists."
But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let's start at the beginning, or at least as far back as my knowledge goes. Frederick William Thomas was born in Hackney, London on January 14, 1882. Certain genealogical evidence suggests that it is highly probable he was named after a paternal uncle who died young. His parents were Elizabeth (nee Stonham) and Reginald Thomas, a merchant seaman who later worked as a fish poulterer. Born into a large family, Frederick William grew up and attended a Board School in Hackney, although his family's roots on both his mother and father's side can be traced back to East Sussex. By modern standards he left school at a relatively early age, and was largely self educated, developing a love of classic literature; he was particularly fond of Shakespeare and Keats. Thomas also possessed good numerical skills, and by the age of nineteen he was working as a commercial clerk in the City of London.
During a period of unemployment in 1905, Thomas submitted three articles on spec to the Morning Leader (a sister newspaper to The Star). The first was a wryly humorous, honest portrayal of his experience of losing a job entitled "On Getting the Sack." This speculative first submission paid off, as the Morning Leader printed it on October 28, 1905 under the header "As By A Clerk" and with the initials "F.W.T." below the story. A week later, his second, similarly toned article "On Looking For Work" was published in the Morning Leader. This in turn was followed by "On Going After a Place." As the titles suggest, these latter two articles were about searching for a job in London. In detailing the difficulties and frustrations involved in this often soul-destroying process (waiting in vain for good news via the postman, hearing once-too-often the words: "please take a seat," and "we'll let you know"), Thomas succeeded in creating an honest portrayal of an all-too-familiar situation that still rings true today, over a hundred years since his wry observations were published! In a rare interview from 1924 that was published in his local paper the Chiswick Times, Thomas reflected on this early stage in his writing career: "At that time I knew nothing about journalism, except that you must write on one side of the paper only and not split infinitives." But Thomas was a fast learner, and the following year saw him join the editorial staff of the Morning Leader, where he worked first as a clerk and then as a junior reporter in the newspaper's offices on Stonecutter Street. He continued to contribute a series of excellent articles to the paper over the course of the next few years. In 1908 Thomas, with all due deference, submitted a humorous piece he had written to his editor, Ernest Parke (who in fact edited both the Morning Leader and The Star simultaneously). Although Parke deemed Thomas' article unsuitable for publication, he also saw that this budding writer showed a certain promise, a power to amuse through the medium of the printed word, and so encouraged him to persevere with this style of writing. Notwithstanding this, various interesting and varied articles by Thomas were printed fairly often in the final years of the Morning Leader. Readers may be interested to note that all these rare early pieces have been collected in the book Tales From Stonecutter Street, published in 2010.
Upon the amalgamation of the Morning Leader and Daily News in May of 1912, Thomas found himself working for the Cadbury family (who now owned both the united Daily News and Leader and The Star) along with his fellow newspapermen. At this point he joined the staff of The Star at their new offices in Bouverie Street. Thomas' first ever article for The Star was "Bed and Breakfast," printed on August 14, 1912. More articles followed in October and November. It was, incidentally, around this time that Thomas got married and moved to Chiswick in West London, where he lived for many years with his wife Louisa Augusta (nee Podbury) and their two children Margaret and Peter. On December 7 of that same year an amusing short story called " 'Oppy" appeared in The Star as by "F. W. T." This was arguably the first of Thomas' many humorous story contributions to Saturday editions of the paper. I use the word "arguably" because although in terms of style " 'Oppy" set the tone of so much of what was to follow, much humour can be found in the preceding articles which, for the most part, are written in a similar manner to his Morning Leader work. These include delightful pieces such as "The District Visitor."
Two years later, with dozens of stories under his belt, he began writing his Saturday short stories once again as by F. W. Thomas, as he had done earlier in the Morning Leader. Some of these early Star tales, many of which were written during the years of the Great War, were collected in the hardbound volume Extra Turns, published to much acclaim in 1917. A bestseller that was reprinted several times, this book serves as a perfect introduction to Thomas' humorous sketches and stories. The tales collected in Extra Turns showcase Thomas' wonderfully comic turn of thought. Central to the universal appeal of his work are the many oddball characters that populate his stories. They are the kind of people we all know and meet, but where Thomas excels is in his ability to see the funny side in what are, on the surface, quite mundane things.
