A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF CAPTAIN W. E. JOHNS

PART THREE

 

Please note that this brief summary of Johns' amazing life is just that, a brief summary. If you are interested in the full details of his life you MUST read By Jove, Biggles! - The Life of Captain W. E. Johns by Peter Berresford Ellis and Jennifer Schofield.

 

THE INTER-WAR YEARS

 

As editor of POPULAR FLYING magazine, Johns was an outspoken critic of the Government's air policy in the 1930's. Appeasement could only lead to war and of course, he was right. The monthly 'Popular Flying' soon became the best selling aviation magazine in the world. By 1934, its circulation was 24,500 a month. In 1935, John Hamilton sold Popular Flying Ltd, as it then was, to George Newnes Ltd and Johns was asked to stay on as editor. Johns also began to contribute regular articles to MEN ONLY and to MY GARDEN magazine, where his regular column was called 'The Passing Show'. On 12th January 1938 Doris and Bill Johns moved to Colley Chase, Reigate Hill, Surrey. On 2nd April 1938, George Newnes Ltd launched a sister paper to 'Popular Flying'. It was a weekly magazine called FLYING and Johns was asked to edit that as well. It took many of the spill over articles for which there was no room in the monthly. From 19th February 1938, Johns was also writing a regular weekly column for MODERN BOY called 'Let's Look Around'. As well as all these commitments, Johns was also writing books at an astonishing rate, some 40 between 1931 and 1939! He wrote many short stories, both for adult magazines as well as for juvenile ones and many of these stories were later collected into books. Johns' continued attacks on the Government upset prominent politicians and they brought pressure to bear on George Newnes Ltd to have him removed as editor of both of their flying magazines. His last editorial for the weekly 'Flying' magazine was on 21st January 1939. Both magazines were to later fold during the Wartime paper shortages.

 

THE SECOND WORLD WAR

 

At 46 Johns was too old for active service. Johns became a lecturer to the Air Defence Cadet Corp (later to become the Air Training Corps in 1941) and he wrote articles for their magazine, the AIR DEFENCE CADET CORPS GAZETTE. His biggest contribution to the War was the encouragement of young men to train to be pilots by virtue of his Biggles books. Recognising this, the Air Ministry asked Johns to create a female counter-part to aid recruitment to the W.A.A.F. (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) and so Worrals appeared in 1941. The War Office didn't want to be left out of this excellent recruiting method and so in 1943, commando officer Gimlet appeared. The effect of Johns' books is not to be underestimated. Many pilots were to say that their inspiration had been the Biggles books of W. E. Johns. On 3rd October 1939, Johns' son, Jack, married Sabena Hammond, a nurse who looked after his mother. In 1941 John Hamilton Ltd ceased trading, effectively being bombed out of business. Doris's brother Howard Leigh, the artist, died at the age of 32 of cancer on 6th February 1942. It was said in Johns’ biography that Doris was worried about Bill’s business dealings. At this time, he wrote and sold his Biggles books for a one off payment of £250 and received no royalties.  The biography says she persuaded him to employ a literary agent and Johns went to see Peter Watt of A. P. Watt.  In fact, from a letter in my possession, I can confirm that the truth of the situation is that Peter Watt wrote to Bill Johns, offering his services in 1939.  I have the letter, dated 28th September 1939,  from Peter Watt to Bill Johns in my collection.  A.P. Watt’s first move was to seek to persuade Oxford University Press to give Johns royalty payments but the phenomenal sales that Biggles books were to achieve did not really happen until after the Second World War, so Oxford University Press chose to let the Biggles books go and they were taken over by Hodder and Stoughton. In later years, Oxford University Press let the rights of the 20 Biggles books they owned revert back to W. E. Johns, but he “lost” the rights to the John Hamilton books having sold them outright.  I can say from letters in my collection that Johns sold the rights to the John Hamilton books for a mere £25.00 each.  Those stories were bought and reprinted by the Thames Publishing Company and later published by Dean & Son Ltd.  Johns had initially met an old friend from school and gone to stay with him in Tomintoul in April 1944.  In the Autumn of 1944, after 5 years of bombing, Doris and Bill Johns moved to Scotland where they stayed in the Richmond Hotel, Tomintoul, before taking a lease on Pitchroy Lodge, Grantown-on-Spey, Morayshire.  From documents in my own collection, including the original solicitor’s bill for drawing up the lease, I can say that Johns took out a 6 year lease on Pitchroy Lodge in June 1947 at a cost of £2750 per year.  The September 1944 issue of 'My Garden' magazine carried no Johns’ column for the first time since 1936 and in February 1947 Johns wrote his last article for that periodical called 'The Show has Passed' to explain his departure.

 

THE POST WAR YEARS

 

Johns continued to write his books. For the post-war Biggles stories, Biggles was to join the 'Air Police' which was not an original Johns' idea. The Air Police had been created by writer, John Templer, author of 'Jaggers of the Air Police' in 1936). Templer was a friend and former business partner of Johns. Johns sold serial rights to various newspapers and magazines as well as one-off stories to the vast number of children's annuals being published. Compilations of these stories were regularly published in book form. In 1953, Johns moved back from Scotland to a mansion at Park House, Hampton Court, which overlooked the Royal Paddock. Johns often saw and heard the Queen and her family. On 15th March 1954, Johns' son, Jack, died from a combination of multiple sclerosis, diabetes and tuberculosis. Jack's mother was not to die until 1st April 1961. By this time, it was not really possible for Doris and Bill Johns to marry without creating a scandal because it would reveal that they were not married. A scandal would have damaged Johns' reputation and also his book sales. The post-war years saw the sale of translation rights to the Biggles books to many countries. They were extremely successful. In 1954, Johns wrote the first of a series of science fiction stories and as a result stopped writing Worrals and Gimlet stories. By 1964, the UNESCO Statistical Yearbook placed Biggles books 29th on a list of the most translated books in the world and Biggles was the most popular juvenile hero in the world. However, sales in North America were low and Johns never really cracked the American market. The books were considered just 'too British'. Biggles stories were serialised on the radio and also appeared in 1960 in a television series (although Johns' actual stories were not used). In the mid 1960's Johns began to face criticism that his books were racist and sexist as well as jingoistic although anybody who has read all of the books knows that such criticisms cannot be sustained. It was on the 21st June 1968 at 8.30 a.m. that William Earl Johns (born 5th February 1893) stopped mid-sentence, whilst writing 'Biggles Does Some Homework' in order to make himself and Doris a cup of tea. He went upstairs to her and sat in his armchair and suffered a fatal heart attack and died immediately. He was 75 years old. Doris was to die on 26th September 1969 from cancer.

 

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