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TUESDAY 16 JULY  2024

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Express editor who some say was the true author of Conan Doyle’s masterpiece 

OF ALL the Daily Express Editors, and there are many, none are more intriguing in my mind than the second incumbent to the chair, in July 1900 — Bertram (Bertie) Fletcher Robinson, a Cambridge graduate, sportsman and prolific writer who some historians claim was the true author of the iconic Arthur Conan Doyle novel, Hound of the Baskervilles and contributed more than just ideas for the plot.


Many people think that’s a load of bollocks, of course. But some historians don’t and there is little doubt that Bertie contributed a lot to Doyle’s career, and many of his stories. Apparently, Doyle paid Bertie a royalty for his contributions to the tale of the demonic hound of more than £500 (around £35,000 today).


But what was the true story of Bertie? Has he taken it to his grave? Was he murdered or killed by an ancient curse? Was Doyle having an affair with his wife as some historians claim? These questions and more remain unanswered. And of course, they could also be a lot of bollocks. But some historians think not. Doyle himself claimed Bertie was killed by Black Magic.







Editor Bertie Robinson

Bertie and Doyle were friends who once lived next door to each other. And while Bertie was away, working long hours on the Express, the Sherlock Holmes creator threw himself into a passionate affair with our editor’s wife, Gladys, some historians claim.


The couple didn’t have children, even though Gladys was desperate for them, and she grew lonely and unhappy as he worked long hours, around the clock in Fleet Street, especially during the long coverage of the Boer War with its politics and aftermath.


The years of burnout were said to have killed him at the early age of 36, even though he always seemed fit and well. He was known to be a workaholic. But some historians claimed he was murdered with an overdose of laudanum, administered by his wife. She nursed him for 22 days and never called the doctor until a day after his death. The death certificate was completed with information provided only by her.


The controversy bubbled away for years, and even 100 years on, in 2008, the West Country church where he was buried, refused to excavate his body for poison tests. His cause of death was recorded as typhoid fever and peritonitis. The case went to the Exeter Diocese Court which finally blocked the bid to dig him up.


Shortly before his death, Expressman Bertie, obsessed with black magic, spiritualism, and the occult, went to a private showing of The Unlucky Mummy at the British Museum. The cursed Egyptian artefact had captured the imagination of the Fleet Street Press and was even reported to have been taken off the Titanic shortly before it sank. But that was disputed and probably not true. In a private room, Bertie was allowed to touch what was little more than a coffin lid.  And that was enough in Doyle’s mind.


The Sherlock Holmes writer said: “I warned Robinson against concerning himself with the mummy. He persisted and death occurred. I told him he was pursuing fate by continuing his inquiries.


“The immediate cause of death was typhoid fever but that is the way in which the elements guarding the mummy might act. They could have guided Robinson into a series of such circumstances that would lead him to contract the disease and thus cause his death.” 

 

Doyle never went to his friend’s funeral. And neither did Gladys. 


Robinson was born in Mossley Hill, Liverpool in August 1870. But grew up in Devon when his family moved there. He attended Newton Abbot Proprietary College, and this is where the first seeds of his connection with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle begins. For he sat next to a young lad who was to become another lifelong friend and one of Britain’s greatest explorers, Percy Harrison Fawcett, who’s adventures were to become the inspiration for Doyle’s best-selling novel ‘The Lost World’.


The two boys quickly formed a bond and Fawcett would tell Bertie his dreams to one day hunt for monsters in the Amazon jungle. He believed in black magic, witchcraft and a spirit world as did Bertie and Doyle, whom they met in later life.


Bertie first met Doyle when he stepped in and broke up a fight in the street between the Sherlock Holmes author, who apparently started it, and another man. Bertie soon learned as others did. that Doyle had a reputation for being a bad tempered, violent man. The three young men though became such good friends they began to develop plots for books together.


Bertie, over 6ft tall and muscular, with a winning sense of humour, attended Jesus College, Cambridge, studying history and law. But his athletic prowess soon came through and he won three rugby football blues. He rowed for his college too. His obituary in the Daily Express said that he would have played Rugby Union for England but for an accident.