A pre-war tale such as "The Paddy Room," which opens the collection Extra Turns, aptly illustrates this important aspect of his work. In this story two early morning commuters into London engage in the most un-gentlemanly behavior as they fight their way out of a busy mainline station. Some wonderful dialogue ensues, with insults such as "you knock-kneed skrimshanker....you pasty-faced tadpole!" flying in all directions. For the essence of Thomas' stories is indeed in the conversations (or arguments!) between his characters. Many of his tales, and this applies right across his long career with the paper, are told in the first person. Thomas is indeed the narrator and where fact ends and fiction begins is a perennially uncertain factor in his stories. Undoubtedly, Thomas worked real-life experiences and people he knew into his stories. Examples from Extra Turns include the army recruit from Michigan who tries to hide his American origin (I can't quite remember why, but there we are!) and the urchin in "A Winter's Tale" who offers to clear the snow from Thomas' front garden. And so on. The railway porters, old gaffers, middle-aged women doing their Christmas shopping, the innkeepers, farmers, store clerks and next-door neighbors, the whole array of personalities that form the backbone of Thomas' stories, all these were no doubt known to him. The genius of his tales is that they are known to the reader as well. Thomas' witty observations on human nature transcend the years; put simply, his characters are real. In that sense, his work has not dated.
This is not to say of course that in other aspects his stories are not clearly of a certain period. For example, Thomas based many of his stories within a London that has since changed beyond all recognition. Thomas also loved spinning country yarns and in later years, nearly all his tales were set in the villages and fields of rural England. The country life that is depicted in Thomas' stories is of the early twentieth century. The Sussex countryside, which was the setting of much of Thomas's work, is still there for the most part, but times have changed. The amusing rustics he wrote of are of a different breed to those today. In addition, given the many years since these stories were written, there were certain references and snippets of dialogue that I, personally, only dimly understood. However, these were the exception and not the rule. In the heart of all his work is a rich vein of humour and I believe it was this quality, more than any other, that made his contributions so popular with Star readers.
His audience in London was vast. With thousands of Londoners looking to Thomas' Saturday story and Monday column for light relief, he needed to be versatile. In other words, Thomas was compelled to come up with new jokes and plots every week. In a review of another book collection of his work, Windfalls (1932), G. H. Barnett commented that Thomas could not, like music-hall comedians, repeat the same jokes every week. Indeed part of Thomas' gift is his knack for making the reader laugh out of sheer surprise. One simply doesn't know which contorted observation he is going to make next. Thomas will suddenly say that some singers' high notes are so high that they have snow on them all year round. He describes a street that is of so outrageous length that "by the time the landlord has collected the rent in the last house it's due again at the first." His was the most original sense of humour, but one can do little to convey just how funny his writings are. You can no more accurately describe a scent than you can adequately outline one of his stories. Or explain exactly what it is that makes them so amusing. The proof is in the reading, of course, and it is a testament to Thomas' ingenuity and unfailing energy that his weekly contributions to The Star continued through the 1920s and 1930s.
Thomas employed a host of stock characters in his tales. His next-door neighbor, the foolish Simpson, probably made more appearances than any other. Mr. Grindle, the Cobbler, was the narrator of many a tale, while other recurring players include Mrs. Minch, Mr. Privett and The-Man-in-the-Window-Seat, a generic character who in stories such as "The Snag" represents all those put-upon office workers who have to face the daily commute into London. Then there was Pamela, a scatter-brained society girl with a highly affected manner-of-speech. The Pamela tales still ring true today and her dialogue, well, you know the kind of thing..."DARLING we simply MUST attend Cynthia's party. It would be SO rude not to attend." Some things never change... A special mention must also be made of the dozens of stories Thomas set in a world of faerie all his own. Peopled with a delightful collection of magical creatures, these stories, despite their fantastical background, show that elfin folk do have very human problems!