But writing was his thing. He qualified as a barrister but never took up practice. Instead, he wrote for newspapers and magazines, authoring nearly 50 articles for 15 titles. He also wrote nine satire plays, all staged; 54 short stories, many of them on a black magic theme; 24 poems and eight books. His first was appropriately called Rugby Football. Some of the stories featured a detective named Addington Peace, which were hugely popular.


By early 1900 Bertie’s features and writings, particularly about the British military, were impressing many in the growing newspaper industry and publisher Cyril Arthur Pearson recruited him to work as his Chief War Correspondent for his new newspaper, the Daily Express.


His reports on the Second Boer War, the conflict between the British Empire and the South African Republic and Orange Free State over our influence in the region, again impressed Pearson who appointed him Day Editor in London.


On a voyage home from South Africa, Bertie told Doyle about the stories of ghostly hounds on Dartmoor. He recounted the supernatural tale of Squire Richard Cabell and arranged to take him on a trip to experience the creepy, misty atmosphere of the area.


Bertie and Doyle had already agreed to co-author a Devon-based story but in the end, their collaboration led only to Doyle's novel about a demonic hound being published in March 1902.


Robinson, busy at the Express, appeared content to concede that his part in the book was restricted to that of an ‘assistant plot producer’, Doyle wrote: “This story owes its inception to my friend, Mr. Fletcher Robinson, who has helped me both in the general plot and in the local details.” — A.C.D.


On June 3, 1902, Bertie married 31-year-old actress Gladys Hill Morris in Kensington, daughter of the renowned Victorian maritime artist Philip Richard Morris. They moved to a house next door to Doyle.


Bertie died on 21 January 1907, at his home in Eaton Terrace, Belgravia. The official cause of his death is recorded as enteric fever and peritonitis.  


In October 1912, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World, inspired by their friend Fawcett, was published. The story is narrated by a character named Edward Dunn Malone. Was Malone modelled on Bertie? Malone was raised in the West Country, was over six feet in height, became an accomplished amateur rugby union player and worked as a London-based journalist — and he loved a woman called Gladys.


According to historian Rodger Garrick-Steele, Conan Doyle not only stole Bertie’s work but had an affair with Gladys and then used her to help him kill the journalist because he feared professional and personal exposure.


Garrick-Steele was behind the bid to exhume our editor’s remains to check for poisoning. Doyle had not written a book since killing off Holmes 10 years earlier. The Hound of the Baskervilles was the story that turned him into a worldwide phenomenon that led to millions of fans, many films, hundreds of books, and an ongoing legacy for himself.


As for Percy Fawcett … he disappeared on an adventure in an Amazon rainforest in 1925 looking for the Lost City of Z … some said he joined a cult. He was never heard of again.

*****

FAGAN AND THE FOOTMAN









Palace intruder Fagan 

WATCHING the Netflix series, The Crown, again, as it is back in the news and using it as a sort of reference documentary, I wondered what the truth really was about Palace intruder Michael Fagan’s ‘chat’ with the Queen.


The drama portrayed it as quite moving, with the Queen seemingly interested in Fagan’s plight to succeed in the real world outside the Palace walls and how the establishment was against people like himself. It was ages before help arrived as she apparently laid on the bed and he sat on a chair warbling on. 


But I have found four different versions of Fagan’s story.


After reading through a lot of reports at the time, and others in the last few years, I have decided on the Independent’s version of events after an interview 30 years later with the intruder in a Wetherspoon’s pub near his London home in the Holloway Road.


Fagan said: “When she saw me, she got up, and ran out of the room, her little bare feet running across the floor. A few minutes later a footman came in and said: ‘Cor, fucking hell mate, you look like you need a drink!’


“His name was Paul Whybrew or something, which is a funny name for someone offering you a drink, innit?