Throughout the 1920s and 30s several book collections of Thomas' stories and sketches for The Star were published. But during these years a wholly different side to Thomas' writings was evident in The Star. In addition to his Saturday fiction feature, his weekly articles would appear every Monday in the paper. Many of these were in the shape of informal essays and not surprisingly, the majority were of a humorous nature. The most noted series of articles Thomas wrote for The Star began on January 2, 1922. On this date the first entry in the long-running series "Low and I" was published. Thomas wrote this feature in collaboration with the New-Zealand born illustrator and cartoonist David Low (1891-1963). The "Low and I" series was in the form of a weekly column detailing Thomas and Low's visits to various landmarks and tourist attractions in and around London. The potential scope for this series was obviously enormous; as Thomas once noted, nobody can ever know all of London as it is simply too vast a city and its history is overwhelming. But explore London they did, and every Monday Thomas described the amusing adventures he and Low experienced in such settings as London Zoo, Hampton Court, Trafalgar Square, Greenwich Observatory, Elstree Studios, the Serpentine in Hyde Park and dozens of other locations. Moreover as the series progressed, Thomas and his artist colleague would venture further afield to seaside towns such as Southend, while within the Metropolitan district they would visit factories, famous markets such as Billingsgate, auction rooms, building sites, travel up and down the Thames by oar, sail and steam, patronise cinemas, theatres, greyhound races; suffice to say the variety of places and subjects covered during their collaboration was amazing. Even the background to their working relationship was interesting. Noted for his caricatures of political figures, Low had been on the staff of the newspaper since 1919. On arriving at Fleet Street he was said to have been somewhat disappointed at his placement on The Star; Low had assumed he'd be working on the Daily News under A. G. Gardiner. Furthermore, Low considered himself something of a genius. His partnership with Thomas, who was nine years his senior, and as a native Londoner expected to take the lead on their location-based assignments, was at times uneasy. Some of the tensions arising out of their very different backgrounds and personalities do occasionally come across in their articles. But over the years they built up a genuine friendship, approaching their work in the spirit of, as Low put it, "boyish glee." Low went on to say that in Thomas, he "couldn't have hoped for a better guide to London." The "Low and I" feature proved so popular that when one half of the partnership was off sick or on holiday, the other would keep the feature going until their return. Thomas was not a bad artist himself, and in Low's absence enjoyed supplying his own quirky cartoons for the column.
But in usual circumstances Thomas' witty and entertaining notes on his various visits around London were brilliantly illustrated by Low, who would always include a caricature of himself and Thomas, typically having themselves a whole lot of fun. It's worth noting that Low's drawings of Thomas bore little resemblance to the man himself, being as they were far removed from the reality of his actual appearance. So widespread was the notoriety of this series that it spawned two book collections of Thomas and Low's exploits: Low and I: A Cooked Tour in London and The Low and I Holiday Book were published in 1923 and 1925 respectively. One of my favorite entries in the series is the one in which Low and Thomas ascend the Monument near London Bridge. Low's wonderful drawing of this momentous event made for a highly amusing spectacle, with the pair depicted as collapsing from exhaustion upon reaching the summit of the tower. I can confirm that it's an arduous climb, though well worth it for the views on a clear day! The "Low and I" series finally ended in 1927, when Low left The Star to work for Lord Beaverbrook at the Evening Standard. Interestingly, at some point Lord Beaverbrook had also asked Thomas to change allegiance, offering him a higher salary to come and work for him at the Daily Express newspaper. A "Star" man through and through, Thomas is said to have enjoyed declining this offer! On David Low's departure, an artist on The Star who signed his work as "Gee," took over from him as companion-in-arms to Thomas. The new "Gee and I" column carried on the tradition for a few more years, although it came to an abrupt halt in April of 1929.
From this point Thomas continued his Monday column in a different form. The "News From Nowhere" feature, a mixed-bag of sketches, jokes, musings and overheard conversations, eventually morphed in the mid 1930s into Thomas' "This Cock-Eyed-World" column (later "Cock-Eyed-Corner"), which also included a pot-pourri of amusing material. Thomas' individual way of thinking was much in evidence in this column, as illustrated in the following excerpt..."Our Uncle Ernest had a magnetic personality. Whenever he walked past an ironmonger's shop, all the fenders and fire-irons used to rush out and cling all over him." Thomas gleefully provided Star readers with this kind of silliness throughout the 1930s!
Thomas was apt to write articles of a more serious nature from time to time. Of particular interest is "At Sea With Kipling," published in The Star on January 25, 1936. This piece is a memoir of a meeting Thomas had with Rudyard Kipling in January 1927, while they were both passengers on the R.M.S.P. Andes out of Southampton and bound for Buenos Aires. After some discreet enquiries in the hotel the night before embarkation, Thomas had gotten wind of the fact that Kipling would be aboard. As any good newspaperman would do, he wired this nugget of information back to his editors in London. Heading into the English Channel aboard ship the next day, the purser informed Thomas that he had made a faux pas. Kipling did not like the public knowing the details of his travels. Thomas, an admirer of Kipling who was in some awe of him, aplogised to his literary hero and in so doing, broke the ice. Kipling assured the young journalist that he need not worry as the latter couldn't have known, and besides in his profession he was supposed to be on the lookout for anything newsworthy. The conversations they shared as the ship headed west across the Atlantic formed the basis of the article Thomas published in The Star nine years later.
Regrettably, the background to his 1927 trip to South America was, in fact, one of great sadness. Thomas' son Peter died in 1926 at the age of 11, and his devastated father, who had continued to write through his grief, was sent by the proprietors of the Daily News and The Star on a sabbatical leave, in order for him to come to terms with his loss. On January 29, 1927, the day after Thomas had set sail from Southampton (with his editor and David Low waving him a farewell from Southampton dock), a news article appeared in The Star informing readers that Thomas would be away for a while: "The fact is that F. W. Thomas has been getting a bit under the weather, though you would never have suspected from his Star articles that he was what is commonly called 'run down.' Thomas will carry with him the good wishes not only of his colleagues, but of many thousands of Star readers for his complete restoration to good health -- and good spirits." From this announcement it is quite clear that Thomas had been making himself ill by his steadfast professionalism in carrying on working despite the tragic death of his dear son. During the first leg of Thomas' long journey, the R.M.S.P. Andes stopped off at the ports of Cherbourg, Lisbon and, after crossing the Atlantic, Pernanbuco, Rio de Janeiro and finally Buenos Aires. It was while the ship was still navigating its way through storms and rough seas in the English Channel that Thomas wrote the first of his letters to The Star, which he would post off to London at the next opportunity. There were a whole series of these, chronicling his sea voyage and trip across South America. Under the heading "Chasing the Sun," these pieces began appearing in the paper while he was still away. Following on from his chance meeting with Kipling, after disembarking at Buenos Aires, Thomas travelled leisurely by train through Argentina and into Chile, eventually arriving at Valparaiso. From here he boarded the R.M.S.P. Oropesa, which sailed northwards along the coast of Peru, taking on cargo at places such as Iquique and Mollendo. After passing through the Panama Canal, Thomas' ship took him via Jamaica, Cuba and Bermuda back across the ocean to Plymouth, where he arrived on April 10, 1927. Having been away for ten weeks, over at the Daily News Thomas reclaimed the helm of his weekly "Merry-Go-Round" column, which humorist Ashley Sterne had been ably conducting in his absence. While at The Star, a revitalised Thomas quickly resumed his "Saturday Short Story" feature and teamed up once again with David Low for a new series of "Low and I" articles.
Thomas did in fact go on to write several travel articles during his time with the paper. Years later, after another spell of absence in 1937, The Star printed a series of superb reports Thomas compiled about a trip he made to the United States, where he visited New York and Chicago. In these articles Thomas' irrepressible wit and astute observational talents were much in evidence, as in a shorter series of travelogues detailing his stay in Paris in the same year. There was, it seems, no end to his versatility as a writer.