“He took me to the Queen’s pantry, across the landing, where I presumed, she cooked her baked beans and toast or whatever, picked up a bottle of Famous Grouse from the shelf and poured me a glass of whisky!”


Of course, it is difficult to believe anything Mr Fagan says. But it does have a ring of truth.


Our much beloved reporter Norman Luck, late of this parish, broke the story of the Palace intruder, of course, and won awards for it. But he never revealed his source, obviously a Palace insider. Norman stayed at my home many times … but even after a generous tipple or two, would never reveal who his informant was. He took his secret to the grave.


Fagan is alive and well and living in a North London tower block.  He went down with Covid in 2020 and then had a heart attack, aged 73.

*****

NERVES RULE THE WAVES








Lone sailor Robin Knox-Johnston

THE things some of us say: I came across this story of round-the-world yachtsman Robin Knox-Johnston, the other day, who amazed us when he became the first man to sail solo, non-stop around the globe on his vessel Suhaili. What guts eh?


Fleet Street got caught up in the excitement of course and everyone was chasing the interview with the 29-year-old lone yachtsman. So, imagine what a coup it was when the Sunday Mirror picture editor Allen Baird managed to arrange a ship-to-shore radio link to the sailor mid-ocean.

Allen was obviously a little excited and nervous and hadn’t planned his words when his call was linked through.


“Hello Sunday Mirror!” replied the famous solo sailor as he picked up the telephone on his boat. “This is Suhaili receiving you loud and clear. Over.”


“Hello, could I speak to Mr Knox-Johnston please?” blurted out Allen, forgetting he was talking to the only man on board.


Others appeared tongue-tied too. When the lone sailor finally went ashore days later in Falmouth, nervous customs men took him into their office and officially asked him what his last port of call was.


“Falmouth isn’t it?” he said, with a frown.


Snippets courtesy of The Last Pub in Fleet Street by Revel Barker, former managing editor of Mirror Group Newspapers. A fun book.

*****       

HORNCHURCH HARRY’S LOVE STORY

BACK in the day, sports sub/writer Harry Pashley told me about his retirement plans … he had bought a splendid oak desk; a new typewriter (no desktop computers then), stacks of copy paper; reference books; historical tomes and a large filing cabinet. He was ready for the off … and couldn’t wait to start his new project, a tragic, romantic novel.


Harry, who lived in Hornchurch, had been touring the Cotswolds and came across Hetty Peglar’s Tump, a Neolithic burial mount overlooking the Severn Valley near Stroud.


“Have you heard of it, Tel?” he asked. I hadn’t.


He went on to tell me about a romance between a poor farm boy and a rich landowner’s daughter in the 17th century. They had hidden away in the chamber of the Tump as the girl’s father searched for them, so the folklore went. When he found them, he shot the lad dead and took his daughter home. But she ran away and died later after taking poison on the spot where her lover was killed. The father never forgave himself and died from a broken heart. It was something like that anyway.


Months later, Harry retired to his oak desk for his new career. But I never heard a word from him again. Not that I would expect to.


But that was back in the late Seventies, early Eighties and I always wondered if he wrote his book. I can find no record of it, or the folklore love affair, and would love to know.


Did he? Does anyone know?

*****

FAMOUS LAST WORDS

The last word this week is from R D Blumenfeld, who edited the Daily Express from 1904 to 1929. Here are two of his thoughts on the future —perhaps he should not have tried to predict it — how wrong could he have been?


“It will be asked, how will the newspaper be able to meet all these additional demands on its space without becoming unwieldy in size? Are we to anticipate daily newspapers of 50 to 60 pages? I do not think so, the newspaper of the future will possibly extend to 40 pages, but that will be the maximum.”


“In the Age of Leisure we may expect to see other groups of opinion running daily newspapers. Probably, for example, there will be religious daily papers … aviation will make national distribution easier. Every newspaper will have its own aerodrome. Any home in any part of the country will be able to have its London newspaper on the breakfast table.” 

    

Down the hole please, Jack!



TERRY MANNERS



1 April 2024