In this period, Thomas continued to pen his successful Saturday stories, adding more characters to his oeuvre and producing some of his best work to date. Some of the most memorable stories from the 1930s include "The Plumber and His Mateyness," which, as the title suggests, concerns Thomas' investigations into the curious over-friendliness of a plumber and such riotously funny yarns as "Ordeal by Bun," "Dress Rehearsal" and "Walkerville, Sus." I couldn't help noticing that several of his stories have unintentionally amusing titles. A deftly-written spoof about coronation celebrations, dating from 1937, ran under the title "The Village Goes Gay," which of course has a totally different meaning today! And how's this for a story title - "The Fortnightly Meeting of Little Wipplesham Council," a tale that gently pokes fun at local government bureaucracy. If you want to know what occurred during the meeting, you'll just have to read the story!
As previously noted, Thomas' fiction in The Star was, for the most part, set in rural areas. He had a genius for evoking a sense of place. Thus, with a few well chosen words, one feels drawn in to his bar tap-rooms, his dusty country lanes, farmyards, cottage gardens and village tea-parties. But just before you start thinking that Thomas had an overly romantic view of life in the countryside, think again. It would be wrong to give that impression. Thomas loved the Sussex Downs, where he lived for many years, but his wry observations were those of a city-worker, one who has spent a good deal of his life in London (the city of his birth), prior to his settling in a more rustic environment. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the more cynical nature of his attitude to rural life is to consider an article he once wrote in praise of Brighton. While applauding the modernistic, cosmopolitan Brighton of the 1930s, Thomas contrasts this directly with some of the shallow pretty-prettiness of certain country areas in the region of the South Downs. With gentle humour, he was not afraid to deride the ample number of "Ye Olde" village shops that abound in the area, with the names of tea-rooms, cafes, butchers, tailors and god-knows-what, apparently all - in pretentious, tourist attracting fashion - bearing the prefix "Ye Olde"!
Aside from this, the humour of Thomas enabled people to laugh at themselves. In truth, the country folk he affectionately spoofed are the people one meets everywhere. He loved the countryside and was able to share this love with the many readers of his stories. For many, the tales must have been a wonderful escape, if only for a few brief minutes, from the hardships of city life. But how much of himself did he put into his stories? Here is the enigma, for of F. W. Thomas the man, today I can happily tell you certain facts, courtesy of some outstanding genealogical research by my friend Morgan Wallace, as well as information kindly supplied by Thomas' grandchildren. But during the many years he was writing for The Star, however, little was known about him in terms of family background. Throughout his journalistic career he studiously kept his private life just that: private. All his readers (and reviewers of his books) could do at the time was surmise certain things about his life from his stories and articles. From these it was, and is, obvious that he was an avid reader well versed in the classics, a keen gardener, a family man, a birdwatcher and lover of open spaces and country pubs. Thomas was clearly widely travelled and well informed. Intensely interested in people, his facility with words enabled him to place his observations into a wonderful, neatly flowing prose style. But even today, notwithstanding certain biographical facts, our knowledge of F. W. Thomas the man ends, except to say that, as with all successful writers, he was an observer of people, perhaps content to watch events from the sidelines, soaking up inspiration for his stories.
Interviewed by the Chiswick Times in 1924, Thomas provided an insight into how he approached his writing: "Let me tell you, being humorous is anything but funny; it is one of the most serious things in life. Anyone can be serious because life itself is serious, and it is no use to sit down and be tragic because, again, all things in life are tragic, but being humorous is the most tragic thing of the lot." Thomas went on to elaborate on this aspect: "You have to swallow all your own beliefs and opinions about life in general and take up an entirely new personality. People come to the office to see me sometimes and are disappointed. I believe they have expected to see a man with a red nose and a humorous cast of countenance -- a sort of cross between Harry Lauder and George Robey -- and instead of that have found a serious-looking young gentleman. It takes quite a serious man to be a humorist. As proof of that we have Dan Leno, whose great ambition in life was to play Romeo, Charlie Chaplin desired to play Hamlet, and my great ambition is to write a really serious novel, to do some good in the world. But humour has become such an integral part of my life now that I doubt if I could do it."
Thomas' thoughts on the serious business of forging a career out of making people laugh were echoed by J. B. Priestley in 1925. In "The Gravity of Mr. F. W. Thomas," a Star review of the collection Week-Ends, Priestley sang the praises of Thomas' humorous sketches: "The phonetic spelling itself is a triumph of observation. Writing of this kind needs something more than a comic fancy, it needs a man who keeps his eyes and ears open and has observation and memory at the service of his calling. It needs, in short, a serious writer. That, I think, is the secret of Mr. Thomas' success as a humorous journalist. He is seriously occupied with the business of writing. He gives his work, however light it may be, however extravagant, the flavour of literature. He is, like all successful humorists, a sober craftsman and a serious man."
As noted earlier on in this essay, Thomas' family origins were centered in East Sussex, specifically the Rye and Udimore districts. Even some of his early writings for the Morning Leader hint strongly at what he described as "the call of the Downs", referring of course to the Sussex Downs, which he loved. In 1929, the ancestral pull proved too hard to resist, and at this time he made a permanent move to East Blatchington, a village near Seaford on the South Coast, back then still quite a rural area. Now well into his fifties, it was here that he lived with his wife, enjoying walks in the surrounding countryside and along the coastline he adored. Now settled in his country retreat, he was able to work from home. Throughout the 1930s he continued to regularly mail in his copy to the offices of The Star and Daily News up at Bouverie Street, occasionally dropping in to the newspapers' headquarters when visiting London.
It is worth pointing out that throughout the 1920s and 30s, Thomas found other markets for his work. Early on his career with The Star he co-wrote the stage musical "His Girl" with Claude Burton. This show ran for a couple of months at the Gaiety Theatre at Aldwych in 1922. Several of his stories and poems were sold to magazines such as Lilliput, Tit-Bits (where he wrote a weekly column for many years), The Passing Show and John O'London's Weekly, while eight of his sketches were published in the humorous book anthology Bridge Over the Rainbow (1940). Back at The Star, Thomas worked at times with the illustrator James Francis Horrabin, providing verses to accompany his famous "Japhet and Happy" cartoon strip. A number of these collaborations were later collected in book form in the popular "Japhet and Happy" annuals. Thomas also wrote a few "Dot and Carrie" stories, based on Horrabin's other cartoon creation that ran for many years in The Star from 1922 onwards.
After nearly three decades, Thomas' Saturday stories finally petered out in July of 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. Before I discuss his final years with The Star, I must mention there is one more side to Thomas' writing; the many poems he placed in the paper. Down the years, Thomas wrote scads of humorous light verse for The Star, with the editors once describing him as their very own poet-laureate. From the mid-1930s, he contributed a series of longer poems to The Star, often in place of his usual stories. Items such as "Matilda's Secret" and "A Whitsuntide Ballad" were in fact narratives told in rhyme. These playful ballads are a joy to read and must have been fun to write. With gentle humour and ingenious wordplay, Thomas entertained his readers with these excellent poems in the years leading up to the war. Some of these pieces were later collected in the book The Ballads of Barnacle Bill and Other Jingles (1943).
Having decided to take a break from writing stories for The Star, in 1939 Thomas teamed up with staff illustrator Leslie Grimes to produce a series of articles under the banner "F. W. Thomas and Grimes at Home with the Militia." In this series, which was published during the summer of 1939, the pair visited a different army barracks every week. After "falling in" with the troops, Thomas and Grimes would observe the daily regime and send illuminating reports back to the paper for publication every Saturday. This short-lived series was cut short by the outbreak of the war. Grimes, who had a long career with the paper, continued with his regular feature "All My Own Work," which for many years was a showcase for his outstanding drawings. In the early days of the war he was also noted for being the only British newspaper artist to visit the Royal Air Force in France, before the events that led to the retreat at Dunkirk. Published exclusively in The Star, his sketches of military life were flown home courtesy of the R.A.F.!
Thomas quickly formed what proved to be an more enduring partnership with The Star's sports cartoonist Roy Ullyett in September 1939. Their collaboration resulted in a series of varied articles that were presented very much in the earlier "Low and I" style. This series in turn was ended prematurally by circumstances beyond the paper's control. A number of journalists on The Star left the paper in early 1940 when they were drafted into the Armed Forces. Among them was Ullyett, who went on to serve in the R.A.F., returning to the paper six years later in 1946. Thus this series, which consisted of over twenty articles, came to an abrupt end. However, Thomas had other things up his sleeve. In November 1939 Thomas was commissioned by the newspaper to edit and compere a topical new column entitled "Stories of the Home Front." Readers were invited to send in personal anecdotes relating to their experiences of home-made trenches, air-raid shelters, rationing and blackouts. The public response was huge, and a selection of the best of these were hand-picked by Thomas and duly printed in The Star each day. Despite its popularity however, the feature was dropped after only a few weeks.
In the spring of 1940, Thomas' "Cock-Eyed-Corner" column was still appearing several times a week, although it was nearing the end of its long run in the paper. In the early days of the war Thomas used this forum, and other articles with Star artist Fred Joss, to poke fun at the Nazi propaganda machine. He was particularly scathing about the false information given out in German radio broadcasts. Having visited Nazi Germany in August 1938, Thomas saw with his own eyes the persecution of the Jewish population and the hate campaign that was being levelled against them by the Nazi regime. Unlike certain other British newspapers, the editorial stance of both The Star and the News Chronicle had been highly critical of Hitler, even as early as 1933. As a prominent Star journalist who was not afraid to ridicule Goebbels in particular, Thomas found himself joining his former colleague David Low on Hitler's extermination list, which was intended to be implemented once the invasion of Britain took place. But the Battle of Britain was won, and notwithstanding the censor, free-thinking journalism prevailed.
For most of the 1920s and 30s, in conjunction with his work for The Star, Thomas had been conducting his weekly "Merry-Go-Round" column in the Daily News (re-titled the News Chronicle in 1930). In the dark days of early 1940, at the height of the Blitz, this fun-packed feature was transplanted to The Star, neatly replacing the long-running "Cock-Eyed-Corner." A pot-pourri of poems, jokes, trivia, word-play and competitions, the "Merry-Go-Round" column was intended to provide light relief for families huddled around their fires during the nightly black-outs. Readers were invited to get involved; indeed much of the content was provided by the public. Unfortunately, the rationing of paper meant that as The Star decreased in size, so too did Thomas' column which, despite having struck a chord with the paper's readership, was gradually phased out until the last ever miniature-sized "Merry-Go-Round" appeared in August of 1941. It was a sad end for what had been a unique feature in war-time journalism.
With virtually no stories by Thomas appearing in the paper for two years, and the "Merry-Go-Round" column cancelled, it appeared that the war had ended Thomas' career with The Star prematurely. Even his long-standing weekly humorous sketch for the magazine Tit-Bits came to an abrupt halt in May 1941 (no doubt this was also due to the curtailment of paper supplies, as around this time Tit-Bits shrank in size and switched to a fortnightly schedule). But there was more to follow. On November 4, 1941, the first sketch in Thomas' "From the Coastal Zone" series was published in The Star. With a new installment appearing every few weeks, the "Coastal Zone" tales appeared from 1941 through 1945, with Thomas enjoying something of a renaissance in the newspaper during the Second World War. Overtly inspired by the war and its effects on a small rural community, the "Coastal Zone" series proved to be Thomas' swan song with The Star. The stories which make up the series were set in his own home district near the Sussex coastline, though the exact location was hidden from readers for obvious reasons of wartime security. With his trademark humour, Thomas captured the feel of a countryside community suddenly transformed by the war. Thus the interplay between local residents and billeted troops takes place in a world of sentries, army bases, barbed-wire, bunkers and coastal defence points. The imposition of food rationing forms the subject of conversation in several of these tales, with the locals queuing up stoically for their vegetables at the market stall, or outside the village butcher's. As with so much of Thomas' work, one wonders how many of these stories were inspired by real-life incidents and which of them were just works of imagination. It's true that Thomas used made-up names for the people and places he wrote about in this series. The reason for such secrecy in this instance should be obvious: as previously noted, wartime censorship was in operation, and security considerations would have been paramount in the minds of both the author and the editor of The Star. But all this would have come quite naturally to Thomas anyway. After all, it had been part of his routine for many years to substitute real place names for imaginary ones in his countless stories and sketches, possibly so as not to offend any of the people he had met who served as inspiration for his characters! As for the question of how much was based on reality and how much was invented by the author, the "Coastal Zone" series, with its cast of eccentric characters, sharp dialogue and sense of fun - despite the war - probably represents a little of both. Either way, it is a great shame that these particular stories, which are not only entertaining but also of some historical interest, were not collected in book form, although plans are afoot to publish a complete collection of these pieces in the not-too-distant future.
The final "Coastal Zone" story was "Miss Pringle & the Major," published on March 2, 1945. The very last contribution Thomas made to The Star appeared in November of 1945. It was, atypically, a serious piece in which he mildly censures the British public for nurturing the general mood of national gloom which prevailed at the time. Thomas approached this subject by pointing out that whilst certain of H. G. Wells' dire predictions came true, there are many which did not. Reflecting on this, he closes his column with the following appeal to Star readers: "So cheer up, everybody." And with these last words, Thomas' long association with the paper finally came to an end. While there is no room for sentimentality in the world of newspaper publishing, I was surprised to find that no announcement or messages of farewell from the editors were printed in the newspaper after the last of Thomas' contributions was published. It seems Thomas decided to depart The Star quietly, with no fanfare. In typically modest fashion, he no doubt wished to maintain his customary privacy and, it has to be said, that air of mystery that may well have proved frustrating for those of his readers who would have liked to know more about him. It is true that his incredible gift for dialogue, comedy and human observation meant that he was held in high regard by a succession of editors on the paper, not to mention the many thousands of readers who looked forward to each new gem he produced. This makes the lack of acknowledgement at the end of his career in The Star all the more perplexing, if not from Thomas himself, then at least from the editors of either The Star or News Chronicle, particularly given the incredible length of service he gave to both publications.
F. W. Thomas ceased writing for The Star in 1945. Having retired from newspaper work, in the following years he contributed verses to Star cartoonist James Francis Horrabin's "Japhet and Happy" children's annuals. From 1947 onwards Thomas contributed dozens of book reviews, informal essays and feature articles (plus the odd humorous short story) to the magazine John O'London's Weekly. His writings continued to appear in this periodical until early 1953. Thomas lived out his retirement in East Sussex, and served as honorary treasurer of the Searchlight Cripples' Workshops (partly intended for disabled war veterans) in Newhaven, near Seaford. He was also kept busy by his three grandchildren, whom he adored, entertaining them with his model villages, humorous poems and cartoons. After the death of his wife in 1961, he eventually settled with younger generations of his family at their house in the village of Old Heathfield. Thomas was 84 years old when he passed away at home on October 3, 1966. Among those that attended his funeral four days later was Arthur Webb, his old colleague from The Star. Obituaries for Thomas appeared in The Times and his local paper the Sussex Express. Nearly half a century on, Thomas is still remembered by his grandchildren with great affection. As a fan of his work, it strikes me as a pity that (notwithstanding his contributions to John O'London's Weekly) no more articles, sketches or books by Thomas appeared after he stopped writing for The Star in 1945. One wonders what gems there might have been, had the markets been there in the 1950s and 1960s for his particular style of humorous work. Sadly, we will never know.
But one doesn't want to end on a low note. This has, frankly, been a difficult essay to write. I have tried to provide a general overview of Thomas' long and prolific career with The Star. However, attempting to summarise such an enormous body of work has been a personal challenge. Aside from that, I sincerely hope I've inspired at least some visitors to this website to search out the various book collections of his work. Although these are all now sadly long out-of-print, it gives me great pleasure to announce that the two new volumes of his writings, hinted at earlier on in this essay, are due to be published soon. We may never truly discover the real F. W. Thomas, the very private man who shied away from the public eye, but at least we do have his many writings for The Star and Daily News. An impressive collection of work that is simply crying out to be read by a modern audience. The legacy of an exceptional, unjustly ignored, literary talent.
With special thanks to Morgan Wallace, Robin Andrews, David Andrews, and Wendy Marriott.
Books by F. W. Thomas
Extra Turns (1917)
Copyright © 2006 Richard Simms